A couple of years ago, director Peter Jackson certainly found himself with a vast landscape of work ahead of him. The New Zeland-based director, long a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's work, decided to take on the "Lord of the Rings" in three epic-length pictures, which would all be filmed back-to-back. New Line, a studio known for taking risks in the past would be taking their biggest one here, as all three films would cost north of 300 million dollars combined. Jackson, whose films have been cult favorites, had never previously proven himself capable of handling such an enormous budget. Still, early trailers forshadowed the kind of work that the director was able to accomplish and, when released, the picture seemed to largely satisfy most of the legions of die-hard fans as well as the studio (the picture was nominated for 13 Academy Awards).
The film begins fairly quietly and with little rush. We are introduced to Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). At Bilbo's birthday party, we are also introduced to Gandalf (Ian McKellan), a wizard and one of the more important characters in the story. After the party, Bilbo exits and leaves Frodo, among other things, a magical ring. The only problem: it's the legendary Ring, forged by the dark lord Sauron. If the Ring is returned to Sauron, the world of Middle Earth will fall into darkness and war. The journey to destroy the ring will not be an easy one: Sauron's legions are already racing towards Frodo when the ring falls into his grasp.
Thankfully for Frodo, he's not alone in his quest: Gandalf, hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd), humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) come together to guide him across countryside and caves, including one incredible stretch through the mines of Moria that is certainly, in my opinion, the film's most engaging and tense sequence.
I find a lot to discuss about what I enjoyed in "Fellowship of the Ring" and what I did not. For starters, after a marvelous prologue, the Birthday party sequence starts to become overlong and does not provide enough of the kind of character detail important before the characters begin their journey. In fact, I felt similarly about some of the rest stops along the way: Jackson's intense action sequences are so delightful and dizzying that the slower moments left me anticipating the next battle a bit too heavily. The film's structure of action/rest, action/rest also starts to make the pace, in my opinion, a bit too stop/start. Oddly enough, I felt this was actually less of a problem the second time around, as the movie seemed to flow more smoothly for me during the second viewing.
The performances are generally quite excellent. Wood is about as good as could be expected playing the character, but McKellen's Gandalf consistently manages to be a scene-stealer in a dynamic performance that's capable of both a sly laugh and immense power. Liv Tyler, whose role as Arwen came under much debate, also manages to make a solid impression in a small role. Also providing solid support are Cate Blanchett, Mortensen, Rhys-Davies, and Bloom.
Technically, the film is stunning. Whatever money was saved from shooting in New Zealand has obviously gone back into the production in some other aspect. In addition, New Zealand was an absolutely marvelous choice for locations, providing an almost impossibly gorgeous countryside. As for special effects, I appreciated the fact that the film does not heavily use CGI, only putting visual effects to use when necessary (mainly during the action sequences) and doing so well. This is certainly pleasing after watching the latest "Star Wars" films; while basically entertaining, those films have started to diminish their dramatic impact at times due to overuse of CGI and not relying on actors enough.
Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who previously worked on both "Babe" films, captures the scope of the universe that has been created wonderfully. His work here earned him an Oscar and he will also be the cinematographer on both sequels. Equally outstanding is Howard Shore's often-brilliant score, offering the kind of strength, emotion and majesty that is needed in a film like this one. Also certainly of note are several other top-notch aspects: impressive and highly detailed production design, excellent set decoration, good make-up and solid costume work. David Farmer, whose previous credits include "Armageddon" and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within", has also crafted breathtaking sound design, essential in a film like this one. Last, but not least, the editing is also excellent, especially during the action scenes.
Again, Jackson hits the film's finest notes within the mine sequence. Not only does it contain a thrilling battle sequence, but even during its quieter, early moments, the sequence contains such wonderfully creepy atmosphere that the viewer really does feel as if creatures are awaiting in the shadows. I enjoyed Jackson's film, moreso the second time around. While I still do not feel it's without some concerns (I still feel the picture could have been tightened from its nearly 3-hour length), it's a good start to what promises to be an amazing trilogy.
VIDEO: New Line presents "Lord of the Rings" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. The studio has not taken the approach that Disney did with the three-hour "Pearl Harbor". Instead of spreading the film across the two available discs, "Lord of the Rings" has been fit onto one disc, while the supplements get the second disc to themselves. Still, New Line has managed (no surprise, really, given the studio's track record) to fit the three-hour epic on one disc and still have it look nearly flawless. Sharpness and detail are marvelous, as the film not only boasts a terrifically well-defined appearance, but wonderful fine detail - hairs and other such details are clearly visible. The picture often also offers solid depth and a smooth, clean appearance.
Yet, the picture falls just shy of perfection. Edge enhancement, noticable - if slight and only briefly visible - was occasionally spotted. Other than that, there really weren't any concerns; the print looked crisp and clean, with no marks, specks or scratches, and no pixelation or other faults were seen.
Colors were reproduced beautifully, appearing completely natural and with no smearing. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. Some brief, slight edge enhancement does not detract from what is otherwise an absolutely outstanding transfer.
SOUND: "Lord of the Rings" is presented by New Line in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX. As previously noted, sound designer David Farmer has skillfully created an engaging and enjoyable soundscape for the stunningly crafted visuals. Given the fact that there are some dialogue-heavy patches, there isn't always action, but the soundtrack manages to provide fine details even in some of the more subdued sequences. I appreciated the soundtrack's slight ambience and touches applied to dialogue. As the party started their decent into the mines of Moria, there was a nice, slight echo that added to the convincing feeling of being in the depths of Middle Earth.
When the battles do begin, the surrounds go into overdrive. Swords clanking, horses clomping, wind and other sound effects are clearly heard from the rear speakers. Even some dialogue is directed to the surrounds. Shore's score also benefits wonderfully from the surround use, often filling up the room beautifully, managing to share space with all of the other details on the soundtrack.
Audio quality was consistently excellent. Shore's score remained crisp, bold and rich, while sound effects came through crisp and clear. Dialogue sounded natural, too. Deep, tight bass was both heard and felt during many of the action scenes, as well. The sound quality is equally as fantastic as the image quality.
MENUS: There are animated main menus included for both discs of the set. While these menus are not stunning, they are attractively designed and, like all New Line menus, easily navigated.
EXTRAS: There will be another edition of "Lord of the Rings" to be released on November 12th (cover at left). That 4-disc edition, which will include an extended cut of the picture, will also offer multiple
commentary tracks in addition to many new documentaries/featurettes. Additionally, there will be a "Gift Set" version of November's "Extended Platinum Edition" that offers figurines, collectable packaging and an additional National Geographic special on "The Lord of the Rings" in addition to the 4-disc set material. Still, while that 4-disc set is likely the one everyone's waiting for, this 2-disc set still offers a fair amount of extras to tide over those awaiting this Winter's Extended Special Edition set.
A Passage To Middle Earth: This is a 41-minute documentary originally produced for air on the Sci-Fi channel. Thankfully, it's a little less promotional than the other two documentaries. While it does spend some time on telling the story and introducing characters, it also provides an enjoyable amount of behind-the-scenes footage and some interesting interviews with cast and crew about working on the film. My best suggestion would be fast forwarding a bit past the begining. Starting at about 10 minutes in, the documentary starts to go into greater detail, informing about such topics as creation of the weapons, production design, make-up and more. Director Peter Jackson and many members of the cast and crew are interviewed.
Quest for the Ring: This 22-minute program was originally aired on Fox. This is the least interesting of the featurettes. Most of it is heavily promotional, complete with overdramatic narration. There are some little informative pieces, but there are also some chunks of it that were shown in the other documentaries, as well.
Middle Earth: Houghton Mifflin In-Store Special: This featurette starts off with a fairly interesting interview with the son of the publisher who first published the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. After that short segment, the featurette turns into a fairly traditional "making of".
Lordoftherings.net Featurettes: This section includes 15 short (a couple minutes each) featurettes that were originally offered on the website. They cover different areas of the production: "Finding Hobbiton", "Hibbiton Comes Alive", "Believing the World of Bree", "Ringwreaths: The Fallen Kings", "Rivendell: The Elven Refuge", "Languages of Middle Earth", "Two Wizards", "Music of Middle Earth", "Elijah Wood", "Viggo Mortgensen", "Orlando Bloom", "Cate Blanchett", "Liv Tyler", "Ian McKellen" and "Weathertop: The Windy Hill".
Preview of November's New Special Edition: This is more of a featurette than an "ad". Director Peter Jackson, composer Howard Shore, actor Elijah Wood and others discuss what viewers will find on November's 4-DVD edition of the picture. There are also some very brief looks at some of the features. The preview is 3 minutes in length.
Preview of "The Two Towers": This is a 10-minute preview of the second film in the trilogy, which is to be released this December. Probably one of the most anticipates features of this release, this documentary offers interviews with director Jackson and some members of the film's cast and crew. Although much of this piece revolves around on-set footage, there are some brief looks at clips from the film. The viewer is also introduced to some of the new characters that will appear in the sequel.
Trailers: The film's two teaser trailers and theatrical trailer are presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio.
TV Ads: 6 TV ads.
Also: Enya "May It Be" music video, "Two Towers" video game preview.
Final Thoughts: The film played better for me on the second viewing; it seemed smoother, faster and even more dramatic. Watching it again also gave me another chance to admire the kind of craft involved with the creation of the film's amazing visuals. Although New Line has a considerably bigger DVD set in the works, they have thankfully let consumers know in advance. This 2-disc release is certainly enough to satisfy fans for the moment, as it offers outstanding audio/video quality and a decent set of supplements. A definite recommendation.
The Film *** 1/2