Monday, March 22, 2010

Blu Ray review: The Lord of the Rings: the motion picture trilogy (2001-2003)

The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King
2001, 2002, 2003
178 minutes, 179 minutes, and 202 minutes
Rated PG-13 (for intense epic battle scenes and frighting images)
Available for Download, Blu Ray, OnDemand, from Warner on Tuesday, April 6th.

by Scott Mendelson

They are the finest fantasy films ever made. The best trilogy of all-time. Winner of seventeen Oscars. With worldwide box office totals of $2.9 billion, with $1 billion of that from the US alone. Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is truly a one-of-a-kind accomplishment. They opened to rave reviews and captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, leading to unheard-of box office and awards for the genre. Yet when the time came to tally up the cinematic achievements of the past decade, the one trilogy to rule them all was strangely missing from many of the lists. Salon asked why there was not more love for this epic adventure series, and I'll reprint here what I wrote back in December of last year.

It's called "blockbuster backlash," and it's not a new phenomenon. I actually found an essay I wrote in early 2005 about this, which stated that The Lord of the Rings backlash has only recently started." Can you find anyone, film critic or otherwise, who still admits to loving or even liking Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Titanic, or the Lord of the Rings series? Someone did back in the day, as those films made tons of money, back in the olden days when it wasn't so easy to gross $200 million, let alone $300-$600 million. But since it's considered uncool to like something so beloved by the masses, blockbuster backlash has set in, swinging the pendulum in the other direction. What starts as "Oh, it wasn't that great" quickly turns into "That movie was terrible."

The tide of critical opinion almost immediately turns, so that the focus on these films revolves purely on the technical merits, with snide disdain at the idea that the films succeeded for any reasons related to character, story or craftsmanship. "Oh, those films were just about the special effects and the battle scenes," says someone who bawled like a baby during the finale(s) of The Return of the King. "Oh, it was just the groundbreaking FX of the dinosaurs," says another who gripped their seat in terror during the raptor kitchen attack in Jurassic Park. We immediately forget that these films were not only popular with the masses, but with the critics too. Titanic received rave reviews upon its release. Jurassic Park received solid notices too, including many ecstatic sighs of relief that Spielberg still had the goods to scare the crap out of us eighteen years after Jaws. And each of the Lord of the Rings films was greeted with a wave of "I can't believe Peter Jackson pulled this off" hysteria, to the point that The Return of the King's Oscar triumph was a foregone conclusion.

Just you wait: The tide is already starting to turn against The Dark Knight ("It only made so much money because Heath Ledger died"), and I can only presume that Avatar is next on the chopping block ("People only went because of the 3D effects," which explains why Captain EO was the century's top-grossing film). This isn't a case of people who disliked the film from the get-go voicing their opinions louder than everyone else. This is a case of mass amnesia that renders any prior smash hit as something to be disdained by the critical elite, which then filters down to the general public. Regardless of why their stock has inexplicably fallen, Peter Jackson's adaptation of JRR Tolkien's groundbreaking fantasy series remains the awe-inspiring, exquisitely-cast, wonderfully acted, and emotionally-draining powerhouse that it was starting in December 2001. Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King combined represent the crowning cinematic achievement of the last ten years, as well as one of the true pinnacles in filmmaking history.

I'm assuming that if you're reading a review of the Blu Ray release of The Lord of the Rings, you probably agree at least in part with the statements above. Watching the films again, as I do every few years, I am always struck at how Ian Holm completely owns the first third of Fellowship of the Ring. As the aged (in spirit if not in body) Bilbo Baggins, Holm brings the full weight of a man who has the choice of living forever, but instead has finally decided to allow himself to die. His scenes with Ian McKellen's Gandalf are magical and priceless in establishing the humanity and inherent tragedy within this fantasy world. The films will of course eventually give way to spirited chases, Campellian-heroics, and epic battles inter-spliced with meditations on death, sacrifice, and the horrible burden of living in dark times. But that initial act of Fellowship of the Rings remain the most emotionally poignant right up until the wrongly-mocked finale of The Return of the King (it was the end of a nearly ten-hour saga, did you really want a freeze frame on Mount Doom exploding and then a cut to credits?).

The special effects remain as impressive as ever, because so much of the work is practical and so many of the sets are real New Zealand locations. The acting, from Sean Astin to Sean Bean, remains Oscar-worthy all-around, because everyone treats this material like it is historical fiction rather than outright fantasy. Unlike so many of the franchise pictures before and after, The Lord of the Rings trilogy feel real because so much of it was real. There were real costumes and real weapons, the characters were covered in real sweat and real dirt, and the action was a glorious mix of practical stunt work and state-of-the-art movie magic. The battle scenes remain the most impressive ever put on film, with the mass warfare of The Two Towers and The Return of the King unmatched in spectacle and emotional pull nearly ten years later (only James Cameron's Avatar and John Woo's Red Cliff came close). While one can nitpick here or there (why didn't Gandolf just fly Frodo to Mount Doom on a bloody eagle?), the films are genuine, undisputed masterpieces.

As far as only including the theatrical cuts, we can expect a mega-box set sometime in 2011, in time for the tenth anniversary of Fellowship of the Ring. The only extended version that I vastly prefer is The Two Towers, which adds character detail and a more epic canvas to the most conventional film of the trilogy. Heck, the theatrical cut of The Return of the King is actually superior to the bloated extended edition (unlike the prior two films, the third picture's longer version had footage cut not for time but for quality). But this set is a nine-disc package, neatly packed into two Blu Ray keep-cases. The first case contains six discs, with three Blu Rays for the theatrical features and three DVDs for extra features (more on that later). The other keep-case contains three digital copies of each picture.

If it needs to be confirmed, the films look and sound spectacular. This is easily the best these films have looked since their original theatrical release (and, refreshingly, the CGI-intensive moments suffer little from being viewed in such digital clarity). Audio options lead off with English 6.1 DTS HD for all three features. However, please note that the audio display on my Playstation 3 read only English 5.1 DTS HD, but I cannot firm due to a lack of surround sound. Oddly enough, The Two Towers and The Return of the King have Spanish 5.1 EX mixes with The Fellowship of the Ring only gets a Spanish 2.0 stream. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available on all three films. As for the bonus, the box advertises six hours of bonus material, and that may very well be true. But, for better or worse, the special features are identical to the supplements found on the original theatrical DVD releases for each respective film. So you get the TV spots, the trailers, the Sci-Fi channel specials, the National Geographic presentations, and the various web-casts (some of the video game trailers may be new, I wouldn't know). While there is solid material to be found here (the first and third films have around 90 minutes of pure documentary footage apiece to go with the PR fluff), it's a shame that Warner/New Line didn't see fit to upgrade any of this to HD (only the theatrical trailers and video game trailers found on the feature Blu Rays are rendered in 1080p). Still, considering that I presumed that these discs were going to be bare-bones affairs, the inclusion of the original DVD supplemental features was a welcome surprise.

It's no secret that we will eventually see a mega-set of some kind with the extended-cuts and the bazillion hours of extras from the previous four-disc sets (and hopefully the Costa Botes documentaries from the 2006 re-issues, which I've never seen), probably around December 2011 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the theatrical release of the first picture. It's not like anyone is being conned. If you want the original theatrical cuts in glorious Blu Ray, in a lovely and slim package, with a healthy helping of extras that you haven't watched in years (since you probably sold your theatrical DVDs when the extended-cuts came out), then you know what you're buying. Blockbuster-backlash has somewhat diminished the reputation of this astounding hat-trick, but perhaps revisiting the pictures on Blu Ray will remind people why they loved this trilogy in the first place. Now if I can just get my wife to sit through them even once. It's not like I don't suffer through goodness knows what horror/disaster dreck for her...

Scott Mendelson

12 comments:

medic794 said...

You sir are respectfully blind to the bone.

Have you no respect for the theatrical version of these films? Did you see the film in theaters or illegally watch the CAM on your 13" CRT monitor? Are you comparing these to your 480p DVD collection?

These are the worst transfers by Jackson & Warners, trying to squeeze the fans as much as possible.

You talk about CGI? Look at this: http://pic.phyrefile.com/k/ko/koenig1977/2010/03/22/00005.m2ts_snapshot_01.33.27_2010.03.22_20.10.38.png

This blog has lost my upmost respect.

Scott Mendelson said...

They looked super sharp and vividly colorful on my DLP 56" Samsung 1080P. My opinion is all I can offer.

Kyle Leaman said...

The Lord of the Ring series captured me at a moment when I was truly beginning to understand the true power of cinema. There still isn't a more powerful cinema going experience for me than Return of the King (which I saw 10x in the theatres).

How incredible for me that I got to be introduced to Holm through FOTR, and find out that he's been an incredible actor for years, ditto for McKellan. I agree that Bean should've been Oscar worthy.

And although I have to watch all three extended editions now (even if there is bloat, I can't help leaving even throwaway scenes out now), Two Towers is the best of the extended cuts.

p.s. The 2006 re-issue documentaries are simply great. No narrator, just straight fly on the wall footage.

JohnH said...

"medic794" sounds like another one of those hopeless fanboys similar to the ones who continue to grouse -- eleven years after the fact -- about The Phantom Menace. He doesn't even make any sense.

I thought The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a fantastic achievement, and masterful filmmaking. By all accounts these are superb transfers and, with the exception of The Two Towers, which really did benefit from the expanded footage (particularly setting up the dynamics of the relationship between Denathor and his sons) I think the other two films are pitch-perfect in their theatrical cuts (though Chris Lee might disagree!) and will be buying this set for sure.

Scott Mendelson said...

It's funny, John... when Return of the King came out in theaters, we heard every reason under the sun why Christopher Lee's climactic bit was cut from RotK. When we finally saw said moment on DVD, the reason became obvious - it's a terrible scene ("You had the ear of the enemy... tell us what you know!" "Kiss my ass, Gandolf!" repeat 6x) and Lee isn't very good in it.

JohnH said...

and Lee isn't very good in it.

I completely agree; I actually winced a bit when I first saw that scene and thought "I can see why this was cut..." If I'm remembering correctly from the DVD special features it was shot very late in the production, and more or less put in there to quiet Lee down. I've never read the novels so I don't know if his character's death is true to the source, but it always felt artificial (even the visual effects seem a bit rushed).

Kyle Leaman said...

Oh man, Lee's scene is one of my favorite additions in all the EE. It's essentially superflous (granted), but I love that it truly sets up and recognizes the battles and inner struggles that each member of the fellowship still had to deal with, including Gandalf (...Gandalf doesn't hesitate to sacrifice those closest to him). It's not perfect, but I just love how it sets the whole film up so well, letting us know this isn't another entry, but the culmination of the archs for each character. That being said, I see everyone elses point.

p.s. My favorite EE bit has to be the Denethor and Sons moment in TT:EE, "Remember this day little brother". Okay Mr. Bean, I will remember it

Barrett said...

"I've never read the novels so I don't know if his character's death is true to the source, but it always felt artificial"

It is so far from the source it is one of my least favorite scenes in all the movies. It's basically why it feels artificial, because it is shoehorned in. If Jackson had the Scouring of the Shire (a major piece of the story that I was disappointed was removed) then his real end might have made it.

Barrett said...

"I've never read the novels so I don't know if his character's death is true to the source, but it always felt artificial"

It is so far from the source it is one of my least favorite scenes in all the movies. It's basically why it feels artificial, because it is shoehorned in. If Jackson had the Scouring of the Shire (a major piece of the story that I was disappointed was removed) then his real end might have made it.

JohnH said...

and Lee isn't very good in it.

I completely agree; I actually winced a bit when I first saw that scene and thought "I can see why this was cut..." If I'm remembering correctly from the DVD special features it was shot very late in the production, and more or less put in there to quiet Lee down. I've never read the novels so I don't know if his character's death is true to the source, but it always felt artificial (even the visual effects seem a bit rushed).

medic794 said...

You sir are respectfully blind to the bone.

Have you no respect for the theatrical version of these films? Did you see the film in theaters or illegally watch the CAM on your 13" CRT monitor? Are you comparing these to your 480p DVD collection?

These are the worst transfers by Jackson & Warners, trying to squeeze the fans as much as possible.

You talk about CGI? Look at this: http://pic.phyrefile.com/k/ko/koenig1977/2010/03/22/00005.m2ts_snapshot_01.33.27_2010.03.22_20.10.38.png

This blog has lost my upmost respect.

lee66132000 said...

I still love "Fellowship of the Ring" after a decade. I liked "The Two Towers" (at least the first half). And I still have problems with "Return of the King", for which I have mixed feelings.

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