New on Blu-ray: The Lord of the Rings – The Motion Picture Trilogy (Extended Edition)

The word “epic” is a must when discussing anything related to Peter Jackson’s big-screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” saga. Everything about the endeavor screams epic — from the eight years it took Jackson to realize and complete production on all three films, utilizing nearly $300 million dollars to make it happen, to the unenviable task given to Jackson and his writers of condensing Tolkien’s massive tomes into three films. But despite stretching the running time on all three installments as far as theatrical releases could get away with, it was inevitable that a lot of footage still got left on the cutting room floor. How much footage was snipped? Combined, over 120 minutes — a whole movie! Jackson would eventually release all three films in extended versions on standard DVD, and now for the first time, you can get all three extended versions on Blu-ray when “The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy” Extended Edition arrives June 28, 2011 from New Line Home Video, featuring a whopping 15-disc set that includes over 26 hours of bonus content.

The Oscar®-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy, revered as one of the most thrilling epic adventures in motion picture history and one of the highest grossing adventure film franchises to ever be created, was born with the release of The Fellowship of the Ring™, followed by The Two Towers™ and The Return of the King™. Now they are offered on Blu-ray with more than 2 hours of extended scenes that were carefully selected under the supervision of director Peter Jackson. Out of the 30 total Academy Award nominations received, The Lord of the Rings movies won a record 17 Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and 8 others for the third film. Based on the best-selling novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, Jackson’s movie trilogy is an epic journey of men, hobbits, elves, dwarves and the rest of Middle-earth’s creatures and cultures. The films chronicle the struggle of good versus evil with fantastic special effects and a strong emotional center; capturing the enduring fellowship and ultimate sacrifice while enhancing the chaos and destruction of Middle-earth.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition (2001)

With the help of a courageous fellowship of friends and allies, Frodo embarks on a perilous mission to destroy the legendary One Ring.

The Movie:

At its core, “The Fellowship of the Rings”, the first in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is a very simple story about a young, naive boy who yearns for adventure in the big city, unaware of the dangers that awaits him beyond his simple, but safe small town. In this case, the boy is Frodo (Elijah Wood), a Hobbit who resides within the idyllic confines of The Shire. When he’s tasked by his friend and respected wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) with delivering a ring of unimaginable power, Frodo leaps at the chance at adventure. Of course, what the young man expects, and what really awaits him outside The Shire, is more dangerous than he can possibly imagine.

For the Lord Sauron has returned, with an eye (see what I did there?) towards resuming his dominance over Middle Earth. Gandalf, Frodo, and a select few stand in his way: the capable but mysterious Ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the arrow-slinging Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the ax-wielding dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and nobleman Boromir (Sean Bean). Frodo has his own Hobbit entourage as well: his best friend Sam (Sean Astin), and bickering buddies Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). Their mission: take the One Ring to Mt. Doom, the only place where it can be destroyed, and thus end Sauron’s takeover bid of Middle Earth. Of course, knowing where you must go is one thing, getting there is another story entirely.

Adapted for the screen by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, like the other two installments in the trilogy, is a monstrous undertaking. Not only does Jackson have to worry about doing justice to Tolkien’s beloved tome (and not anger the faithful), but he must also ensure that “Fellowship” is easy enough to understand so that non-readers of the books can grasp the legion of characters and their various backstories. And he did it. Even if you didn’t know a single thing about Middle Earth, Jackson has made the story completely accessible and thrilling and faithful, all at the same time. By the time it’s over, you’re dying to see “The Two Towers”.

The Discs:

Where to begin? “The Fellowship of the Rings” consists of five discs (two Blu-rays and three DVDs), with the movie cut into two parts on two Blu-ray discs. The Blu-rays, besides the extended versions of “Fellowship”, also contains four feature-length audio commentaries, one with Peter Jackson and the writers, and another with the cast. Two other separate tracks are devoted to the design team and production teams for those of you who really, REALLY have to get into the nitty and gritty of production. But what most fans will really care about are the extra 30 minutes of footage that have been added to the movie, making the final running time over 3 and a half hours. The new content spends more time in The Shire before the fellowship and later, at Rivendell.

The DVDs contain your usual assortment of behind-the-scenes features, including a full-length documentary on the making of the film by Costa Botes on its own disc. If you’ve ever wanted to know how an epic film was made, you will have a treasure trove of material to wade through here. Frankly, I get more than a little winded just thinking about having to go through all of them again.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Extended Edition (2002)

In the middle chapter of this historic movie trilogy, the Fellowship is broken but its quest to destroy the One Ring continues.

The Movie:

If “The Fellowship of the Ring” felt like a cautionary tale of “be careful what you wish for”, then “The Two Towers” is a full-scale war movie, complete with an army of killer Orcs — essentially evil, demonspawn creatures literally spat out from the bowels of a dark, damp hole in the earth. Footsoldiers of Sauron, the Orcs have one goal — wipe mankind off the face of Middle Earth. Of course, to do that they will have to burn, pillage, and ransack their way through the nation of Rohan first, and then contend with the heavily fortified Helm’s Deep, where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli make their last stand alongside Rohan’s king Theoden (Bernard Hill) against the rolling tide.

Not to be outdone, Frodo and Sam have continued on their way to Mordor, now with the deformed Gollum (Andy Serkis), a former owner of the One Ring, as their guide. Other survivors of the Fellowship, including Pippin and Merry, have found new alliances within the forbidden forests of Middle Earth, and plans to take the battle to Sauron’s right-hand man, the Wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) in his fortress at Isengard. Meanwhile the death of Gandalf has been greatly exaggerated, and the freshly reconstituted Wizard returns just in the nick of time to turn the tide of battle at Helm’s Depp. And if you didn’t think Gandalf can kick ass, you don’t know Gandalf, cause he kicks plenty of ass in this one.

Although it takes a while to get there, “The Two Towers” delivers big time with the Battle of Helm’s Deep. While Frodo and Sam continue on their not-so-merry way to destroy the One Ring, and Merry and Pippin have their little adventures in the woods (and then later, at Isengard), it’s the desperate, monsoon rain-drenched fight for Helm’s Deep that seizes and holds the imagination. There are actually times when I wished “The Two Towers” would ditch the Hobbits completely, instead focusing entirely on Aragorn as he begins to make his journey back home (albeit in a most circuitous route), and becoming the champion of what seems to be a hopeless cause along the way. If you’ve ever wanted to see 10,000 Orcs lay siege to a mountainside castle in the middle of a heavy downpour, “The Two Towers” has you covered.

The Discs:

As with the “Fellowship” discs, “Two Towers” comes in a five-disc bundle, with the movie split onto the two Blu-ray discs (not a big fan of this) that also features four separate full-length audio commentary tracks, identical to the breakdown for the “Fellowship” commentaries. The extended edition includes over 40 minutes of extra footage, extending the movie to just shy of a 4-hour running time. As with the re-incorporated “Fellowship” footage, the extra 40 minutes for “Two Towers” are seamlessly added into the movie, much of it towards the end, but there are also some fleshing out of Eowyn and Aragorn, and an old comrade from “Fellowship” thought lost resurfaces. All of this makes for a richer movie experience, to be sure.

The three DVD discs are similar in terms of bonus content to the “Fellowship” discs, with highlights including a featurette on Gollum as played by Andy Serkis, who really embodied the character. You also get another full-length behind-the-scenes documentary by Costa Botes that, like the other two, is quite fun.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Extended Edition (2003)

The final battle for Middle-earth begins. Frodo and Sam, led by Gollum, continue their dangerous mission toward the fires of Mount Doom in order to destroy the One Ring.

The Movie:

Aragorn finally takes center stage in the third and final installment of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Return of the King”. While Sam and Frodo are STILL continuing on their neverending quest to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, with the conniving Gollum still plotting to steal his precious ring back, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf head to the nation of Gondor, where the final battle for Middle Earth is being waged on the front steps of Minas Tirith. As the forces of Sauron assemble for an epic battle that will decide of mankind’s fate, long-time enemies must put aside their differences and join forces.

The culmination of 8 years of development and production and nearly $300 million dollars later, not to mention what must feel like a lifetime of commitment by the cast and crew, “The Lord of the Rings” wraps in fine fashion, with a battle on the Pelennor Fields to decide the fate of Gondor and Middle Earth. But wait, that’s not all! Sam and Frodo’s journey finally comes to a head (thank GOD, right?), as the friends at last reach Mt. Doom, but will Frodo finally succumb to the power of the One Ring? After all, no one has ever been able to resist it before, and here, its charms are even more powerful now that they’re literally in Sauron’s back yard. And even if Frodo doesn’t succumb, Sauron’s forces have reconstituted itself, and are converging for the kill. What’s a little Hobbit to do? Ask for a little help from his friends, of course.

There’s a reason “The Return of the King” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning all 11 (which I have to think is a first, right?), including Best Picture and Best Director for Peter Jackson. The film would eventually go on to gross over $1 billion dollars worldwide, surpassing the original ($870 million) and “The Two Towers” ($925 million). Although “Return” is a fine way to cap off the trilogy, it’s not necessarily the best film in my opinion, but because it is the last, rewarding it (critically and commercially) was the same as rewarding not the individual movies, but the trilogy as a whole. In terms of action, “Return” comes close but doesn’t surpass the desperate and brutal struggle of Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers”, though it certainly has plenty of its own haunting moments. And of course, there are those multiple endings that probably left non-Tolkien readers a little exhausted, but no doubt delighted fans of the books.

The discs:

“Return of the King” offers up the same breakdown in terms of discs (2 Blu-rays and 3 DVDs) as “Fellowship” and “Two Towers”, as well as the commentary tracks (Jackson and the writers on one, the cast on another, etc.) I’m no Blu-ray expert, but I have to wonder if splitting up the movie into two discs was really necessary. Then again, when you count the additional footage (a whopping 50 extra minutes this time around), the extended edition of “Return of the King” clocks in at well over 4 hours and change, giving us more time with the characters, notably Eowyn, the doomed Faramir, and revealing the fate of bad guy Saruman.

The remaining 3 DVD discs offer all the behind-the-scenes featurettes you’ll ever need, including yet another (and final) full-length documentary by Costa Botes.

The Set:

The 15-disc set comes in a nicely crafted “gold” box case that opens up to reveal the three movies that make up the trilogy in their own separate cast holders, each one containing their two Blu-ray discs and three bonus feature DVDs. I am still not the biggest fan of splitting the movies onto two Blu-ray discs, and honestly, I couldn’t tell you if this was necessary or not, but it is a bit annoying having to get up and swap the disc in the middle of a movie. A minor nitpick: the Blu-ray quality is so good that you actually notice very clear flaws in a lot of the film’s CG, especially during many of the army-wide battle scenes. It’s worth keeping in mind that the trilogy began in 2001, so the film is a decade old in terms of CG filmmaking technology.

Buy “The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy” Extended Edition on Blu-ray June 28, 2011 from New Lne Home Video.