Monday, June 27, 2011

Blu-ray Pick: The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy

Posted By on Mon, Jun 27, 2011 at 2:30 PM


By Matt Brunson








DIRECTED BY Peter Jackson

STARS Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen

The Beatles over Elvis, Coke over Pepsi, coffee over tea, and Star Wars (original trilogy) over The Lord of the Rings — those are my long held preferences and I'm sticking with them. Still, regarding that last face-off, I must admit that George Lucas has his work cut out for him when he releases the Star Wars saga on Blu-ray this September, given the fact that LOTR has largely defined the glories of the DVD experience and now promises to do likewise on Blu-ray.


Between a mountain of critical raves, a $314 million box office haul, and 13 Oscar nominations (resulting in four wins), the colossal success of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring initially caught even ardent admirers of J.R.R. Tolkien's literary trilogy off guard. After having filmed all three parts of the trilogy in one fell swoop (an enormous risk on the part of New Line Cinemas), director Peter Jackson got things off to a roaring start with a fantasy flick that pleased both fans and novices alike. Even those who haven't read the books are doubtless familiar with the saga's basic thrust — noble Middle-earth denizens must destroy a powerful ring before it falls into the hands of an evil warlord — but to their credit, Jackson and his co-scripters kick things off with a helpful prologue that nicely sets up the story. From there, Jackson juggles a daunting array of conflicts and characters (Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf is the cast standout), and it's to his credit that the saga leaves viewers panting for more.


The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers doesn't quite match the majesty of its predecessor, though that's hardly meant as a knock against a rousing, far-reaching spectacle of unlimited ambition. But whereas Fellowship did a nice job of balancing quieter moments with the bombast, this action-packed installment often treats its expository scenes as asides (too many good actors — McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Miranda Otto — are given the short shrift in this outing); what's more, the movie doesn't deepen or expand the tale's themes as masterfully as The Empire Strikes Back added to Star Wars' mystique. But as a stirring story of unsullied heroism, it's a winner, and as an action epic, it features some of the best battle sequences of recent vintage. And while the campaign to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the CGI-created Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) proved to be a fizzle, he turns out to be the best special effect in a movie crammed with them. This was the Oscar weakling of the bunch, earning two awards out of six nominations, although no one at New Line was complaining about its sizable $341 million gross.


Pulling off a successful three-peat, Jackson wraps up Tolkien's fantasy saga with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a dazzling chapter that outgrossed its predecessors ($377 million domestically and over one billion internationally) and led to Oscar overkill when the myopic Academy handed it 11-out-of-11 awards (four or five would have been more reasonable). With the heftiest running time of all three films, this installment is long but not necessarily overlong -- even the battle sequences have been executed with more focus and clarity than those in Two Towers. The super-sized length also allows several members of the large cast to strut their stuff, and several new creatures, from an army of ghostly marauders to a gigantic spider in the best Harryhausen tradition, are staggering to behold. Ultimately, though, this final act belongs to the ring-bearer and his equally diminutive companions. The odyssey of the Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), his faithful companion Sam (Sean Astin) and the treacherous Gollum contains the true heart of the film, evoking all sorts of emotions as we watch each player constantly forced to make painful decisions and struggle with their own tortured psyches. This is a movie of expensive visual effects and expansive battle scenes, but when it comes to truly making its mark, we have to thank all the little people.


The sound and picture quality on the DVDs were so spectacular that (is this blasphemy?) I enjoyed the series even more at home than in the theater — on the big screen, this ambitious undertaking occasionally felt distant, but on disc it exudes more warmth, coming off as the best mini-series never made. On Blu-ray, the sights are even more astounding, and the sound is equally fantastic (better check the living room wall for fissures after cranking this baby).


As for the Blu-ray extra features, where to begin? In addition to the extended cuts of all three pictures (totaling just over 12 hours), this 15-disc set also includes over 26 hours of bonus material. Notable among the inclusions are the much-ballyhooed, behind-the-scenes documentaries created by Costa Botes, who was given complete set access by Jackson. Other extras include four separate audio commentaries on each film (over 30 participants, including Jackson and most of the principal cast members); 43 documentaries covering practically every aspect of production except for catering (and that might be buried in there somewhere); interactive maps of Middle-earth; and photo galleries containing over 5,000 images.

(For reviews of more Blu-ray and DVD releases, check out this week's View from the Couch column elsewhere on this site.)

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