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Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy' as well as 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy - Extended Editions'
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy' as well as 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy - Extended Editions'
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' - 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 Extended Edition
On DVD, these editions were released after the Theatrical Edition DVD release of each respective film, timed to coincide with the next film to bow in theaters (while the final Extended Edition release was then released in the same time period as it would have if there were a fourth film). 'Fellowship now runs an epic 228 minutes, with an intermission of sorts caused by the need to change discs after the formation of the Fellowship.
Detailed comparisons and explanations of the changes between cuts can be found at this website, which hosts a library of comparisons (and may contain NSFW content on titles that add in nudity on alternate/unedited cuts).
'The Fellowship of the Ring' didn't earn as much praise from me the first go-round in its original cut as it will here. I cannot begin to put into words to how much more I respect, admire, and appreciate the lengthier cut of the film, as I consider it to be the most coherent, best edited, free flowing, and non-repetitive of the Extended Editions.
The fleshing out of the opening sequences, before Frodo is ever in the same room as the ring, they're excellently crafted. We see, in better detail, what truly happened to the one ring to cause it to be lost for centuries. Better yet, now we have reason to care for Bilbo Baggins, and we see what the ring does to him much more clearly. We understand his relationship to Gandalf better, and his relationship to Frodo is much more detailed. The Shire and its inhabitants are more detailed and relatable, as we see more of their carefree existence. Aragorn is given more time to connect to viewers, both before and after his real identity is disclosed, his past more clearly outlined. Galadriel is still mishandled and a loose end, but a future payoff and a once deleted scene in the next film get set up. The beauty is that while there are a number of smaller extensions, everything fits coherently, and the narrative structure of the film remains intact, with no odd moments feeling out of place, thrown in for the sake of. The experience becomes richer, and the journey suddenly is more invested for the viewer.
The Disc: Vital Stats
As Nate promised last year, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has finally released the 'Lord of the Rings -- Extended Editions' as individual films. This 5-disc set includes 2 BD50s (parts one and two of the movie) and 3 DVDs (two Appendices discs from the original DVD release of the Extended Editions as well as one DVD featuring the Costa Botes documentary). All five discs are housed in a 5-disc blue case (the trilogy set was a black case) with cover art from the 2006 2-disc DVD release of 'Fellowship' (though unlike that release, this version does not include an option to watch the theatrical cut of the film). An information booklet is no longer included. A matching slipcover completes the package, though a garish Ultraviolet sticker ruins its overall appearance.
Speaking of Ultraviolet, each film in the trilogy now contains an Ultraviolet copy rather than last year's Digital Copy release. Instructions and a redemption code are included; it requires that you have accounts with, at least, Flixster and Ultraviolet, and that you then link both accounts. After spending 20 minutes trying to link everything, I then noticed you can, as an alternative, login directly to your Vudu account and redeem your code. It's much faster and doesn't involve typing in a long url. Sadly, this Ultraviolet copy is only available in SD. As someone who uses computers all day long, the Ultraviolet process remains a clunky and frustrating hassle.
When 'The Lord of the Rings' debuted on Blu-ray last year, with the versions that hit theaters, the video qualities created quite the controversy, with 'The Fellowship of the Ring' being the most...well, disastrous. Riddled with DNR, the film looked like no film at all, really. The latter two films in the series had their problems, sure, but nowhere near the scale of 'Fellowship.' So, when Warner Bros. and New Line announced that the Extended Editions, the fan favorite cuts of the trilogy, would arrive on Blu-ray in 2011, the only film mentioned as receiving a remastering for the upcoming release was, naturally, the one that created the big stink.
Now, with the Blu-rays of the Extended Editions falling into consumer hands earlier than street date, controversy again would erupt. Much like 'The French Connection,' 'Fellowship' received some altered color timing, it would seem. The internet would soon become loaded with screenshots, comparisons, all sorts of science analyzing this first film in the set to the point where the improvements in the video became secondary to the puzzling "greenness" of it all. What did Peter Jackson or Andrew Lesnie intend for the video to look like, and did they have a hand? Is the Blu-ray release exactly to their specifications? The answers, or rather, the truth of the matter has not yet become clear, and at this point, it's all theory and conjecture. Intentions are great, but actuality usually beats them out. So, what is this controversy about? Is it legit? Is there something wrong with the Blu-ray for 'Fellowship' for the second time? Has the whole situation been blown out of proportion?
For this review, I went back and compared the new Extended Edition of 'The Fellowship of the Ring' to its Theatrical Edition counterpart, especially in scenes that I found to be...questionable, shall we say. Until Jackson (or Lesnie) himself speaks out on the matter, there may not be such a thing as "right" or "wrong," so, neither of those words will be used to describe the video. However, regardless of "right or "wrong," I want to stress that distractions, jarring moments or changes that alter the way a scene is perceived do, and will, affect the scoring on this release. A film may be, sometimes, locked in to how good it will ever look, with numerous standard definition films having arrived on Blu-ray, and no matter how truthful they are to the source, the end result just does not compare to other films that are faithful to their source and aren't an eyesore.
The big to-do on this first film in the series, the talk of the movie forums and blogs, is the color timing, so let's just hop right into that before anything else. Is 'The Fellowship of the Ring' tainted, or tinted, in a greenish, sometimes cyan hue, in ways that it was not on the previous Blu-ray release? Yes, but, and this is a very important but, it is not as much a travesty as some believe it to be. For starters: the entire film may be tinted, but many alterations or changes can be unnoticeable and/or borderline indistinguishable, rather than being the eyesores or distractions some are making them out to be. There is little doubt in my mind that this tint effects the entire run time, but for some reason or another, some sequences become blatantly obvious while others are still pretty darned passable, as there are many sequences where there is no tint in sight, with believable grays and whites. Skies aren't always turquoise, as beautiful marine blues do show up to provide fantastic brightness to a number of sequences. But...there are those moments where the changes seem hard to miss. Mists, which appear white in previous releases, now have an odd tinge to them, as they are no longer pure or unsullied, and what was once beautifully clean, white snow can look like someone was making snow cones with watered down dye. The title card for the film has a very slight hint of green to it, as well, while rocks in the shire have an odd taint that isn't from moss. Arwen's dress, which originally looked like a sparkly, completely white beauty in Frodo's hallucination, now looks like beautiful emerald, like a key lime pie, and the moment before, where Aragorn fights the Ring Wraights, their cloaks and his attire have olive hints and tints. Skin tones wear this issue, as well, as there are more than a few moments in the film where characters look ashen due to the way red levels are overpowered by greens, when they aren't excessively affected by lighting, far more than the other films in the set. The cyan tints are odd, and make some random sky shots a massive distraction with their new peculiar tint, while there are times where actors look like they have spider veins. That's not good.
There is no comparing the Extended Edition Blu-ray of 'Fellowship' to the previous release, though, as, hands down, this new edition thoroughly and regularly trumps its shorter cousin mercilessly. Detail levels are beyond improved, and the amount of tinkering and tampering has been reduced so dramatically that, get this, it looks like a film again! Beards never get blurry, not once, and facial features remain pure. I dare any viewer to have a staring contest with Gandalf's beard, since, I promise you, there's no aliasing or DNR in sight in what was once their most obvious home. Edges are much more natural, with nary a moment that caught my eye as being egregious or obviously enhanced. Depth? Hoo boy, does this release have it in spades! Crush? Not one inch of it touches the film, no matter how dark some sequences get. The picture is wonderfully clean, with only a tiny, tiny blip here and there, spread so far apart that it takes a keen eye to spot them all. Textures, they're so vivid, so strikingly real, metal surfaces reflect where applicable, rough blades feel dingy, the forest, water, wood, it's so marvelous, it's hard not to get sucked in to the beauty of this release (when it isn't the home of the Green Goblin).
Yes, I'll admit, I did tire of the randomly blue eyes or teeth. I also got a bit tired of the constant contrast between the wonderfully vivid, colorful moments and those that are obviously afflicted by some excessive color change stigma. The random darkness of the film also got to me, especially when Gandalf first knocks on Bilbo's door, as that shot looks the same on this release as it would if you watched the Theatrical Blu-ray wearing sunglasses, and that isn't even an exaggeration. This release has its flaws, serious, unmistakable flaws that do rain on what should be its parade. Is this a truly satisfying, breathtaking, stunning image? Not as much as it should be, nor as much as its untampered with brethren are. So, sadly, what may be the finest long cut of the trilogy is (there is no may be's or possibly's here) the weakest visually, with completely unnecessary little "fixes" that don't quite fix anything. If you love the color green, this may very well be the an "achievement unmatched in the history of cinema." If you love films looking natural, realistic, and untampered with...this may be the new test case for what all can go wrong when revisionist history takes a spin at creating a new look for a film people have seen so many times that they cannot accept the differences made. A remastering was necessary. A re-envisioning was not. No matter what gets said down the line (if anything is said at all), the end result is a picture that is not as engaging or inviting as the other two films in the epic motion picture trilogy. No words can change this problem, be it an intentional change or a mishap, unless they are the phrase Paramount has had to utter quite often with their Sapphire Series: disc exchange.
I said it once, and I'll say it again:
"Three films, three DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 mixes, one reason why this release may rule them all."
The adage concerning not fixing what isn't broken applies to the audio New Line provided 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy. In fact, I'm much more impressed with the sound this time around than I was back then, even if nothing has changed in terms of what type of mix has been provided. The entire trilogy sounds quite literally flawless, for its entire runtime. Not once in the entire viewing marathon did I have a moment where I wished some element was heftier, or some speaker had more activity. This was perhaps one of the most pleasant, accurate to the action on screen mixes I've encountered in some time.
All three tracks are nothing short of splendid, with pitch perfect dynamics, wonderful directionality, constant and appropriate localization effects, superb clarity, impeccable prioritization, wonderful volume spikes, and plenty of down and dirty bass to keep the entire experience engaging, no matter how thoroughly worn out you are by the length of the material. The soundstage is constantly filled, putting you in the middle of the experience throughout the entire affair, be it in a not-so-crowded hall or a battle littered with combatants from all angles. There's never an inappropriate moment or sound, not a single hair out of place. Range is brilliantly unchecked, and the echoes found in this trilogy, there may not be any better example on this format! I loved how regularly the bass had a different kind of roar, with frequencies and potencies changing, creating a fun new experience each time there was the need for extreme power, and I loved even more the fact that not once in the entire runtime did I need to adjust the volume settings on my receiver. The sharp clangs of sword on sword, the cold thumps of bodies hitting the ground, the whizz of arrows swooping across the room at any given angle, the thunder beneath a massive creature's footstep, the haunting melodies, the sharp spikes of victorious yells and screams, the screeching of the undead, the rumble of a volcano...all part of a perfect audio experience. The Extended Editions of 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy all earn perfect marks, with no regret or nitpicks. The most thunderous element after these three tracks played was the sound of my applause for a job more than well done.
The original Blu-ray release of 'The Lord of the Rings' had a minimal amount of extras available (or none at all if you bought the Wal-Mart exclusive versions), mirroring the already heavily aged original DVD releases by stealing their supplement discs and repackaging them. This Extended Edition set does the same thing, in essence, by taking two discs from each DVD version of the first releases of the book packed Extended cuts, as well as the documentary found on each of the second release versions of the Extended Editions (which also came with the Theatrical Cuts, the only editions so far to do so), packing three discs per film with the two discs for each film (which contain four commentaries each!), to create a monolithic supplement package that definitely rules them all.
Discs 1 and 2: Commentaries
The first 'Ring' film gets four tracks, the first featuring the writers and directors (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens), the second covering the design crew (Grant Major, Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, John Howe, Dan Hennah, Chris Hennah, and Tania Rodger), the third full of production peoples (Barrie M. Osborne, Mark Ordesky, Andrew Lesnie, John Gilbert, Rick Porras, Howard Shore, Jim Rygiel, Ethan Van der Ryn, Mike Hopkins, Randy Cook, Christian Rivers, Brian Van't Hul, and Alex Funke), and the fourth covering the cast members (Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, and Sean Bean). Jackson acknowledges the difficulty in starting the film, so the fact that the beginning is one of the very biggest things changed in the Extended Editions is a great focal point. The three person track covers the prologue issues with the studio, the casting, how Hobbit scale worked, experiences of the cast on set (particularly around mostly strangers), the fate of the Baggins Hobbithole set, the idea of subtitling locations, and some random order anecdotes, including the director riffing on smoking in films, and how this trilogy got away with it, no questions asked. There is some odd feedback behind the participants at times, which isn't quite as annoying as the ringing in 'Sin City' or the horns behind 'Dilbert: The Animated Series,' but if you can hear it, it's massively distracting. The design track covers scale difficulty and logistics, to the nth degree (including the number 1.38), focusing on the difficulties and intricacies of the scenes, the underappreciated, possibly even ignored minute details that make or break a film of this caliber. In the producer track, we hear about the infamous car (which was removed), removed footage that didn't work or was difficult to film, the combinations of matte, miniatures, and live action, sometimes overanalyzed, Lee's audition as Gandalf and real life relationship with Tolkien (and his general awesomeness), real life locations for scenes, as well as some fun focuses on practical (mostly impractical) effects. The cast track has a ton of random quirky info, like women doubling as men (or horses!), casting misfires (including a non-Viggo Aragorn), the homage to 'The Hobbit' with the hidden cave trolls, McKellen bringing sexuality into the conversation (as well as an awesome dig at Ian Holm in old man makeup), and some random observations about each actor's respective character. This track is different from the other cast tracks, due to the fact that much of the later participants in the other two films had yet to debut on screen, so they're not involved, so there's a whole lot of Hobbit talk going on, but since most characters get introduced in a very short span, it fixes itself in a hurry.
Disc 3: The Appendices, Part 1 (SD)
Disc 4: The Appendices, Part 2 (SD)
Disc 5: Costa Botes documentary (SD, 85mins)
'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Extended Edition' 5-Disc Set is exactly the same as the release included with the Extended Edition of the trilogy, except it features different cover art, an SD Ultraviolet copy of the film, and no paper booklet describing the contents of its packaging. 'Fellowship' in particular retains its green-tint controversy from last year, but features blistering sound and is still the best this film has ever looked on home video. If you own the trilogy boxed set already, there is no reason to buy this or the other two individual releases. If you held off on buying the trilogy as a whole, the trilogy set is still probably a better deal in terms of pricing. If you like only one or two of the films from this trilogy, or you like the look of the green, red, and blue cover art more, then you could consider these individual releases.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.