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THE LORD OF THE RINGS – THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)
In the fantasy world of Middle-Earth the young Hobbit Frodo comes into possession of a mysterious ring forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, whose power is beginning to grow anew after a long dormancy. Aided by the wizard Gandalf and a fellowship of warriors, Frodo sets out on a great quest to destroy the ring before the forces of darkness overcome the rest of his world.
I think the consensus from practically everyone in relation to the largely unknown Peter Jackson’s risky epic was ‘my God, he’s actually pulled it off!’ It has the ‘wow’ factor – the sheer breadth of imagination and awe that only comes to the cinema once every decade or so. It is also that rare breed of epic; an intelligent, intimate one, carefully crafted and with clear purpose. In an era of brain-dead action movies on CGI overdrive its visuals not only impress in their excellence but also in their restraint. You admire and wonder at them, but they never overwhelm.
Everything about this film just works so well, and from a source novel most people thought was unfilmable. The production detail is remarkable, convincing and clearly a labour of love. The New Zealand landscapes spectacular and agreeably other-worldly. The special effects, delivered by New Zealand based Weta Workshop, not only take on and match the Hollywood big boys but actually exceed them. Imagination and poetry are at work everywhere in this film. Some shots are so beautifully composed that you wish you could apply freeze-frame in the theatre and just gawp at them; yet the film is never self-conscious or seeking to linger on its own beauty – there is too much at stake here, too many reputations to be earned, too much plot to advance – and the pulse of this film is that the story always comes first.
Character is the film’s key to greatness. For all the wonderful images and breathless action sequences, it is the people and story who are unswervingly given centre stage. You get to know them quickly but thoroughly, thanks to excellent writing and a brave 3-hour running time. And for all the fantasy setting, strange creatures and weird magic going on, these characters seem real and believable; the whole Middle-Earth milieu entirely grounded. Casting is crucial to this – everyone seems absolutely right for the part they are playing. You wonder for a while whether Sean Bean and Viggo Mortensen might have swapped roles but then eventually become won over by Mortensen’s subtle charisma and magnetism – he is Aragorn.
Jackson’s direction never puts a foot wrong; the film has flair and meticulous technique throughout. Characters are kept to the forefront, never just dropped in on scenes designed to show off sets or special effects (George Lucas take note). The story progresses confidently and smoothly, helped by the fact that this was always the most linear and cohesive of Tolkien’s three volumes; something the other films will have to overcome. Action sequences are spectacular yet have a strangely intimate feel – not the giant battles expected of future instalments.
The only quibble is that the pace falters a little after Gandalf’s departure. In a uniformly fine cast Ian McKellan still stands out and the film is inevitably the poorer without him, but this is a minor point. You leave the theatre knowing you have seen a modern masterpiece, a film which raises the bar of film making and lifts the fantasy genre to an entirely new level.
The Extended Edition
I was initially wary of this release – fearing a crude, exploitation piece with unnecessary material levered back in to extract a fast extra buck. I could not have been more wrong. Peter Jackson is careful not to label this film a ‘Directors Cut’ for fear of tarnishing his theatrical original, but that is exactly what this is; the definitive version of ‘Fellowship’ with new or extended scenes carefully inserted to make for an even more compelling and enriching experience.
Most of the new material is designed to enhance character and motivation. Action sequences remain pretty much the same and the film doesn’t add anything groundbreaking, but everything is given that extra little bit of depth. We get more of Hobbiton, more of Bilbo, more of Galadriel, more of Rivendell – and its all revealing stuff that gives a better take on the characters and story. In all 30 minutes are added, giving a running time of around 3h.20, but you can barely see the joins, so well integrated is the new material. Not only that, but Jackson appears to have subtly altered the editing of some original sequences. The ending now seems a little better paced (though he could still have cut a bit out of the fall of Boromir).
The theatrical version served an honest purpose of showing a long movie that bore in mind an audience’s patience and comfort. The extended cut is perfect for the home market who have a little more time and do not necessarily even have to watch the film in one sitting. The fact that it is split over two disks helps! But don’t be surprised if, in time, it is this version which replaces the cinema release as the officially approved record of Fellowship.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS – THE TWO TOWERS (2002)
With the Fellowship now divided, its heroes must take different paths along the route to victory over Sauron. Frodo and Sam continue towards their destiny at Mount Doom while warriors Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli try to recover the two kidnapped hobbits in the hands of Saruman’s henchmen.
Director Peter Jackson wastes no time with prologues or resume’s in this breathless, no nonsense, but problematic mid-point to his ground breaking trilogy. Apart from a brief reprise of Gandalf’s fate to deliver a rousing opening, its straight on from where the original story left off as the Fellowship, now divided into three clear factions, pursue their individual fates.
Clearly a nightmare to write, film and edit, Towers takes a lot of liberties with the original book; transferring many of its key scenes to The Return of the King and radically changing some characters and situations. On reflection, the fact that it turns out as well as it does is something of a miracle.
In following different strands and being denied both a beginning and an end, the film is inevitably more episodic than its predecessor and the story is less clearly defined and progressive. New characters are hastily introduced without the time or care afforded in the first film, and many of them disappear with little explanation for long periods. There is evidence throughout (but particularly in the first hour) of hasty editing and the need to inject pace and action to cover up a lack of real narrative drive. Indeed, after three exhausting hours of spectacle it remains pretty obvious that the story has not moved on in any significant way.
Jackson compensates for this by delivering a full-blooded action adventure, more grounded in genuine fantasy than Fellowship. No compromises are made on the more fantastic elements of Tolkien’s imagination, such as giant elephants, winged beasts and the tree-like Ents, which might have been by-passed by a less confident director worried about straying into Neverending Story territory.
If characterisation is sacrificed to action and special effects in this theatrical version the actors still get plenty of opportunity to show their worth, particularly Sean Astin and Viggo Mortensen, whose heroic, leading man status is cemented here. Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee are disappointingly underused this time around and even Elijah Wood’s Frodo becomes more marginalised; but these are all reflections of the book and Tolkien’s decision to fragment his story.
The real star of the show, however, is Gollum; CGI created but based on an actual performance by Andy Serkis, who also supplies the rasping, reptilian voice. An entirely convincing character, more multi-faceted and subtly shaded than anyone else in the film, Gollum steals every scene he is in and along with everything else in the picture, represents yet another quantum leap forward in digital technology.
For all its faults, The Two Towers remains fascinating entertainment and a true example of film operating at the absolute boundaries of the possible. You just have to admire the work of Jackson himself; ceaselessly inventive, bold, uncompromising, relishing the detail and sheer mad imagination of Tolkien’s text, he still manages to deliver a exhilarating spectacle, if not quite as satisfying or emotionally involving a journey as Fellowship.
The Extended Edition
Weighing in with over 40 minutes of additional footage, this longer version overcomes some of the editing problems of the theatrical release and ultimately produces a more flowing and balanced structure. Problems of fragmented narrative will never be entirely overcome, but despite its great length (over 3.5hours) its astonishing how swiftly the film still moves.
As with his extended version of Fellowship, Jackson concentrates most of his additional footage on fleshing out characters, their personalities and backgrounds. In some ways these are versions for people happy to watch the movie in stages and spend a more leisurely time immersing themselves in Tolkien’s world, rather like reading the book. And yet they are also paced to withstand the long-haul of a single viewing. However, I do recommend you take advantage of the natural break between DVD disks!
A lot more time is given over to the comedic elements of the Pippin/Merry/Treebeard story, which helps lighten the otherwise dour mood considerably. This expansion helps the new characters of Rohan and Gondor inparticular, who were introduced with undue haste in the theatrical version. There’s also a nice scene between Aragorn and Eowyn which offers some surprising information about him (he’s 87!) and also gives Viggo Mortensen a welcome opportunity to display some subtle comedic talent. Best of all is a brand new flashback scene involving Boromir, Faramir and their father Denethor which gives considerable insight into their subsequent actions and motivations.
Not all the characters fare better from this version, however. Grima Wormtongue remains something of a pantomime baddy, rather out of place in Jackson’s emphatically grounded world and King Theoden comes across as a weak, obstinate and a strategically poor leader; forever moaning and feeling sorry for himself. I’m not sure it was the film-makers intention to make him so irritating, but it has worked out that way.
It’s the nature of The Two Towers that it will never be as warm or beguiling a film as Fellowship; the atmosphere is more tense, the colours washed-out, the landscapes harsh and foreboding. There are no ethereal Rivendell’s or Lothlorien’s to embrace here; this is a parched land of war and despair. However the film has other qualities: brilliantly realised battle sequences, conflicted and conflicting characters; sweep, spectacle and an astonishingly believable sense of other-worldliness.
When the dust has settled on the cinematic releases, it is these extended cuts which will become the truly definitive versions of these films, ultimately detailing the most remarkable fantasy world yet committed to celluloid.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS – THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
All things gather to a climax as Tolkien’s long-suffering heroes drive towards their eventual fates against the unleashed forces of the Dark Lord Sauron. Peter Jackson’s amazing, exhausting vision of the fantasy heavyweight certainly doesn’t disappoint in its final chapter – testament to the will and energy of its creators and the continuity benefits of filming the whole trilogy at once.
Somewhat ironical, therefore, that King still inadvertently follows the traditional ‘bigger is better’ path of most sequels. We know of course that this is mostly co-incidental; King is not a calculating ‘lets top that’ offshoot of previous hits – it couldn’t be as it was filmed at the same time. It is simply following the course of the novel (in many ways it is the most faithful adaptation of the whole trilogy) which piles on spectacular climax after climax.
This breathless, overwhelming, epic scale is both King’s blessing and curse. Visually, the film is a marvel. By now we are familiar with the sweep of the New Zealand valleys and mountain ranges. But here – on the Frodo and Sam journey inparticular – Jackson cranks up the heat on the studio sets and miniatures to create a Mordor which is like something out of a painting by Bosch – all brooding watch towers, cliff-hugging stairways, dizzying heights, smouldering mountains and lurking dangers.
CGI effects and wonderful miniatures create the most ruthlessly fantastic world yet of winged beasts, trolls, tiered cities and ghost armies. This is no film for the resolutely literal minded – buy into the illusion or avoid at all costs is my advice. Eye-popping action, spectacular vistas and pyrotechnic wonders dominate throughout. It could have ended up as little more than an exercise in technical virtuosity, but as usual Jackson knows how to ride to the rescue. Not for him just leaving it to the effects boys; he is right there in the thick of it, his direction bold and aggressive, keeping his cast to the forefront with big close-ups and stirring (if often rather arch) speeches.
However there are times in this very long movie (200 minutes without a break) when its sheer size and relentless, steam-rollering plot make you hanker for the slightly more tranquil, character-friendly fare of Fellowship. You wish people would sit down for a moment, light up a pipe, have a bit of a chat and generally appraise the situation. In fairness to Jackson he tries to insert a few pauses for thought and consideration whenever he can, but with so much plot to get through there just isn’t much time. He finally gets his chance to apply the brakes near the end, which is basically just a series of extended farewells and resolutions that are done quietly and reflectively, allowing time for breath and a welcome subtlety and enigmatic quality to the acting, especially from Elijah Wood.
Whether King is the best of the three movies is debatable and also rather meaningless. Lord of the Rings is ultimately one long, monumental film and surely one of cinema’s most astonishing achievements. These are not perfect films, they have faults, they have some weak moments; but then many of the flaws come from the book – itself a word-heavy and structurally suspect tomb that Jackson and his collaborators have, overall, done an impressive job of adapting. The films have been critically and commercially lauded and have been embraced by the public in a way only a handful of films do in every generation. They have affected millions around the world and have reached the popular conscious in a way that will be culturally influential for years to come. To that extent they have practically gone beyond criticism, for this generation anyway.
Peter Jackson and his cast may well go on to other triumphs, but this will always be their yardstick. Nothing they do will ever be this big, bold or magical. And will Christmas ever be the same again?
The Extended Edition
This final extended cut is Peter Jackson’s longest of the trilogy, timing in at almost 50 additional minutes and giving an overall feature running time of just over four hours. Although I regard it as a slight improvement over the theatrical release and certainly the definitive version of the movie, it is the most problematic of the longer cuts, with at least ten minutes worth of scenes that are of no particular benefit and over-extend an already hellishly long movie.
As usual, the most effective scenes are ones that give nice character touches or help deepen and clarify the plot. Jackson has not skimped on additional special effect scenes and these are very effectively deployed, giving impressive new vistas of the spectacular city of Minas Tirith and making the siege and battle around its walls even more epic. However, some new scenes don’t really work as well as they might have. The Paths of the Dead sequence now has an unfortunate comic undercurrent and there’s a nicely written but incongruous scene in which the banned Eowyn, previously helmeted and incognito, sits undisguised among the Rhohirrim and yet nobody bats an eyelid about this lone female in their midst. Has she no fear of being discovered? There are also, for the first time, a few scenes that now appear levered in rather than flowing smoothly from the narrative as in previous longer cuts.
For all that, the longer version helps the pacing and editing, better defines the ultimate fate of a few characters (including Christopher Lee at last getting his controversially omitted death scene as Saruman) and generally acts as an appropriate closure to this massive saga.
A word also about the astonishing special features on all the DVD extended cuts – six disks worth of original documentaries charting the conception and making of the films (and book) that are enjoyable, candid and interesting in a way few other DVD features ever are. They chart a remarkable story and journey in themselves – oddly paralleling their own Fellowship triumphing against overwhelming odds. Some of the scenes of actors finally taking their leave are as moving as anything in the actual films!
The last word is that these cuts undoubtedly represent a more complete and satisfying picture of the Middle Earth saga for those who like to linger there, and in the case of The Two Towers in-particular the longer version is significantly better than the cinema cut. With the release of this cut of The Return of the King, Peter Jackson and Co can finally draw a line under their remarkable enterprise – a triumph of craftsmanship, dedication, inspiration, artistic merit and technical triumph. They deserve their laurels and accolades – 17 Oscars and billions in sales if I remember rightly. For the rest of us, we now have a remarkable cinematic story that we can return to and wallow in for the rest of our lives.