Even given the hundreds of DVD releases with thousands of documentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes, it wouldn't be difficult to mount an argument that the multi-disc Lord of the Rings Extended Edition sets are the most insightful and informative releases in all of home video history. Back on VHS, Lucas pioneered making-of supplemental materials when he released an impossibly expensive widescreen box set for Star Wars, and of course the laserdiscs offered plenty of inside information as well. But at a time when computer-generated special effects were colliding with unprecedented consumer interest in not just watching but owning seemingly every single movie, the Lord of the Rings releases galvanized audience interest in the filmmaking process with the true meaning of added-value content in a way that few other releases have before or since.
All of which is why the release of the new Lord of the Rings – The Motion Picture Trilogy box set may inadvertently provide a second, decidedly sadder benchmark in home video history: the moment when those same consumers seriously began to question what was "added" in added-value releases. Bereft of any new content, not to mention the lion's share of the meatier bonus content from previous releases, the high-definition debut of these three films only serves as a reminder that there may be only so much to say about a movie series, even one as beloved as this, before its continued popularity is more about making money than in maintaining a lasting legacy.
Because it was largely unnecessary to issue the films individually except for nerds like me with mixed feelings about the different theatrical cuts - and probably in an effort to pique interest for some super-massive edition yet to come - Warner Home Video has elected to release all three Lord of the Rings films together in a six-disc box set that comes with digital copies and all of the bonus content from the original standard-definition DVDs. Prior to poring through several key scenes from each film, a colleague indicated that the picture quality of the films was wildly inconsistent, and further, deteriorated with each subsequent installment. I can however attest that all three films look terrific, and while there may be minor inconsistencies due to noise reduction and other mastering techniques, I suspect that few viewers will notice them in the larger context of these clean and clear high-definition transfers.
At the same time, I feel obligated to make the observation that as a by-product of the time in which the films were produced, some of the special effects are not quite as seamless or as immersive as audiences may once have thought. For example, while Gollum is still a revelatory breakthrough in performance capture that retains all of its emotional depth today, some of the skin textures and even the CGI connectors between this creature and his real environments do not seem as convincing as they used to. Again, however, such quibbles are minor, and are mostly answered by the overall consistency of Peter Jackson's filmmaking, and especially storytelling, but much like almost any film from that time in which computer-generated images are created, the technology isn't quite as smooth or sophisticated as what we're now accustomed to, much less in a now post-Avatar world.
Meanwhile, the audio presentation is equal to the task of bringing these films to life, offering notes both epic and subtle as they render the landscapes of Middle Earth with startling dimensionality. All of the film's various elements, from dialogue to sound effects to score, are mixed together beautifully to maximize the impact of the films, which means sometimes to startle the audience and sometimes to slowly evoke deeper emotional themes that resonate long after the story itself has moved on to other business.
Unfortunately, in terms of "new" content, that's it for this set, unless digital copies of all three films counts. The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, features three documentaries, all of which are from external sources such as the Sci-Fi Channel or National Geographic, a "featurette gallery" that explores various aspects of the LOTR world, an Enya music video, a preview of The Two Towers, and a preview / explanation of the Extended Editions, albeit one that was produced for their initial releases (meaning there's currently no date for their blu-ray debut). The same basic idea holds true for the bonus content of both Two Towers and Return of the King, and having scoured through all of this stuff on its initial release, I can attest that little of it feels as substantive or as meaningful as the material on the Extended Edition discs, where Jackson and company obviously focused the majority of their energies.
All of which begs the question: are the Lord of the Rings films worth buying simply for the opportunity to watch them in high definition? The mitigating factor, primarily, is whether you prefer the theatrical cuts or the Extended Editions, or in my particular case, the theatrical version of Fellowship but the Extended versions of Two Towers and Return of the King -- a preference which makes straightforward "set" purchases impossible. The problem, however, is that it's hard to be discouraging of this release since it is obviously intended to be a preamble, an aperitif, for those expanded, extended, encyclopedic version that will no doubt be released, and the last thing that fans want is to scare Warner Home Video off of prioritizing those releases.
But the bottom line is, who are we kidding? Is it even remotely possible that poor sales of this set will result in WHV pulling the release of the Extended Editions? They are, after all, planning to make two more of these movies, predicated almost exclusively on the critical and commercial success of the Rings trilogy. In which case, peruse the details of my descriptions of the video and audio quality and determine for yourself if this is a must-have set for your burgeoning blu-ray collection. Because if it's true that Lord of the Rings as a whole was the most important provider of information about moviemaking, then you can decide for yourself how much more you need to know, or maybe how many more times you need to know the exact same thing.