Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy 4K Ultra HD Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced today that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, from Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson, is now available for the first time on 4K UHD. From New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, the first epic trilogy that includes the theatrical and extended versions of the three films in 4K UHD with HDR. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy includes The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This set also includes Digital copies of both versions of each film.
The greatest and most ambitious series of fantasy movies has finally come to 4K! 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.

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. 

The Lord of the Ring Trilogy (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King)

Films (5 out of 5 stars)
Much like Star Wars, The 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 would follow much later). 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. 

After the critical and commercial success of The Fellowship of the Ring, expectations were higher for The Two Towers. For Peter Jackson and crew, The Two Towers was the hardest movie to make out of the three because when their script was changed from two movies (as originally intended) to three, some major changes were made. The beginning of the film was actually supposed to be the conclusion of The Fellowship of the Ring and they changed to ending so that the Battle at Helm’s Deep would be the climax. Because of this swapping of scenes between the movies, the films started to diverge from the book’s time-line more than they had before. As parts of The Fellowship of the Ring were incorporated into The Two Towers, that also meant that some scenes from The Two Towers would later be moved over to Return of the King including the whole sequence with Shelob the spider.

In The Two Towers, some new characters are introduced including Baromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham), King Theodan (Bernard Hill), Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Eomer (Karl Urban), Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), and most importantly, Gollum (Andy Serkis), who had made a brief appearance in the first movie. The decision to capture Andy Serkis’s physicality and facial expressions led Jackson to abandon two years of already completed CGI work on the character which is why Gollum looks different in The Fellowship of the Ring than he does in the rest of the series. That decision forced WETA digital to redo every scene that involved Gollum leaving them only 2 1/2 months to complete all of it which is amazing considering the artistry of the final result. Gollum set the standard for CGI characters and even almost eight years later is a technological and creative triumph. The fact that Andy Serkis was deemed ineligible for an Academy Award due to an outdated rule is one of the many travesties by the Academy.

With the Fellowship now broken, the scope of the series expands into a larger world-view as we see the conflict enveloping the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor. The scale of the movies skyrocketed as the last two movies required more time to build the sets and to film the huge battle scenes. For example, it took over three months to film the Battle at Helm’s Deep alone and the stronghold had to be built in a rock quarry because of the size of set which took seven months to build. The Rohirrim city of Edoras took six months to build on top of Mount Sunday and was so remote that a road had to be built to access it. The effort that the production crew put in to make the world as realistic and amazing as it was should be commended. They did such a good job building the sets, that the main door of Helm’s Deep was so strong that the stuntmen playing the Uruk-hai attempting to batter the door down were unable to do so until the door was weakened! We also get to see the ruined city of Osgiliath which was made to look like a bombed out London due to the constant attacks on it from the forces of Mordor.

As hard as the crew worked on making these movies the best they could be, the cast worked just as hard and in some cases made even more sacrifices. Viggo Mortensen broke two toes accidentally while kicking an orc helmet and later had a tooth knocked out during the filming of the Helm’s Deep battle. Orlando Bloom broke a rib after falling from a horse and Bernard Hill had his ear slashed as well. The cast was so dedicated that during those overhead wide angle shots of them running after the missing hobbits, that’s actually Viggo and Orlando running with broken bones and Gimli’s stuntman who had injured his leg! Even Andy Serkis suffered when he went into a river than had to be unfrozen before filming just to get the scene of Gollum chasing a fish right. The Two Towers was an even bigger hit than the first movie with audiences and critics alike. It made over $925 million world-wide and has a 100% fresh rating by professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It brilliantly set the stage for the final installment of Return of the King and the Battle at Helm’s Deep is one of the best battle scenes ever filmed.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

At last, we sadly come to the end. Third acts in movie franchises have historically been weaker than the movies that preceded them. There are rare exceptions to that but if you think about movies like The Godfather Part III or even Return of the Jedi (which I love), they just aren’t as good as the movies before them. The Return of the King is just as good as the previous two and in some ways even better.

With expectations at a fever pitch for the resolution of the trilogy, Peter Jackson had his work cut out for him. He needed to resolve the plot threads that had been carried over from The Two Towers, including the fate of Saruman and the sequence with Shelob. Despite the multitude of plot threads and the scale of the movie, for Jackson this was the easiest movie to make out of the three because it had a set climax which didn’t need to be worked out like it had for the previous entries. There wasn’t another movie following this one to push story-lines to so it all needed to be wrapped up in this one (although there were some scenes carried over to the Extended Editions).

We finally get to see Baromir’s white city of Minas Tirith in detail and his father Denethor (John Noble) who is the Regent of the City charged with its defense in place of Aragorn (who had previously chosen exile over the throne because of his fear of failure). Minas Tirith is a beautiful set that in actuality was built in the same quarry as Helm’s Deep and even incorporated that stronghold as part of the city. The gate at Helm’s Deep was used as Minas Tirith’s second gate and the exterior battlements were re-used for the Extended Edition scene where Gandalf confronts the Witch-King.

In a similar fashion, the Caverns of Isengard were re-purposed as Shelob’s lair with some modifications. Other new additions to the series include the Dead Men of Dunharrow who were cursed by Aragorn’s ancestor Isildor and the evil Haradrim who ride war-like elephants known as mûmakil. A new super orc named Gothmog was also added to lead the attack on Osgiliath and Minas Tirith after Jackson decided that something new was needed after the first two film’s threat of the fearsome Uruk-hai.

This movie diverged from the book more than it’s predecessors especially during the Battle at Pelennor Fields where events play out quite differently. In fact, one of the biggest changes was whether or not the physical manifestation of Sauron would fight Aragorn which was actually filmed. Jackson later decided against that and Sauron was replaced in that footage with a Cave Troll instead. A lot of scenes that were filmed but removed from the theatrical edition were later inserted into the Extended Edition which helped clarify the resolution of a lot of characters.

The Return of the King was a blockbuster in every sense of the word. It also has the distinction of having the highest perfect win ratio at the Academy Awards, with its eleven wins out of eleven nominations. Those wins also mean that the Lord of the Rings franchise has won every category it was nominated for except one (Best Supporting Actor). It’s also the second time in history (after Godfather Part III) that the third movie in a trilogy was nominated for Best Picture, by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and the only time that a third movie in a series has won the Best Picture Oscar. It’s also been honored by a 98% fresh rating from professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s quite a finish for a franchise and Jackson and the cast and crew have pulled off one of the most audacious gambles in film history and had it turn out better than anyone could have ever dreamed.
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
These new 4K transfers of the trilogy offer sharp and distinct colors compared to the previous releases. Flesh tones are also improved for this movie and the pores of the actors can actually be seen. The contrast and detail are substantially improved and this transfer does a fantastic job showcasing that. Once again, the blacks are deep and well defined especially in scenes with the Army of Dead and Mt. Doom. This new 4K release has definitely given The Lord of the Rings Trilogy an edge over it’s predecessors as far as picture quality goes.
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
Much like the video quality, the Dolby Atmos mixes are incredible. I really can’t do justice to how good it is in words. From the sounds of the battle in Balin's Tomb to the assault on Helm's Deep and the Battle on Palennor Fields with the catapults, trebuchets, men, orcs, war elephants, and cave trolls are all around you in this immersive mix. The Rohirrim army descending down into battle sent chills down my spine. Not to mention the Army of the Dead or the eruptions of Mt. Doom. Howard Shore’s wonderful soundtracks are well served here and it is balanced perfectly with the the rest of the sound design. I plan to really crank the volume up on the final battle as soon as I have the house to myself! I think you all should buy this set just for the sound quality! A demo disc if I ever heard one!
Extras (0 out of 5 stars)
In a shocking movie, there are no extras included on this set despite the fact that the previous releases set the gold standard for bonus features. Apparently Warners figures we already have the extras so they didn't bother including it here. It's been announced that there will be a collector's edition next summer that will have all of the movies and one new extra. So don't get rid of your previous sets if you want to revisit the extras again.
Summary (4 out of 5 stars)
Writing these reviews has been difficult because I didn’t want to spoil anything major in the movies for the people that haven’t seen them yet, but at the same time I really wanted to discuss the details of what made this trilogy so incredible. Hopefully I’ve achieved the right balance between the two. There are many reasons why I love this trilogy but one of them is the attention to detail and the little character touches like Aragorn wearing Baromir’s wrist guards to honor him. Knowing Aragorn’s resistance to lead his people, the simple fact of him doing that and later wearing the full armor of his people makes me happy. I also loved the progression of the characters' relationships and it adds quite a bit emotional depth to the end of the movie. Whether it’s Legolas and Gimli’s goodbyes to each other in the face of certain defeat, or Sam carrying Frodo up the volcano after Frodo cannot go any further, or Gandalf trying to ease Pippen’s fears about dying, all of them were performed masterfully by the cast and made even more touching by the history we’ve had with the characters through the three movies. The audio/video quality for the series is reference quality and the audio in particular is reason enough for you to buy this box set. The only disappointment is the lack of any extras which brought down the overall score. On the small chance that one of the cast or crew actually reads this manifesto, I would like thank you for these movies and for all of the hard work you all put into them. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not only epic, but it’s also the best fantasy movies every made and in my opinion much better than the books they are based on. I look forward to your emails and comments Tolkien fans.

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