Plot: What’s it about?
In 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, adapted from stories he first told to his children, and seventeen years later, he continued the story with a trilogy of novels collectively titled The Lord of the Rings. Within these books, he created the mystical world of Middle Earth and all of its life, history, cosmology, and even a whole new culture with maps and several original languages. It was one of the first modern fantasy adventures ever written, and it has since become regarded as one of the greatest stories ever told. In 1978, an animated feature was made based on The Hobbit, but aside from that, Tolkien’s fantastic tale has never really been fully realized in film. Until now, that is, and Peter Jackson (The Frighteners)’s daring vision is exactly what was needed to turn the author’s imagination into an extraordinary piece of cinema.
Fans of the novels will have no trouble following the grand-scale epic story, but even for those unfamiliar with it, the appropriate background information is given immediately in the opening sequence of The Fellowship of the Ring. It is told that thousands of years ago, the dark lord Sauron crafted nine rings of power to be given to nine eleves of Middle Earth, and with them, they were to gain great power. Sauron, however, created his own ring, one that could control all the others and eventually be used to command his own army and conquer all of Middle Earth. A great battle was fought, and Sauron lost his ring and his life, and the ring remained undisturbed for two thousand years. Through a strange twist of fate, it ends up in the hands of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood, Deep Impact), and he learns of its history and danger from the great wizard Gandalf (Ian Mckellen, X-Men). But Sauron’s minions are on the hunt for the ring, and so Frodo, Gandalf, and a fellowship of elves, dwarves, hobbits, and humans set out on a quest to take the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it before the forces of evil can reclaim it.
And that’s just the beginning. Along the journey through the wonder and dangers of Middle Earth to the darkness of Mordor, where Sauron’s army is growing again, the group encounters other races, civilizations, and creatures that until now have only existed in the imaginations of those who read Tolkien’s books. The grandeur of everything projected before us has exactly the same brilliance Tolkien possessed when he originally wrote the story.
The visuals are incredibly stunning for nearly every minute of the film’s epic-length running time, and New Zealander Peter Jackson and his crew deserve to win every award there is to give for art direction. Whether it’s a fantastic wide-scale battle scene or a simple glimpse inside the home of a hobbit, nothing like this has been seen before on film. Of course, Tolkien is to credit for creating it, but Jackson and his people get an A+ for realizing it so perfectly in a motion picture. Even the score by Howard Shore (which people will undoubtedly compare to John Williams’s music for Star Wars) was exactly as stirring as it needed to be, and it added the final touch to make the film feel like a true epic adventure.
The characters, flawlessly completed by the costumes and set pieces, were also wonderfully brought to life by the actors. Ian McKellan’s wizard, Gandalf the Grey, couldn’t have been painted better in a picture by Tolkien himself. Elijah Wood was appropriately small and charming as the little hobbit with the strongest will in Middle Earth, and Viggo Mortensen’s Aragon was valiance personified as one of the story’s more respected heroes. There were pleasant performances all around, including some notable turns from the likes of Liv Tyler (Armageddon), Cate Blanchett (Bandits), Sean Bean (Don’t Say a Word), Sean Astin (Rudy), and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix).
The talented actors had just what they needed from the rest of the creative team, and final result is that The Fellowship of the Ring is one of the best fantasy films ever. Even with its extended length (in the neighborhood of three hours), the movie leaves you wanting more, especially because the story isn’t completely resolved when the credits role. But the film’s ability to do that is something to respect, because it will engage audiences with the knowledge that there is much more to come. And when it has all been completed, The Lord of the Rings may truly be one of the best film sagas in history.
Video: How does it look?
I’m going to refer to this as "Lord of the Rings" from here on out as that whole title is just too much for me. Demo material here, folks. Lord of the Rings sports a gorgeous-looking 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks great even on my 55" screen. As we might expect with a new to DVD title, the image suffers from…nothing. Even considering the length of the film, no compression artifacts are present and even the dark scenes (which there are many) look absolutely pristine. The film has a 3-D effect to it, it’s so clear. I can only imagine how much better this would look in High Definition. I could throw a few more adjectives your way, but this is reference quality folks.
Audio: How does it sound?
Just as amazing as the picture is the sound. A Dolby Digital EX mix is supplied (I don’t have an EX receiver, but the 5.1 sounded just fine, thank you) and it is active the entire 178 minutes. Dialogue is one part of the film, but the surround effects are so engrossing that it literally helps you get caught up in the movie. You get used to hearing the discrete effects come out of the rear channels. I like that my subwoofer is actually having to do some work! Older movies and Dolby Surround tracks are just fine, but every once in a while you need to crank it up and this is the perfect movie to do it with. Again, I’m running out of words to describe how good the mix is. Outstanding!
Supplements: What are the extras?
While not a fully-loaded special edition, this version does contain some supplements worth mentioning. Interestingly enough, there is a 4 disc multi set coming out in a few months (and you’ve heard about it unless you’ve been in a cave the last six months) that will share none of the same supplements as this version. So it comes down to this: Do you buy this one now or wait for the "big" set? Or do you buy them both? Regardless of how you feel, they could sell this thing if it were movie only. It’s not, though. Here’s what’s on tap…Aside from the trailers and TV spots, there is a music video of Enya, "May it Be". Also included is a sneak peek at "The Two Towers" (no, it’s not a retrospective look at the World Trade Center), but it’s a look at the second installment in the series. Looks pretty cool if you ask me, and I’m not a hard core fan! Fifteen "small" featurettes are also included and I’m not going into too much detail about every one, as they only last a minute or two a piece.
The real "meat" of the supplements are the three documentaries. First up is "Quest for the Ring" which aired on Fox. It’s a primer to the world of The Lord of the Rings with interviews with the cast and crew. Clocking in at 22 minutes, it’s not too long and should be pretty informative. Next up is another documentary, "Welcome to Middle Earth" which runs about 20 minutes. This is a bit different, but sort of the same as the rest of the featurettes. We meet Raymer Unwin, who claims to be the one responsible for telling Tolken to break the story up into three different parts. Not a big deal, but he feels so. Aside from that, this featurette is a bit bland, but I’m sure there are those who will find it interesting. I did, but it’s not something I’ll really watch over and over. Lastly, we come to "Passage to Middle Earth" which aired on the Sci-Fi channel. This is the longest of the three, coming in at 42 minutes. There seems to be a lot of redundancy when you come to this one (or whichever order you pick to watch them in) as there are interviews with the cast and crew. Nothing short of a commercial, they’re all interesting and well worth watching. Some DVD-ROM, though minimal, material is also included.