The Lord of the Rings Blu-ray Flawed, but Welcome
By Jim Bray
One of the most anticipated film series in the history of cinefantastique has just premiered on Blu-ray disc, but maybe you should rent before you buy so you know what you're getting.
The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson's take on J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy trilogy, is a remarkable achievement that (along with the Harry Potter stories) will hopefully encourage others to make classic movies out of classic books without throwing the book away in the process.
Are you paying attention, Paul Verhoeven, of Starship Troopers infamy?
Each of the three Lord of the Rings films is the type of BIG movie we used to get from the likes of David Lean, Cecil B. DeMille or William Wyler. Jackson's trio of masterpieces gets better from film to film, too; it's no wonder the series won a slew of Oscars and made zillions of dollars.
Having the trilogy available on Blu-ray finally is an intoxicating idea for LOTR and BD fans alike, and a nine disc boxed set sounds like it should have plenty of potential. Alas, while this version does, indeed, have a lot going for it, it could have – and should have – been so much more. Hence my advice to rent first.
The first bad news is that this boxed set includes only the theatrical versions of the trilogy. That's all well and good if those are the versions you prefer, but to me (and, apparently, many others) the extended versions are the ones to get. Unlike extended editions padded with stuff that should have stayed on the cutting room floor, Jackson's versions expand on the story and characterizations – and the special effects – and are much more satisfying, especially if you're a fan of the books. The extended DVD editions also included better supplements than this Blu-ray version does.
It would have been nice if the producers had given us both incarnations in one package, using the "branching" technology that's been available for Blu-ray and DVD's for years and which has been used effectively before on many releases, but for some reason (profit maximization, perhaps?) the studio chose to merely tantalize LOTR fans with this first kick at the Middle Earth can. This will undoubtedly anger many fans. And though no extended edition package has been announced as of this writing, it seems obvious that one will be available eventually.
That would be the version to get, assuming they do as good a job with it as they did with the DVD's. And perhaps by then the studio will have revisited the films' video quality to bring them up to the high standards the Blu-ray format is capable of, because they certainly haven't reached them with this version.
Another reason to rent before you buy, if you can.
By the way, this package contains nine discs, not nine Blu-rays. Only the movies are on BD discs, not that the producers have tried to hide that fact; the other discs include a DVD of extras to accompany each film and digital copies of each title.
The set comes in a nice box containing two plastic cases, one for the movies and extras and one for the digital copies. You may have to hunt for the Fellowship Blu-ray, because in my review copy it was stuck inside the front cover, behind some coupons, but it's there. It would have been nice for each movie and extras disc to have its own package, but such isn't the, er, case.
All of the films are presented in 1080p widescreen at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, as they should be. Alas, the picture quality on "Fellowship" leaves much to be desired. While there are shots that look fabulous, overall the picture quality is spotty, often too soft and flat, and rarely exhibiting the superb detail and that great "pop off the screen" depth you find with the best Blu-ray presentations.
The Two Towers is much more like it! In fact, of the three films, this is the one that's closest to the type of demonstration material quality for which I'd hoped. Individual hairs are easy to make out, as is the texture of the costumes' materials, the fine detail of the Ents bark and leaves – you name it. It also offers more of that great, 3D-like depth that can make Blu-rays so spectacular. Blacks are better than in "Fellowship" (which comes in handy since a lot of the movie is set at night) and, at the other end of the spectrum, when Gandalf reappears in a white glow it shimmers beautifully, looking just great, with remarkable detail.
I had hoped that The Return of the King, the most spectacular of the films would also have the most spectacular picture, but it doesn't. Fortunately, the video is closer to Two Towers in quality than it is to "Fellowship", but I wanted more. Still, detail is very fine for the most part, with rich and deep colors, and there's good depth in many places. Some of the more spectacular special effects shots, such as long shots over and around Minas Tirith, are flat out gorgeous and nearly pop off the screen. It borders on glorious!
As an experiment, I A/B'd the Pelennor Fields battle from "King", switching between this Blu-ray and the extended edition DVD I used often as test material when reviewing TV's and audio systems before the high def discs came along. I tried them on a 50 inch 1080p plasma panel, with the DVD up converted to 1080p via a very fine Oppo DVD player.
The Blu-ray was better, which is as it should be (otherwise why bother?), but not as much as I had hoped for and expected. Given the choice, however, I'd opt for the Blu-ray. Too bad my preferred version isn't available yet…
Audio for all three films is presented in dts-HD Master Audio 6.1, though I listened to it via a 5.1 system with no center back channel. The audio is consistently excellent across all three Blu-ray discs, extremely dynamic and making use of all the separate channels very well, and with excellent separation between channels. Dialogue never takes a back seat to music or sound effects, yet whether it's the noise of horses' hooves thundering across the landscape or the horribly shrill screeching of the Nazgul's dragon-like mounts, it all comes through with excellent fidelity. This, at least, is reference quality material, especially on The Return of the King.
Then there are the extras, which really should be in high definition widescreen on Blu-ray discs (only the teaser/trailers are in HD). On the other hand, considering that there isn't much on the menu here that's particularly exciting, it may not matter other than as a matter of principle that they've only given us DVD's.
Again, I look hopefully to the inevitable extended editions for more meat.
You don't even get normal stuff like commentaries, isolated musical scores or the like. To be fair, some of the supplements are pretty interesting, including some "vintage" TV specials such as the Sci-Fi channel's "A Passage to Middle-Earth", though they're more promotional than informational. There isn't a lot of real, behind the scenes meat here.
When all is said and done, while I'm pleased to see these important titles on Blu-ray at last, this particular package is tough to recommend. Blu-ray is definitely the best way to experience this exquisite series of films, but the execution here is spotty – and the versions themselves aren't the most coveted, in my never humble opinion. And it's an insult to consumers to be given previews of the special editions (and DVD's, not Blu-rays!), telling them that regardless of what they just paid for this boxed set, there's a better one coming.
Why not just poke your customers in the eye?
Some people undoubtedly prefer the theatrical versions – and perhaps most people aren't as anal about video and audio quality as I am. But an important series of epic movies like this deserves the best treatment possible and, despite what it has going for it (which, to be fair, is still quite a bit), this is not that treatment.
LOTR 1: DISC 1: Widescreen version of the film; DISC 2: "Welcome to Middle Earth" (2001 Houghton-Mifflin In-Store Special) - "Quest for the Ring" (2001 FOX TV Special) - "A Passage to Middle Earth" (2001 Sci-Fi Channel Special) - Finding Hobbiton - Hobbiton Comes to Life - Believing the World of Bree - Ringwraiths: The Fallen Kings - Rivendell: The Elven Refuge - Languages of Middle-earth - Two Wizards - Music of Middle-earth - Elijah Wood - Viggo Mortensen - Orlando Bloom - Cate Blanchett - Liv Tyler - Ian McKellan - Weathertop: The Windy Hill - Behind the Scenes Preview of TTT - Enya "May it Be" music video - Trailers & TV Spots DISC 3: - Digital Copy
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.