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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
Limited Editions - 2001-03 (2006) - New Line

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating (Fellowship - original/extended): A-/A
Film Rating (Two Towers - original/extended): A-/A
Film Rating (Return of the King - original/extended): A/A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras - all three): A-/A-/B-

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Limited EditionThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Limited EditionThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Limited Edition

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[Editor's Note: See our previous reviews of these films on DVD for our thoughts on the films.]

It was probably inevitable that New Line would re-release Peter Jackson's popular Lord of the Rings films on DVD. Business is business, and in the home video industry these days, business is based on releasing and re-releasing the most popular and profitable films. With future HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases of these films unlikely until 2008 (according to New Line, pending the authoring developments and testing that will eventually allow the use of seamless branching on the new formats), it's not surprising that these films would see at least one more DVD release. The question is: Are they worth purchasing? And the answer is: It depends on whether you have the previous DVD versions, and how badly you want the new documentaries.

Each of these new Limited Editions includes two discs. Disc One is a DVD-18 (dual-sided, dual-layered) disc that contains BOTH the original theatrical version of the film in question, as well as the longer (and BETTER) extended edition. This has accomplished via the use the latest advancements in MPEG-2 compression, by employing DVD's tried-and-true seamless branching capabilities, and by omitting the DTS audio track and the multiple audio commentaries that the previous 4-disc set included. More on the audio in a minute.

I have to tell you, given all the data that would need to be stored on these discs, I was skeptical that the anamorphic widescreen video here would look anywhere near as good as the previous 4-disc sets, figuring instead that it would be something on the order of the original 2-disc versions (or even worse). However, after looking at these discs closely, while the video here definitely isn't as good as the 4-disc versions, it's noticably better than original 2-disc theatrical DVD releases. You see this in the areas of fine detail and color saturation in particular, along with the amount of visible compression artifacting. Even blown up on a large projection display, the image quality holds up impressively well at all times. The picture isn't quite as dimensional and detailed as the extended edition release, but it's much less soft and muted looking than the theatrical DVDs. What that means is these new Limited Editions actually offer the best quality video of the theatrical editions of the films available on DVD. Color me surprised.

As for the audio, the only options you're given are Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX and 2.0 Surround, and they're just as good as you remember them from the previous DVD releases. Refer to my previous reviews for more in-depth comments on the audio quality. Subtitles are available in both English and Spanish, and the film is closed captioned.

By the way, the film on Disc One is split over two sides. When you pop Disc One into your player, a menu screen asks you to select which version of the film you wish to view. Then the film begins playing, and all of the additional footage from the extended version (if you chose that version) appears in the appropriate places. I watched only The Two Towers in its entirety, but noticed not a single glitch or pause in the seamless branching. The program is broken by an intermission, as it was on the original 4-disc sets. Once you get to the intermission, you simply flip the disc over. Another menu screen comes up, asking you confirm which version of the film you were watching, and on the adventure continues.

The only real extra on these sets are a trio of new behind-the-scenes documentaries on the making of the films. These each run about 80 minutes in length and are contained, one per set, on Disc Two. The documentaries were directed by Costa Botes, who was involved in shooting a lot of this footage originally. They're quite good - not better than the previous DVD documentaries, but quite decent. Mostly, they're just different. The tone is much more low key here. Whereas each piece on the previous discs had a specific angle or purpose, here you're just sort of hanging out on the set. You get to observe the production in a somewhat fly-on-the-wall position, except that various actors and production personnel will occasionally address the camera to give comments about what's happening. What you tend to see is much more of the unsung aspects of the production - in large measure things that you didn't see on the previous DVD releases. But not only do you hear from a lot of production people you didn't before, you see lots of candid material with Peter Jackson and the cast members too. There's lots of clowning around, lots of personal interactions, funny 'between-the-takes' moments, etc. You also get glimpses of footage and scenes that weren't used in the final films, along with alternate takes and the like. They're good documentaries. My only real complaint is that they're presented widescreen but not enhanced for 16x9/anamorphic displays. I hope they might be included again in a future box set (maybe the HD versions?) in actual anamorphic widescreen. Note that the documentaries also include subtitles and each have a number of chapters stops (though they're not menu selectable).

So at this point, you probably want me to bottom line it for you. Okay, here goes: These new Limited Editions might be worth buying... IF you want better video quality for the theatrical versions of the films, IF you just really have to have the new documentaries, or IF you've always wanted to buy these films on DVD but just haven't pulled the trigger yet for one reason or another. For those of you who already have the previous DVDs, however, you're going to have to decide whether the better theatrical video quality and the new documentaries are worth the $90 upgrade price for all three sets (somewhat less online or on sale). Personally, I'd rather be buying these films in high-def, or be buying Peter Jackson's The Hobbit... but I guess we've got a few years to wait for either of those things to come true.

Bill Hunt

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