THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY: Blu-Ray (Alliance Atlantis 2001-2004) Warner Home Video
Difficult to assess, as yet, where the overall importance of director, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2004) will reside with movie fans for generations yet to come. Without question, the trilogy was - and is - an impressive undertaking. Its scope is beyond reproach, and many of the performances in it can likely be considered definitive in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. To attempt even one such epic would have been a Herculean endeavor. To set a course to fulfill three in tandem - The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King (2003) is a task for which, if nothing else, one must doff caps to Jackson’s chutzpah and entrepreneurial investment to basically immerse himself in the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien's sprawling narrative saga of widgets, wizards and wonderment. Produced and distributed by New Line Cinema in association with WingNut Films, the international venture between New Zealand and the United States, shooting all three movies simultaneously, was achieved – ostensibly – between 1999 and 2000, with minor pick-up shots lensed between 2001 and 2004. One of the most ambitious undertakings in film history, what Jackson achieved on a relatively minuscule budget of $281 million is, at least for Tolkien fans, nirvana on ‘middle’ earth. It is difficult to argue with the franchise’s popularity – in totem, to have grossed more than $3 billion at the box office, and, winning 17 of its 30 Academy Award nominations. Nevertheless, at present, the trilogy has both its ardent admirers and formidable detractors. Such is the case with all truly great art, engaging audiences along that great divide in public sentiment and its importance in film history.
Although Tolkien's novel, on which the movies are based is impressive, it is actually part of a larger creative canvass the author first began writing in 1917. Literary reviews of his day placed the novels’ importance somewhere between the greatest 20th century masterwork in fantasy fiction, or, a tragically shallow and psychologically mangled bit of vapid tripe. But what did the critics know, beyond what they liked? Regardless, the books have endured. Today, they retain a largely positive following. The title of the book derives association with the dark lord, Sauron (Christopher Lee) who, in an earlier age, had created a ring, capable of ruling the world or destroying it. In this prequel history, predating the action set in all three movies, Sauron was defeated by the mortal, Isidur who claimed the ring for himself. Isidur was later killed by the Orcs and the ring, lost in the Anduin River. Two-thousand years later, cousins Deagol and Gollum fished the ring from its resting place. Alas, the possessive power of the ring caused Gollum to murder Deagol and covet it for five-hundred years before he too lost it.
Any brief summary of the meandering intricacies behind Tolkien’s sprawling narrative is futile at best. However, The Fellowship of the Ring picks up our story with the arrival of one Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who is entrusted with the great quest to return the powerful and destructive ring to its molten domain deep within the middle earth of Mordor. Under siege by evil forces commanded by Sauron and temptation from within to claim the ring for his own, Frodo enlists the aid of long-time friend, Samwise Gangee (Sean Astin) noble warriors, Legolas Greenleaf (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), as well as the sage wisdom from the wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to make his journey complete. Of the three movies, The Fellowship of the Ring is arguably the most perfectly realized, mixing fantastic flights of fancy with powerful moments of self-realization and exhilarating action/adventure sequences. Frodo and his companions are attacked by the Orcs as they make their way through the treacherous mines of Moria. Gandalf fights off a Balrog (a dragon-like creature) and seemingly plummets to his death down a deep chasm (shades of the sacrifices made by Star Wars’ Obi Wan Kenobi). From here, Frodo and his entourage make safe passage to the forest of Lothlorien where they are given temporary refuge by Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchette). Realizing that the rest of his quest must be a solemn one, Frodo breaks from the fellowship, accompanied by Sam only, to continue his journey.
The second instalment, The Two Towers is hopelessly marred by a seeming lack of editing prowess – endlessly bouncing back and forth, from a violent battle between Aragorn and Sauron's armies for control over the sacred city of Isengard, to an interminably dragged out sequence committed to Sam and Frodo's further adventures through a forest of talking/walking trees. What is particularly impressive about the second movie is the creation of Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis), a character entirely realized within the digital domain, yet viscerally palpable in both weight and content of performance. Although AMPAS awarded its Best Picture honors (as well as 10 additional statuettes) to part three, The Return of the King, this final installment in the franchise is a rather problematic claptrap of leftover plot entanglements that, occurred earlier in Tolkien’s stories, but were likely left out of the first two installments for time constraints – also, to fatten up this finale. We begin with a flashback involving Gollum's acquisition of the ring and Frodo’s capture and – yet again – another near-death experience, this time at the talons of a gargantuan spider.
Having been reincarnated as an immortal, Gandalf hypothesizes Sauron will attack the city of Minas Tirith. He rides off to thwart the attack with Pippin (Billy Boyd) who has had a vision of a white burning tree. The Morgul army does indeed lay siege to the city, decimating its lower suburbs. Meanwhile, Gollum convinces Frodo that Sam is after the ring for himself. The two friends are briefly parted as Gollum makes plans to lure Frodo to his death and reclaim the ring for himself. Sam, however, is unwilling to give up. Loyal beyond reproach, Sam saves Frodo and begins the arduous journey toward Mount Doom, surrounded by a garrison of Orcs. Aragorn and his men advance to part the way for Frodo and Sam. But Frodo succumbs to the jealous control of the ring, engaging Gollum in a last bitter struggle to possess it. In the tussle, Frodo's ring finger is bitten off by Gollum, liberating Frodo's spirit from the ring's demonic possession and plunging Gollum and the ring into the molten fires of pooling lava below. Sauron is destroyed and the immense shockwave that follows his hellish passing effectively wipes out the remaining Orc forces, leaving Aragorn and his men unharmed.
The succession of faux finales, and their chronic fades to black, only to begin anew with more endless snippets, necessary to resolve all the loose ends in this storytelling and reunite the audience with characters discarded from the first and second installments, left many audience members frustrated: getting up, and then, having to sit back down after realizing the movie had not yet concluded. Jackson's artistic judgment herein appears to be lacking, his last act distilled into a series of episodic vignettes, one layered upon the next. That aside, what is commendable about Peter Jackson’s mammoth undertaking on the whole is the sheer size of the project and the considerable amount of narrative content he manages to cover - given this is one, and not two sets of trilogies. The trilogy’s singular marketing hook remains its digital effects. Indeed, virtually everything we see has been composited from a skillful combination of live-action footage – taking full advantage of the breathtaking New Zealand locales, and matted blue screen work with exceptional post-production digital effects layered in to augment the footage. From a vantage of pure unbridled fantasy, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy remains a true spectacle with substance. Ironically, there remains something lacking in the overall emotional impact to this exercise. Not exactly sure why this is – but the core of these movies is absent. While the performances are wonderful, none strike a sincere chord to make us care about the characters, beyond their confrontations with the thought-numbing magnitude of these special effects. If the movies possess an unimpeachable lavishness, it somehow is never enough to bring us around to investing, body and soul, in these fancifully achieved martyrs. The complexities inherent in Tolkien's original novel and the considerable dexterity exercised with concision by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens and Peter Jackson’s screenplays leaves the inner connectivity between these characters to their cardboard cut-out relationships. In Tolkien’s books, the imagination undoubtedly filled in these blanks. In the concrete realm of the movies, there is no time for such projection. In theaters, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was compelling for the veritable sweep of its swashbuckling adventure. However, upon repeat home viewing, we find it not entirely as epic nor as satisfying as it once seemed.
Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray release of only the theatrical editions of these three movies has infuriated a significant percentage of its fan base. However, this reviewer is not among them, although I do believe that the release of these editions is a well-timed snatch and grab by the studio to force diehard fans to double dip for the trilogy now, and, ostensibly, another of the extended cuts yet to follow. Affording a press release to this marketing snafu, Warner Home Video has confirmed director, Peter Jackson is hard at work on new extra features to accompany another Blu-Ray set that will include the extended cuts of each movie, let out just in time for Jackson's theatrical debut of The Hobbit. It's really no surprise that the Blu-Ray transfers here easily best the quality of all previously issued standard DVD editions. However, The Fellowship of the Ring seems to look slightly softer than expected - most certainly, less refined than the other two installments in the franchise. It’s always difficult to critique stylized picture elements as color fidelity, contrast, etc. have all been artificially tweaked in a digital realm to illicit a certain look, not to be found in nature. However, all 3-films exhibit a refined clarity that is quite stunning. Contrast levels are beautifully realized with deep saturated blacks. Again, fine detail and overall image sharpness is better on the second and third films. The audio on all 3-movies is 5.1 DTS, and exhibits startling clear and aggressive spread across all channels. Extras are direct imports from the existing standard DVD’s and include extensive featurettes covering every aspect of each film’s production, interviews with cast members, intimate critiques of Tolkien’s works, special effects deconstruction, a shameless promo for the video game equivalent to each movie and each film's original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Fellowship of the Ring - 4
The Two Towers - 3
The Return of the King - 3.5
The Fellowship of the Ring - 3.5
The Two Towers - 5
The Return of the King – 5