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THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE MOTION PICTURE TRILOGY
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson
(The Two Towers film review by Mark Wiechman)

NOTE:  The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy will be available for download:   www.lordoftherings.net/home.htm

The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy will also be available day and date on Video on Demand from cable and satellite providers.  The films will be offered for electronic download from online retailers including iTunes, Microsoft Xbox LIVE, Zune marketplace and Amazon Video on Demand.

Stars:  Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis
Director:  Peter Jackson
Audio:  DTS HD 6.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  6 Discs
Release Date: 
April 6, 2010

“One ring to rule them all…”

The Fellowship of the Ring ***1/2

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is a saga that has captured the imaginations of millions of readers generation after generation…so now might be a good time for me to admit that I’ve never read any of his works.  I apologize if that statement makes you recoil in horror; truth be told, I have no good excuse.  Some artists, no matter how good or influential, just happen to slip in underneath your radar, and for me, Tolkien is the one.

But the good news is that I may be able to offer a review of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy film adaptation with a slightly different take than most.  I can’t compare the movie to the book; I can only talk about how it plays as a film.  And it plays darn well.

The movie is muscular and vivid from start to finish, but better still, it’s a throwback to classic storytelling on celluloid when special effects were used to heighten the tale instead of dominate it.  This is the kind of movie that you might have seen back in the era of Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, had the technology been possible then.  Everything about Lord of the Rings screams epic, from its imaginative production design to its running time, to the fact that this is, after all, only part one of a trilogy!

Accept a simple premise, and everything in the story falls into place.  The premise is that of a simple ring, designed to have power over all the world.  It was created by an evil warlord and originally thought lost in a massive historic battle.  But the ring still exists, and is in the possession of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Holm), long since retired from his adventures in The Hobbit. 

The problem is, the dark lord Sauron is back and searching for the ring.  Upon the advice of a kindly wizard Gandalf (McKellan), Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Wood) begins a journey to take the ring to the center of the mount where it was created so it can be destroyed.  A big job for such a small Hobbit, but along the way, Frodo finds friends in all sizes and with all manners of abilities.  Together, they form the Fellowship of the Ring, and swear that they will complete their mission or die trying.

What an incredible set-up for a story!  And nothing in Tolkien’s tale or Jackson’s film disappoints.  The movie is filled with visual wonder (it garnered a well-deserved Oscar for Special Effects), epic battles, intense action…but most importantly, rich and wonderful characters.  Without them, the journey would be pretty, but empty.

The cast is first rate, starting with the always terrific Elijah Wood as Frodo.  He is the embodiment of the character’s search for courage within himself despite unspeakable odds, and extremely likable.  Also worth mentioning are the mangnificent Ian McKellan, the deliciously diabolical Christopher Lee, and the plucky Sean Astin.

But the film’s two real stars are Tolkien, who created the world of Middle Earth, and Jackson, who brought it to life with more detail and splendor than many thought possible.  He made the ultimate fantasy movie from what most consider the ultimate fantasy text, and delivered three hours of gorgeous, vibrant and engrossing entertainment.

The Two Towers ****

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings  saga continues in this second installment of Peter Jackson’s  movie version of the best-selling fantasy series.  In this episode, Frodo and Sam continue into the land of Mordor, where they must attempt to destroy the Ring by flinging it into the volcanic Mount Doom.  Since they do not know the way, they are led there by Gollum, the twisted wretch whose slavish devotion to the Ring has made him a split-personality of gracious servitude who chides Sam for cooking meat and who also plots to do whatever it takes to get the ring back.   Meanwhile, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas search for Merry and Pippin.  We also find out whether Gandalf survived his fall into the abyss.  The movie concludes with an incredible battle at Helm’s Deep.  Not for the sheepish (or anyone who has not seen the first movie).

The title refers to the unholy alliance of the wizard Saruman’s Isengard tower of Orthanc where he breeds orcs and orchestrates the destruction of Middle Earth with Sauron’s tower of Barad-dur, where his great Eye watches seeks the Ring, just as it seeks him.

I agree with many other reviewers who thought that this movie was as good as The Fellowship of the Ring and maybe even better in many aspects.  In the extras for the first DVD set, Jackson explained how complicated it was to take the original Tolkien trilogy and make it into movies, partly because they were not certain if they were going to make one, two, or three full-length movies.  Naturally this made the screenwriting process even more convoluted. 

In the end, it was decided that three movies would indeed be made, but that the movies would not necessarily match the books in their structure.  I thought this was an excellent idea since of the three original novels, The Two Towers was a dull collection of adjectives about trees and family folklore compared with the originality of Fellowship and the thrilling action-filled climax, Return of the King.  I was afraid that Towers, if filmed to match the novel page for page, would bore everyone and the project would not last.  Instead, Jackson and company have managed to spread the action and non-action around very well and obviously the whole entertainment world is already anticipating the theatrical release of Return of the King.  I also feel that this trilogy will stand for many, many years (if not forever) as the definitive motion picture adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.  It has set a whole new standard for movie magic, even eclipsing the new Star Wars trilogy. 

In this chapter Tolkien’s real world is clearly reflected in his writing.  The villagers being chased out by orcs reminds me of the Nazis overrunning Europe and the Ents complaining about how no one cares about the trees is a commentary on the ecological apathy of most of the twentieth century.  And just as Sauron’s evil sweeps over Middle Earth, evil forces of the early 20th century were coming close to dominating Europe.

When I saw this movie in the theatre on New Year’s Eve 2002 (using the pass which came with the Fellowship extended set), I remember that I hardly breathed the whole time, and barely anyone else did, either.  I did not say a word to my friend nor do I remember if I ate anything.  I could hardly talk when it was over because it was such an incredible high, like a rock concert.  

And I cannot let my review go without praising the incredible CGI and elocution behind the character of Gollum, the poster child for greed corrupting an innocent soul and ten times the character that Lucas’ Jar-Jar ever was.  How does it feel, Mr. Lucas, to have someone else take your technology and make something so much better? 

The Return of the King ****

About once every ten years, I’ll actually agree with the Academy’s choice for Best Picture of the Year.  The last time was 1993 when my pick was Schindler’s List, so I was about due for Oscar and I to settle on the same choice…which we did, when the PRECIOUSSSS!!!!…er, golden statuette landed at the feet of The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King.

But Best Picture was only the capper on a historic and record setting night for the film.  With a total of 11 wins, it joined Ben-Hur and Titanic as the biggest Oscar winners ever, but even more significant was the fact that it scored 11 wins for 11 nominations, giving ROTK the biggest sweep ever.  It was more than deserved…in fact, I’ve actually grumbled that the movie got shafted a little bit…I believe it could have gone 12 for 12, but surprisingly, though it had far and away the best photography of the year in my opinion, it got no nod for cinematography.  If they can give this award to something completely fabricated like Avatar, why not Peter Jackson's groundbreaking cinematic vision?

No matter…co-writer, co-producer and director Peter Jackson had crafted a fantasy epic of mind boggling breadth and scope, while never letting the size of his vision dwarf the strength of his characters.  Like in the original J. R. R. Tolkien novels, these films were not meant to be sequels, but rather legitimate continuations of a fully developed story.  The Fellowship of the Ring was great.  The Two Towers was even better.  But with The Return of the King, Jackson and his cast and crew had indeed created one film to rule them all.

Following the adventures of the populace of Middle Earth for three years felt like we had somehow taken part in the epic journey.  We knew these characters like they were old friends.  We shared in their failures and triumphs.  We feared for them, laughed with them, cried with them, and most of all, believed in them.  As a towering final chapter, ROTK did not disappoint.  It brought together all the story threads into one perfect resolution.  As a stand alone film, it’s marvelous entertainment.  But looking back over the development of the full Lord of the Rings story, it becomes brilliant almost beyond description.

Which has led some of the stuffier critics to complain that the movie’s Oscar night stampede was unfair, claiming the Academy was really awarding the entire franchise instead of just the final film.  I confess, it is hard not to reach the end of ROTK and not think back on the full story…after all, if this movie didn’t inspire us to bring the entire experience together in our minds, I think it would have failed a bit as a final installment.  But then, ROTK achieved so much in terms of spectacle, drama, development and resolution just within its own running time that it’s just about impossible to argue that this movie alone didn’t deserve the recognition it got.

I realize I’ve written five paragraphs so far and haven’t touched on the story…but oddly enough, I don’t feel compelled to.  Fans who loved and embraced the first two films won’t need a plot description to steer them in the direction of this one.  Those who haven’t experienced the trilogy up to now should really go back and catch up with New Line’s terrific 4 disc collector’s sets for each.

So I’ll avoid the usual rehashing of who did what, who fought whom, and who lived happily ever after.  I’ll instead conclude as I began:  this is indeed far and away the best film of 2003.  ROTK will stand for a long time as a milestone of how far motion pictures have come.  I do believe that someday there will be a film that will surpass this one in terms of epic storytelling, unbridled imagination, amazing technical advancement and rich, rewarding characters.  But I also believe it won’t happen for a long, long, LONG time.  If I live long enough to see such a film, I’ll consider myself blessed indeed.

Video ****

Now THIS is what I'm Tolkien about!  New Line did quite an impressive job with the high definition transfers for these movies...there is one or two instances of a little murkiness in the first film, but really, any complaint stops there.  By the time I got to the end of the last movie, I was barely even remembering it.  These beautiful renditions of CGI and camerawork were meant for the medium of Blu-ray...the levels of contrast are striking, and even in the many darker scenes, picture quality and detail level are stunning.

Audio  ****

You haven't heard Lord of the Rings until you've heard it in stunning DTS HD sound.  These raucous and dynamic surround tracks are more powerful and clear than ever...so much to listen to, and you'll get it all, from the most nuanced piece of ambience to the most explosive battle scenes.  Spoken words are clean and clear, and the award-winning musical scores sound more live and vibrant than ever.

Features ***

There are nine discs in all here, with three discs dedicated to each film, and in each case, the first disc being Blu-ray, the second disc being the DVD bonus disc from the original two-disc releases, and the third being a digital copy disc.

Also, in each case, the Blu-ray disc boasts the film and numerous trailers in high definition, including video game trailers and the so-called "super trailer" for the series.

The other featurettes are not in high definition, and are presented on DVD discs, and encompass a total of eight behind-the-scenes documentaries, the LordoftheRings.net featurettes, television spots, and previews of the extended editions, which are doubtless eventually coming to Blu-ray as well.

Summary:

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy  is a revelation on Blu-ray...Peter Jackson's incredible vision serves the medium perfectly, and vice versa.  These blockbuster favorites deserve nothing less...well, apart from giving us the extended cuts; that would be even better.

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