Lord of the Rings: Extended Edition review

Whenever Hollywood produces a film based on a book, it never seems to take long for someone to snidely point out that the book was better than the movie. Books can take a more leisurely pace to tell their tale, can dedicate pages or even chapters to a single character's development, and can interact with a user (in that case, the reader) at his or her own pace. Movies, on the other hand, substitute scenery for substance and ask little to no mental involvement.

Finally, however, in The Fellowship of the Ring (Warner Home Video, 208 minutes, rated PG-13) we have a movie (or at least the first third of a movie) that has risen above its literary predecessor instead of falling far below; Peter Jackson has turned J.R.R. Tolkien's plodding, sprawling, sexist seminal work into a tight, enjoyable piece that lacks none of the former's integral flavors.

Tolkien may have been many things, among them a great historian and master linguist, but a storyteller he was not. He was employed as an English professor (a notoriously dry lot) at the University of Oxford when first he began to build a world, populate it with various races - all speaking their own languages - and give it a rich and complex history. Then, because no one would want to read such a thing, he wove in a bit of a quest story to make his opus marketable.

The book he wrote became The Lord of the Rings, which was then divided by his publisher into three shorter (yet still voluminous) bodies, the first titled The Fellowship of the Ring. Charting a similar course, director Peter Jackson has made one nine-hour film, divided into three installments. Part II, The Two Towers, has just been released to theaters, and the first is now available on a deluxe multi-disc DVD set.

This is the second release of Fellowship on DVD; the first, in August, was the theatrical version, with very few special features. Three months later a deluxe "Extended Edition" was released; housed on four discs, the set included many newly inserted or restored scenes, as well as two discs of fascinating behind-the-scenes material. There is also a Collector's Gift Set that includes the extended edition, two bookends and a bonus National Geographic presentation on a separate disc.

Frodo Baggins is a young Hobbit, a short, stumpy creature who lives in a barrow beneath a hill. When he's left a mysterious and powerful ring, he finds his life turned upside down. Soon he's off on a quest to return the ring to the place where it was forged, accompanied by his best friend and a few fellow travelers they meet on the way.

The film works as well as it does because Peter Jackson didn't try to compress the entire novel into one movie. The pages and pages of detailed minutiae of the world of Middle-earth with which Tolkien padded his pagecount make recreating the world for film that much easier - a dozen paragraphs describing the contents of a table may make for dry reading, but they're excellent for production design. Comparatively little of The Lord of the Rings is actually dedicated to Tolkien's quest story, but by paring that down or staging it in the background, the movie can take the time to fully focus on the characters and their actions.

The film itself, with all the new scenes seamlessly edited in, is split between two discs. The intermission comes when Frodo and his companions, after avoiding the dark forces pursuing them, arrive at Rivendell and accept the task of proceeding from there to deliver the One Ring to Mordor. It's actually a quite natural break, and gives the audience (and their collective bladder) a brief respite between the daring chases they've just seen and the deep, fiery darkness that is to come.

There are four full-length commentaries: one with the director and writers, one with the design and effects crew, one with the producers and the rest of the production team and one with the majority of the cast. On the cast track, keep an ear out for John Rhys-Davies' rambling anecdotes about, well, nothing in particular. I get the feeling he just spent the entire time talking about whatever came to mind, and the disc technicians edited it down to things at least tangentially related to the film.

As the Fellowship makes its way across Middle-earth, they often have to choose which path to take. Hindered by elements and hounded by enemies, they find themselves driven toward destinations they might otherwise not choose. No longer able to outrun their pursuers, the band must make the decision of whether to fight or flee at Amon Hen.

True as the film holds to Tolkien's writing, there have been some changes, mostly for the better. For instance, though not an intentional slight on Tolkien's part, women are all but non-existent in the novel, standing quietly by the side while the action takes place. That's just a product of the culture in which Tolkien was raised and the fact that he was setting his new English mythology in a medieval-style world.

Jackson and his writing team removed one extraneous character and gave his small role to Arwen, the Elvish princess who has fallen in love with a mortal man. In doing so, Arwen became a more than scenery; she had a real and important role to play in the fate of the Ringbearer and his friends. About four dozen character-sung songs were removed, many irrelevant locations and even entire passages that didn't fit with the overall tone of the story. While it's certainly beyond the scope of this review to catalogue all the changes, you can find a great examination by DavidK93 here.

Discs three and four contain appendices to the film titled "From Book to Vision" and "From Vision to Reality." Disc three examines the adaptation of the book into a screenplay and planning the film, and designing and building Middle-earth. There is a section about storyboards and pre-visualization, a visit to the workshop where special effects house Weta created the weapons and armor, art galleries and a tour of the wardrobe department. The disc is rounded out by footage from early meetings, moving storyboards and pre-visualization reels, as well as two interactive maps - one following the Fellowship's path across Middle-earth and another showing locations in New Zealand where various parts of the film were shot.

All the content on disc four, if watched straight through, lasts nearly three and a half hours. Here you can learn about bringing the characters to life and giving them the illusion of varying heights; live a day in the life of a Hobbit; hear stories from the set; see galleries of behind-the-scenes photographs and personal cast photos; poke through editorial and visual effects multi-angle progressions; and immerse yourself in a sound design demonstration. The sections on the illusion of size are especially good, revealing the new techniques that the crew developed as well as taking a look at the "bigatures" built to serve as locations.

The National Geographic disc included in the Collectors' Gift Set features an hour-long special that explores Tolkien's history and the influences on his writing, including both mythological overtones and the basis in reality. While entertaining and informative, this feature is available for sale separately, though the standalone edition lacks a few small features and a small collection of photos included here.

What really puts the gift set above any other edition is the inclusion of two Argonath bookends. Based on those giant "talk to the hand" statues between which the Fellowship sailed, the bookends are cast from polystone, a lightweight yet durable plastic that mimics the texture of real stone. The bookends stand about 6" tall, which makes them tall enough to efficiently serve their function.

Created by the people of Gondor, the Argonath honor the kings of old. The two men represented by the statues are Isildur and Anarion, the sons of Elendil, the first king of Gondor. The Argonath were sculpted by Weta artist Mary Maclachlan, who created the "miniatures" (they were eight feet tall) used in actual filming, so they're incredibly accurate representations. Well, except that the one on the left (the younger one) held his axe in a slightly different position, though that's mostly a concern of getting them in the display box.

The outer box features scenic artwork by noted Tolkien artist Alan Lee, and the DVD slipcase resembles a worn leather book. There's a fold-out "map" of all the special features to help you find your way around discs three and four and a chart to let you know which scenes are new or extended, as well as three sample playing cards from Decipher and a "Hobbit-sized" edition of the Lord of the Rings Fan Club magazine. There's also a certificate for one free adult ticket to see The Two Towers, good until the end of December.

If you bought the earlier two-disc version of the Fellowship of the Ring, then you acted too soon; this extended edition is the one worth owning. With superior picture and sound, as well as enough extras to choke a Cave Troll, the extended edition is aimed at anyone who enjoyed the movie or has an interest in the filmmaking process. Hopefully, the next two installments will receive the same lavish treatment as this first section.

And finally, because you know you were wondering, "John Ronald Reuel." His friends called him Ronald.

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