The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Theatrical Editions Blu-ray Review

If there was an award for the most hated Blu-ray release that no one had yet seen, Warner’s Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003) would be in high contention for the prize. Several thousand negative “reviews” have been submitted on Amazon (which brings into question their policy of allowing opinions of unreleased product) all because the studio is not giving us the coveted Extended Editions of Peter Jackson’s epic saga. While I’m in agreement that the Extendeds are overall preferable and eagerly await their high-def debut, having just marathoned the 9.5 hours that is the theatrical LOTR trilogy on BD, I do not feel that I suffered “gimped” thematic output (well ok, I do miss Sauromon’s death scene in ROTK but thats my biggest gripe).

In fact, I demand both versions (the extendeds flesh out plot points from Tolkein’s novels that completists clamor for balanced against arguments that pacing is often better in the theatricals…but there is enough debate about this already) and Warner has openly promised the Extended Editions at a later date (rumored to coincide with the first Hobbit movie which is tentatively slated for late 2011 but nothing official so who knows) so that Jackson has time to make them all that more special for the devoted fans (through tweaking the extended segments and/or producing new special features). Whether this turns out to be empty hoopla or not we’ll see, but pitching a fit now is premature. So many claims that the studio is tricking us helpless consumers into purchasing both editions are unfounded as no one has a gun at their head forcing them to buy the theatrical versions on BD and can patiently, or not, wait for the Extended Editions.

If you think that Warner is being greedy by not giving us both editions at once, at least the studio has been honest about its intent to release the HD versions separately. I will join the cries of “double dipping” if the BD extended versions really do not offer any benefit that could not have seen release currently or there is some eventual “super special” edition that combines both versions (ala seamless branching like the final DVD release) and includes all the hours upon hours of bonus features from both sets but even then how long will we have to wait to get that (assuming it ever materializes). For the present make up your own mind and enjoy LOTR on BD.

High-Def Presentation

The real question is does the trilogy deliver in high-def and the answer is a reserved yes. Let’s get the good out of the way. The films in 1080p trump their standard-def counterparts where expected including increased resolution, tighter contrast and deeper colors (the greens of the Shire’s grass and red of Gimli’s beard have great saturation and the subdued palette throughout resolves nicely). I have very little to complain about in either TTT or ROTK with long to medium shots being intentionally softer, close-ups displaying great fine object detail and print sources free of obnoxious speckles and dirt. All in all these transfers are very faithful to the their theatrical presentations (though high-def does make some of the green/blue screen work a tad obvious).

Now the bad. Early complaints about Fellowship’s transfer made me anticipate the worst so while my expectations were arguably lowered, I was also actively looking for deficiencies. I discerned minor edge enhancement and more noticeably the effects of digital filtering, which crops up mainly in the first third to half around the Shire and the beginning of the journey, resulting in undesirable smoothing of the image and an inconsistency to detail levels accompanying grain structures that are subdued in some scenes while spiking in others (to nitpick, if you’re going to “clean up” film grain, at least be consistent).

Comparing to my DVD version, these issues are there as well (though made all the more conspicuous on BD) begging the question of whether the scrubbing of the image was introduced in post production for the theatrical release (as those more knowledgeable in the industry have claimed) or during the creation of a first generation high-def master which was recycled for this BD. While I do not want to come off apologizing for the transfer’s deficiencies, its honestly not that bad. Of course, fans do not want “not that bad,” they desire the best picture quality possible and this is LOTR after all.

To gain some perspective, I viewed Paramount’s 2009 BD of Gladiator (which is deservedly the most recent whipping boy for a botched high-def transfer) expecting the worst and got it with egregious noise reduction (missing arrows anyone?), conspicuous edge enhancement ringing throughout and overall digital harshness. Also, if you’ve seen Warner/New Line’s Dark City or Pan’s Labyrinth (which are noted DNR culprits) I do not think Fellowship is nearly as bad and let us not forget a majority of the the trilogy footage is rock solid. By the time Fellowship hits the Mines of Moria segment its quite impressive though that will not console fans expecting perfection.

Well no complaints about the 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix (my player displays it as 5.1 but I have read it’s actually a “matrixed” mix so there is no 7th rear channel needed). After scrutinizing and qualifying the video, suffice to say this lossless audio will not fail to astound making the home theater experience all the more enveloping. It’s hard to know which of the commendable sonic elements to compliment most but whether its Howard Shore’s iconic score that resounds through your surround setup, the cringe inducing screeching of the Nazgul or the thundering of a Cave Troll that will awaken your subwoofer, this is most definitely a soundtrack we can agree rocks.

Beyond the Feature

Bonus features are where the Theatrical versions are noticeably inferior to their Extended cousins, with the latter providing some of the most comprehensive and exhausting put to home video. Three DVDs are provided that duplicate the standard-def supplements from the 2-disc DVD theatrical releases with the only upgrades being HD versions of the teaser and full trailers (plus those for newer video game tie-ins) on the BDs.

The DVD supplements include 6 Documentaries, 30 Featurettes (29 from, 32 TV spots, 2 Music Videos, a short film by Sean Astin and previews of the theatrical films and extended DVDs (showing no effort was made to hide how the bonus content is straight up duplicated from the DVD editions). Though these may sound impressive on pure quantity, quality wise these are closer to promotional level fluff when you compare to the depth of the Extended Edition supplements. But if the logic holds that the Theatrical versions are for the average moviegoer who does not need to pry into every “behind the scenes” nook and cranny then these bonus videos may hit the spot.

Lastly the BDs are BD-Live enabled for supposed future “exclusive features” and there are digital copies for PC and Mac of all three films though it is beyond me why anyone would want to watch these visual epics on a portable device.

The Theatrical Version of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy on BD is not perfect but for some it never could be. While the average viewer may be intimidated by nine and a half hours of fantasy viewing pleasure, die hard fans consider this Blu-ray set a place holder till they get the 11 plus hours (plus ridiculously in-depth supplements) that are the Extended Editions of Peter Jackson’s flicks in high-def.

The real controversy here is with the video issues that plague early segments of Fellowship. There is no denying they exist and those sensitive to the effects of noise reduction with large enough displays will be put off (but again to play devil’s advocate, I have definitely seen worse and the video quality does not stoop to “Gladiator bad” levels making the flick unwatchable). Debate will rage as to whether Warner was lazy and screwed up Fellowship’s transfer or is this just the best that could be done. We’ll see how the FOTR Extended Edition BD footage fares (whenever we are graced with it) but in the meantime I will be enjoying the Lord of the Rings in the best home video presentation its yet had.

– Robert Searle

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