I don't really want to get into storylines here because pretty much everyone has seen this film and because I would be unable to compare it to Tolkien's book and since he deserves the credit for the story, I don't really want to judge it based on something I don't know much about. But as a stand-alone film, it did have all of the elements of an exciting journey into a world we don't quite know. Its visuals were sometimes breathtaking and even though some of the computer effects jumped out once in a while, the landscapes, creatures and different realms were a pleasure to behold and the detail was so complete that you sometimes stood wondering why this couldn't be real. I can't imagine there's a greater compliment to an effects person than when you look at a scene that is obviously some sort of visual effect and yet you're unable to identify the method. I thought several of the shots were great CGI until I saw the features and saw that they were miniatures. The only way I could have known they weren't real was because of the impossibility that it actually existed, so hats off to the people who carried us to Middle-Earth in such a convincing fashion.
The film was also blessed with a great cast comprised of several name actors, none of them acting the prima donna and each giving their character its due respect. That's one of the advantages of filming a novel that most everyone has read in their childhood: it emanates some type of respect that even Hollywood sometimes has trouble slamming (now that's rare). Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Christopher Lee (who gets to play the badass in the year's two biggest movies), Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies and let's not forget, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins. That's a pretty slick fellowship right there with some serious talent and each perfectly picked for their role. Jackson didn't miss a beat on anything else either, including a great, great score and some fantastic photography by Andrew Lesnie.
Full-length audio commentary by director Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens: The three kept a decent pace going throughout the track and filled it with lots of information. They're self-confessed fanatics of the novel and that bleeds through their commentary, making it that much more interesting. Naturally, their main point of focus is the storyline and screenplay. Nice accents on the ladies as well.
Full-length audio commentary by the design team: Not particularly the most exciting track, but definitely a very informative one if you get through it. Eight members of the design team, ranging from set design, costume design to art direction and more give their feedback on their particular highlights in the film.
Full-length audio commentary by the post-production team: The most fascinating aspect of this was the take on the forced perspective methods used to make the size of the Hobbits tiny in comparison to other characters while dealing with normal-sized humans. You'll get more detail on this in further features down below, but it's a good start. Thirteen members of the team discuss all areas of post-production.
Full-length audio commentary by the cast: Almost all of them are there (ten in all), giving their two-bits and being quite entertaining. There's some friendly ribbing, some discussion on the shooting and its grueling schedule (remember: they shot all three films in one monster shoot! one down, two to go). A nice thing is that they flash the name of the person talking when they come on. It's sometimes easy to get a bit mixed up when there are so many. Same thing applies for all other commentary tracks.
DISC 3: FROM BOOK TO VISION
J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Middle-Earth (20 minutes): This consists of a brief biography of the author and some commentary by the filmmakers on the influence he had on them.
From Book to Script (20 minutes): The filmmakers discuss their personal vision of the story and the experience and challenges of bringing it to film while preserving its integrity and the author's vision of the world which he created. It's nice to see how determined they were from the start to treat the film with respect. Like I said above, not having read the works myself, I don't think I'm really qualified to offer my opinion on it, but I'm sure that others will be able to judge better than I.
Visualizing the Story (40 minutes):
Storyboards and Pre-Viz: Making Words Into Images (15 minutes): This feature allows you to look into some of the pre-production work, namely some of the storyboarding, but with a heavier focus on the pre-viz, which is the filming of scenes using tools such as still, models, computers to assemble the elements of a scene thus allowing the director to pick his shots in advance and save some time and money during the actual shoot. It's pretty cool and really makes Jackson look like a meticulous director.
Early Storyboards (10 minutes): Allows you to access three individual scenes and to view them in sequences of conceptual storyboards.
Pre-Viz Animatics (5 minutes): You can access two individual scenes and see the pre-viz concept shoots. Pretty cool stuff if you enjoy pre-prod.
Animatics-to-Film comparison (5 minutes): This is a split-screen feature allowing you to access two scenes and to compare the conceptual animatics to the finished product.
Bag End Set Test (5 minutes): This is a live test of the set of Bilbo Baggins' tiny home for forced perspective shots. They actually built two of these sets, one big and one small. This features some of the crew walking around, testing the dimensions.
Designing and Building Middle-Earth (95 minutes):
Designing Middle-Earth (40 minutes): Peter Jackson discusses the early conception of the look of the locations, design concepts, etc. He includes a pretty funny story about how he managed to get a hold of a pair of reclusive conceptual designers who ended up being the minds behind the great realms you see in the movie.
Weta Workshop (45 minutes): This is a fascinating tour of the workshop where most of the props, prosthetics, armors, weapons, makeup and more were made for the film. I love seeing stuff like this and considering the achievement these guys accomplished for a film this size. It's definitely worth a look.
Costume Design (10 minutes): Next time you hear someone complain about having to do some sewing, think of the poor people who had to make hundreds upon hundreds of outfits for this film. Considering each character required about 30 different outfits, you have a whole lot of sewing machines revving up their engines. This feature give these people some well-deserved props and discusses how they came up with the great costumes.
Design Galleries (pictorial): Have a blast with this one. You can literally access about a thousand pictures of all the inhabitants and realms of Middle-Earth in various stages on conception.
Middle-Earth Atlas (30 minutes): You can follow the different paths taken by Frodo and Gandalf the Grey in their trek across Middle-Earth with some clips from the film at each stop in the journey. Nothing really fantastic unless you feel the need to learn the geography of the place.
New Zealand as Middle-Earth (10 minutes): This shows you the locations in beautiful New Zealand where they shot the different realms of Middle-Earth. You can access it by realm or play them all in a row. I know where I'm going on my next vacation.
DISC 4: FROM VISION TO REALITY
Filming "The Fellowship of the Ring" (100 minutes):
The Fellowship of the Cast (35 minutes): A pretty effective look at the members of the cast, none of which knew each other before meeting on set. They give their feedback on the film, the shoot, themselves an each other. They're all likeable, so it's fun to watch.
A Day in the Life of a Hobbit (15 minutes): This quick feature follows the Hobbit actors through their grueling routine of sticking on their prosthetic ears and feet, wigs, makeup, healthy porridge breakfasts and so on. Pretty standard fare, but all right nonetheless.
Cameras in Middle-Earth (50 minutes): This is the Big Kahuna of features on this film, giving a general idea of what the shoot was like. It discusses the challenges of shooting with several different units at the same time in different locations as well as in some locations with very difficult access. It pretty much amounts to a "making of" feature for amateur cinematographers with some pretty funky innovations on the part of the filmmakers.
Production Photos (pictorial): About 40 stills from the various shooting locations.
Visual Effects (55 minutes):
Scale (15 minutes): Extremely cool featurette on the subject of forced perspective, scale doubles, "big rigs" and all other techniques used to make the Hobbits seem smaller and the humans seem bigger. For anyone who likes technical talk or for anyone who pretty much likes cool stuff, this is worth the price of admission alone. To awaken your curiosity, "big rigs" are giant suits worn by regular folk to make them seem huge compared to the regular-size actors who have to play 4-foot tall characters.
Miniatures (15 minutes): This is a featurette on the stunning miniatures used in the film to build the gorgeous realms of Middle-Earth as well as photo galleries depicting the various stages of conception and completion of some of the more eye-catching miniatures in the film.
Weta Digital (25 minutes): This is a feature on the post-production CGI visual effects in the film. They're actually somewhat hit-and-miss in the movie and I'm getting a bit fatigued of the CGI documentaries, but if it's your bag, then indulge. They do have some cool things featured in there, although nothing really new.
Post-Production: Putting it All Together (30 minutes):
Editorial: Assembling an Epic (15 minutes): Since over 5 million feet of film stock was used during this shoot, you can imagine the editors had more than their fair share of work cut out for them. This is a brief explanation of how they went about wading through it all to come up with the finished product.
Editorial Demonstration: The Council of Elrond (15 minutes): If you want to step into the editors' shoes for a little while, this will let you see how all the raw footage is mixed up to make a neat 90- second scene in the end.
Digital Grading (15 minutes): This feature explains the process of converting the film from stock to digital and then back to stock. Along the way, they'll show you how they use the digital format to manipulate the look of the environments and to give them more texture and more of an outlandish feel.
Sound and Music (40 minutes):
The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth (15 minutes): An interesting documentary that focuses on some of the odd sounds that gave the film added realism and their sometimes very familiar sources. It also discusses the extensive audio voice recording of the dialogue they had to do over in studio.
Music for Middle-Earth (15 minutes): A quick discussion about the film's great score by composer Howard Shore recapping some of the choirs, musicians and artists that gave the movie so much more feeling. I was surprised that so little time was accorded to the great song "Aniron" by the delightful Enya.
The Road Goes Ever On... (10 minutes): This is a brief recap of the acclaim the film received upon its huge worldwide release with some footage from several premieres and comments from cast & crew. Not my bag.