Shiny Shelf


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Four Disc Edition

By J Clive Matthews on 19 November 2002

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Putting an extra half hour onto what was already a pretty lengthy picture is a brave move, especially when bringing this version out just a few months after the cinematic cut was released on DVD – charges of ripping off the fans are pretty much inevitable. Does anyone really need the four-disc version too? Well, I can tell you this much – you don’t need the version which comes with the incredibly tacky bookends. Forking out an extra fifteen quid for some cheap statuettes is a waste of anyone’s money. But then again, ‘Lord of the Rings’ enthusiasts have a lot of crossover with those ‘Dungeons and Drangons’ lot, so maybe tat is a bonus for them.

Having said that, there’s no way to review this DVD quickly and do it justice. There’s simply so much packed onto these four discs it wouldn’t be right to leave anything out. But I’ll do my best to keep it brief. I guess the obvious place to start is with the film.

The extra and extended scenes, combined with significantly cleaned up picture quality (especially with the CGI sequences), add immensely to the melancholic tone while detracting nothing from the pacing and evolution of the central plot. In fact, despite the extra half hour, the film now seems to fly past much more rapidly. This is largely due to the fact that the additions are spread throughout the film – a couple of seconds here, a minute there. Of the 46 scenes that make up the actual movie (48 if you include the credits), 20 have additions, and six are brand new. The majority come in the second half of the movie, after the formation of the Fellowship at the Council of Elrond (which is where disc one ends). Of the 18 chapters on disc two, only 5 remain untouched. Somehow this manages to speed up the charge to the dual climaxes of the film – the flight to the Bridge of Khazad-dum and the final battle with the Uruk-hai that results in the breaking of the Fellowship.

Almost all the additions will primarily appeal to fans of the books, but there is enough for the less literate fans to enjoy as well. The Prologue is extended by a Bilbo voice-over singing the praises of Hobbits and the Shire, further underlining the placidity of their pastoral existence. Bilbo’s birthday party benefits from glimpses of the Sackville-Bagginses and we see the Hobbits out on the lash at the Green Dragon. Frodo and Sam witness the passing of the Elves. There’s more of the Nazgul in Bree and during the flight to the Ford of Rivendell. An expanded Aragorn/Arwen love story, more on the sword of Isildur, and greater Ring-based shenanigans at the Council of Elrond all serve to heighten the menace to the peaceful existence of the Elves, and the inevitability of their passing to the West. On the second disc, amongst the extended battle sequences, we see more of Lothlorien and of Galadriel, increasing the feeling of loss after Gandalf falls at Khazad-dum and witness Galadriel giving gifts to the fellowship that (as readers of the book know) become important in the next two films. Finally Boromir’s role is slightly extended, demonstrating more clearly that he is more than just another of Sean Bean’s slightly threatening semi-villains. Of all the extensions, only the Midgewater Marshes scene seems superfluous, but this is so short it is hard to resent it.

In all, the additions are an improvement to an already excellent film, although to have had to sit through all 200 minutes of the movie as it now stands at the cinema would have been a bit much even for the most committed of fans. The fact it has now been split over two discs (to accommodate the four commentary tracks and ensure maximum picture quality) means that now, if you so wish, you could consider this two movies of an hour and forty minutes each. The split, just after the formation of the Fellowship, is at an ideal spot – just where everyone started hoping for an intermission in the cinema, and just as the film itself shifts direction.

Perhaps the extra viewings have helped, perhaps it’s the new music that’s been added for the extended scenes, but Howard Shore’s score seems to work so much better now than it did when this reviewer first saw the picture in the cinema. I initially felt that Shore’s score was in places overly dramatic – a kind of fantasy version of Korngold’s ‘Gone with the Wind’. It doesn’t grate so much now, and the incidental music now appears spot-on – heightened by the tranquillity of the DVD menus themselves.

Peter Jackson has outdone himself, and created the definitive version of his film in the process. It is next to impossible to begrudge the time it takes to sit through now – unlike other films of similar length (would anybody want to sit through an extended version of ‘Magnolia’? I didn’t think so). Furthermore, as the extended scenes include more of the climactic battle, where Frodo parts from his companions, the fantastic fight choreography now looks even crisper and faster paced than in the cinematic cut, even those who prefer action to exposition will be satisfied with the end result. Now we just have to wait for similar editions of the next two movies.

The Extras

Each of the four commentaries has its own feel, and all brim with just the sort of enthusiasm you’d expect from people willing to embark upon the longest deliberately-planned film shoot in movie history (let’s not forget that ‘Apocalypse Now’ overran considerably). Although, as you’d expect, some of the behind the scenes people are not overly lucid, the breadth and depth of information that can be gleaned from these tracks is so vast that if you care to find out more than is revealed on the documentaries, this is a great place to start. Naturally enough, the ones with Jackson and the cast are the two best, but the others can hardly be brushed aside as filler. They break down as follows:

1. The Director and Writers: featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens.

2. The Design Team: featuring Grant Major (Production Designer), Ngila Dickson (Costume Designer), Richard Taylor (WETA Workshop Creative Supervisor), Alan Lee (Conceptual Designer), John Howe (Conceptual Designer), Dan Hennah (Supervising Art Director/Set Decorator), Chris Hennah (Art Department Manager), and Tania Rodger (WETA Workshop Manager).

3. The Production / Post-Production Team: featuring Barrie Osborne (Producer), Mark Ordesky (Executive Producer), Andrew Lesnie (Director Of Photography), John Gilbert (Editor), Rick Porras (Co-Producer), Howard Shore (Composer), Jim Rygiel (Visual Effects Supervisor), Ethan Van Der Ryn (Supervising Sound Editor/Co-Designer), Mike Hopkins (Supervising Sound Editor), Randy Cook (WETA Animation Designer and Supervisor), Christian Rivers (WETA VFX Art Director), Brian Van’t Hul (WETA VFX Cinematographer), and Alex Funke (Miniature Unit Director Of Photography).

4. The Cast: featuring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, and Sean Bean.

The Documentaries

Introduced by Peter Jackson, who seems aware how difficult they’ll be to negotiate due to the sheer number and length, the first disc covers the years of pre-production work that went into the project through six documentaries (which in turn split up into numerous mini-featurettes). A brief biography of Tolkein and a history of the genesis of the books turns into a discussion by the cast and crew of why The Lord of the Rings has remained so popular over half a century. We then have a brief guide to the genesis of the film (which sadly leaves out the story of how Peter Jackson came to be involved in the project, which is surely an essential factor in how it came to be made), and the difficulties of translating the book for the screen. There is also a pretty interesting look at the location work in New Zealand, showing where each part of Middle Earth was created in our world, but this feels a little rushed. Considering how much work has gone into some of the other documentaries this one, which comes last on the first extras disc, seems to be made up of leftovers more than anything else.

The in-depth discussions of the design process, and the physical creation of the sets, creatures, props and costumes on disc one almost become too detailed, especially as parts of these documentaries are narrated by one of the most boringly-voiced men I’ve ever heard. But in amongst them we get the hilarity of Peter Jackson playing Bilbo in the Bag End set as if he were still in ‘Bad Taste’, and despite the monotony of the voice-over, the level of detail and sheer commitment of the crew becomes increasingly evident. For example, a load of the armour and weapons were forged in steel and beaten by hand, when they surely could have got away with mass-produced painted plastic; they built Hobbiton a year before filming began to allow it to weather in; 12,000 arrows were specially created, different designs for each race; all the weapons and armour are inscribed with Elven runes even though this can’t be seen on screen; they used 12.5 million rings that were hand-assembled to create hundreds of chain mail jackets – 80,000 rings in John Rhys-Davies’ armour alone. These films really are a labour of love, and that applies at every level of the production – even the producers seem genuine in their enthusiasm, and not just because of the hefty piles of cash they must be raking in.

The second disc of features adds a further eleven documentaries, this time focussing more on the actual filming and post-production. These will probably be of the most interest, detailing as they do the difficulties of scaling the actors to the appropriate heights for their various races, seamlessly adding in the CGI, pointing out which creatures were “real” and which were added in later, and the actors discussing their characterisations. The documentaries on this disc effectively demonstrate just why ‘The Lord of the Rings’ has never been filmed as live-action before. Without the technology that’s now available, largely developed by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (which thanks to ‘Star Wars’ prequels producer Rick McCallum some of the crew were able to visit to get an idea of what was possible), this film simply could not have been made. But at the same time, more traditional techniques were also employed – most noticeably forced-perspective, something Jackson originally experimented with in ‘Bad Taste’ over a decade ago, and the replication of sets at different scales to accommodate the requisite sizes of the characters. But even these older, low-budget techniques have been augmented here by more hi-tech solutions, from motion-control to CGI. It’s all pretty damn impressive, really.

Miscellaneous

There’s also an “interactive” map, charting the journeys of Frodo and Gandalf across Middle Earth, which seems largely superfluous, as it just leads to brief clips from the film. Perhaps it’s the Reader’s Digest version – the entire film condensed to a few minutes to act as an aide de memoire? I’d say it’s just fairly pretty filler, which is unnecessary considering the other material available. But having said that, it does give a nicer idea of the geography of the place, which considering how much the film had to condense the book it’s probably useful – after all, the movie doesn’t really give any indication of distance or time, which were important considerations for Tolkein.

Insane is, ultimately, probably the best word to describe the scale of the extras. There’s almost too much stuff on here to take in. The commentary tracks alone would take you nearly twelve hours to sit through back to back. The documentaries last another six hours and then there’s the 2000+ production sketches, stills and behind the scenes photographs (many with commentaries by the artists and crew) and the storyboards and cinematics (some with split-screen comparisons with the finished film). That’s a hell of a lot of material to wade through. Even for the committed it’ll take weeks, but if you can spare the time it’s well worth the effort.


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By J Clive Matthews




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