PictureThe Lord of the Rings Trilogy hits Blu-ray with a solid 1080p High Definition rendition of each of the entries, presented with the same common theatrically broad aspect ratio of 2.4:1 widescreen. Although shot back-to-back in sequence, the films have each been translated to High Definition with slightly varying results. I'm not sure whether things will be improved by the time the Extended Editions hit the format (by all accounts, they should do) but these are certainly not definitive benchmark renditions for this much-loved trilogy, and they do not hold up well in comparison to the standard-setting monolith that was Avatar. That said, they do look considerably better than the SD-DVD versions, which, upconverted or not, just do not hold up against the power of full High Def.
Fellowship suffers the worst. One might expect this, because it was the first in the trilogy, but since they were filmed in close succession it does not seem to make sense that this one could come across so very different from the final entry, Return of the King. A large chunk of the blame has to go to the manner of filming, in my opinion, with far too many soft-focus shots (particularly in the Shire at the beginning) which - whilst obviously artistically intentioned by the Director - just don't show off what Blu-ray is capable of. To make matters worse, a fair amount of bad post-production work (again, overseen by Jackson) and malicious DNR has left the end result something of a jumbled mess, at once capable of showing what picture-perfection is all about, when the very next second your jaw could drop over an irredeemably soft focus close-up or a botched night scene. Sauron's fiery eye is an example of how perfect they can make things look (even with the limited effects that they had, which saw significant progression over the years of the production), but unfortunately there are many more points of criticism than there are noteworthy highs. Edge enhancement is pervasive, although perhaps not overwhelming, grain is noticeable, and shadows and night sequences exhibit unnecessary black crush. Alone, Fellowship would barely scratch a 7/10 for its video score, a shocking mark considering that this is probably one of the two most-wanted film franchises on Blu-ray.
Thankfully all is not lost, as Two Towers goes some way to visually improve things. It helps that this story is not hampered by a one-two punch opening of flashback and hobbit-ville exploits, both of which were awash with intentional softness in Fellowship, this movie instead going straight for the jugular, a much darker and more significant story that gets suitably dark and oppressive filmwork. DNR is still over-used to the detriment of the image, and edge enhancement is still prevalent, but the darker sequences are treated more respectfully, the Battle of Helm's Deep holding up as one of the many highlights which, this time around, outweigh the criticisms. Sure, the presentation is still not benchmark standard, still not quite what fans deserve for one of the most popular trilogies in existence, but viewers will probably afford themselves a quiet sigh of relief after the botched opening salvo that was Fellowship in High Def. Disappointing, but only because it should have been perfect, rather than just very good. 8/10.
Return of the King takes it one step further, even if the improvement over Two Towers is less noticeable than the difference between Two Towers and Fellowship. Still not achieving the high standards we would have expected from this blockbusting behemoth, it raises the bar to a level which would have been at least acceptable if this kind of standard of quality had been maintained throughout. DNR's still there, but its presence has been further reduced, and detail is consistently better than on the previous two entries. Black levels remain strong, facial representation and close-ups are of the highest quality shown in this set and edge enhancement is at a minimum. Still, this is not a near-perfect 9/10 video presentation, just a solid upper-tier 8/10 rendition. Still, this is all made much more disappointing because this is such a high profile release. Really, we should have had 9s and 10s across the board, and as such, the overall 'average' reflects my disappointment with a combined score of 7/10 for the video.
SoundWell, as much as the video presentation of this beloved Trilogy is likely to disappoint many, the audio probably could not get any better than this. We get DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 tracks across the board, which excel from start to finish, the last entry only marginally improving upon the excellence already afforded to the other two films in the series. Dialogue is given outstanding presence across the movies, never dominated by the other elements of what could have been an overwhelming, bombast-laden offering, and accurately pervading the central channel, occasionally dispersing to the surrounds for more subtle nuances like Gollum's cries for his 'Precious' at the start of Fellowship.
Effects are simply astounding, and where the CG in these movies (particularly the first entry) is already starting to date a little, the corresponding sound effects have lost none of their potency. We hear every threatening movement of the haunting wraiths, and shiver at the skuttle of the giant spider that Frodo faces, the surrounds picking up all the minute details to create a thoroughly immersive and atmospheric offering. But the battle sequences and larger effects creatures mark the high point in the effects realm, the thundering roar and wall-shaking footsteps of the Cave Troll, the overwhelming power and fury of the super-orc armies and their siege engines, and the fiery dragon-like presence of the enormous Balrog all marking outstanding moments that are, frankly, commonplace, in this outstanding aural offering. Every time Frodo puts on that Ring and gets sucked into the lure of Sauron's fiery eye, your whole living room will come alive with dark overtones and brooding menace. Howard Shore's thematic, rousing score is pervasive throughout, reminding us of the hope and courage of the band of heroes in this film as they fight (and largely overcome) all odds, often by the skin of their teeth. Oddly, despite the video improvement that Blu-ray offers, it's the significantly potent audio tracks that really shine on this release, with the films being consistently high quality in that regard - 9s across the board - and Return of the King coming close to a 10.
ExtrasWith disappointing video that was redeemed a little bit by outstanding audio, things get bad again with the Extras, which are totally and utterly inexcusable in their inadequacy. I mean, come on, these are DVD coasters for most. They are not even Blu-ray discs, and if you have the Extended Edition SD-DVDs then they are utterly and resoundingly worthless. Worse still, there is nothing of any value here to newcomers. They may as well have just pulled an Avatar and left the releases bare bones (which they essentially are, as the BDs only contain Trailers, all of the other extras housed on the aforementioned SD-DVDs). It really is lazy workmanship by the Studios, who are already ripping us off by giving us yet another double-dip in respect of the theatrical vs. extended cuts, but make matters even worse here.
I mean, really, come on! Fans of the format know just what it can do, the new Picture-in-Picture tracks, Video Commentaries and so forth really bringing out the best of the technology. Here, we don't even get the old standard Audio Commentary, let alone anything exclusive to High Definition. It's paltry, insulting and worthless. You really are highly unlikely to ever put the supplemental DVDs in your player, there is that little of worth on offer.
For completeness, I'll run through the list of what we do get, and you will probably get a good idea, after a few items, of just how fluffy these offerings are. First up on Fellowship we get a bunch of TV-specials, all fairly flimsy promotional Featurettes that skim the surface of the production around the peripherals: Welcome to Middle Earth looking at Tolkien's original books, Quest for the Ring offering some Behind the Scenes material and A Passage to Middle-Earth taking slightly longer (40 minutes) to provide what still amounts to inconsequential, shallow promotional guff. We get some webepisodes, TV spots, Enya's music video and some preview clips and material for the Two Towers, the latter of which is totally redundant now that the films have all been released! I could understand if all of this material was provided in addition to Commentaries, Documentaries and PiP offerings, but if this is all they have to offer, I can see this disc being used to scare away the Pigeons.
Two Towers doesn't exactly up the ante, with two TV specials: On the Set and the marginally more substantial Return to Middle-Earth still largely covering just promotional satellite aspects of the production. The Long and the Short of it, and its accompanying Making-Of is a light-hearted mocumentary from Hobbit actors Sean Astin, and at least manages to be vaguely endearing because of its more light-hearted approach, but then its on to the standard webepisodes, TV spots, music video and previews. Shocking. Return of the King rounds things off with, guess what, more of the same. A Quest Fulfilled follows the Director, and is well produced but too short, A Filmmaker's Journey tries to cover the entire pre-production history in less than half-an-hour, and the National Geographic entry is terrifying in its attempt to relate LOTR to the real world, drawing parallels where they simply do not exist. I fear for the number of avid fans who will be sucked in by this offering, which really has no basis in reality, despite purporting otherwise. Finally, do I really need to list them again? Webepisodes, TV Spots and Previews. If you even get that far.
VerdictLord of the Rings. A trilogy of modern classics, frankly must-see movies that transport you to another world, rich with all of the lush landscapes and epic effects that we have, more recently, seen in the likes of Avatar, but also boasting well-developed characters, decent dialogue and a multi-layered storyline to hold it all together. Tolkien's legacy continues with Jackson's accomplished work, a monumental three-movie event, suitable for all the family and with something to please everybody.
If you have somehow missed out on Lord of the Rings over the last decade then unfortunately this is perhaps not the best place to start. After the studios previously triple-dipped their way into providing us with an 12-disc SD-DVD release which had just about everything that you could have wanted from this trilogy, we appear to have gone one step forward with the Blu-ray release, but two steps back. This UK release, different from the US version only in terms of being Region B-locked (rather than A) and dropping the Digital Copies, is shamefully sporting only the significantly shorter (we're talking over 2 hours of missing footage!) Theatrical Cuts. From a technical standpoint, whilst the Video presentation is an indisputable improvement over the DVDs, it is far from the standard-setting quality that fans would have expected, and that this release really deserved. The Audio tracks, however, simply could not get any better, although that is not enough to redeem the lacklustre Video. And add to all this the lazy addition of SD-DVDs containing a bunch of old and largely worthless extras and what you have is a very disappointing package indeed.
Fans will already have this, they won't be able to resist, especially when we don't even know when the Studios are going to knock out a decent extended edition 12-disc Blu-ray limited collector's ultimate box set that comes in a mock bust of Gandalf's beard. But really, at some point, it would be nice if customers took a stand against this kind of double-dipping-to-the-extreme treatment. We went through it with Lord of the Rings on DVD, why do we have to go through it again on Blu-ray? Really, those with the 12-disc DVD set (who have probably never watched their original theatrical edition DVD boxset since they upgraded!) have little excuse to 'upgrade' again and should hold out until the films get the release they deserve. A must-have trilogy given a shockingly inadequate and unfinished release.
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