Before the dawn of the new millennium, the The Lord of the Rings book series belonged to only the most hardcore of booklovers. Peter Jackson was most well known for the little seen 1994 drama "Heavenly Creatures" and New Zealand had no film economy to speak of. Obviously this all changed with the 2001 release of the first of the Lord of the Rings movies, The Fellowship of the Ring. A massive gamble for New Line cinema, with an unheard of back-to-back production with a virtually untested director and filming for over a year half way around the world, the pressure must have been intense for Peter Jackson, but he pulled it off magnificently. And good thing he did too, he would probably never have made another film again.
Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit (a dwarf like small humanoid), comes into possession of a small unassuming gold ring, which holds immense power for the bearer. Dark forces aware of its presence dearly want the ring to advance their grasp over the world of men and will stop at nothing to claim it. The ring itself also wants to be found. The only hope rests on Bilbo and the fellowship of good to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom, where it was originally cast. The film series spans a further two adventures, The Two Towers and Return of the King, which we shall look at over the next few weeks.
Fans of the book series and film at large were given a special treat when New Line Cinema committed to releasing all three movies as 'extended editions'. Despite their length, the theatrical cuts could never hope to contain many of the intricate subplots, set ups and pay offs which will be important later on in the series. With roughly 30 minutes added to its cut, The Fellowship of the Ring - Extended Edition can breathe a little easier, notably during earlier scenes in the Shire. Whilst the pace is still relatively cracking, it's certainly a little more relaxed than the theatrical cut.
Whilst many, if not most Lord of the Rings fans prefer these extended cuts, it would be remiss to point out that Peter Jackson does indeed prefer the theatrical cuts for their more balanced approach, of which he had final cut.
The Fellowship of the Ring - Extended Edition is presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (its original aspect ratio), encoded with AVC compression.
When the theatrical cuts of the Lord of the Rings debuted last year, many reviewers (partially myself) were critical for the transfers included, but singled out Fellowship of the Ring as the most offending culprit. Warner Home Video have heard the complaints and struck a brand new transfer for this film, and giving Peter Jackson, and Director of Photography Andrew Lesnie a chance to make alterations to the digital colour grading to bring the first film in line with the look of the latter films. But a little more on this later.
This new transfer is, without doubt, significantly upgraded from the theatrical cut. The first thing to notice is that there is abundance of fine detail which was simply a haze in the previous edition. The opening prologue shows large swaths of combatants which previously were generally indiscernible, are now individually obvious. Given more space to breathe over two dual layer Blu-rays, relieves the pressure on the encoding which creates two more positives. There is now more dimensionality in the image, with more of a 3D pop and secondly, there are no compression related artifacts to speak of. I once argued that the bandwidth of Blu-ray would allow the extended cuts to be pressed onto one Blu-ray disc. I'm happy to admit I was wrong and glad that Warner wasn't.
Now to the digital grading. The average viewer will likely never realise, but the new colour grading has created a swarm of opinion on Blu-ray forums, decrying the look of the new transfer, not helped by a general silence on the part of the filmmakers. However, since then both Peter Jackson and Andrew Lesnie have both confirmed that not only did they oversee the new transfer, but the new colour grading confirms to their exact specifications and intentions. Whilst I won't weigh in anymore on this touchy subject than I have in my extensive recent article on Blu-ray revisionism, I am happy to state my preference to the colour grading of this new transfer.
Some fans will wish to retain their old DVD's of the extended editions for historical sake. Me? I've already donated them to eBay.
The main audio track is encoded in 6.1 DTS HD Master Audio at 24 bits.
The audio transfer afforded to the extended cut is every bit as aggressive and impressive as the transfer afforded the theatrical cut last year. Importantly, the same care and attention was given to the newly reinstated footage as to that of the theatrical cut.
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There was no problem with audio sync. Surround usage is very high, often supporting the fine soundtrack provided by Howard Shore, which is massively improved from the DVD release.
The Australian Region 4 DVD of the extended cut was pulverized by some terrible pitch correction which resulted in some awful juddering and clipping, most noticeable in the score. Thanks to the wonders of 24p, Australian and European viewers can finally listen to the films as they were meant to be heard.
If I had just one complaint about the audio mix, it would be that sometimes some dialogue was difficult to make out, but this is a minor criticism.
Overall, a massive improvement over the DVD and one which will certainly test your home theater.
Village Roadshow have ported across all the extra features from the previous DVD release, even including the Costa Botes documentary which was featured on the limited edition DVD release. Missing however are the three documentaries discs from the giftset edition DVD's, but the only one of any note is the Howard Shore - Creating the Symphony disc which came with the Return of the King set. It is mildly annoying that rather than amalgamate all the extras into one Blu-ray disc (leaving a nine disc set), Village and Warner have simply elected to reproduce the DVDs and stuff them in the set. Whilst I appreciate having the extras full stop, is it really too much to expect that a Blu-ray boxset (especially one as expensive as this) could actually be filled with Blu-rays and not DVD's? Since the extra features are copious and have been looked at many times, by many different reviewers, I'll pick out what I consider to be the best of the bunch.
Normally, listening to a commentary track for the length of a standard film can be a bit a chore - so try the length of Lord of the Rings. Then multiply that by three movies. Then multiply by that four. Yes, that's right, each film features four audio commentaries. Luckily the participants are well chosen and their edited comments are relevant and interesting. There is so much information imparted by these tracks that die hard fans will want to listen to all of them. Others may just want to sample for their favourite scenes. Either way, well worth the time.
Most of the extra features take the form of self contained featurettes which look at almost every segment of the films production. The From Book to Script section takes a brief look at the amazing lengths that Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson traversed to film the 'unfilmable'. Brief mention is made of the character of Tom Bombadil who was completely cut from the movies for pacing reasons.
New Zealand as Middle Earth discusses the truly inspired decision to film the series in New Zealand, rather than a digital backlot (cough Star Wars prequels) and how production started many months earlier than the cameras even arrived, so as to create a living, breathing environment that looked like it had been inhabited for many previous decades.
Filming the Fellowship of the Ring is the bulkiest documentary - at nearly 90 minutes in length. If you have only time to watch one of the features, make it this one. The feature gives an over-arching look at the filming of the first movie - from the early morning starts, glueing a Hobbits feet, to the logistical battle of directing hundreds of extras - it's all here.
Finally, the last notable extra (which is a bit like picking your favourite child unfortunately) is the Digital Grading featurette, which has a new found interest due to the controversy over the new transfer. Blasting a hole through Andrew Lesnie's excuse that the previous transfer wasn't digitally graded like the following two films, he clearly shows how the digital tools alter the image simply by moving a cursor across the computer. It's fascinating stuff.