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Blu Ray Review: The Lord of the Rings

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The Lord of the Rings trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King
2001, 2002, 2003
178 minutes, 179 minutes, and 202 minutes
Rated PG-13 (for intense epic battle scenes and frighting images)
Available for Download, Blu Ray, OnDemand, from Warner on Tuesday, April 6th.

They are the finest fantasy films ever made. The best trilogy of all-time. Winner of seventeen Oscars. With worldwide box office totals of $2.9 billion, with $1 billion of that from the US alone. Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is truly a one-of-a-kind accomplishment. They opened to rave reviews and captured the hearts of audiences worldwide, leading to unheard-of box office and awards for the genre. Yet when the time came to tally up the cinematic achievements of the past decade, the one trilogy to rule them all was strangely missing from many of the lists. Salon asked why there was not more love for this epic adventure series, and I'll reprint here what I wrote back in December of last year.

It's called "blockbuster backlash," and it's not a new phenomenon. I actually found an essay I wrote in early 2005 about this, which stated that The Lord of the Rings "backlash has only recently started." Can you find anyone, film critic or otherwise, who still admits to loving or even liking Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Titanic, or the Lord of the Rings series? Someone did back in the day, as those films made tons of money, back in the olden days when it wasn't so easy to gross $200 million, let alone $300-$600 million. But since it's considered uncool to like something so beloved by the masses, blockbuster backlash has set in, swinging the pendulum in the other direction. What starts as "Oh, it wasn't that great" quickly turns into "That movie was terrible."

The tide of critical opinion almost immediately turns, so that the focus on these films revolves purely on the technical merits, with snide disdain at the idea that the films succeeded for any reasons related to character, story or craftsmanship. "Oh, those films were just about the special effects and the battle scenes," says someone who bawled like a baby during the finale(s) of The Return of the King. "Oh, it was just the groundbreaking FX of the dinosaurs," says another who gripped their seat in terror during the raptor kitchen attack in Jurassic Park. We immediately forget that these films were not only popular with the masses, but with the critics too. Titanic received rave reviews upon its release. Jurassic Park received solid notices too, including many ecstatic sighs of relief that Spielberg still had the goods to scare the crap out of us eighteen years after Jaws. And each of the Lord of the Rings films was greeted with a wave of "I can't believe Peter Jackson pulled this off" hysteria, to the point that The Return of the King's Oscar triumph was a foregone conclusion.

Just you wait: The tide is already starting to turn against The Dark Knight ("It only made so much money because Heath Ledger died"), and I can only presume that Avatar is next on the chopping block ("People only went because of the 3D effects," which explains why Captain EO was the century's top-grossing film). This isn't a case of people who disliked the film from the get-go voicing their opinions louder than everyone else. This is a case of mass amnesia that renders any prior smash hit as something to be disdained by the critical elite, which then filters down to the general public. Regardless of why their stock has inexplicably fallen, Peter Jackson's adaptation of JRR Tolkien's groundbreaking fantasy series remains the awe-inspiring, exquisitely-cast, wonderfully acted, and emotionally-draining powerhouse that it was starting in December 2001. Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King combined represent the crowning cinematic achievement of the last ten years, as well as one of the true pinnacles in filmmaking history.

I'm assuming that if you're reading a review of the Blu Ray release of The Lord of the Rings, you probably agree at least in part with the statements above. Watching the films again, as I do every few years, I am always struck at how Ian Holm completely owns the first third of Fellowship of the Ring. As the aged (in spirit if not in body) Bilbo Baggins, Holm brings the full weight of a man who has the choice of living forever, but instead has finally decided to allow his himself to die. His scenes with Ian McKellan's Gandalf are magical and are priceless in establishing the humanity and inherent tragedy within this fantasy world. The films will of course eventually give way to spirited chases, Campellian-heroics, and epic battles inter-spliced with meditations on death, sacrifice, and the horrible burden of living in dark times. But that initial act of Fellowship of the Rings remain the most emotionally poignant right up until the wrongly-mocked finale of The Return of the King (it was the end of a nearly ten-hour saga, did you really want a freeze frame on Mount Doom exploding and then a cut to credits?).

The special effects remain as impressive as ever, because so much of the work is practical and so many of the sets are real New Zealand locations. The acting, from Sean Astin to Sean Bean, remains Oscar-worthy all-around, because everyone treats this material like it is historical fiction rather than outright fantasy. Unlike so many of the franchise pictures before and after, The Lord of the Rings trilogy feels real because so much of it was real. There were real costumes and real weapons, the characters were covered in real sweat and real dirt, and the action was a glorious mix of practical stunt work and state-of-the-art movie magic. The battle scenes remain the most impressive ever put on film, with the mass warfare of The Two Towers and The Return of the King unmatched in spectacle and emotional pull nearly ten years later (only James Cameron's Avatar and John Woo's Red Cliff came close). While one can nitpick here or there (why didn't Gandolf just fly Frodo to Mount Doom on a bloody eagle?), the films are genuine, undisputed masterpieces.

Yes, yes, the films are great. But how are the Blu Rays themselves? Find out by checking out the rest of this article at Mendelson's Memos.