Portions of this review also appear in our Blu-ray review of 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy'
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 Disc: Vital Stats
Earlier this year, Warner Bros/New Line Cinema released 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy,' a nine disc box set (which later got trimmed to six discs) that sparked plenty of controversy, to be sure. The titles were not available individually, only in the hard-case packed trilogy, which did not give the films individual box art.
To the chagrin of many hardcore fans, it was the Theatrical Editions of the films that debuted on Blu-ray, with no release date for the Extended Editions in sight. Now, all three titles that comprise the trilogy of films are available for purchase as standalone releases, with their appropriate, film-specific cover art.
Each 'Lord of the Rings' standalone disc is the same as those found in the box set, even if the numbers on the ring of the disc are now different (much like many of the 'Harry Potter: Years 1-6 discs, despite being the same as their previous releases). The menus are the same, the set up options, the good, and the bad. Each film disc is a BD50 Dual Layer Disc that is Region A/B/C (confirmed on my B locked LG BH100).
There are a few differences between releases of the standalone editions, which are detailed in the supplements section of this review!
'The Fellowship of the Ring' is a peculiar piece (using a VC-1 1080p encode at 2.40:1), 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 where distant 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 on the entire trilogy, and can help viewers appreciate the superior quality of the films that will follow.
"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.
There is an interesting sidenote to the standalone editions of the 'Lord of the Rings' Blu-rays. There were two versions of the trilogy set, one with digital copies, and one without. The one without came in a slimmer box, with only one case inside, which made them stand out a bit, by comparison.
The standalones have two choices, as well, though this time, one is a store exclusive, and is available immediately. Standard editions will contain the bonus discs from the original DVDs and previous Blu-ray release, which have a small smattering of extras each. Just recycled discs, really. However, the Wal-Mart exclusive releases of the titles replace the extras disc with the widescreen edition DVD releases themselves, and are labeled as "Blu-ray + DVD combo packs" on the front, with a nice looking blue banner across the front and spine, and different artwork on the back art.
Some fans may not like this style of release, but I do personally prefer bonus DVD copies over old as hell supplements DVDs that contain advertisements for titles long out of print already. It helps me gauge the improvement of the title from last generation to now, and it gives me the ability to loan out the film without having to loan out my Blu-ray edition. Win-win. A shame they didn't have exclusive slipcovers. Now that would have made these titles look fantastic!
For those buying the non-Wal-Mart editions, the supplements disc contains:
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.
'The Fellowship of the Rings' sure did create a firestorm when released in the trilogy box set, and it seems the whole idea of a "remaster" is lost on New Line/Warner Bros. It's not like the film hasn't made a bajillion dollars for them by now. All that negative publicity should have been some kind of hint. A recycled disc, which is dramatically lower in video quality compared to its brethren. The audio is rocking, but there was really no need for a botched entry to get a standalone. This one should have been given the 'Godfather 3' treatment: not released individually alongside the other two. It's broke, so fix it.