The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastic tale of Middle Earth, with its hobbits, elves, dwarfs, orcs, humans, wizards, and other assorted creatures of a long time ago in a galaxy far—okay, just a long time ago—may not appeal to everyone. But it certainly appeals to enough people to have made it, in its original three-novel form, a genuine classic. The story revolves around the One Ring of the title, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron and capable of bringing great power—and greater evil—to the wearer. When it comes into the possession of hobbit Bilbo Baggins, he wisely (but more likely accidentally) keeps it in his pocket rather than on his finger. There it prolongs his life, but has no apparent ill effects. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that the existence of the ring will, one way or another, inevitably bring about Sauron's complete subjugation of Middle Earth. But the ring can be destroyed only by throwing it into the fires in which it was forged—into the volcano Mount Doom, in the heart of Sauron's kingdom.
It falls to Bilbo's nephew, Frodo Baggins, to make the dangerous journey, accompanied by representatives of the good creatures of Middle Earth and the wizard Gandalf. The quest of this Fellowship of the Ring, as they make their way to Mount Doom, occupies much of the film—the first of three that will tell the story of Tolkien's trilogy of books.
If you're a fan, you already own this theatrical version and have already seen it 12 times. Or maybe, just maybe, you're waiting for this month's promised four-disc Platinum Series Extended Edition. Not available to us at press time, that version will include an extra 30 minutes of footage and enough special features to keep you busy through Christmas—though New Line hopes you'll take time off to see the second film of the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, due in theaters in December.
I'll see The Two Towers in December along with everyone else, but I probably won't fully appreciate it until the DVD comes out next year. That was my experience with Fellowship, which grabbed me on DVD in a way that it hadn't in the theater. Perhaps it was the performances, which were far superior to what you normally see in this sort of film. Or maybe it was the gorgeous cinematography. From the sweeping outside vistas (shot primarily in New Zealand) to the dark interior shots, the film earned its Academy Award for cinematography. It was shot in Super 35, and while that may be why the images on the DVD are often a little soft (which is why I've downgraded the rating), the look of the film suits the story perfectly. The color, often tinted apparently by design, looks great, and even the dimmest scenes have plenty of detail. This DVD will wreak havoc on displays with inadequate blacks.
A caution here: Fellowship is also available on DVD in a full-frame version. Unless you have a very small television, avoid it like the plague. No, I haven't reviewed it, but I can only imagine what the pan&scan treatment will do to the epic compositions the cinematographer and director have captured here.
As with the photography, I never fully appreciated the movie's audio quality in the theater. Apart from the obvious attractions of deep bass and surrounds, both of which leave no room for complaint, it's the subtleties that impress me the most. Similarly, composer Howard Shore's superb music score, brilliantly recorded, deserves a huge share of credit. I hadn't been all that impressed by the music in the theater, either positively or negatively, but with the DVD that changed entirely. If Shore's efforts on the second and third films equals what we hear in this one, he'll deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with John Williams, James Horner, and Jerry Goldsmith. The Oscar Shore won for this music was richly earned. The film should also have won for sound, but most Academy voters, many of whom probably screened the film on VHS tape through their TV speaker, haven't a clue what to listen for in this category, so the oversight isn't surprising.
But there's a problem. The soundtrack has been mixed very hot. That is, it plays on average about 10dB louder than it should, relative to Dolby reference. Set it to the playback level you normally use and the loud passages might just blow you out of the room. This was evident right from the opening menu, which had me diving for the volume control, and again in the prologue's battle sequence. To get such a high level must have required some dynamic compression (digitally, you can record only so loud before you run out of bits). But the compression does not appear to affect the overall quality of the sound, which is so good that there's no way I can give it less than a top rating.
The extras, while more limited than what's expected in that imminent Extended Edition, are extensive and the equal of those in most conventional special editions. There are trailers, featurettes covering many aspects of the production, and an Enya music video that's far better (and more appropriate to the film) than most such efforts. There's also a tantalizing, if all too short, peek at The Two Towers.
Completists, however, will want both this version and the Extended Edition. The extras here will not be included in that one, giving you added incentive to own both—good for New Line, bad for your wallet! Nor will the four-disc set include the theatrical cut of the film presented here (apparently the seamless branching technology used on the most recent Terminator 2: Judgment Day DVD release has been forgotten—or proved too hard to implement).
All of the behind-the-scenes extras, on either release, raise two questions: How much do you want to know about the man behind the curtain before you've actually seen all three films, and is there a risk of spoiling the magic? If your answers are "Nothing" and "Yes," you might want to limit your DVD viewing to the film alone, and keep the extras on the shelf until late 2004, when the trilogy will be complete. That will definitely be a consideration, with the exhaustive extras expected on the fuur-disc set. The choice is yours, but one way or another, I can definitely recommend this two-disc set of the theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.