Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring: Theatrical Edition Blu-ray Review

The greatest and most ambitious series of fantasy movies has finally come to Blu-ray!  The Lord of the Rings trilogy represents one of the biggest gambles in modern film history as all three films were filmed at once with a director who was better known for small horror movies, not to mention the fact that fantasy films generally aren’t successful at the box office.

The fact that New Line Cinema bankrolled this massive undertaking despite the odds makes me glad that it all paid off with huge box office grosses and awards.  The path to success was a long time in coming as these movies had many obstacles before they hit the big-screen.  The trilogy was originally envisioned as two movies by Peter Jackson, but when he talked to Miramax, they wanted it to be one movie so Jackson took the movie to New Line Cinema.  New Line, facing enormous costs to fund these movies, requested that the two movies be expanded to three so Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, went back to work to split the story into three parts.

Casting was also tricky since not only did the actors have to be right for the roles but they also had to commit a large amount of their time as the trilogy was to be filmed all at once. Sean Connery, Patrick Stewart, Lucy Lawless, Anthony Hopkins, Tilda Swinten, and Kate Winslet were approached to be in the movie, but it didn’t work out because of confusion over the story,  schedules, or they simply weren’t interested or had played similar roles.  I can’t imagine anyone else playing Gandalf except Ian McKellan, but it is interesting to imagine the role if it was played by Sean Connery or Patrick Stewart.

Probably the best known story about casting the trilogy is the story of Stuart Townsend who was the actor who was originally cast to play Aragorn.  After four days of filming, he was let go because he wasn’t old enough to have the world weariness that the role required.  Viggo Mortensen was hired to play the role and joined the production that was already filming when he arrived.  He wasn’t familiar with the books but his son was and pushed for him to accept the role, so Mortensen read the book on plane trip to New Zealand.  On his first day of shooting, he had never used a sword and his first scene was him defending the hobbits from the Ring-wraiths on Weathertop.  Later, once he had received some sword training, famed sword-master Bob Anderson who had trained many actors in the past including Errol Flynn, said that Mortensen was “the best swordsman I’ve ever trained.”
Elijah Wood was cast as Frodo after sending in a homemade video of him in the forest reading lines from the book.  Newcomer Orlando Bloom got the role of Legolas two days before graduating from his drama school.  Ian Holm was always Jackson’s first choice to play Bilbo Baggins and who coincidentally had played Frodo years before for a BBC radio program of the book.  Christopher Lee is the only member of the production who had actually met with J.R.R. Tolkein and had received the author’s permission to play Gandalf if a production ever occurred.  Although, he didn’t get the role of Gandalf, he was offered the role of Saruman which he gladly accepted since he loves the books so much that he has read them once a year since they were published decades ago.
The Fellowship of the Ring went on to gross almost $871 million worldwide and netted 13 Academy Award nominations and won 4 of them including Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Music, and Best Makeup.  The movie is currently ranked the 20th most successful movie of all time worldwide.  This success of this movie among a wide range of demographics surprised many and even know it has a freshness rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes.  The movie’s popularity helped launch its two sequels and made them highly anticipated the following years.

Film (5 out of 5 stars)

Much like Star WarsThe Lord of the Rings movies jump right into the middle of the story of Middle-Earth by starting with the Fellowship of the Ring and not the Hobbit (which is now in pre-production).  However, instead of an opening scrawl telling us what’s going on, instead we get a well done prologue that shows the history of events that led up to the current crisis.  We learn that a supremely powerful being named Sauron created Rings of Power and divided them up between the leaders of Men, Dwarves, and the Elves.  They accepted the rings to increase their personal power willingly and soon learn to regret it as we also learn that Sauron is as evil as his is powerful, and that he created a Ring of Power that has the ability to control the other rings and turn their wearers to Sauron’s bidding.
In fact, the leaders of Men have fallen under the One Ring’s influence and have become Ring-wraiths, neither living nor dead, but servants of Sauron and his Ring of Power.  Talk about buyer’s remorse!  The situation had grown so dire that all of the races of free men stood up against Sauron at the foot of Mt. Doom where the One Ring was created.  They succeed  in defeating Sauron because he never learned to keep his hands to himself and once he lost the Ring of Power his body dematerializes.  We skip ahead decades and the people of Middle-Earth are living the good life and not really paying attention to the warning signs that Sauron may not be gone for good. Everyone except the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) who notices the little things like orange burning light off in the distance and lightning and thunder coming from the direction of Mordor. As long as the Ring of Power exists, Sauron can never be fully defeated so a Fellowship of Nine is created with the sole task of taking the Ring of Power to Mordor and destroy it.
As this is the first movie out of three, their journey is long and dangerous and isn’t resolved fully until the third movie Return of the King.  This movie is my favorite of the three because of the masterful way the characters are introduced and the way they evolve over the course of the movie and by extension the entire trilogy.  It’s the little touches that make the characters work, like the way Gandalf enjoys entertaining children with fireworks.  It successfully humanizes  a being of immense power who has lived far beyond a normal human lifetime.  Aragorn battles self-doubt because of his bloodline and their failure to resist the Ring of Power despite his heroic actions. Legolas and Gimli have to overcome their racial distrust of other races, and the Hobbits have to face a far more dangerous world than the one they are used to.
Boromir perhaps has the greatest arc of all as from the outset he wants to use the Ring of Power to fight Sauron as his city of Gondor has been fighting the minions of Mordor for a long time and they are getting desperate.  Baromir’s father Denethor is the Regent of the City in the absence of the leadership of Aragorn who has forsworn his responsibilities out of fear of failure.  So not only is Baromir denied the opportunity to use the Ring the way he wants, but he also has to travel with the man who has abandoned the city he is defending and left his people in the lurch.  To make matters even worse, the Ring of Power starts to work it’s influence on Baromir, playing on his fears in an attempt to make him steal the ring from Frodo.  For me, the final resolution of Baromir’s struggles both spiritual, mental,  and physical are what elevates this movie from fantastic to epic. It is both inspiring and heartbreaking and Sean Bean knocked it out of the park especially his final scene with Viggo Mortensen where both characters help each other find the clarity, peace, and sense of purpose that they had been missing.    I still don’t know why Viggo Mortensen or Sean Bean weren’t nominated for an Academy Award for their performances, but I am glad that Ian McKellan snagged a nomination for Gandalf even if he didn’t win.
This is the rare franchise that works on every level.  It’s obvious that the cast, crew, writers, special effects crew, stunt people, and production crew gave everything they had to these movies.  Peter Jackson deserves all the praise coming to him for pulling these movies off.  In addition, Howard Shore created a legendary score that is one of the finest released.  As good as the other two movies are (and they are damn good), this movie is what made them work as well as they do.  The character building and the relationships that are formed by this movie make up the foundation that makes the ending so satisfying and touching.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy completed my holy trinity of movie franchises along with the Star Wars saga and the Indiana Jones series.  I can’t imagine any fantasy films being done any better than this and it’s a trilogy that I can watch over and over again.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

The 1080p/VC-1 transfer looks a lot better than its DVD counterpart, but I had higher expectations for it after waiting all of this time for the high def release of this trilogy.  Don’t worry, the following movies look a lot better than this but this first one is a mixed bag to review.  Some shots are perfect and others especially nighttime shots, are murky and soft.  I wonder if the varying degrees of quality reflect a variety of shooting techniques and post-production choices as there doesn’t seem to be any other explanation.  There is some grain present and minor edge enhancement seen, but nothing that is glaringly bad.  I’m probably giving this a slightly higher rating than I should, but I am so happy to see this in high def that I am feeling generous.  Plus as you will see in my next two reviews, the quality does significantly improve.

Audio (5 out of 5 stars)

This is where the disc shines.  You can hear and feel every line, blow, and whisper in this movie. Every channel is used perfectly and the DTS-HD Master 6.1 Audio surround field is incredible. Whether it’s the fight in Balin’s Tomb or with the Balrog, this is home demo quality.  This is the best this movie has ever sounded and Howard Shore’s music is balanced perfectly with the sound design.  Dialogue is crystal clear and the sound field as a whole is incredibly immersive.  You should buy the Blu-ray editions just for the sound alone.

Special Features  (2 out of 5 stars)

Maybe I’m spoiled by the past Extended Editions of this series, but these extras are basically EPK fluff.  While I commend the studio for their efforts to include material that wasn’t on the original DVD release of the theatrical editions, I was hoping for more but got what I expected.  Just like the last round, I will bide my time waiting for the Extended Editions with the theatrical editions.  I can guarantee you that when those come out, they will earn the name Special Features.  Sadly, this set doesn’t but it does have some nuggets of tastiness to it.  Everything but the trailers is in Standard Definition.
  • Welcome to Middle-Earth: Houghton Mifflin In-Store Special – A brief look back with interviews with the cast and crew.
  • Quest for the Ring: Fox TV Special – A FOX special dedicated to help people understand the events in the movie for those that hadn’t seen it or were confused.
  • A Passage to Middle-Earth: Sci-Fi Channel Special – A better special as it goes into more detail on a variety of areas but it is still feels lacking.
  • Featurettes – These 3-5 minute clips that were shown on the are interesting but like the rest of the special features on this disc, it just whets your appetite for more.
  • TV Spots – Six tv spots for the film.
  • Music Video – A music video for Enya’s May it be.
  • Special Extended DVD Edition Preview – A preview for the DVD(!) extended edition. I guess just to get people excited for the upcoming Blu-ray extended editions.  They really should have created a new preview for the Blu-rays.
  • Behind the Scenes Preview of ‘The Two Towers’ – Another recycled preview to a movie that came out eight years ago.  I guess this is good for the people that haven’t seen the movies yet and to get them excited about the Two Towers.
  • Theatrical Trailers – Three excellent trailers for each of the movies.
  • Trilogy “Super Trailer” – A six and half minute long trailer for all three movies. Highly enjoyable!
  • Game Trailers – Trailers for two games based on the movies, Aragorn’s Quest and War in the North.

Final Thoughts (5 out of 5 stars)

I cannot recommend this movie enough.  While I prefer the Extended Editions of each of the movies, the theatrical editions are also excellent and I know a lot of people prefer them due to their shortened length.  Although the video quality could be better, the audio on this disc is exemplary although the special features are somewhat disappointing.  If you can wait until Fall of 2011 to pick up the Extended Editions, then I recommend that but if you can’t wait then you shouldn’t feel bad about picking up this theatrical box set.  It is still the best of all of the releases so far and maybe New Line Cinema will give us a break on the Extended Editions like they did the last go around.  Besides, as you will see in my next reviews, the quality of the discs gets better as the series continues!  So get yours today!

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