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Ten Years Later: The Impact of THE LORD OF THE RINGS (Extended Edition Versions)

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Given the breakout success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, people tend to forget what a risky proposition it was.  What Jackson and his crew got from New Line was unparalleled; the studio gave them the resources to make all three movies at the same time, to – in essence – create an entire screen franchise out of a cinematically untested property (save for Ralph Bakshi’s unsatisfying Hobbit and Lord of the Rings cartoons).  Jackson went about this challenge in the most fiscally responsible fashion he could – he got $270 million to make the trilogy, or $90 million a movie, which is chump change when compared to Titanic or Avatar‘s $200-plus million costs – but the potential downside was still huge for New Line.  Basically, if The Fellowship of the Ring (part one, for anyone living under a rock on Mars) tanked, then New Line would be stuck with the two most expensive outtake reels ever made.

To say the gamble paid off would be an understatement; only in Bizarro Earth would people view a worldwide gross of $2.9 billion and seventeen Academy Awards – including ones for Best Director and Best Picture – as merely “okay.”  The Lord of the Rings is a brand now, with scores of acolytes and imitators springing up in its wake (including Peter Jackson himself, who has since deigned to make an epic, three-movie trilogy from The Hobbit‘s relatively slight contours), and for the most part, the series has earned the hype.  In adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy tome, Jackson and his crew offered a model of book-to-screen adaptation.

As Jackson notes in these Extended Editions’ special features, the book is unfilmable, so he had to work hard to find the movie(s) within.  Gone are the months of waiting between Frodo Baggins (a lovely Elijah Wood) receiving the One Ring and embarking to Mordor; buh-bye to fan favorite Tom Bombadil; see ya, Scouring of the Shire – Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens gutted the text in favor of two heroes’ journeys: Frodo making a perilous quest to destroy the ring, and noble warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen, in full-on Han Solo-mode) accepting his kingly inheritance in order to rally Middle-Earth against the Dark Lord, Sauron (played by a CGI-eye that remains one of The Lord of the Rings‘ least threatening elements).

That’s not to say that the three films don’t make time for side-missions and character-building (you’ve got talking trees, dragon warriors, political instability, and a roster of accomplished thespians that includes, at any given moment, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Miranda Otto, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, Brad Dourif, “Flight of the Conchords” founder Bret McKenzie, John Noble, Andy Serkis, and Ian McKellen, who gives the trilogy’s best performance as heroic wizard Gandalf), but everything extra serves to enrich Frodo and Aragorn’s through-lines.  Even at the Extended Editions’ aggregate running time of over twelve hours, there isn’t a lot of fat here, and it’s a tribute to Jackson and Co. that they could preserve the essence of Tolkien’s text while also satisfying the narrative requirements of the mass-market Hollywood blockbuster.

Well, it almost satisfies the requirements of the mass-market Hollywood blockbuster.  As a model of adaptation, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is near flawless.  As a movie trilogy, it falls just shy of perfect.  Acts one and two – Fellowship and The Two Towers – are exceptional examples of epic filmmaking; I enjoyed them in 2001 and 2002, but ten years later, they strike me as genuine masterpieces.  Fellowship introduces the characters with economy and precision (Wood and McKellen, in particular, are so good at establishing the history between their characters in a modicum of screen-time), presents the brutal stakes surrounding their struggle to destroy the ring, and The Two Towers rips the heroes apart, forcing them to navigate through Middle-Earth’s most dangerous locations alone and at hazard.  The tension builds and builds over the two films, and by the time The Two Towers concludes at the battle of Helm’s Deep (a visceral siege that owes more to Black Hawk Down than it does to Ben-Hur), Jackson has set the stage for a conclusion of apocalyptic proportions.

And then, The Return of the King ever so gently drops the ball.

It isn’t a bad movie.  Jackson’s eye for spectacle gets its biggest workout – this thing is massive – and the performances are brilliant, with special honors going to Serkis’ motion-captured Gollum and Astin’s dogged Samwise Gamgee.  There’s just too much served up over four-plus hours (more battles, more monsters, more mad kings, more endings – Return‘s most justifiably derided misstep); the narrative momentum, especially in the Extended Edition, just slips away.  Jackson can’t make it hang together, and what we’re left with is a series of exceptionally good moments.  Samwise’s battle against Shelob the Spider.  The battle of Minas Tirith, which is the only point in Return where the excess pays off (it just builds and builds to more delirious action heights).  Aragorn’s quiet, sad invocation prior to battle at the gates of Mordor.  Frodo at Mount Doom, crazed by the ring.  The Return of the King offers a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, but it’s a less than satisfying one – like so many ‘third movies” before it, it doesn’t stick the landing with the force indicated by its predecessors.

Yet we must not underrate the entire experience because of one film.  The Lord of the Rings remains one of the great screen achievements; it dreams big because it must, because it’s taking on nothing less than our collective dreams of Middle-Earth.

Warner and New Line’s new Extended Edition Blu-rays offer viewers the chance to own the individual Lord of the Rings titles without purchasing the three-film box set; if, for whatever reason, you deem one of the three inessential (a charge I’d never level at Return of the King, despite my issues with it), you can exclude it from your home video collection.  Each five-disc Blu-ray package gets the same bonus supplements and A/V work as the individual films had in the more expensive box set (click HERE for an exhaustive summary of these materials) save for The Fellowship of the Ring; Warner has given it a new digital restoration that is much sharper and more balanced that the print used in the box set.

The other addition is UltraViolet digital copies for each movie.

The three Lord of the Rings Blu-ray packages are now available on Amazon.  Click HERE, HERE, and HERE for their listings.