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Blu-ray Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Extended Edition

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(Due to the volume of material on this release – and the fact that all content has been previously available in other editions – this review will focus primarily on differences between this and other iterations of this content that may be available.)

The Trilogy
One of the more interesting aspects of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that the first two installments simply end. Their wrap-ups are slight, as they do little more than find a convenient point to bring the chapter to a close roughly true to the books. The effect is one that practically begs a viewing and engagement of the series as a whole, and not just as entertaining pieces. In fact, it runs a clear path in the opposite direction of most Hollywood series. You would have to look back to The Empire Strikes Back to find a close example of the feeling of inconclusion you receive at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring.

And then there’s the sheer length of the films. As if the theatrical versions capping the three-hour mark weren’t enough, the extended editions round things out to roughly four each. And even then things often feel rushed (as they are, when the material pruned from the books to do so is taken into account).

However, brisk storytelling and a dumbing down of the myriad amount of characters and locations is all but avoided, as this isn’t the type of series that would even work in a neutered, conventional Hollywood format.  The bonus materials speak to this, practically begging the viewer to delve even deeper into the story than the movies can practically allow. You’re meant to be immersed into another, fully realized world that’s as rich and deep with characters, history, languages and lore as anyone could have time for. Your visit can be as general or as obsessive as you wish.

However, these aren’t indie films made on a dream. They are the product of large, bankrolled studios, and the sheer armies of actors and visual effects teams that only they could muster. Their production is as epic as their source material, and the particular challenge that arises when the two meet is to somehow strike a practical balance. The templates of the studios shouldn’t overpower the uniqueness of this particular story and the nuances of minutiae that need to remain intact. On the other hand, it efficiently needs to convey the material so that it’s interest is mass appeal, as opposed to only catering to a couple of usenet bulletin boards. And somehow, for once in a rare while, the two worlds met, and joined forces in a way beneficial to both.

If you haven’t already delved into the movies of Middle Earth, this set provides the current benchmark for doing so. Not only are the movies well-acted and majestically filmed, but their rich detail, masterful encapsulation of the source books, and treasure trove of behind-the-scenes information invites further viewing and reading. It’s the kind of set that starts a continual journey.

Fellowship of the Ring
Before I begin a more detailed look at the video qualities for each release, I would like to preface and sum them up by saying that all the installments here are visually strong and are the best each film has looked. Are there some issues that pop up? Yes. Are any of them worth extensive message board screeds, or worse yet, avoiding the film? Absolutely not. If anything, this high-definition set perhaps says more about the source material and effects processes than it does the particulars of the transfers. Although there was some disappointment with the theatrical Blu-ray releases, these new extended edition releases are different transfers and will be judged on their own merit.

The Fellowship of the Ring contains some of the best, as well as some of the most problematic, shots in the trilogy. When the action is kept in real-world settings – as opposed to those that are heavily computer generated or manipulated – the clarity and color of the transfer is truly impressive. Skin tones and detail are natural, colors are vibrant, and detail is rich with very little noise to be found in darker shots. In fact, much of the first half of the film is entirely this strong.

Things become a bit more prickly once you get into the CGI realm. In particular, the green screen becomes much more evident in Blu-ray. Edge halos are more noticeable, and for some reason digital noise reduction (DNR) becomes a greater issue, with instances of overly smooth, unnatural skin. Again, these seem dependent on the manipulated nature of scenes, and is something that is perhaps more a revealing of the source effects renderings than a specific transfer issue. These items are noticeable enough in multiple locations that they warrant mention, and Fellowship seems to suffer the most from it.

The audio component of this release is matched in detail and excellence across the rest of the trilogy, so these notes will serve for all the films. In short, the audio tracks included here are breathtaking. These are the reference-grade tracks you want to have around, and these are how you can most thoroughly put your sound system to the test (regardless of its class).

Each film includes a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track and they are all impeccable. The soundtrack is rich and forceful, dialogue remains crisp and balanced at all levels, and sound effects reach across every available inch of the sound field.

Speakers are most engaged during the battle scenes, of course, where your subwoofer will reveal new subterranean layers previously unexplored (or perhaps your particular subwoofer will just reveal its inadequacy). But don’t miss more subtle scenes as well, such as in Lothlorien, where whispers echo around all speakers. In short, these are the most commanding and polished audio tracks I have yet heard. If I peddled stars for reviews they would all be five.

The Two Towers
Some of the issues mentioned with Fellowship are less noticeable here, and overall The Two Towers presents a more consistently pleasing visual. I’m still of the opinion that Fellowship could be more problematic due to its age. There is always the possibility that post-production techniques were cleaned up in the year between films, and we see evidence of that here with with a picture that certainly isn’t perfect, but it is noticeably less problematic. Instances of DNR in particular are less noticeable, and there is a better consistency of image between scenes in variant settings. The positives of the previous film are all maintained, simply to a broader degree.

Return of the King
By the time we get to Return of the King things have progressed even more. Of particular note are the excellent low-light scenes that display a richer black level than perhaps was evident in the previous two films. Most of the special effects scenes are more seamlessly integrated, with the shocking exception of the horrible haloing around the hobbits during the final coronation scene, as if they were filmed in another world and badly photoshopped in. But instances such as this one are overwhelmingly brief, and the overall video transfer is the best of the bunch.

The Packaging
A special note should be made about the packaging of this extended version of the trilogy. The case itself is a handsome, metallic embossed, closable slipcase that resembles a hardback book. A rather clever magnetic closure helps to keep the lid from straying open on its own. In all, it’s arguably the most attractive – and functional – presentation of the trilogy to date. Inside the box are the three films, each housed in a standard Blu-ray sized case. These are the more efficient five-disc cases, and are colored black to help match the rest of the packaging.

For all the films, discs one and two are the main film split onto two Blu-ray discs, with only commentary tracks included as supplemental items. (Personally, in an age of shameless studio cross-promotion, I consider the fact that these movies are not pre-loaded with trailers for other films a nice additional bonus!). Discs three and four are the main supplemental material, and are exactly the same as the corresponding discs which were included in the original DVD releases of the extended editions. Disc five will probably be new to many people, as it is a feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary corresponding to each film. These were originally included with the “limited edition” release of the trilogy (which contained both the theatrical and extended editions together, minus other primary bonus features) but have otherwise not been previously bundled.

One other special note should be made about the booklets included with each release. Although sized down a bit from their DVD counterparts in order to fit the new cases, these are now printed on much nicer, textured paper, and without gloss. The effect is a much more readable booklet that makes the previous ones look blurry by comparison.

Bonus Material
To detail out all the bonus material for the set would necessitate either a non-explanatory bullet list of titles, or its own review-length round-up for each film. Instead I would like to give an overall impression of what’s included, and will also assume that many people are simply researching whether the set as a whole is a worthy upgrade from DVD.

The bonus sections for each film are crammed as full as they possibly can be. Each disc is a double-layered DVD where every last drop of space is utilized. The content they contain is exhaustive, and occasionally exhausting. Every aspect of the film was documented, is revisited, and is explained from multiple vantage points. Most of the content is documentary-style interview footage spliced in with ample behind-the-scenes footage. Some is strictly behind-the-scenes, and then still more is raw footage detailing everything from casting tapes to in-process special effects renders. In addition, each film has multiple galleries of still images where artist models, concept sketches, background paintings and more are available for your perusal.

On a technical level, these are exactly the same discs as in the DVD releases of the extended editions (given that they are DVDs) and so the main upgrade in the set is strictly for the film itself, as well as the additional feature-length documentaries. Although this will obviously be a disappointment to some, keep in mind that these were originally shot in standard-definition, so there is no real need to utilize the Blu-ray format.

For those who are new to the additional “Behind The Scenes” feature-length documentaries (all in SD, and running just under ninety minutes each in length), these, quite frankly, are more of the same. Although they contain largely all-new footage and information, it’s hard to escape the feeling that once you’ve gone through the other bonus discs, there’s only so much making-of footage you can take in before it all starts to blend together. Fortunately, the set errs on this side instead of too little content, so just pace yourself.

Conclusion
This is the set that high-definition fans of the series have been waiting for, and after a few minor quibbles are put in their proper perspective, it does not disappoint. All three films receive strong video transfers with almost impeccable audio tracks. Although the bonus material hasn’t necessarily been upgraded, it’s at least as exhaustive as ever. Combined with both attractive and functional packaging, this is a set to enjoy for years to come (or until The Hobbit comes out and you want a case with four titles in it).

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About David R Perry