Peter Jackson didn't seem like the most natural pick when selecting a director for one of the most expensive and expansive film series ever created. The New Zealand born filmmaker's previous works had been more wild and imaginative cult offerings, like 'Braindead' (known in the States as 'Dead Alive') and 'The Frighteners,' not big budget special effects laden blockbusters. But fate smiled upon the tubby (at the time, at least) native, as he was given the reins to adapt the literary giant from famed author J. R. R. Tolkien, the three part sequel to 'The Hobbit' known as 'The Lord of the Rings.'
It's safe to say that the end result speaks for itself. Over one billion dollars in domestic ticket sales, and almost double that in foreign take. Opening weekend numbers that nearly doubled from the first film to the last. Best selling home video releases, and incredibly high rankings from fans in IMDb's Top 250. Academy Award wins on each outing, culminating in Best Picture and Best Director wins with the third installment. This fan's favorite literary giant became a fan favorite cinematic giant immediately, but will it be a gigantic Blu-ray system seller?
'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' - (4/5) - And so begins a journey. A journey that will cross the whole of Middle Earth, with every inhabitant affected by the crusade of the few, the proud, the Fellowship of the Ring. A journey that will take nearly ten hours time in human years, unless one pauses to take a burrito break. From the origins of the rings, to the splitting of a group of kindred spirits who set out to free the world, from humble beginnings to great expectations.
Nine Rings of Power were granted to the kings and rulers of the world. One more, dubbed the One Ring, crafted by Sauron in the volcanic Mount Doom of Mordor, to control them all. War led to the defeat of Sauron, though the greed, treachery, and lust for power of mankind prevented its destruction, and soon after, it was lost for over two thousand years.
Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) didn't think himself much a hero, or much of anything for that matter, as his life consists solely in the safety of his home, the Shire, along with the other furry footed Hobbits. His uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) has led a life quite the opposite of Frodo's, full of adventure, the defining moment coming with his acquisition of a mysterious, powerful ring. One birthday, upon the guidance of his old friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Bilbo bequeaths his possessions to his nephew, so he may live out his life creating a novel of his adventures. And while the ring has laid fairly dormant in the sixty years it resided in Bilbo's pocket, an evil stirring in Mordor has awoken the ring. Evil forces have set out to reacquire their master's long lost possession.
With the assistance of a few fellow mischievous Hobbits (Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), Pippin Took (Billy Boyd) and Merry Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan)), Frodo sets out to keep the ring safe, with little knowledge of the true powers that are in his control, and the great dangers he is about to encounter. With the forming of a Fellowship to help guide Frodo along his path to Mordor to destroy the ring where it was created, all races have put their fate and faith in their newfound Hobbit friend. The brash and mysterious Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), headstrong Legolas (Orlando Bloom), equally headstrong Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and power hungry Boromir (Sean Bean) will have their wills tested, as the evil Saruman (Christopher Lee), a group of haunting Ringwraiths, and an infinitely powerful Orc army will stop at nothing to plunge the world into chaos once again.
'The Fellowship of the Ring' certainly was a unique and innovative fantasy film upon its release in late 2001, redefining a genre with its lengthy narrative, gorgeous scenery, and numerous themes and messages, all mixed in with sorcery, mischief, and old fashioned warfare. Looking back, with the other films finished, it stands apart as certainly the least polished of the trilogy, but to start out a story with this much bang was just what the series needed.
'Fellowship' does more than just set the entire series into motion, despite the fact that it doesn't have a true conclusion. This isn't some boring three hour trek interspersed with action set pieces, many characters are fleshed out in this chapter, and others in the ones to come. New characters will come into play, along with countless, diverse new settings. In that sense, 'The Lord of the Rings' isn't all that different than 'Star Wars,' save for the fact that each new habitat is on the same planet, rather than one per each varied area.
Frodo Baggins, despite being the obvious focal point of the story, isn't all that fleshed out, and he certainly isn't as prominent or in the middle of danger to the same degree he finds himself with each concurrent entry in the saga. He's still so innocent and naive here, a child, with the size and prominence to match. Besides Sauron, Saruman, and Gandalf, the only character to get real attention is Aragorn, the hidden/obscured/irrelevant king. Mortenson deserves all the praise lavished upon him (and funnily enough, he does get the most praise, more so than Wood), as he provides a career re-defining performance as the mysterious, courageous ranger.
While the second and third entries into the saga could be considered a tad predictable (to those who have obviously not read the books), 'Fellowship' throws a few wrenches into the gears. This film doesn't play the heroes as longtime friends (and really, on a journey this massive, one would have to become friends, or the path would be too insufferable), as they quarrel and bicker on occasion. Inter-species tensions flare. A member of the Fellowship even meets his demise. But the story works its magic in crafting a world so unusual, yet strangely familiar through its decaying powers and landscapes, as well as the multitude of personalities, it draws the viewer in, to get to know and care about the story, easily and painlessly. Themes of industrialization versus the beauty and serenity of nature, the lust for power and the corruption it causes (over and over again, a vicious circle of sorts), on both the body and soul, and the blind, selfless heroism of those from whom it is least expected are pounded away early and often, but in a manner that isn't slap-you-in-the-face blatant or obvious. It's allusions are veiled properly, mixed in with a coming-of-age and responsibility tale, so that viewers young and old can relate to the subject matter.
While the heroes are given proper justice in this first third of the story, it's the villains who get the short end of the stick (and in these theatrical cuts, the villains get the worst treatment, by far, with a few choice exclusions that cannot be explained or rationalized). Sauron is given great prominence and is revered and feared properly, acting as an all-inclusive banner for which evil is done, but his agents are naive, selfish, inherently flawed, failing to give the film any level of tension due to their constant missteps and blunders. When all hope seems lost, the heroes prevail through means not of their doing, but through circumstance and coincidence, really. It kills the narrative, as blind luck doesn't exactly gain respect or honor. The introduction to the Balrog is a key example of such, as its presence scares away a massive throng on the verge of a mass Fellowship slaughter. Lazy, really, almost as lazy as the gifts given to members for no reason other than to be used later in the story. It's funny how they always work out in the end, and no featured gift or offering goes without purpose or point in the grand scheme. 'Fellowship of the Rings' is easy to enjoy, though it can be a bit laborious to sit through at times, and it plants the seeds for a great saga to come, while still performing at a high level of excellence itself.
'The Two Towers' (4/5) - "When staring at death with fear and doubt, rest assured, you'll get bailed out. Unlikely friends versus common foes, to prevent annihilation, suff'ring and woe."
There's a reason I'm not a poet, and the above is a fine example of such, but the sentiment portrayed fits the bill for 'The Two Towers,' sadly, both in sloppiness, and in theme.
The Fellowship has disbanded, going their separate ways. Some shed of their mortal coil, others to fight the evil of Sauron's forces, to recover captured friends, while two brave hobbits venture alone towards Mordor, with the One Ring in tow. Familiar faces (David Wenham as Faramir, brother of Boromir) will act in familiar fashion, while a fallen friend will show that not even death can slow some men down. Villainous armies will rise and threaten humanity, while Saruman will threaten them further, possessing the King of Rohan, Théoden (Bernard Hill). In the darkest hour, those fighting to free the world from evil must revive treaties of old, and instill bravery in those around them to succeed. Meanwhile, the darkest creature of all, a gangly former hobbit, Gollum (Andy Serkis), threatens to destroy the plan set in motion through his treachery, and unwavering desire to be reunited with his precious, the very item Frodo has been tasked to protect until it can be destroyed.
'The Two Towers' takes the diverse characters introduced so painstakingly in the first film, and throws them to the wolves, in a sense. The new Fellowship of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum/Smeagol is built on anger, distrust, deceit, and vengeance, as Frodo's will and soul are further sucked into the abyss of the One Ring's lure. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the relationship between Gimli, Aragorn, and Legolas fastens through a shared goal, as inter-species tension diminish in a bond of brotherhood that was meant for the entire Fellowship. Pippin and Merry have little to do beyond survive their captors cold plans for them. Gandalf the Grey has a change of mood, in a sense, becoming Gandalf the White, paralleling the powers and appearance of his nemesis. He is no longer a fun and games wizard, but a savior, a banner to rally behind, and a cause to come together for.
The new faces in 'The Two Towers' are hardly memorable, but it's the performances behind them that leave an impression. Wenham pales in comparison to Bean, his fictional brother (from another mother), though to be fair, his character is given little to do or grow from. Miranda Otto is a pleasure as Eowyn, the strongest female character in the trilogy, as she feels like a new focal point, easily the most important new character, more so than her brother, the banished Eomer (Karl Urban). Hill is great as a man who nearly gives up on life, only to fight anew with revitalized heart and soul, while his tempter, the slimy Wormtongue (played by Brad Dourif) crafts the kind of slithering, calculating villain that is oft referred to, but rarely seen. Of course, the entire kingdom of Rohan deserves what they got, considering they let a man named Wormtongue near their king, but that's another story. The highlight of the newcomers is Serkis as Gollum, seen briefly in the previous film, but finally given a role here. The work Serkis did is amazing, both with his vocal talents playing the character most representative of the duality of man in the series (obviously), and his body movements, through which the character was computer generated.
With all the great new additions, there has to be a negative somewhere in the mix, and that belongs to Treebeard and the rest of his Ern brethren. These living trees from Fangorn Forest are quite terribly depicted, executed in a fashion worthy of execution. These towering treefolk at first are large enough to stomp an orc without effort, with a single stride, yet later are only fractions of the trees around them, as the scale of the hobbits around them grow as the film progresses. Soon enough, these treefolk wage war against the man that has been pulverizing their ranks for some time, and reek serious vengeance upon their industrial counterparts, with actions very befitting of nature dominating over manmade creation. They are bad analogies, to say the least, and are annoying to boot.
While 'Fellowship' was fairly cut and dry, 'The Two Towers' has a level of comedy that is very welcome, and effective, as the gruff Gimli often finds himself on the butt end of the joke. Whether he cannot see over turrets, cannot escape under a literal dog pile, or volunteers (unwisely) the state of Dwarven female and male relations, the change in tone is often welcome, rather than the dire and deadly serious events that came before it.
'The Two Towers' gets the ball rolling, though, with the urgency that the series had been lacking up to that point. As soon as the fighting element of the Fellowship bands together with Rohan to secure the area's life at Helm's Deep, tension finally builds. Armies of great strength and number are depicted, with diverse talents and purpose. War begins to dominate the film, with a do-or-die defense that is so horribly outnumbered that the proportions are somewhat akin to parable. The friendly competition between warriors is set aside, if even briefly, in the dire circumstances that haunt the night.
But all that goes well for the film is discarded by a repetitive narrative that ruins any real drama. Any single time the Fellowship, or their allies, face defeat, they are miraculously saved. This happened before, with the Balrog and Arwen, but it is much more prevalent here. Trees and the army of Rohan save the two captured hobbits from their orcish oppressors, a throng of Elves arrive at the last minute to help fortify Helm's Deep, and Gandalf comes with an army to save the day soon after. It's lazy, cheap, and contrived. It shows that one need not face their challenges, as when it looks most serious, there will be someone to bail them out.
Jackson's second time conducting the 'Lord of the Rings' freight train is easily more taut, covers more ground in less time, and does a good job maintaining tone, even if some of the branching storylines seem forgotten at times, with lengthy gaps between visits. Acting is on par with the previous film, but with a more diverse cast of characters, locations, and moods, 'The Two Towers' proves itself to be a superior film to 'The Fellowship of the Rings,' if even slightly. With great battles and characters painting the landscape, one can easily make the case for this entry into the series as the most entertaining, even if it isn't the best crafted 'Lord of the Rings' film.
'The Return of the King' (4.5/5) - The battle has been won, but what about the war?!
With 'The Two Towers' bringing the first real full-scale battle into the film series, the ante was raised significantly, and with two films worth of build up, the pay off had to be beyond huge. Anything less than a spectacular end cap would have been a massive disaster. Who would have thought 'The Return of the King' would have been this good, though? It's rare to see a film series get better with every entry (the opposite seems the norm)!
Picking up where 'The Two Towers' left off, our heroes have escaped annihilation at Helm's Deep, but a greater battle remains, as the orc army regathers, to attack again at Minas Tirith, aka the City of Kings, which is located incredibly close to the gates of Mordor. A greater battle will ensue, with Legloas, Gimli, and Aragorn having to rally beyond humankind to save humanity. Sam, Frodo, and Gollum's tumultuous relationship is getting rockier, literally, as they pass into Mordor, where looms greater threats than they've ever faced before. Mankind has little time left to assemble and rally to survive, their fate lying on one hobbit, who may not be capable of completing his mission.
Each of the previous 'Lord of the Rings' films were fairly lengthy in their own rights (both clocking in at just short of three hours apiece), but the three and a half hour runtime for 'The Return of the King' is quite an undertaking indeed...but, fortunately, this entry flies by amazingly fast (especially compared to the prior two). With over 200 minutes to wrap up the story, it's amazing that some of the more significant plots didn't get resolutions (for those, the extended cut gets the job done). I have been somewhat neutral on my feelings between the two different cuts of this film series, but this final chapter is where I cannot help but proclaim the lengthier cut superior, for one vital reason: Saruman. In this theatrical cut, the lead baddie is written off with a line or two of dialogue, and is somewhat left to rot, it infers. Hardly a resolution for such a feared, powerful villain, and hardly a way to handle a performer the likes of Christopher Lee. At least 'Revenge of the Sith' decapitated him in the opening act, rather than saying he blew up in some space battle left unseen.
With Saruman effectively out of the picture (literally), and no real figurehead to the evil forces besides the anti-Jesus, the omnipresent evil eye of Sauron, yet the film doesn't suffer. Far from it. In fact, the villains in the story become their fear, in a sense, their inability to control their actions and/or minds. Frodo has the One Ring influencing his body, heart, and mind, obviously, as he has a rift with his closest friend, that only comes back to haunt him, as the power of the Ring affects him to the point where he hardly can even function anymore. With Gandalf and the rest of the Fellowship, their struggle is to survive, to continue fighting against immeasurable odds, facing death with every battle head on, and accepting fate, rather than fearing it. Gollum's treachery, often alluded to but rarely seen, comes to fruition, but after his grand, orchestrated betrayal (who would have thought such a lowly creature could plan such a magnificent attack, even with his two personalities?!), his presence hardly matters, as he is (virtually) written off. But despite that, Smeagol/Gollum has to be the most interesting character in this final chapter. The opening of this film focuses on the fateful day he discovers the ring, its deadly repercussions, and his fall from grace, into sheer insanity, and it's hard to not feel for the character for what he once was, just as Frodo does.
'The Return of the King' succeeds in escalating the tension and urgency created in the earlier entries, a hard task indeed considering that the Helm's Deep battle has to be one of the best battles depicted in cinema period, regardless of genre or series, but that doesn't mean this film is without flaw. Minas Tirith is an obvious opposite of Helm's Deep, with the beautiful white walls, textured gates, and sheer beauty mixed in with practicality and regality, and while the end result is the same, the damage caused to the city hardly draws any emotions. Gandalf the infallible (sorry, Gray) once again acts as a guiding light, a messiah of sorts, to rally around, along with his heroic compatriots, but the character has no charm this third time around. Most frustratingly, the greatest flaw in the previous film (which is due to the original works, of course) reappears in this final entry, as again and again, losing battles are saved by surprise appearances and reinforcements. The moment any situation looks dire, never fear, another army will appear to lessen the load and spread out the enemies. This happens twice in a twenty minute span, so it's hard not to notice. Another nitpick: the less said about Eowyn's slaying of the Witch King, the better. The fact that the ringwraith had a contract, and this woman warrior found an effective loophole in it is ridiculous, while her banter is beyond comic book cheese.
Elijah Wood is spectacular, again, as the pint-sized bling bearer, as his descent into madness and paranoia is very believable, as is his sheer exhaustion. Despite being the lead role in the series, it is so easy to overlook how very powerful this young actor's portrayal is. Beyond Wood, there are some solid performances, particularly from David Wenham, and the underrated John Noble (recognizable most these days from his great character in 'Fringe').
The sage of 'The Lord of the Rings' is timeless, with analogy and parable mixed in beautifully with action, adventure, and a slight hint of romance. There are selfless heroes, sacrificing life and limb, solely for their love of life as they know it, and villains with no regard for life, replaced by the unrelenting thirst for power. Characters and their plights are relatable, the story incredibly multi-faceted and robust, with near infinite replay value. The cast is so deep with talent that the likes of Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, and Cate Blanchett don't even get mentions in the review up until this point. Fans worldwide have flocked to this series ever since its release for a reason. While the animated 'Lord of the Rings' may hold a sentimental place in the hearts of many, as the only real adaptation of the books until this definitive trilogy, neither it, nor few other films, can compare to the lasting appeal and power of this masterwork from Peter Jackson.
The Disc: Vital Stats
The wait is finally over...sort of. One of the most demanded series to hit Blu-ray has hit Blu-ray. This release of 'The Lord of the Rings' won't appease all of the anxious fans, though, for a number of reasons. First, and most widely reported, the cuts included in this release are the original theatrical versions, rather than the fan favorite extended editions. This relatively expensive nine disc set is as hollow as any nine (nine!) disc set can be, as only three of the discs are actually Blu-rays (a fact that the packaging doesn't try to hide, and admits with the very first paragraph on the back pamphlet. No fine print here). The special features discs are all DVDs, as are the digital copy discs.
The set is housed in a very sturdy slide out box, and the front Blu-ray banner is not a part of the box art, rather a removable slip. There are only two cases in the box, a wider six disc holder (that resembles the cases used for titles like the 'CSI' seasons), and a three disc case of normal width. The six disc case houses the movie discs, along with the special features, assembled in order that the extras discs follow the movies they are for. The only real distinction in the artwork between the two cases is the fact that the slimmer case has the words "digital copy" beneath the banner. Each of the Blu-ray discs are BD50s, while the special features DVDs are DVD9s. Reportedly, the Blu-ray discs are Region free/ABC. There are no pre-menu trailers to be found, just New Line Cinema title cards. Menu audio does not loop, making it feel awfully cheap and thrown together. There are a few inserts included, with an animated 'Lord of the Rings' Deluxe Edition advertisement (a coupon would have been better, Warner), an 'Aragorn's Quest' video game ad, a BudK replica weapon ad, and an insert that has a $10 off coupon code for replicas at www.wetaNZ.com (the code is hardly random, as it is more a promotional code, rather than an individualized coupon code that is only redeemable once).
Count this reviewer as one who would have killed to have the films be in individual cases with their respective artwork and full credit/extras listings. Even slim cases, like Warner Bros. has been known to use would have been more attractive and functional.
Each of the three 'Lord of the Rings' films is presented with VC-1 encodes at 1080p in their native 2.40:1 aspect ratios. Funnily enough, while all three share the same technical features, and were all filmed together, they couldn't look any more different. A movie by movie breakdown to this trilogy will help shed some light on the strengths and weaknesses of these transfers.
'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (3/5) - Goodness, goodness, goodness. If only this one film were released, with the other two to follow soon after, the uproar from the BD community would have been outrageous. First they don't get their extended editions, now the video isn't among the very best ever put on disc?!?!? Fortunately, there's more to the story than just this one film.
'The Fellowship of the Ring' is a peculiar piece, as it is sporadic, random, intermittently brilliant and tragic...and yes, we're still talking about the video, here. Detail is far from consistent, as from shot to shot in any scene, it's almost like watching the film from multiple grade sources culled together. There are moments were distance shots boast brilliant clarity and the finest of minute detail, then a close up will follow that's muddled beyond belief. While I cannot say what created this issue, I can say that DNR (yes, Digital Noise Reduction) played a large part. There are numerous excessively smoothed and muddy moments, and they're hardly difficult to spot.
The opening sequence, telling the tale of the original fate of Sauron, is amazingly soft, and excessively digital, to the point that it is obviously an aesthetic to give it a dreamy feeling, like it weren't even real, the story had been passed down so many times. Since this sequence begins the trilogy, one can get dismayed awful fast!
Grain levels are soft, and are hardly intrusive...when they're not scrubbed all to hell. There is some ringing to be found somewhat often, though there are numerous titles out there that are more blatantly obvious or horrifically disfigured by this artificial enhancement than 'Fellowship.' Colors can be bold, strikingly vibrant, to the point that they begin to feel unnatural at times, particularly in the shire. Again, this feels like an aesthetic choice for the film; it just doesn't go over well in high-def. Clothing detail isn't as sharp as I would have hoped, as at times cloth can feel flat, just draped on characters, rather than fluid, rich, and intricate, a character in and of itself. There are no significant aliasing problems (save for the occasional very light and short flicker), as even the stringy grayed beard of Gandalf stays true. Skin tones are mostly accurate, though there is the occasional strong orange hue. Special effects stand out like a sore thumb, a scary thought, considering 'The Fellowship of the Ring' is hardly even old, at all. Lastly, there is a light bit of noise, though very minimal, and the occasional bit of artifacting, though not minimal.
There has been some chatter in the HDD forums as to what has caused some of the image discrepancies between films, with numerous theories being presented that could all play a small part in the end result. The cause of what made 'The Fellowship of the Rings' look inferior isn't as important as the fact that it does look inferior, particularly in comparison to its brethren. And while this individual release was a visual let down, it isn't enough to sour one from the entire trilogy, and can help one appreciate the superior quality of the films that will follow.
'The Two Towers' (4/5) - "It looks like meat is back on the menu, boys!!!"
Just like 'The Two Towers' represents victory in the face of defeat (over and over and over again), the transfer afforded the film shares this message of overcoming the odds...somewhat. While hardly demo material, 'The Two Towers' is a visual improvement over 'The Fellowship of the Ring' that cannot be ignored.
While most of the problems found in the transfer for 'Fellowship' remain, they are on a much smaller scale. DNR is still present, and at times cruelly obvious, though it is nowhere near as problematic and prevalent. Edges are crisper, stray hairs actually leap now, as ringing is reduced significantly (though not to the point that it is no longer an issue), while clothing textures feel three dimensional, worn in, and realistic. Aliasing is present lightly, with the marsh sequence getting the brunt of that beast. Skin tones are more consistent, and certainly much truer. Soft shots still exist, and are certainly much less frequent, and much less distracting.
'The Two Towers' is a dark film (somewhat like 'The Empire Strikes Back,' only with feel good nonsense at the close rather than amazing defeat), and the visual aesthetic matches this tone. Blacks are deeper, and are damn near ever-present considering how prolonged some night sequences find themselves. Delineation is solid, with hardly any real detail lost into oblivion, as low lit shots maintain solid clarity. Whites are striking and brilliant, without any bleed, even in the sharpest and brightest of them all. The entire film is draped in destruction and decay, broken castles, rot, dirt and rocks, metal, debris, and age, and this tattered existence is strikingly noticeable. Flashbacks are again extremely soft and lacking any true detail, with a nice light blur to boot.
While technically sound, and in no way the fault of the transfer, the special effects work again looks quite bad in high definition. Gollum doesn't fit in to many of his scenes, as he feels like he's floating in front of his background, leaping off the screen in an otherwise flat and drab existence. At first, there are light white flicks dancing around in the creature, that cannot be seen in live action characters, that appear on Treebeard at first, as well...further proof that Stephenie Meyer has ruined the literary world for good (seriously, though, the characters don't sparkle, but do have a light pixel hoedown). The interactions of the hobbits at times can feel taped on, as they look out of place in numerous scenes showing scale with Orcs, and they look almost like digital creations in long shots with the Ents. In close up shots with these tree people (I hope that isn't a derogatory term), the hobbits are softer than their bark-laden companions. Any time a transfer makes special effects look completely out of date, it is a sign of a solid transfer in my books, but also a sad thought of the fun memories of not being able to see the wires and effects. The magician has almost been outed.
'The Return of the King' (4/5)
Fitting, really, this one is. The film considered the best in the series gets the disc that looks the best in the series. It's not perfect, but it is an improvement over 'The Two Towers,' even if the scoring remains the same.
Clothing details are the richest they have been in any of the three 'Lord of the Rings' films, with great depth and clarity (and pop) not found so much in previous films. Facial details are the clearest of any of the films, with actual pores (pores!) visible quite often in faces, while skin tones remain very constant and natural. Colors are bold, artifacts are nary an issue, though noise is problematic off and on. Edge enhancement is still present, though it is the least of any of the films. For all the blacks in this film, shadow detail remained strong and visible, which did impress me.
DNR? Yes, it's still there, no matter how improved the picture looks, there is still the occasional smear and loss in detail. Motion can at times make it obvious, though close ups are often the most affected and notable victims. It became a game, really, watching hair and seeing if it gets smudged and blurred. And then, something occurred to me. Fans of the film can gather 'round this collection and have one hell of a drinking game: whenever someone notices DNR, take a shot. Alcohol poisoning is sure to ensue.
So, why the average score of 3/5 for video, when two entries earned higher marks? 'Fellowship of the Rings.' While Gimli may argue "that still only counts as one!", one massive fail is all it takes. And one massive fail, it is.
Three films, three DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 mixes, one reason why this release may rule them all. While the english tracks are consistent in what is presented, the Spanish dub does change in format between the films (please see the sidebar for exact details!). Subtitle options for all three films consist of either an English track subtitled for the deaf and hard of hearing, and Spanish.
'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (4.5/5) - "The dwarf breathes so loud we could have shot him in the dark."
While the video for the first entry into this borderline sacred trilogy could be considered a letdown, the audio didn't disappoint. At all. In fact, it was pleasantly surprising.
'The Fellowship of the Ring' is a moody film, and damn if this track doesn't reflect as much. When it wants to get quiet or loud, it will, and it won't ask permission. Score elements can be soft and underlie the action or dialogue, or they can roar to the foreground and dominate the track, towering above any other noise that dare try to sully its beauty; the orchestral sound is powerful, haunting, and deafening. Dialogue is only a pain to comprehend when it's Elvish, but thankfully there are forced subtitles for those unwilling to learn a fictional language just to enjoy this film (how does one say "nerd" in Elvish?). Some line readings can sound hollow, and don't match the scenes they're in (take Frodo's conversation with Bilbo at the one hour, eighteen minute mark for example). High ends are crisp, while lows have subtle, supple force and depth. Pans are accurate, and used appropriately, neither excessively or sparingly, matching the mood portrayed onscreen. The room can feel utterly full, like a standing room only stadium at times, then feel like the bleachers have been tarped off, with paintings of fans replacing the eager crowd by sight, but not noise. It's somewhat distracting, really. But all it takes is one slip of a certain ring onto a certain halfling finger for the subwoofer to have a fit, hootin' and a hollerin' like coffee got spilled down its britches. It bottoms out on a few occasions, with room shaking roars that feel like they could vacuum the furniture away.
'The Two Towers' (4.5/5) - The highlight of the first film in the trilogy on Blu-ray is still the highlight in the second portion, as the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track provided 'The Two Towers' is still quite technically sound (oh that was a bad pun), though very different from 'Fellowship.' Dialogue remains clear, with less domineering score elements covering any word in the mix. There are less volume spikes in this volume, and certainly a softer score. Bass levels are increased, though, with the clomps and stomps of wargs and horses as they battle, along with booming orc war drums echoing, pulsing, and pounding through the room, to the point that one easily can feel a part of Helm's Deep. Ambience is increased, as well, with random discrete effects hitting rear speakers with greater frequency, and some smooth pans from warriors moving across the screen. Swooping arrows also exhibit solid movement. This mix feels like a completely different beast than 'Fellowship,' with less high end, a stronger low end, and a fuller, wider environment.
'The Return of the King' (5/5) - Finally, this hard nosed reviewer decides to give something in this release a perfect score (it only took three films, three video scores, and three audio scores to get to!). There's no two ways about it, 'The Return of the King' is a damn near pitch perfect sounding release.
What held me back on giving perfect marks to the previous films? An overall lack of true immersion, the feeling that one is watching a movie, rather than being right there with it, experiencing it, living the battles, experiencing the heartbreak and twists and turns. Neither 'The Fellowship of the Ring' or 'The Two Towers' have this important quality, nor do they have the overall consistency in activity that 'The Return of the King' has.
Dialogue remains sharp and clear, and for the most part front and center, but action finds itself spreading around the room like a pissed off army of orcs. Action flies left and right, with dragons swooping through the room, armies crowding one path or another, boulders being launched to and fro, and all these bits of movement through the room are without a hitch or rough spot. They're smooth like a DNR'ed face. As this film finds itself in much closer proximity to Mount Doom (and ever increasing, for that matter), volcanic eruptions and earthquakes become the norm, and as such, bass levels are constantly active. The main siege in the film has incredible bass, also, particularly due to the war-ready elephants clomping through the room (though at one point, their stomps are synchronized, which makes no bloody sense and doesn't match on screen movement whatsoever, but that's one mistake we'll forgive as it's in the sound design, not the fault of this mix). Range? Immense! There are some amazingly high pitched screams that can easily make one cover their ears from their piercing ferocity. Directionality is superb, atmospheres are lively and active when they're supposed to be, and damn if every sound isn't clear, natural, and beautiful. If there is one thing worth praising in this release, which often feels like a boondoggle, this audio track is it.
Now here is where things get ugly, as if they weren't already. It's hard to argue that this release is skimped on extras, as the original DVD releases were also, technically, especially compared to the ridiculously loaded extended editions. That said, three Blu-ray discs, with no audio commentaries, no isolated score tracks, no nothin', really, besides the same content on each that is pretty much fluff. The fans of this series are a hardcore bunch, to say the least, so the exclusion of any real new content in the extras is a disappointment. What's really disappointing is the quality of the extras found in the recycled DVD extras. Damn near every single feature feels like nothing more than a paid advertisement. The whole affair is incredibly EPK. Making of features and documentaries are all so horribly slanted, and ridiculously lacking, that they're fairly insufferable.
Please note, that while technically the DVD releases are found after each of their respective Blu-rays in the package, this review emphasizes the Blu-ray content first.
'The Fellowship of the Ring' Blu-ray
'The Two Towers' Blu-ray
'The Return of the King' Blu-ray
'The Fellowship of the Ring' supplements DVD
'The Two Towers' supplements DVD
'The Return of the King' supplements DVD
Devout fans will cry foul at these films not being given perfect scores, but even they must admit the theatrical cuts pale in comparison to the extended editions. They're all epic, important, seminal fantasy films, all with great strengths, making it possible to have camps believing each entry is the best of the bunch. This isn't the second-most wanted film series on the format (behind 'Star Wars') for no reason, after all.
After years of waiting, 'The Lord of the Rings' is on Blu-ray, and fans are going to be pissed off. Theatrical cuts, with no extended editions plus video qualities that have been excessively DNR'ed have dampened much of the anticipation. A weak supplements package doesn't help matters. The audio is superb, to say the least, and is a selling point often forgotten in the outrage over the shortcomings in the video.
Yet, as much as it pains me to say it, this set is still a must own, flawed as it is. The wait for the extended editions will be long, much longer than the films themselves (and that's a difficult task). Critics will state proudly that they'll stick with their DVD editions, and will claim there is no difference between an upscale and this release, but there is more exaggeration than truth in such a statement. Swallow your pride, throw down your hard earned cash, and put 'The Lord of the Rings' in your Blu-ray collection. One can readily and easily upgrade to the extended cuts whenever they decide to arrive on high-def.