WBHE provided me with a free copy of the box set I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.
Everyone knows to celebrate when a major franchise turns 20, but real fans know it’s the 21st anniversary that’s special…
…or maybe this review is a few months late. Either way, Warner Brother’s Middle Earth Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set includes all three of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies and his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The packaging is beautiful and extremely practical. As you can see in the video below, the outside box uses magnets and can be folded in a lot of different formations, so depending on your shelf space you can make it longer and skinner, or wider and shorter.
Each film, then, has its own plastic case and slipcover. In terms of what versions of the movies are included, you’re getting both the theatrical and extended cuts of the films in two formats – 4K Ultra HD, and (new to this collection) remastered Blu-Rays (though they’re now available separately). You can also get digital copies of the theatrical and extended cuts using the codes provided.
So, what is exclusive to this set? There is one bonus disk which includes three panels hosted by Tolkien superfan, Stephen Colbert, for Alamo Drafthouse. These were conducted to mark the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, so they are brand new. Appearing in The Fellowship of the Ring cast reunion are the four hobbits – Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sean Astin (Samwise), Dominic Monaghan (Merry), and Billy Boyd (Pippen). Liv Tyler (Arwen), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) appear in The Two Towers panel and Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Andy Serkis (Gollum), and Peter Jackson make up The Return of the King panel.
These don’t necessarily unearth many new stories (especially if you’ve listened to the cast commentaries for the Lord of the Rings trilogy), but they’re enjoyable enough. Also on the disc is the Festival de Cannes Presentation Reel.
In terms of physical extras, there are seven double sided cards of different locations – one for each movie, plus one of Rivendell, which has cross appeal for both Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fans. There’s also a booklet called “A Collection of Costume Sketches, Photography and Production Notes” that’s neat to go through, as it shows some of the costumes side by side with their sketches, and offers insights into how certain things were made, like the hobbits’ feet.
Do you need this set if you already own the movies? Probably not, and while the films aren’t completely devoid of bonus features, the Appendixes aren’t included. All three Hobbit films come with a commentary by Jackson and writer, Philippa Boyens, that’s carryover (it wasn’t recorded for this release), and a featurette called “New Zealand: Home of Middle Earth” that’s useful if you want to plan a trip to New Zealand, since all of the shooting locations are clearly identified.
Each of the Lord of the Rings films come with four commentaries; Jackson and Boyens are joined by writer and producer Fran Walsh, for the Director and Writers commentary. Then there’s a cast commentary (which covers on-set antics and behind the scenes stories, and makes you appreciate the scale doubles and how a number of actors had to film scenes by themselves), a design team commentary, and a production/post-production commentary. These all have subtitles, which is great.
Unfortunately, the extended cuts of all three Lord of the Rings films are still split onto two disks. This probably helps with the visual quality of the films (plus all those commentaries), but it would be nice to not have to switch discs halfway through. The extended cut Blu-Rays for the Lord of the Rings also still have the Easter Eggs from the DVDs.
If you haven’t upgraded your DVDs to Blu-Ray, or have never seen the films before, this would be a great set to introduce yourself to them (and the movies have never looked better). It’s also interesting, as someone who saw the films as they came out, to now think of The Hobbit films as coming first.
Here are some quick thoughts on all six movies:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
What Happens: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) decides to go on an adventure after a wizard named Gandalf chooses him to help a company of dwarves reclaim their homeland from a dragon named Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).
How It Differs from The Lord of the Rings Movies: As Jackson and Boyens note in their commentary, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s book and An Unexpected Journey has a much more juvenile sense of humor. The extended cut could even be classified as a musical, which would be fine if the other two Hobbits movies were as musical. The Five Armies is even rated R.
Another Criticism: More than the other two Hobbit movies, An Unexpected Journey is too preoccupied with foreshadowing what’s to come in Lord of The Rings. On the one hand it’s a testament to Howard Shore‘s score that he was able to create such strong associations but the reminders to Lord of the Rings don’t do An Unexpected Journey any favors.
Best Sequence: Either the infamous game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum, where Bilbo walks away with the One Ring, or the cast (lead by Richard Armitage as Thorin) singing “Misty Mountains.”
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
What Happens: Bilbo relies on the One Ring more and comes face to face with Smaug.
Best Sequence: The barrel sequence (which is all the more impressive because it’s the most dragging section in the book, yet somehow Jackson makes it action-packed).
MVP: Legolas, who continues to get the most exciting fight choreography. The design for Smaug is also awesome (especially the way his chest glows as a tipoff that he’s about to breathe fire).
Criticism: The romance between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), which feels like underwhelming attempt to recreate the romance between Aragorn and Arwen.
The Hobbit: The Five Armies
What Happens: While Thorin deals with dragon-sickness, the fight for control of the Lonely Mountain continues.
Best Part: Seeing all the distinctive styles of fighting, between the different armies. Also, the decision to dispose of Smaug early was smart and unexpected (if true to the book)
Worst Part: All of the scenes with Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who felt like a second rate Wormtongue, without the menace.
LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring
What Happens: Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo, finds himself caught up in the task of destroying the One Ring.
Best Part: Realizing that the Ringwraiths are just as frightening now as they were 21 years ago. The design of the Uruk-hai is also pure nightmare fuel (Jackson would use more CGI in The Hobbit films but nothing beats prosthetics)
MVP: Boromir (Sean Bean), whose arc in this film is extremely memorable
LOTR: The Two Towers
What Happens: While Frodo continues to head towards Mordor, Saruman (Christopher Lee) eyes Rohan, leading to the battle of Helm’s Deep.
MVP: Wormtongue, who Brad Dourif manages to make both pathetic and a major threat.
MVP Runner-Up : Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies)
Best Sequence: The makeup transformation of King Theodon (Bernard Hill)
LOTR: The Return of the King
What Happens: Frodo needs to destroy the One Ring while Aragon needs to accept his rightful place as king of Gondor.
MVPs: Merry and Pippen, who get split up in this film, yet their individual storylines are just as powerful
Character With the Most Inconsistent Arc: Eowyn (Miranda Otto)
Middle Earth Ultimate Collector’s Edition is available on 4K and Blu-Ray now from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.