Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Epic Redux Vol. 1 - The Fellowship Of The Ring Is Made Even Better!

The Good: Great acting, directing, characters, plot, special effects, Wonderful DVD bonus features
The Bad: Some of the bonus features are repetitive.
The Basics: With far more footage in the film and in the bonus features, The Fellowship Of The Rings - Extended Edition is THE version to own!

It's a rare thing when a director returns to a film and is able to make it better by tweaking it and reinserting loads of extra material. Indeed, the only film that comes instantly to mind where the "Special Edition" truly was a worthwhile and special edition was truly special was Aliens. The Lord Of The Rings - The Fellowship Of The Ring - Special Extended Edition DVD is an almost completely new cut and in many ways bears little resemblance to the theatrically released The Fellowship of the Ring.

For those a few years out of the loop, The Lord Of The Rings was a trilogy of novels by writer J.R.R. Tolkein set in the fantasy realm of Middle Earth. Tolkein started with a volume called The Fellowship Of The Ring (click here for my review of the novel!) which was a sequel to an earlier novel, The Hobbit which introduced Middle Earth to a wide readership. Some sixty years later, The Lord Of The Rings was made into one of the most successful film trilogies in history by writer/director Peter Jackson and scores of others involved in the project. Because of the difficulties of selling a film to mass audiences that is well over three hours long, Peter Jackson decided - well in advance of the first theatrical premiere - to release two versions of each of the films in the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy; the theatrical release and the Special Extended cut for the DVD release. With The Fellowship Of The Ring, the difference is between a film that is just under three hours and one that is 208 minutes long. But of course, the difference is more than that, there is a much more lush and well-defined world illustrated in the extended edition. But for those unfamiliar with the series at all, let's backtrack for a moment.

Approximately a thousand years ago in Middle Earth, evil walked the planet incarnate in the form of the heavily armored Sauron. Outnumbered by the legions of men, elves, dwarves, and other generally good folk, Sauron decided that he needed to soften up his enemies before attacking them outright. He sent out rings to tempt and monitor and alter his enemies. He bound the power of each of the lesser rings with his own malice tempered into the One Ring. Then, armed with his evil armies and the One Ring, Sauron went out into the world and began to enslave it. An army of men and elves rose up to thwart him and as luck was with them, Sauron managed to be killed and the One Ring fell into the hands of a human, Isildur, who refused to give it up or destroy it. The ring granted him invisibility and while he held it for a time, it soon fell from his grasp when he was killed in a stream.

(And that's only the first ten minutes!) Jump forward to the "present day" in Middle Earth, to the birthday party of Bilbo Baggins, hobbit and adventurer - the latter part being quite unlike the other hobbits. Arriving for the party is Gandalf, a wizard, who becomes suspicious of Bilbo when, at the height of his birthday party, he disappears while making a speech. Gandalf and Bilbo leave the ring in the possession of Bilbo's nephew Frodo, though Gandalf soon returns, convinced the ring is the One Ring. He charges Frodo with getting as far away from the Shire (the Hobbit state) as quickly as possible and sends him and his friend Samwise Gamgee to the Elven city of Rivendale.

On the path to Rivendale, Frodo and Sam are joined by Pippin and Merry, two hobbits who have nothing better to do than accompany them. They are pursued by deathless wraiths, shadowy riders who are the remnants of the kings of men who were given Sauron's lesser rings. They hunt whomever has the One Ring and they are hot on the heels of Frodo and his gang, even when they are joined by an ally of Gandalf's, Strider. Even Strider and his methods are not enough to keep the black riders from catching up with the group and Frodo is struck down by one of them. Rescued by an elf maiden, Arwen, Frodo is brought to Rivendale, where Gandalf and the elf lord Elrond decide that because Frodo seems to have a natural resistance to the One Ring, he should be the one to carry it to Mount Doom, the only place in Middle Earth the One Ring may be destroyed.

Elrond sends Frodo on his mission, accompanied by the three hobbits, Gandalf, Strider, an elf named Legolas, a dwarf named Gimli, and a man named Boromir. Getting the mission is only the beginning and the Fellowship of the Ring, as they come to be known, is soon beset by obstacles, plagues and tragedies from within and without the Fellowship.

Wow, I don't think I've ever spend so much space in a review of mine simply recounting the plot of a film! The truth is, with a film that clocks in at three and a half hours, one hopes that it has quite a bit going on. The Fellowship Of The Ring certainly has a lot of plot to fill in to clearly establish the world of Middle Earth. Because all of the episodes in the The Lord Of The Rings trilogy happen in Middle Earth, it's essential to paint the fantasy realm as vividly as possible and truly take the viewer to the realm where they will be spending - if Jackson does it right - ten hours (over the course of the three films). Attentive to that idea, in the Extended Cut, Jackson adds a whole chapter following the prologue to more accurately describe who and what the hobbits are as a race.

The added discourse on the nature of hobbits offers some levity early in the film, which is nice given how the film soon is transformed into a desperate quest to save the world while being chased by all forms of evil. Bilbo's monologue on what makes hobbits special and unique adds an additional sense that the quest Frodo is set on is a true burden one that goes against the grain of his own instincts. That Frodo is still willing to undertake the quest gives him the trappings of the hero.

The scene giving the sociology lesson on hobbits is not the only additional scene in the Extended cut. There is a scene that illustrates the passing of time and alludes to the growing threat when Frodo and Sam have an evening out at the Green Dragon. The pair witness the elves passing through the woods on their way to the ships that will carry them away from Middle Earth forever. As well, the first five companions journey through a marsh, Strider visits his mother's grave and the full Fellowship departs Rivendale. The additional scenes serve to create a more broad sense of Middle Earth and often do not, in the strictest sense, enhance the straight plot or even main characters of The Fellowship Of The Ring. But they do give a more firm sense of place and a richer sense of what is involved with the task at hand.

In addition to the six scenes unique to the DVD, there are twenty scenes that are extended on the Extended Edition DVD. Unlike some form of prototype or test screening, the extended cut features fully mastered shots integrated seamlessly into the film. The addition of new material is so precise that it could easily go unnoticed (indeed, if a viewer starts with this version and then tries out the theatrical cut they are more likely to see what it missing than to notice all of the additional material if they go the standard way!) and is so professionally done that it includes an entirely redone soundtrack to adapt the score to the longer scenes. And it's flawless!

The Extended Edition cut of The Fellowship Of The Rings becomes THE version to recommend because it is a rich, complex film that is not afraid to take its time in developing a nuanced setting.

Of course, the setting is not the end all and be all of the story. The film centers on characters, characters called upon to rise out of the ordinary or their circumstances and become what the world needs of them. Therefore, it is worthwhile to know who the essential characters in The Fellowship Of The Ring are. The noteworthy characters (keep in mind there are over fifty credited castmembers) include:

Frodo Baggins - A hobbit and pretty much one of the typical shirefolk who is happy to hang around Hobbiton with little sense of adventure. Tapped by Elrond and Gandalf to destroy the One Ring, Frodo reluctantly takes on the quest despite being rather small in a world filled with big people and even bigger creatures,

Samwise Gamgee - Another hobbit, a cook and long-time friend of Frodo. Charged with Gandalf to keep Frodo safe, Sam enthusiastically brings Frodo to Rivendale as he actually was eager to see elves. Shy and sweet on a barmaid in the Shire, Sam follows Frodo but yearns to return home,

Gandalf The Grey - A wizard (which is not the same as a man), he is a clever immortal who delights in the company of more simple folk and soon becomes troubled by the evil that is closing in on Middle Earth. When the One Ring of Sauron resurfaces, he knows that this is an omen for more evil to come and sets to getting the ring destroyed before it can help bring Sauron back,

Strider/Aragorn - A man, a Ranger, which is basically a survivalist in Middle Earth. He is an expert swordsman and knows how to forage for food in the wild and serves as an excellent guide to the hobbits. And he cleans up well in Rivendale where we learn that he is a man with a lineage (he is a descendant of Isildur) and a destiny (to thwart Sauron). He is in love with Elrond's daughter, Arwen,

Boromir - A man from Gondor, the strongest nation of men, son of the regent. He sees the One Ring as an opportunity to free the nation's of men by using the power it holds against Sauron. When he's voted down by others at the Council, Boromir becomes troubled and obsessed with the ring,

Saruman The White - A powerful wizard who Gandalf soon learns has turned from reason and kindness over to Sauron's side,

The Nine Black Riders - These undead versions of the kings of men hunt Frodo and Sam and everyone else through the first half of the film. They are relentless, evil and appear unstoppable,

and Sauron - He appears solely as an Eye in the main portion of the film. He is not yet corporeal, but it seems his essence is calling the ring and if it can be reunited with its master, Sauron will take form and be invincible. Yes, don't look behind the curtain; the main villain of the film is not even real!

The Fellowship Of The Ring is populated by wonderful characters and the performances of the actors - even those of the lesser-featured characters - was enough to launch the careers of many. The actors are pretty exceptional and while most of them deserve mentioning, the bulk of the film falls upon the shoulders of two actors to carry: Sir Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood. While Viggo Mortensen's turn as Strider is impressive, rewatching the first chapter of the series reveals that he is not focused on nearly as much as one might thing (his influence increases with each film).

Sir Ian McKellen plays Gandalf and his role is a remarkably subtle and difficult one. As Gandalf, McKellen is often forced to relay large quantities of exposition to the audience. Gandalf is a fountain of wisdom and McKellen is charged with delivering important information on the nature of the One Ring, Sauron, Middle Earth and the path to Mount Doom while making it all sound plausible and interesting. McKellen manages to do it! What Tolkein failed to do in the novel - make the book seem like something more entertaining than a history text - McKellen achieves wonderfully as essentially the narrator for many sections. McKellen creates the sense early on that Gandalf is a credible source and someone who has both a temper and a gentle heart. This role is unlike almost any other I have seen him in and after seeing him in roles like he had in Gods And Monsters it's wonderful to see such a completely different performance for him!

Also rising to the occasion and well beyond it is Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. Frodo is a reluctant hero, like a kid who would rather sit home and goof off with his friends when he suddenly discovers he has a destiny, and Wood plays that uncertainty to the hilt. The magic of Wood's performance is that Frodo is deeply conflicted and unsure of a great many things, but Wood's performance never makes the viewer think the performer lacks confidence or is unsure of anything. Instead, Wood has the ability to convincingly play Frodo as a hobbit who is unsure of his steps and his mastery with the role comes when Frodo asks questions. Wood brings a sense to him that has Frodo asking his many questions in a way that indicates he can listen and while he is unsure of much of the world around him, he is willing to learn about it and wants to do right by Gandalf and the others.

In the final analysis, this is a pretty classic tale of good versus evil, even if evil is mostly disembodied. And thus it comes down to how the story is told and in what setting. Middle Earth, as created by Peter Jackson and the team at Weta Workshops is a beautiful and well-defined world that has some obvious appeal to it.

On DVD, this extended edition sets standards for both the source material and the bonus features. The feature film spans two discs and there is no option to play the theatrical version on this DVD. The reason is simple; that would require a SIXTH soundtrack! There is the primary soundtrack for the Extended Edition and FOUR different commentary tracks on both of the first two discs! There is a commentary track featuring cast members, one featuring Peter Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, one featuring production staff and another featuring effects artists and the like! It's a pretty extensive series of commentaries (well, the cast one is just plain fun but not nearly as informative, unless one did not already know that McKellen is gay) and it is rich and fleshes out a great deal of the thought processes behind acting choices, writing decisions, and production elements.

Discs three and four are a treasure trove of additional information on the production, the world of Middle Earth, the genesis of the film project, the labors of love that went into making the extended cut, virtually everything one might ever want to know about the film, how it was made and all the elements that went into making it. There is some (at least a tenth) overlap between the information presented in the commentary and the extensive information presented in the bonus featurettes. The especially decent aspect of the two bonus discs is that the featurettes can be played as one or three very long featurettes on the making of The Fellowship Of The Rings and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy without stopping every few minutes to reload based on the chapter subject ending. It's worth it to simply hit the "Play All" button whenever given the option!

In all seriousness, the bonus features are extensive and basically catalogue every thought that went from translating the book to a script and from the script into a film. There are also two easter eggs: the preview for The Two Towers that was eventually attached to prints of the theatrical version after the film had been in theaters for a while and the MTV movie awards parody of "Fellowship" featuring Jack Black and Sarah Michelle Gellar. It's pretty funny.

Indeed, the only thing lacking from this DVD set is the identity of the actor originally cast to play Aragorn! (It was Stuart Townsend, but you won't find that on the DVD anywhere!)

The extended cut of The Fellowship Of The Ring is the essential edition for anyone looking to get into the film series and add the movie to their permanent collection. The theatrical release DVD is available for archivists and anyone who doesn't truly love fantasy films. But for those who want a movie that will stand the tests of time and will continue to entertain and inform an audience that wants to gain an appreciation of how films are made, this is the only version worth recommending.

For other fantasy films, please visit my reviews of:
Princess Mononoke
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone


For other film reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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