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DVD Review: The Lord of the Rings Platinum Edition

By Glenn Abel

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Rings art "There's a telling moment at the end of the new The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" DVD in which director Peter Jackson and his co-writers try to cram in their final thoughts.

Wait! Jackson seems to be saying as the credits roll and the commentary track fades, "There is so much more to tell. We've had only 3 1/2 hours!"

Jackson's love of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Rings" trilogy spills across New Line's "Platinum Special Expanded" four-DVD set of "Rings" (retail $39.99). The feature packs a whopping four audio commentaries, almost 15 hours' worth. An encyclopedic collection of other extras ensures no detail is left unexamined. (Obsessives can even return to last summer's two-DVD release of the title, which offered yet another set of featurettes.)

All this makes "Rings" one of the most-examined pieces of filmmaking since, say, "The Zapruder Film" or "The Battleship Potemkin." How much is too much when it comes to DVD content? This sprawling set surely tests those limits.

At the center of the new "Rings" DVD is Jackson's "alternate" version of the film, one that adds a half hour, mostly character development. (Jackson rejects the label "director's cut," saying it implies unhappiness with the original.) Jackson even takes the opportunity to stir in material that synergizes with "The Two Towers," indicating he's aware that many DVD viewers are now about to see Part 2 of the trilogy in cinemas.

Jackson's extended "Rings" renders the film more coherent, likable and elegantly paced. Combined with the pause-and-play advantages of the home theater environment, the DVD has the paradoxical effect of making the film seem shorter, even at a sofa-spring-testing 208 minutes.

"The wonderful thing about DVDs as a different medium to cinema is that the experiences are completely different," Jackson says in his commentary. "The expectations of pace are different."

"Rings" has the same solid, CG-filled look as the theatrical release and the previous DVD. Flesh tones hold true; golds tempt with their fiery beauty; blacks lead straight to hell. Audio options are for DTS ES 6.1 and Dolby Digital EX 5.1, both capable of rocking viewers' alternate worlds. A lot of docu time is spent on the "Survival"-like experience of filming the Tolkien trilogy back-to-back over the period of 15 months. "There was little room for error," Jackson says of the shoot in New Zealand, "no room for people who found it too hard." Shooting in the mountains was "always tense" as bad weather lurked, he says. One key actor refused to use helicopters as the danger increased, instead hiking and climbing to the filming site.

The director speaks of "controlled chaos" in which actors molded their own characters independently while script changes flowed. Cast members speak of a "boy scout" year-and-a-half of filming in which the largely male cast bonded. "The Fellowship became a reality," star Elijah Wood says. (The cast reunites for a DVD commentary that's mostly of interest for Ian McKellen's contributions.)

Co-stars Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett flew in as needed, their arrivals highly anticipated by cast and crew. Tyler comes in for praise for her ability to lower her voice to speak "Elvish" as the ancient beauty Arwen. "It's a lovely language when itŐs spoken by actors who really get their tongues around it," Jackson says proudly.

The director and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens provide the best of the four commentaries, giving a clear picture of their myriad creative challenges. They address the inevitable charges of narrative infidelity, citing the need to "compress and accelerate" Tolkien's gigantic tale. Some key characters were composited or created anew. (There are "only so many introductions you can squash in," Walsh says.)

Jackson says a fail-safe goal was to give viewers the feeling that theyŐd touched down on Tolkien's world.

"We really wanted to be as accurate as possible to (Tolkien's) descriptions. We felt that even though we took liberties with the (character, dialogue, story), we didn't want to take liberties with the world the story was in. So that at least fans of the book would feel they were seeing Middle Earth come to life."

Christopher Lee, who plays the evil Saruman, helped keep the vision true. Jackson says he bowed to the knowledge of the veteran actor, who reportedly has read the trilogy every year since publication. He was "like the ghost of Tolkien on the set." McKellen came closer on screen, using old video of the author, to craft his portrayal of Gandalf.

Most of disc four is given over to the look of the film. A featurette on "Forced Perspective" shows how the differing heights of Tolkien's hobbits, dwarves and elves were represented in the same shots.

Designers used multiple sets and props, oversized costumes, little people, camera tricks, anything and everything. Echoing George Lucas on "Star Wars," Jackson says his and "Tolkien's" visions only now could be realized on film thanks to the past decade's vast advances in computer effects. But producer Barrie Osborne notes that old-fashioned miniatures were often preferred in the "Rings" films. "There's a certain presence and feeling to a miniature that greatly enhances our movies."

The production and post-production team have their say on a fast-paced commentary track that assumes familiarity with the basics of modern filmmaking and effects. The design team does their commentary at a more comfortable, artistic pace.

Locations come in for unusual attention, with scouts' original video tapes of sites compared with scenes showing them as used in the film. An interactive map allows fans to track the path of the Fellowship. Other extras of note include previsualization of the death of Gandalf, animatics/storyboard comparisons, a six-camera breakdown of a key scene, about 2,000 art images and a music featurette.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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