Blu-ray Review: The Lord Of The Rings – The Fellowship Of The Ring: Extended Edition
Thursday, December 19th, 2013 at 1:00 pm
The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition Blu-ray Directed by Peter Jackson Written by Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh; based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, and Sean Astin New Line Home Video Release Date: August 28, 2012
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring accomplished a feat that few films have ever been able to do: it made a believer out of me. When the movie was first released in December 2001 it proved that epic fantasy features that were not set in a galaxy far, far away could still break box office records. I didn’t see the movie during its blockbuster theatrical run because….I really thought it was going to be terrible. There, I confess. It took me until Fellowship‘s first DVD release in August 2002 to realize that my harsh pre-judging of the movie, mostly based on the simmering anger I felt towards the past few years of bloated Hollywood FX spectacles that offered fantastic visuals but little in the way of memorable stories and characters, was in haste and a huge mistake.
I remember the sweltering summer evening when I rented a copy of Fellowship from my local now-defunct Hollywood Video on the way home from work. Knowing in advance that it was a three-hour flick my initial plan was to watch the first half at the least before hitting the sack so I could get up the next morning for an early shift at the Tower Records I had been working at back then for more than three years. Twenty minutes following the start of my first viewing of Fellowship of the Ring and I was hooked; there would be no “To Be Continued” that night. Even though I risked getting barely enough sleep to pass for a member of the living the next day I watched the movie until its very end, and by the time Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee walked off into the sunset to more adventures I was a full-fledged Rings fan.
In the enchanted land of Middle-Earth, a great evil that has laid dormant for more than a century has awoken. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), a once-adventurous hobbit, has long possessed a magical ring he took from the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) in his younger days. The ring extended his life span but in the process slowly consumed his loving soul. Bilbo’s friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), soon discovers that the ring is in fact the One Ring, created by the dark lord Sauron ages ago in the fiery pits of Mount Doom to give him absolute power over the free peoples of Middle-Earth.
Horrified at what he has become Bilbo leaves the Shire and Gandalf entrusts the ring to Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) with instructions to deliver it to the elfin city of Rivendell. Accompanying Frodo on his journey are his trusted friend and gardener Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), fellow hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), and Strider (Viggo Mortensen), a rootless human warrior with an elusive past.
Despite a series of attacks from Sauron’s screeching Ring wraiths – including one that nearly costs Frodo his life, the hobbits and Strider arrive at Rivendell safely with the help of the brave elf Arwen (Liv Tyler). Elf lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) calls a council meeting and it is decided that the only way the ring can be destroyed before Sauron reclaims it is to take it into the Dark Lord’s realm of Mordor and cast it into the hellish flames of Mount Doom from whence it came. But Sauron has a quite intimidating ally in his corner: Saruman (Christopher Lee), Gandalf’s friend and mentor and a very powerful wizard in his own right.
Frodo agrees to be the ring bearer for the quest and Sam, Merry, Pippin, the elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the ax-wielding dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), human warrior Boromir (Sean Bean), and Strider – who has now been revealed to be Aragorn, the last descendant of the king of Gondor and the one with the power to unite all the races of Middle-Earth in peace – all step forward to accompany him. Elrond proclaims them “the Fellowship of the Ring” and they set out on a great journey that will be fraught with adventure, tragedy, and magnificent spectacle. But the best is yet is come, because after all, this is the first of a trilogy.
Fellowship, like the other two films in the Rings trilogy, surpasses most modern fantasy adventure epics through the sheer strength of its virtues. It has impeccable storytelling craft, outstanding ensemble performances, astounding practical and digital effects work that impresses to this day, and timeless themes of friendship, good prevailing over the darkest forces of evil, and the innate heroic qualities that we all possess. It kicked off possibly the greatest trilogy of fantasy blockbusters in the history of cinema in rousing, quietly affecting fashion. In every frame you can feel not just the pure love writer/director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens have for the source material, but their infectious joy at seeing it all brought to brilliant, beautiful life on the big screen.
The cinematic world of Middle-Earth – mostly realized on impressively created soundstages designed by Grant Major, who performed the same duties on the second and third films in the Rings trilogy as well as Jackson’s earlier films Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, but also augmented by some amazing New Zealand scenery – is one of the most immersive and imaginative ever conceived for a motion picture. From the moment the story begins (a lengthy expository prologue notwithstanding) the audience feels wholly like a participant in the action and not just mere spectators.
Adapting the three classic novels by J.R.R. Tolkien (direct sequels to his beloved 1937 book The Hobbit – which served as the basis for the current trilogy directed by Jackson, the second installment of which was just released) proved to be a heroic task for the filmmaker and his screenwriting cohorts; in order to whittle each of the books down into coherent, filmable scripts many characters and subplots were hardly even considered for the feature film treatment, and a lot of what and who stayed in was substantially altered. This is not exactly an uncommon practice when it comes to adapting that which was once thought of as unworkable.
Strict narrative fidelity was never going to happen, and the process of cutting out those memorable characters and incidents held in such high regard by fans of the novels was no doubt difficult to achieve for Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens – both creatively and, in a way, emotionally. These are three of the biggest Rings fans one could ever hoped to encounter. Only those who knew the material inside and out could do it proper justice as a work of cinema because they knew what worked and what didn’t. It was a Herculean undertaking and they pulled it off with a genuine flair for the exciting, the romantic, and the endearingly whimsical.
Of course Jackson and company would need the perfect cast to bring their adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to fruition. It goes without saying that they eschewed traditional choices and went with actors who may have not been the living embodiment of Tolkien’s grand creations in the eyes of the devoted Rings followers, but made the iconic characters their own as filming progressed. As the trilogy’s small-bodied, big-hearted heroes Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are unexpectedly amazing. Although Fellowship only permits us a glance at the darker territory the two Hobbits will venture into in future movies, Wood invests enough good humor and a sense of wonder in Frodo that anyone would follow his exploits regardless of where they lead. Astin makes Sam more than a comical sidekick by the end of the first movie due to the fierce loyalty and honor he brings out of the bashful gardener. They make a great team with a friendship that feels authentic.
Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd acquit themselves admirably as their fellow Shire dwellers Merry and Pippin, providing the narrative with plenty of warm comic relief but clearly serving a larger dramatic purpose that expands as the journey into the heart of darkness proceeds. Representing the humans are Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Sean Bean as Boromir. Both actors bring their extensive dramatic acting backgrounds to the forefront with suitably intense portrayals of noble but haunted warriors who represent opposing ends over the debate regarding what should be done with the One Ring and carry heavy psychological burdens that pay off richly over the course of the trilogy.
The great John Rhys-Davies embodies the mighty dwarf Gimli with full bluster and bravery, and he is aided enormously by a great stunt double for the action set pieces. Orlando Bloom does decent work as the Elven archer Legolas, though the role hardly requires him to do anything but look pensive and shoot arrows. He rises to the challenge and silences the naysayers as does Liv Tyler, who gets little to do but be the conflicted love interest as the Elven princess Arwen but she imbues the character with a gentility and loving spirit.
Hugo Weaving’s elf lord Elrond is convincingly full of wisdom and credible authority. Then we come to our warring wizards: as Gandalf, Ian McKellen gives a first-rate performance that explodes with Shakespearean grandeur and an aching tenderness, while Christopher Lee matches him note-for-note while adding more than a few hints of menace. Ian Holm (as Bilbo) and Cate Blanchett (as the luminescent elf queen Galadriel) deliver standout turns in smaller but no less important parts.
Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) bathes each scene in warm colors of green, gold, and brown, and achieves a remarkable texture similar to the detail rich illustrations of a children’s book. The action scenes are not as overwhelming as they would be later in the trilogy, but they are astoundingly well-staged and photographed.
Howard Shore‘s soundtrack is as rousing and emotional as the film itself, mixing grandiose themes with less intrusive cues to create one of the finest motion picture music scores of the past five decades. Shore is one of the unsung heroes of the Rings production team, as is visual effects supervisor Richard Taylor and his talented team of craftsmen and artists at Weta Workshop, accomplishing cinematic wonders with models and miniatures that blend with the digital effects in a brilliantly seamless fashion that few films have yet to equal or surpass.
About the Extended Edition:
Originally released with a running time of nearly three hours including credits, thirty minutes of previously excised footage were restored to The Fellowship of the Ring for the first release of this Extended Edition on DVD in November 2002.
The extended edition has been remastered in 1080p high-definition and is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40:1, which is not the ratio the movie was filmed and exhibited in. No matter, the transfer looks simply stunning for the most part. The lush storybook quality of Lesnie’s cinematography is enriched by the video upgrade and the picture bursts at the seams with immaculately preserved detail and texture. Daytime scenes are much stronger visually than night scenes, the latter containing a greater deal more grain that is actually noticeable at times. This works well in the film’s favor as the CGI effects are better able to blend with the practical effects. English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are included.
Our only audio options are English and Portuguese 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Both tracks are spectacular and make ideal home theater demo discs, depending on your language preference. Creating the immersive soundscapes of the Rings trilogy was a heroic task that paid off beautifully when the sound department received multiple Oscar nominations and wins. The music, dialogue, and sound effects mixes never overwhelm each other and work in tandem to replicate the glorious experience of seeing the movie on the big screen.
The bulk of the extra features are split across the two Blu-ray discs that contain the main feature as well as three standard-definition DVDs and were all ported over from previous incarnations of the Fellowship Extended Edition. Each initial Extended Edition release of the Rings trilogy contained the same bonus materials, but when they were re-released in 2006 most of those great supplements were left out in favor of new feature-length, fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the production of the movies shot by New Zealand filmmaker Costa Botes, who had previously collaborated with Peter Jackson on the 1995 film Forgotten Silver. What is not presented here are the bonus materials from the theatrical cut DVD and Blu-ray releases, which are mostly promotional documentaries and theatrical trailers. Although their presence here would have made this a complete set the absence of those features is fortunately negligible.
When the Extended Edition of Fellowship debuted on DVD in November 2002 it raised the bar for the depth and creation of supplementary material for movies released in the format that at the time was still very young. Laserdiscs had led the way in the 1980s and VHS tapes attempted to keep the tradition of presenting films with the highest quality of A/V transfers and extra materials like documentaries, deleted scenes, and trailers. But space considerations often resulted in releases that were decent at best, subpar and incomplete at worst. Though DVD technology has been highly surpassed by Blu-rays in recent years its impact and influence on the way films both old and new were presented on home video forever changed the landscape and helped foster a new generation of film buffs who lacked the resources to attend film school or had the misfortune of living in towns and cities with no theaters geared towards revival showings.
On the first two discs the main feature is accompanied by four audio commentary from the majority of the principal cast and crew. The first brings together Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens – recorded at the same time most of the participants on the other tracks – for an enlightening, straightforward talk about the massive undertaking of adapting the Rings books into feature films and then bringing those scripts to the screen. It’s a very comfortable and conversational track with these three longtime collaborators enjoying the pleasures of each other’s company and discussing topics that hold a special place in their hearts.
The second features four members of the design team: production designer Grant Major, costume designer Richard Taylor, and conceptual artists John Howe and Alan Lee. The third unites members of the production and post-production crew including Lesnie, Shore, and several of the producers. The final commentary has ten members of the cast. Most of the commentators were recorded separately and there are many of them to found here, but fortunately there is a on-screen text that identifies each one when they are speaking as to avoid confusion. You’ll find a veritable wealth of stories and production insights from all involved. Breaking down each participant’s contribution to the commentaries is a tiring and thankless task. Rest assured, each track aids immeasurably to the viewing experience and will further enhance your appreciation of the movies and the great skill and devotion that went into making them.
The only other extras on the first two discs are a two-minute trailer for the Lord of the Rings: War in the North video game and a pair of hidden Easter Eggs held over from the first DVD release: a skit from the 2002 MTV Movie Awards that recreated the Council of Elrond scene with hosts Jack Black and Sarah Michelle Gellar arguing over whether or not Black should have used the One Ring to get a piercing…I can’t say where, and a four-minute preview for The Two Towers that was shown in theaters during a re-release of Fellowship in early 2002.
Jackson provides a brief introduction for the third disc of the set which is also the first containing the video and image-based supplements that make up the bulk of the added content, titled “The Appendices.” Disc 3, part 1 is titled “From Book to Vision” and covers the extensive pre-production phase of Fellowship. The features begin with “J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Middle-Earth” (22 minutes), the first of three documentaries devoted to the author from whose fierce and humanistic imagination the adventures of Frodo and his companions first sprang.
“From Book to Script” (20 minutes) covers the arduous process of adapting the books into coherent screenplay form. Under the heading “Visualizing the Story” are the featurette “Storyboards and Pre-Viz: Making Words into Images” (13 minutes). three animated storyboard sequences for scenes that didn’t make it to the filming stage – “The Prologue” (8 minutes), “Orc Pursuit Into Lothlorien” (2 minutes), and “Sarn Gebir Rapids Chase” (2 minutes), two “Pre-Viz Animatics” sequences – “Gandalf Rides to Orthanc” (1 minute) and “The Stairs of Khazard-Dum” (2 minutes), two “Animatic to Film Comparisons” which present multi-angle views of the “Nazgul Attack at Bree” and “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” sequences with the option of comparing the final film to early storyboard and pre-viz animations, and a seven minute video test for the Bag End set with Jackson playing Bilbo for technical reasons which I’m sure the director enjoyed.
Under “Designing and Building Middle-Earth” we have three documentaries – “Designing Middle-Earth” (41 minutes), “WETA Workshop” (43 minutes), and “Costume Design” (11 minutes) – and two design galleries – “The Peoples of Middle-Earth” and “The Realms of Middle-Earth” – that contain select images with commentaries from members of the design team. The “Middle-Earth Atlas” retraces the paths taken by Frodo and the other hobbits out of the Shire with the Ring and Gandalf’s to discover the true nature of the Ring with a map of Middle-Earth and select scenes from the film, while “New Zealand as Middle-Earth” features seven short videos devoted to the filming locations augmented with interviews and location scout footage.
The disc closes out with DVD credits.
Disc four and the second part of the Appendices, “From Vision to Reality,” kicks off with another brief intro, this time from Elijah Wood. From there we proceed to “Filming the Fellowship of the Ring,” a three-part, 98-minute documentary that covers the principal photography of the movie with tons of behind-the-scenes footage and candid cast and crew interviews. Under the heading “Visual Effects” we have the featurette “Scale” (16 minutes), the sub-menu “Miniatures” which takes us to the featurette “Big-atures” (16 minutes) and six image galleries – “Orthanc,” “Rivendell,” “Moria,” “Lothlorien,” “Hobbiton Factories,” and “The Argonath” with commentaries from members of the effects crew on certain images, and a documentary about WETA Digital’s effects work (25 minutes).
“Post-Production: Putting It All Together” includes the featurette “Editorial: Assembling an Epic” (13 minutes) and a multi-angle “Editorial Demonstration” for the Council of Elrond sequence. The disc closes out with the “Digital Grading” featurette (12 minutes), the “Sound and Music” sub-menu which takes you to two featurettes – “The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth” (13 minutes) and “Music for Middle-Earth” (12 minutes), and finally “The Road Goes Ever On…” (7 minutes) which covers the film’s premieres, reception, and final thoughts from the cast and crew.
The fifth and final disc in this set contains Botes’ 2006 documentary “The Fellowship of the Rings: Behind the Scenes” (85 minutes).
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring got one of the most exciting and visionary fantasy film trilogies of all time off to a roaring start and set the stage for the rapturous adventures to come. The Extended Edition is the definitive version of Peter Jackson’s epic and it looks and sounds fantastic on this Blu-ray, with enough supplementary material to throw away a few days of your life enjoying. Absolutely recommended.