Behind the first Star Wars trilogy, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novels, has been the most eagerly anticipated series to debut on Blu-ray. That will be remedied on April 6th; however, fans of the films will likely be torn in reaction to this set. It presents the theatrical versions, as opposed to the Extended Editions, which are likely to be released when Guillermo del Toro's The Hobbit hits theaters. The Blu-ray quality isn't as good as the format allows. Also, a letdown are the extras, meager compared to previous LOTR releases, are placed on regular DVDs.
The Fellowship of the Ring opens with the story of the Dark Lord Sauron and the One Ring created to rule over the people of Middle-earth and his defeat on the battlefield. About three thousand years later, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) found the Ring during his adventure detailed in The Hobbit. Sixty years after that at his eleventy-first birthday, he left the Shire and the Ring behind. The wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) learned Bilbo had the Ring and of Sauron's return. Gandalf enlisted Bilbo's nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) to get the Ring out of the Shire. Gandalf tells the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) what he has learned, but Saruman has already joined the Dark Lord's cause and is creating an army of creatures.
Joined by fellow Hobbits Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd), the foursome head to Bree, chased by Sauron's Ringwraiths, former wearers of the Rings of Power now caught between the living and the dead. When Gandalf doesn't make their rendezvous, the hobbits head to the Elven land of Rivendell with the assistance of a ranger named Strider (Viggo Mortensen), who is also Aragorn, the heir to the throne of Gondor.
It is determined that the only way to defeat Sauron is to destroy the Ring, which can only be done by the fires of Mount Doom where Sauron created it in Mordor. Frodo volunteers for the mission, joined by the hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn, the man Boromir (Sean Bean), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom). However, the task is not easy due to Saruman's wizardry and the seemingly endless number of orcs in pursuit.
As the first film ends, the fellowship has broken apart. Frodo realizes the Ring is too great a temptation and must venture out on his own. Merry and Pippin create a diversion and are captured by the orcs. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas head of to rescue them.
The Fellowship of the Ring is a marvelous adventure. The film creates believable characters for the viewer to care about and sets up a conflict with great stakes. Jackson does a fantastic job as director, delivering epic battle sequences and gentle moments between two characters. It is a very good set-up to propel the story.
The Two Towers refers to the towers of the villains Sauron and Saruman. As the film opens, Frodo and Sam encounter the creature Gollum (a CGI creation whose movements and voice were created by Andy Serkis), a hobbit formerly known as Sméagol, though he no longer resembles one as years of being in possession of the Ring, or more accurately being possessed by it, have taken its toll and he suffers from split personality. Gollum wants the Ring, his "precious" as he refers to it, but agrees to take the hobbits to Mordor. The longer Frodo wears the Ring the stronger its hold becomes on him.
Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn track the orcs who are taking Merry and Pippin to Saruman at his tower. They pass through the Land of Rohan, currently overtaken by Saruman's armies, and King Théoden (Bernard Hill) is withering away due to the treachery of his advisor Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). However, there are still men who fight and they destroy all the orcs, allowing Merry and Pippin to escape during the chaos into Fangorn Forest where they meet Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), a treelike creature known as an Ent.
Two large battles take place at the film's conclusion against Saruman and his forces. The people of Rohan take refuge at Helm's Deep against the orcs he has sent. The Ents discover forests destroyed to fuel the fires creating Saruman's armies and attack his tower. As the film closes, Gandalf speaks of Sauron's inevitable outrage at the losses and the battle for Middle-earth is about to commence. Gollum continues to get Frodo closer to Mordor, but hints at his own plans.
The Two Towers is a good continuation of the trilogy, and the execution of Gollum is amazing, but the story has some flaws. The theme of the preciousness of nature from the Ents storyline is heavy-handed. The romance between Arwen (Lili Tyler) and Aragorn doesn't seem necessary. We don’t discover until the next film that Saruman is left a prisoner of his tower, watched over by the Ents, which makes for an unsatisfying conclusion to his story, especially in comparison to what takes place in the books.
The Return of the King starts by revealing how Sméagol came into possession of the Ring and became Gollum. Sauron's plan to attack Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, is discovered, but the Steward (John Noble) is an ineffectual leader. The elves prepare to leave Middle-earth, but Arwen stays behind because of her love of Aragorn. She convinces her father to create a weapon to defeat Sauron. The rightful King of Gondor takes his throne and summons all the armies he can to battle Sauron's forces, led by the seemingly unstoppable Witch-King, who no man can kill, but once that is made clear to viewer it's rather obvious who will kill him. After Gondor is saved, the King leads his forces to the gates of Mordor.
Due to weariness and the Ring's corrupting influence, Gollum is able turn Frodo against Sam and lures him into a trap in the liar of the creature Shelob. Sam refuses to stop helping and together the two hobbits get to the fires of Mount Doom, but by now the Ring has a great hold over Frodo, and he doesn't want to give it up.
The Return of the King is a satisfying though predictable conclusion to Jackson's epic trilogy, of which all the films were rewarded at the box office and critically lauded. He and his massive creative team did an amazing job bringing Tolkien's world to the screen. The story on the whole is very good as a number of characters showed great growth and believable motivation as the series progressed. The films speak to the contributions anyone can make and working in the service of good. The main cast all did excellent work. While I enjoy the Extended Editions more because the broadening of the story makes the experience so much richer, the theatrical versions hold up very well on repeat viewing. The changes from the books don't hamper the films, although I could have done without Gimli's comic relief. While amusing and likely a requirement in films, it seemed at odds with the character and his race.
One of the first problems with the Blu-rays is the video. All three films are encoded with a 1080p/VC-1 transfer and presented in an aspect ratio of 2.41:1. Fellowship has some serious issues. Digital noise reduction appears throughout removing a lot of details, particularly in faces, causing a number to look unnaturally smooth. Jackson used a great deal of smoke and haze all throughout the movie, affecting the colors, especially dark and night scenes. Blacks have a tendency to crush, such as Ringwraiths in the night. Much of the Rivendell sequence looks very soft, which I would be inclined to think was an intentional choice for the Elven locale if there weren't so many other problems. The higher definition diminishes the digital effects' believability, such as the first view of Weathertop. Although disappointing, it's not all bad. Some scenes have vibrant colors, such as the green grass of the Shire, and textures are evident on occasion.
The Two Towers is a noticeable upgrade, particularly in the flashbacks to Fellowship. The video looks sharper and colors are better rendered. They have a slightly brighter hue and skin tones look more realistic and consistent. The DNR doesn’t seem as intense as now lines and pores can be seen in faces. The digital effects look more believable. A nighttime shot where a horse is about to trample of Merry is very grainy, though.
The Return of the King looks the best of all and that might be in part because it has more to accomplish. While The Two Towers had a number of dark settings, here we get more opportunities for brightness. Minas Tirith is a white castle, which offers a contrast to darkness of Mordor, where Frodo and Sam travel, and the black armor of the invading orcs. Plus, the battle takes place in the daytime as opposed to Helm's Deep. The colors are vibrant and details more clearly defined. The vast differences in appearance to Fellowship are hard to believe considering the films were created at the same time and released only two years apart.
The audio, on the other hand, excels with its immersive experience. All discs are presented with a powerful DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track. Dialogue is clear and distinct, from soft whisperer or to rousing shouts. Elven subtitles appear when needed. The many battle scenes make great use of the surround system, though at times a tad overpowering as the forces it represents. There's very good positioning and items move around and through the sound field from tramping armies to whooshing arrows. The "whoomp" of the fell beasts' wings cutting the air and screams and stomps of the oliphaunts add to their foreboding. Two of Howard Shore's scores won Oscars. They compliment the proceedings and help demonstrate the audio's great dynamic range
On the Blu-ray discs, each film is accompanied by its own trailer and ones for LOTR-related video games. The first two films also show the Trilogy Supertrailer. The DVDs, likely a disappointment for the medium alone as all features are in standard definition, present what would have been a good amount of extras if previous releases hadn't spoiled fans.
The Fellowship of the Ring Supplements
"Welcome to Middle-Earth: Houghton Mifflin In-Store Special" (16 min) briefly tells the story of the film's creation, starting with Tolkien's books, which is no surprise considering this publisher is involved as the title indicates. "Quest for the Ring: Fox TV Special" (22 min) is basically an informercial promoting the then-upcoming release. "A Passage to Middle-Earth: Sci-Fi Channel Special" (40 min), although longer, allowing more time to deal with subjects, covers similar territory.
Lordoftherings.net Featurettes originally appeared on the official LOTR website, these brief webisodes cover different aspects of the projects with limited depth. There are also six TV Spots, a music video for "May It Be" by Enya. Oddly enough there is a Special Extended DVD Edition Preview, a reminder of a superior product, and the now-pointless "Behind the Scenes Preview of The Two Towers" (10 min) since we have the film in this collection.
The Two Towers supplements
Two other networks get in on the act of promoting the trilogy with more behind-the-scenes material: "On the Set – The Two Towers – Starz Encore Special" (14 min) and "Return to Middle-earth: WB Special" (42 min). "The Long and Short of it" (8 min) is a short film by Sean Astin. It has nothing to do with LOTR other than it was shot during production and used the same talent. Almost as long is the unnecessary "The Making of 'The Long and Short of it'" (7 min). There should be a special prize if you sit through this.
Repeated are more Lordoftherings.net featurettes, 16 TV Spots; a music video, this time for "Gollum's Song" by Emiliana Torrini; the double-dip tease of Special Extended DVD Edition Preview and the "Behind the Scenes Preview of The Return of the King (12 min).
The Return of the King supplements
"The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision" (23 min) is a good spotlight on Peter Jackson but rather brief considering the size of the endeavor. "A Filmmaker's Journey: Making The Return of the King" (28 min) is slightly better, but still too small in scope. "National Geographic Special – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (46 min) takes the story and finds parallels. Should be of interest to hardcore Tolkein junkie. Once again there are the Lordoftherings.net Featurettes, 13 TV Spots, and Special Extended DVD Edition Preview (7 min).
Overall, if you are a fan of the theatrical version of the LOTR trilogy and aren't overly particular with the video quality or watching extras, you should be happy with what this set offers. However, I think many fans will be disappointed in this product in its current form and should wait for a price drop at least to send a message to the studio about inferior products. Personally, I am holding out hope for the Extended Edition will see an improvement in the quality of the picture. If not, I certainly wouldn't buy it at full price right when it comes out.
The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy is also available On Demand and For Download.