Blu 'Ring''s the Thing...or Is It?

The magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) have arrived on Blu-ray in -- scandal among scandals -- their original theatrical cuts. SHOCK! HORROR!

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Dominic Monaghan, Ian McKellen, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom
Rated: PG-13
Studio: New Line Cinema
Year: 2001
US date: 2010-04-06 (General release)
UK date: 2010-04-06 (General release)

You'd think it would warrant some manner of film geek fanfare - or at the very least, a little more love than it's currently receiving. It is a pretty big deal, when you consider these movies unavailability on the format, as well as their dedicated popularity and pop culture position. Maybe it's the recent faltering of its founder, Peter Jackson. It's hard to find as many certified obsessives for his otherwise brilliant takes on King Kong and The Lovely Bones. Take a look around the nu-media soap box known as the World Wide Web, however, and you'd swear blasphemy was being suggested. That's because the magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) have arrived on Blu-ray in - scandal among scandals - their original theatrical cuts. SHOCK! HORROR!

On a purely consumer level, the decision by New Line to handle the release this ways makes little sense. Most of the audience for the high definition format are purists, people who want the most pristine transfers, the best selection of extras, and in the case of Jackson's magnum opus masterpiece, the extended director's version. Those familiar with the films, their long gestation and creation, the skepticism surrounding their release, and the realization that they ultimately exceeded all expectations, knows the reasons behind the bifurcated release. Money does indeed change everything, and when Fellowship flew into boffo blockbuster territory, the studio let Jackson rework some excised footage, fleshing out his epic with more of what makes Tolkein's take on Middle Earth so timeless. The pattern continued with the next two installments.

It was DVD that demanded such a structure. As a still struggling medium (Fellowship arrived back in 2001 remember, during the technology's grand growing pains), digital needed to cater to the masses, not the meticulous. New Line gave fans the theatrical versions, realizing that many in the audience could care less about video journals, multiple commentaries, and other niche added content. Cash was pocketed and everyone was happy. Later, after the initial dip had faded, the extended versions were released to some complaints and equally filled coffers. Those who'd already plopped down their hard earned paychecks to experience Frodo's in-theater adventures along the path to Mount Doom were angry for having to cough up more coinage. But due to limits within the science, as well as a conspiracy to keep the scratch flowing, such a sell-through strategy became the norm.

Blu-ray is different, however. Space and advances in authoring allow for maximum movie manipulation, and some are suggesting that both the theatrical and extended takes on Rings could have easily been offered. Many cite greed, avarice, and an overall desire to bilk the fanbase out of their often ample allowances as the main reasons why. But as usual, Messageboard Nation misses the forest for the self-aggrandizing and egoistical trees. While they have a bit of a point, it is lost in a way of vitriol better reserved for the next installment in the Twilight series, the Wild Hogs sequel, or anything featuring the failing talents of Robin Williams. The truth is that both sides - studio and potential suckers - have a right to be frustrated.

For New Line, it's a no win situation. Jackson is currently wrapped up in casting and pre-production on The Hobbit films he's overseeing (Mexican maverick Guillermo Del Toro is behind the lens this time around). This means he's probably unavailable for any new added content - or more likely, devising some preview pieces for these upcoming prequels. Without his direct participation, without anything exclusive or restricted to the Blu-ray update, the criticism would be just as loud. Sure, some would be happy to have the original extended releases reproduced and that's it. But in a world awash in entitlement and unnecessarily validated opinion, the Tweeted voice of discontent believes it should get the bonus disc grease. While a theatrical version only presentation does reek of conspiratorial money grubbing, there is a way to rationalize it.

While DVD was built on the back of bonus features and bells and whistles, it was the picture and sound quality that initially sold it. Don't believe it? Remember back about 10 years, when studios like Paramount would release their vaunted discs (including recent hits) in a barebones, no added content conceit. Newcomers flocked to the format because they could get theater quality reproduction in their living room, not because Michael Bay was blathering on about advanced pyrotechnic applications. Sure, as VHS died, DVD needed the extended cuts, unrated editions, and overstuffed packages to survive. But like 3D TV, the jury is still out on Blu-ray. It is not a populist medium, and those looking to switch from standard to high definition are doing so with choices provided by cable/satellite providers and streaming direct downloads.

Like Laserdisc before, Blu-ray still feels slightly elitist. It comes across as nitpicky and detail-oriented. Websites devoted to the latest releases criticize the smallest misstep, arguing over the smallest visual and aural flaws. Oddly, you don't hear a lot of kvetching when more gore, nudity, or scatology find their way into the mix. Though the "unrated" disc remains the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the film content consumer, it almost always gets a pass. But cater to the casual fan, the person who only remembers the Lord of the Rings films from their time at the local Cineplex and watch the feigned frustration fly!

New Line clearly wants to tag those for whom Tolkein is less of a religion and more of a passing fancy. One imagines that somewhere, in some studio-sponsored think tank, a semi-superlative big Blu experience is being planned (perhaps, in time for a certain commercialized winter holiday???). Until then, they'll continue to aim for the widest demo and hope the dosh follows. Besides, many in the newest available audience have probably only seen the hacked and slashed USA and TNT Network versions. Starting from scratch may not seem fair, but it does make some manner of basic business sense. Of course, that won't quell the various voices of discontent arguing 'buyer beware' but really venting their always overactive spleen.

Until the Director's Cuts hit the format, until New Line makes its point about how it intends to treat its entertainment ATM for the true Bu-ray cinephile, judgment should perhaps be reserved. No amount of arguing or opinionating will keep the fervent from queuing up and those who don't mind a second helping of home video won't care either. Apparently, some aren't happy unless they can play contrarian. Though a nugget of truth is nestled in between all their calls of money grubbing and marketing mismanagement, the truth remains that Blu-ray is still suffering from a complicated maturation process. The release of Lord of the Rings, no matter the version, is to be celebrated. Just wait until George Lucas tackles Star Wars for the medium. Now THAT will be a debate worth witnessing.

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