Difficult to assess where the overall importance of director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2004) lies. To be certain, the trilogy was and is a massively impressive undertaking; epic, yet often overly self-indulgent, while remaining true to J.R.R. Tolkien's sprawling narrative of widgets, wizards and wonderment. At present all three films have both their ardent admirers and formidable detractors. Such is the case with all truly great art, engaged along a great divide in public sentiment and its importance in film history.
Although Tolkien's novel, on which the films are based, is impressive, it is actually part of a larger creative canvass that the author first began writing in 1917. Literary reviews of his day placed the novel's importance somewhere between the greatest 20th century masterwork and tragically shallow and psychologically vapid tripe. Nevertheless, the books have endured and today have a largely positive following by both audiences and the critics.
The title of the book derives association with the dark lord, Sauron (Christopher Lee) who, in an earlier age, has created a ring capable of ruling the world or destroying it. In the prequel history that predates all three movies, Sauron is defeated by the mortal, Isidur who claims the ring for himself. Isidur is later killed by the Orcs and the ring is lost in the Anduin River. Two thousand years later, cousins Deagol and Gollum fish the ring from its resting place. The possessive power of the ring causes Gollum to murder Deagol and covet the ring for five hundred years before he too loses it.
Any brief summary of the meandering intricacies behind Tolkien’s sprawling narrative is futile at best. A distilled summary follows the exploits of one Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood); entrusted with a great quest to return the powerful and destructive gold ring to its molten domain deep within the middle earth of Mordor. Besought by evil forces from without commanded by Sauron and temptation from within to possess the ring for himself, Frodo enlists the aid of long time friend Samwise Gangee (Sean Astin) noble warriors, Legolas Greenleaf (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), as well as the sage wisdom from the wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to make his journey complete.
The first film The Fellowship of the Ring is arguably the most perfectly realized in the trilogy, mixing fantastic flights of fancy with powerful moments of self-realization and exhilarating action/adventure sequences. Frodo and his companions are attacked by the Orcs as they make their way through the treacherous mines of Moria. Gandalf fights off a Balrog (a dragon like creature) and seemingly plummets to his death down a deep chasm. From here, Frodo and his entourage make safe passage to the forest of Lothlorien where they are given temporary refuge by Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchette). Realizing that the rest of his quest must be a solemn one, Frodo breaks from the fellowship, accompanied by Sam only, to continue his journey.
The second instalment, The Two Towers is hopelessly marred by a seeming lack of editing prowess on director Peter Jackson's part – endlessly bouncing back and forth, from a violent battle between Aragorn and Sauron's armies for control over the sacred city of Isengard, to a haplessly dragged out sequence committed to Sam and Frodo's further trek through a forest of talking/walking trees. What is particularly impressive about the second film is the creation of Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis); a character entirely realized within the digital domain, yet viscerally palpable in both weight and content of performance.
Although AMPAS awarded its Best Picture honors (as well as 10 additional statuettes) to part three, The Return of the King, by this critic's assessment, the film remains a rather troublesome claptrap of left over plot entanglements from the first two movies, beginning with a flashback involving Gollum's acquisition of the ring and Frodo’s capture and – yet again – near death experience, this time at the talons of a gargantuan spider.
Having been reincarnated as an immortal, Gandalf reasons that Sauron will attack the city of Minas Tirith and rides off to thwart the attack with Pippin (Billy Boyd) who has had a vision of a white burning tree. The Morgul army does indeed attack, decimating the lower city. Meanwhile, Gollum convinces Frodo that Sam is after the ring for himself. The two friends are briefly parted as Gollum makes plans to lure Frodo to his death and reclaim the ring for himself. Sam, however, is unwilling to give up.
Sam saves Frodo and begins the arduous journey toward Mount Doom, surrounded by a garrison of Orcs. Aragorn and his men advance to part the way for Frodo and Sam. But Frodo succumbs to the jealous control of the ring, engaging Gollum in a last bitter struggle to possess it. In the tussle, Frodo's ring finger is bitten off by Gollum, resurrecting Frodo's spirit from the ring's demonic command and plunging Gollum and the ring into the molten fires of pooling lava below. Sauron is destroyed and the immense shockwave that follows his passing effectively wipes out the remaining evil Orc forces, leaving Aragorn and his men unharmed.
This critic recalls too well how the succession of endings that fade to black, only to continue to more and more endless snippets of resolved storytelling left many audience member in theatres frustrated in getting up and then having to sit down repeatedly. Renewed viewing confirms - at least for this critic - that out of time and out of budget, Jackson's last act of this third movie remains episodic at best.
What is commendable about Peter Jackson’s mammoth undertaking on the whole is the sheer size of the project and the considerable amount of narrative content he manages to cover - given that this is one, and not two sets of trilogy. The acting throughout all three features ranges from competent to exceptional. But this isn't a trilogy to invest in solid performance. The films' singular marketing feature remains its digital effects matted onto blue screened live action. Artistically speaking, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is spectacle with substance.
Ironically, there remains something lacking in the overall emotional impact of the exercise. As the audience, we are overwhelmed by the thought-numbing magnitude of presentation, caught in a relentlessly lavish visual melange that regrettably, only partly satisfies. The complexities inherent in Tolkien's original novel and the considerable dexterity exercised in concision by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson screenplays leaves the inner connectivity between its characters to cardboard cut out relationships at best that do not satisfy unless one has already had the opportunity to read Tolkien's books. In the final analysis, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is compelling viewing, although, upon renewed viewing, it seems strangely absent to evoke a sense of inner purpose.
Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray release of only the theatrical editions of these three movies in one box set has infuriated a significant percentage of its fan base. However, this reviewer is not among them, although I do believe that the release of these editions is a well-timed snatch and grab by the studio to force diehard fans to double dip for the trilogy now and the one yet to come.
Affording a press release to this marketing snafu, Warner Home Video has confirmed that director Jackson is hard at work on new extra features to accompany another Blu-Ray set that will include the extended cuts of each movie, let out just in time for Jackson's theatrical debut of The Hobbit.
It's really no surprise that the Blu-Ray transfers on all three films in this trilogy easily best the quality of all previously issued standard DVD editions. However, The Fellowship of the Ring seems to look slightly softer than expected - most certainly, less refined in its fine detailing than the second and third film on Blu-Ray.
The stylized picture elements throughout all three films exhibit a refined clarity that is quite stunning. Contrast levels are beautifully realized with deep saturated blacks. Again, fine detail and overall image sharpness is better on the second and third films.
A quick internet search has suggested that the first film's lack of sharpness is due to the lower budget of the first movie and its less than stellar post production tinkering; a claim this reviewer finds erroneous at best since Jackson was off in New Zealand shooting all three movies simultaneously - hence all three were edited employing the same digital equipment. Whatever the case, the eyes do not lie and the first movie is definitely not on par in visual clarity with the second two instalments.
The audio on all films is TruHD lossless, startling clear and aggressive across all channels and all three movies. Extras are virtually all direct imports from the existing standard DVDs and include extensive featurettes covering every aspect of each film’s production, interviews with cast members, intimate critiques of Tolkien’s works, special effects deconstruction, a shameless promo for the video game equivalent to each movie and each film's original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Fellowship of the Ring 4
The Two Towers 3
The Return of the King 3.5
The Fellowship of the Ring 3.5
The Two Towers 5
The Return of the King 5