Review of The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition DVD.
One line review: if you’re a fan, go get it.. NOW - if you don’t much care for the book, you’re probably better off with the theatrical version, unless you have a great interest in the making of the movie.
Overall, I feel this new version of the film is worth owning and at least seeing for most fans of the movie. Even if you prefer the theatrical version, the special features discs are worth the price all by themselves. However, in the end I must say that the extended edition is not truly a superior film. I know that by saying this, Lance and many others are now looking at me like a man who just swore at God in front of a Sunday school class. *chuckle* I didn’t mean it like that. In Peter Jackson’s film commentary, he states that the extended cut is intended as an alternate cut only - not a replacement, nor the definitive edition, and certainly not a “director’s cut”. Throughout all the commentaries, the filmmakers all express their happiness at the inclusion of some new material, and their justifications of why other material was rightly left out. The new material is all stuff that they had good reason for cutting out for the theatrical release, and is only being included here for the benefit of the curious fan (and, in many cases, to set up events in Two Towers). While I had been hoping to call this the definitive edition, I must agree with Jackson that it is merely “alternate”. However, this is no shame to the movie, as most of the new material is a joy to see in any case, and also because of the possibilities of the DVD format. That is to say, I think this edition illustrates a difference between theatrical presentation and home presentation than I hadn’t thought of before. Viewed at the movie theater, the original version seems to me clearly superior. The extended cut is simply too bulky and long for such a venue. However, this objection has no relevance in a home theater. The venue is much more casual - people may go and return as they please - the break between the two discs which contain the movie is very natural, both in terms of timing and its placement in the story. It’s simply a different kind of viewing experience, one which changes the demands put upon the momentum of the storytelling. For instance, there is a lot of new material added between the formation of the fellowship and their actual setting out - Aragorn at his mother’s grave, and a farewell scene. These were not in the theatrical version, because the formation of the company creates a big dramatic swell, from which the momentum needs to be maintained, and so they tried to get them out of Rivendell as soon as possible (the only thing in between was Bilbo’s presentation of gifts to Frodo). In the theaters, this is the right choice to make, because Rivendell was a slow, restful point in the story, and the audience needs that push forward into the second half. Aragorn’s solemn moment at the grave would have felt awkward and irrelevant right after the Council of Elrond. On DVD, however, the dramatic height of the formation of the company creates the perfect cap to the first disc. The audience then goes to the bathroom, gets more popcorn, chats about geek stuff, and returns to the movie about ten minutes later. By this point, we need to be re-sucked into the film. The moment with Aragorn is the perfect way to open. It’s exactly the kind of opening you would give to the second act of a play. So, really, I do not call either version superior, because which one you prefer is largely going to depend on how you like to watch movies. I tend towards the theatrical version, since my thinking is very cinematic. But the extended version plays just a touch more serialized (and thus feeling more epic - as others have pointed out), and I think it is a step closer to the experience of reading a book.
Now, for you uber geeks like me, read on as I detail some of the best and worst aspects of this new DVD.
Character Most Benefitted By Additional Footage: Aragorn. While enhancements to the characters of Bilbo and Gimli give them more dimension and life onscreen, Aragorn’s additional footage gives a vastly better understanding of the choices he makes, which will propel the plot forward through the next two movies. Aragorn is a parallel hero to Frodo, and faces many of the same choices and conflicts. Indeed, among all the many intertwining themes of The Lord of the Rings, I think the central one is coming-of-age. Throughout the books, we see both individual people and entire cultures faced with the responsibility to carry on the mantle from the previous generation - from Bilbo to Frodo - from Elves to Men. Both Aragorn and Frodo come into their inheritences, and they both must make the choice to bear the responsibility it brings. In the Extended Edition, the conflicts and doubts which plague Aragorn’s choice are made clear and immediate in a way that even the book never communicated to me.
Worst new footage: Gandalf’s recitation of the ring poem in Black Speech at the Council of Elrond. I regret having to name this moment. It is often alluded that the wizards’ chief power is in exploiting the inherent power of words. It is also interesting to see the significant effect that Black Speech has upon a pure place - almost becoming a physical manifestation of evil that runs like a chilly breeze through each character’s heart. However, the scene is badly inserted - I expect it was cut because it never meshed with the rest of the scene in the first place. For one thing, it seems important to me that Boromir’s desire for the ring begin as a rationalization - he wants the ring to defend his people - and it slowly grows to a psychological obsession. This progression was beautifully illustrated in the original cut of the film. This new scene shows him psychologically ensnared by the ring right off the bat, which I don’t like. Gandalf then rises and starts speaking as if he were scolding Boromir, but in a weird language. Gandalf is, in fact, reciting the “ring poem” in its true language (One ring to rule them all... etc.), but I only know this because I read the book. Nowhere in the scene does anybody actually explain what he was saying or where it came from, which completely destroys its relevance to Boromir and the ring. It would make perfect sense that Gandalf is trying to dissuade his desire for the ring by illustrating the immense evil contained merely within its inscription - as if to say, “now that you know how bad the words alone are, imagine how evil the ring’s true powers are,” but, the scene never makes that apparent. If these new elements were to be included, it should have been done much more carefully. However, I would not have included them at all. The ring establishes its evil powers on its own. As Frodo places it on the pedestal, the ring itself begins chanting in the black language, quiet and sinister. We see the Council as they fight, reflected in the ring, and the fire leaping across its surface as they do. These are powerful moments. The added footage is just too confusing and too redundant.
Best new footage: Frodo asking Gandalf at the Rivendell gate if Mordor is left or right. This is a moment of pure movie genius. You hear all these adages about how the longest journey begins with a single step, and the musings of Bilbo in the books about how the road to Mirkwood - to the Dragon - to Mordor itself - is the very road that leads right up to your doorstep, if you just travel far enough. That’s the theme of “The Road Goes Ever On,” the song which Bilbo and Gandalf hum at times at the beginning of the movie. All of that philosophy is contained in the gently humorous humanity of Frodo’s innocent question: left or right? The fact that it is used practically as a throw away line only underlines its meaning. Genius.
Weakest New Elements: Music. All the complaints which I voiced about the use of music in the original cut are compounded here. The music, mostly in the first half, has very poor continuity and pacing, particularly with dialogue. What I mean by that is that it sounds like he was given all the shots he needed to score individually, with no idea what order they would eventually go in. The result is music which seems appropriate if you view the scene it is placed in by itself, but which feels disjointed and patchwork between scenes viewed collectively. Film music needs to be aware of the entire story arc - that is, it shouldn’t only comment on what is happening in each scene, but also tell us what that scene means within the context of the rest of the movie - and I think composer Shore has failed here, and makes it even worse as he drops in new pieces of score over the additional footage. The score of the extended edition crosses the line from merely the agitating choppiness I noticed before, nearly to a melodramatic version of Mickey Mousing (Mickey Mousing is the technique, often used in cartoons, where each note corresponds exactly to an action - like a character’s footsteps), in which Shore simply underscores any action or exchange of dialogue where things get “serious” or “emotional” with the appropriate pre-packaged emotion. An example: at Bilbo’s party, a scene has been added with Bilbo trying to tell Frodo that he is going away, and failing. The first time I viewed the movie, I decided that I didn’t like the inclusion of the scene, as it bogged down the movie. The next time I saw it, I realized that there was nothing wrong with the moment itself - just with how it was played. The music goes from high-spirited party music, then immediately to very tense, dramatic music for the talk, and then immediately back to the party music and some comedic bursts as Merry and Pippen let loose the Dragon cracker. First of all, it hurts the pacing of the fire-cracker gag, by cutting the laugh moment in two with a very serious moment. Second, the finale of the fire-cracker gag cancels out the heavy dramatic weight that the music put on the moment with Bilbo and Frodo, making the whole thing useless anyhow. Shore is simply taking each moment by itself, and not considering how the added scene needs to play to fit into the surrounding party scene. The scene should have been left un-scored, I think. That would have kept the pacing of the whole sequence going smoothly, while giving to that particular moment the sense that Bilbo’s attempt to be serious is being lost amid the din of the surrounding party - which, of course, is exactly what happens. Bilbo starts talking strangely seriously to Frodo about things, and Frodo winds up concluding that the old goat is too drunk for his own good. There’s actually a wonderful little bit of touching irony to be found in that scene, if we are allowed to see that it is serious, and simultaneously very light and funny, and that the two feed each other.
Strongest New Elements: Travelling Sequences. As many have said, some of the best new material is added footage of traveling scenes - the Midgewater Marshes / Trollshaw / Gollum being sighted on the Great River / the passing of the elves to the Grey Havens (though I did flinch when Frodo called them “Wood” elves. It’s a geeky thing to notice, of course, but they were High Elves, not Wood Elves. Wood Elves, who include Legolas and the Mirkwood elves, were not travelling to the Havens.). The added scenes change the entire shape of the movie’s pacing. They would never have worked in the theater, but, as I explained above, they add to the DVD experience by suggesting a more serialized adventure. A movie thinks in terms of broad story arcs that bring you seamlessly from the beginning to end. A book, especially an epic novel, thinks more in terms of individual stories strung along in sequence. There is the encounter with Tom Bombadil, the affair with the elves along the Forest Road, the adventures of our heros as they help out the Rohirrim, etc. In a way, the FOTR:Extended Edition tries to cheat at this - showing snippets of the various smaller adventures along the road without fully developing them - suggesting that this is a serialized epic story while still trying to fit into a movie format. Perhaps this doesn’t even always work. A few incongruous or uneasy moments develop as we are given snippets of new scenes that reveal an entirely new segment of their adventure, but only partially. I have a dream of making my own version of the Lord of the Rings that will take this further - doing the story in six films, not three - one for each of the six books of the novel. Something like this couldn’t be shown successfully in movie theaters, but it could be shown on cable. A season-length mini-series. Afterwards, you could by the full set of movies on DVD, divided into 3 boxes, 2 discs per box, and watch them over a period of several days - just like Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” opera, which audiences saw over four consecutive nights. The Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition isn’t quite the same, it’s kind of a fuzzy middle area, but it suggests to me that it might be possible in the future to view movies the same way one views opera or stage plays - that the format in which movies are made does not dictate the format in which movies must be “performed” - and that’s kind of an exciting thought.