- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

Like the “Matrix” trilogy, which was shot about the same time, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy has been timed ideally to take marketing advantage of the expansive potential in the DVD format. Moviegoers content to preserve a copy of the original theatrical releases of “Fellowship of the Rings” or “The Two Towers” can do so: They each form the bedrock content in separate two-disc sets that retail for about $25 (often less) and include numerous supplementary featurettes and interviews about the production of the films.

Total immersion is reserved for the deluxe four-disc sets of each movie, which may retail for about twice as much but have quadruple the amount of feature and supplementary material. In addition to the longer versions of the movies, the big sets have a monopoly on the commentary tracks. The pre-eminent one unites director Peter Jackson with his screenwriting collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. (Mr. Jackson and Miss Walsh also have been conjugal collaborators for many years. They point out their two children among the extras celebrating Bilbo Baggins’ birthday in an early sequence of “Fellowship.”)

Additional commentaries are reserved for the design team, the production team and principal cast members. Two discs are needed to accommodate all this documentation, but the upshot is five copies of the movie. One is classically augmented with the soundtrack; the other four dampen the dialogue, music and sound effects to emphasize commentary from about 40 people who were indispensable contributors to the epic.

Factor in another six hours of material on the featurette discs, called Appendices, in homage to the methodology of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the “Lord of the Rings” novels, and you are purchasing upward of 20 hours’ worth of invaluable erudition and trivia on every set. It’s not necessary to puzzle over which scenes might have been restored or expanded in the longer versions. The sets include a handy table of contents, and all the scenes are numbered: A single asterisk is placed next to a scene rescued from deletion and a double asterisk next to one stretched a bit in its DVD reprise.

Rumpled, portly, bearded and bespectacled, Peter Jackson suggests physical affinities with both hobbits and wise cartoon owls. You couldn’t ask for a more comfortable or endearing example of a masterful film director. His apparent detachment from vanity is one of the ongoing pleasures of the supplementary material. He simply shares the preoccupations and tricks of the trade that were relevant to realizing any particular scene — and reinforcing a basic heroic theme he found in Tolkien: “It’s all about loving the values of your civilization so much that you’re willing to defend them with your life.”

Unless I miss my guess, the “Rings” epics will remain pictorially and emotionally stirring despite the sort of scrutiny and overfamiliarity that eventually turn every popular movie into a target for mockery. Abiding admiration and fond mockery probably will co-exist. The filmmakers control this process to a considerable extent by possessing an enormous volume of behind-the-scenes documentary material that can be exploited in DVD editions.

For example, it’s fun to hear actor Bernard Hill quip, “There’s Orlando, looking at nothing,” during a scene in which Orlando Bloom, as the magnificent elfin archer Legolas, must sprint to the top of a promontory and pretend to gaze at approaching attackers. It remains an excellent gaze despite the inside joking.

Mr. Hill already has established a likably self-deprecating tone for recalling this particular sequence. Cast as Theoden, ruler of a kingdom called Rohan, he points out his own awkwardness on horseback, not to mention the vigorous futility with which he was thrusting a sword into thin air, trusting that the computer animators would visualize the marauders and their mounts vividly in the fullness of time.

There’s nothing seriously disillusioning about learning that Viggo Mortensen was nursing broken toes (“He unwisely kicked a helmet,” according to Mr. Hill), Mr. Bloom a broken rib and Mr. Hill a sore sternum during the running, riding and fighting scenes of “The Two Towers.” These demystifying revelations may even enlarge one’s enjoyment of the finished film’s heroic illusions.

John Rhys-Davies, who plays the dwarf warrior Gimli, contributes a wonderful reflection to a scene that showcases Cate Blanchett as the elfin goddess Galadriel. It is his understanding that Gimli is so smitten with this radiant creature that he’ll never be able to settle for a suitable mate. His mock-melancholy conclusion: “She has spoiled him for all bearded dwarf women.”

The timing of the “Lord of the Rings” movies has proved uncannily beneficial to the culture at large: “Fellowship” appeared just three months after the terrorist shock of September 11, and “Return” happily coincides with the capture of Saddam Hussein. In addition to doing the movie business a huge favor by completing a $300 million trilogy that will be remembered as a $3 billion engine of commerce in international theatrical release alone, Mr. Jackson has imaginatively reinvigorated the very ideas of courage, sacrifice and tenacity at a crucial point in political history.


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