The home video market is dead or dying — so they say. The digital age has brought on massive changes on how we view movies and in a relatively short time. The ways we consumed the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy is vastly different from how we tackle “The Hobbit.”
Many consumers actually jumped to the DVD format from VHS tapes with “Fellowship of the Ring.” But in the digital revolution, that was ages ago, back when everybody bought movies for home use and there was seemingly ever growing stacks of money to be made from that market.
Studios once had a cash cow in DVDs but the milk has dried up now. Once, extravagant DVDs and box sets ruled store shelves while today we visit Red Box and Netflix.
So when a Blu-ray like “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Extended Edition,” comes to market it is going against the grain, against conventional wisdom and against market trends. It’s also the best home release of 2013.
The film is still the film. If you loved it you will love it more. If you had problems with it, you will still have problems with it. The added time didn’t fix what people say is broken. But if you haven’t seen the film, for the home experience, I do recommend the Extended Edition. The length includes some character moments that make the film more a little more satisfying but not in a major way. A bathroom break is close to mandatory and while you can’t pause a theater, its easy from your own couch.
But while many think about the movie, make no mistake, the real prize here are The Appendicies content; Those who are only looking at this for the film are missing the point entirely. In fact, this collection, is itself a tremendous film that would be worth buying even without the cinema release. The movie itself is essential in the package, but what launches these discs into rare air is everything else that comes with it.
Prone to exercise laudatory caution because I write for TheOneRing, and I realize too much praise causes readers to become dismissive and classify the writer as a fan boy, I still proclaim with no hesitation that this is among the finest home video releases in history. It sits on a shelf in rarefied air with a very few discs that can even compare. Among those are the Extended LOTR editions, of which this is a companion piece.
While we are here talking credentials, let me fully disclose that I was on set to witness “The Hobbit,” being filmed for five weeks and I know (and like) many on all sides of the camera. More than that, I also interned for a couple of weeks with the producers of the behind-the-scenes content. I am even credited for extra interviews, so take my perceptions as you wish.
Even if you didn’t love the movie, the exploration of the process is a wonder to behold and the whole is a triumph. And, this triumph comes with WB and MGM financing this content behind-the-scenes content. This level of excellence doesn’t just happen and it isn’t cheap. It takes financial commitment, planning and time. With rumors of late delivery circulating, creating a shortage of discs in some places, I believe I speak for many fans who emphatically say, “So what? The wait is worth it.”
Despite all the greatness on the discs, there are a few things that are disappointing, so lets start with those.
Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition
There is nothing about these covers that are exceptional or especially tasteful to tell consumers that these aren’t just another release on a store shelf. For some reason, with few exceptions, the marketing at Warner Bros. insists on slapping a bunch of floating character mugshots in a college for these films at every opportunity. More isn’t better and especially when even the casual audience knows what “The Hobbit,” is. Nobody is saying, “What? Gandalf is also in this movie?!”
A cover with a central visual idea would be a vast improvement and for these discs, there should be a graceful, classic cover, not a garish collection of floating heads. Better still would have been a style match with the LOTR EEs. The back of the 3-disc Blu-ray is actually great and would serve as a nice cover.
While we are here, the Bilbo in front of Erebor “Desolation of Smaug,” poster was infinitely more powerful that the nightmare LSD trip of Middle-earth’s usual suspects in the latest one. Boo. Very much related, if the Hobbit home video release couldn’t be a stylized match with the LOTR releases, at least we could have had a strong central character instead of a collection of them that says nothing.
Gollum and Bilbo exchanging riddles in the dark might be a place to start. The film’s strongest sequence, virtually perfect even, highlights a key moment in Middle-earth, sells us a familiar character and gives us an absolute iconic moment from literature. If things were right in the world, WB would issue an inexpensive replacement slip cover for a couple of dollars that ties this release back to the LOTR EEs. Seriously.
The art on the discs are quite good.
The commentaries with Philippa Boyens (writer, producer) and Peter Jackson (writer, director, producer) are good, but again, this is meant to be a companion disc and viewers really want more commentary perspectives as they were given in the LOTR discs. Obviously the filmmaker’s take are essential but including cast or key figures like Dan Hennah or Richard Taylor might be expensive, and not financially viable by the studios, but they are sorely missed. An unrealistic dream commentary might be to have all 13 main dwarf actors on one track or two tracks with half on each. Careful sound editing would be needed but Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Graham McTavish, John Callen and William Kircher and all the rest, would be brilliant. There are two movies left to get this right.
I am sure there are many who will take exception to comparing the discs but for certain, many consumers are doing it. These are intellectually built to go together.
But, lets move on to the good (great) with a look at what is included on most versions of the film. It is worth noting that there is a Wal-Mart version of the Extended Editions available with minimal extras. (Hate to call them extras because they are main featured content.) Even if consumers think they want to save a few dollars and get that version, they actually don’t. There is no circumstance where that option is a wise choice. Any viewer willing to commit to a three-hour Extended Edition deserves to have the story of the film as well for a few dollars difference. Friends don’t let friends buy foolishly.
Extended Edition of the film with filmmakers’ commentary and “New Zealand: Home of Middle-earth”
The commentary is mentioned above but the video feature sounds like it might be a commercial for New Zealand. It is actually, with celebrity endorsements. Newsflash: New Zealand is amazing.
The Appendices Part 7: A Long-Expected Journey -
This is a timeline of the movie that breaks down into parts how it was made, more or less, following the chronology of the film. Of course films aren’t made chronologically, but following the organization of the film is helpful. And the docs aren’t strictly about “how we did this,” as much as they highlight interesting stories from a particular segment of the production.
The beefiest is the first, “The Journey Back to Middle-earth,” which also happens to be excellent. It follows the almost absurd series of roadblocks that threatened to keep this film from being made. Viewers who followed TheOneRing will recall those days when it seemed time and again, fate had conspired to kill the film. This is excellent content that wouldn’t be included on many DVDs of other films.
The studios bravely allowed the team to tackle subjects like the financial problems that almost derailed the films and the hiring and departure of Guillermo del Toro.
It would have been much safer to sanitize these events and it happens on many Hollywood “extras” projects but here they are addressed head on — an impressive inclusion. That first documentary is a definite highlight but every single one of them holds up high standards of storytelling and visuals that feel as though the essential moments were not only talked about but captured.
It is in fact the best big-story view on this topic available in either print or film. To better understand sitting down and watching “The Hobbit,” in the cinema, this is essential viewing. It is also great not to start with the first day of pre-production but to have a wider view of the whole works.
One of the best segments, perhaps my favorite, is “A Short Rest: Rivendell and London.” The fact that the production went to London to film Sir Christopher Lee and Ian Holm is common knowledge. A lesser documentary might spend its time making just the fact of traveling from New Zealand to London to shoot the focus of the story. Instead, that is established and then the focus is placed on something far more interesting than it just happening: Lee and Holm.
Jackson and Lee are on camera holding up production so those gathered around can listen to Lee remember parts of his life that are legendary on the silver screen. He also gives Jackson some good-natured crap and it is respectfully returned. Graham McTavish and Adam Brown are also on hand, despite not filming, to listen to Lee and help the storytelling by putting his presence in perspective. It is gold and in fact, it is a pity somebody doesn’t produce an entire film based on the man behind Saruman.
Included in the same section is a pretty incredible give-and-take between Jackson, Cate Blanchette, Fran Walsh on a telephone and Ian McKellen. They discussed character motivations and all the bigger questions behind the dialog on the script page. It is pretty incredible. There are some excellent moments with Hugo Weaving. It all felt intimate, rare and was fascinating.
There are a lot of bright spots here and in fact they are more or less all bright spots, or will be to somebody. The producers and director Michael Pellerin seemingly pushed for excellence and achieved it.
The Journey Back to Middle-earth
Riddles in the Dark: Gollum’s Cave
An Unexpected Party: Bag End
Roast Mutton: Trollshaws Forest
Bastion of the Greenwood: Rhosgobel
A Short Rest: Rivendell and London
Over Hill: The Misty Mountains
Under Hill: Goblin Town
Out of the Frying Pan: The Forest Ledge
Return to Hobbiton: The Shire
The Epic of Scene 88: Strath Taieri
The Battle of Moria: Azanulbizar
Edge of the Wilderland: Pick-ups and the Carrock
Home Is Behind, the World Is Ahead
Jackson also appears on an introduction to promise more extended editions with DOS and “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.”
The Appendices Part 8: Return to Middle-Earth -
This disc delivers production details, some conspicuously missing from the film. For example:
The Company of Thorin -
The families of the dwarves are grouped together to give us more details and insights into these characters and actors. These associations are pretty tough to pick out on screen but are well presented here. Knowing more about these characters will likely enhance view of “The Desolation of Smaug.” Pity some of this wasn’t woven into the narrative. If you aren’t keeping score the chapters are, by family:
Assembling the Dwarves
Thorin, Fili & Kili
Balin & Dwalin
Oin & Gloin
Dori, Nori & Ori
Bifur, Bofur & Bombur
Martin Freeman enjoys telling the behind-the-scenes cameras they are number one, always with his middle finger or fingers. Here is another case of content many studios would shy away from, but a short collection of Freeman giving the one-fingered salute is part of the reveal of who this Martin Freeman is.
So in the next segment, and perhaps my favorite on this disc, we meet:
Software brought Gollum’s skin to life for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” earning it an Oscar for technology and science
Mr. Baggins: The 14th Member
Next we get more tasty features:
Durin’s Folk: Creating the Dwarves
The Peoples and Denizens of Middle-earth
These are broken into chapters:
The Stone Trolls
Radagast the Brown
Azog the Defiler
Realms of the Third Age: From Bag End to Goblin Town — We spend an hour with locations, time well spent.
The Misty Mountains
The Songs of The Hobbit – A look at the realization of Tolkien’s songs in An Unexpected Journey.
This last item is another of my favorites. It demonstrates that despite being last, it isn’t any less interesting that what came before. There isn’t fat here to pad out the disc but instead highly polished, carefully produced, interesting, quality content.
The movie looks and sounds great, showing off how good Andrew Lesnie and his team are at shooting moving pictures. How great does it look? If you go to the audio, visual, home theater or electronics stores, bring the Blu-ray version of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” with you to test out the things you might buy. The picture is lovely with great details in blacks (Riddles in the Dark) excellent color and all the rich details coming to life. Hate to sound hyperbolic, but when it comes to audio and visual excellence, this disc is leading the industry.
The sound comes in 7.1 surround, meaning it can send seven sounds to seven speakers to create a sound atmosphere, if you home is equipped, showing off the genuine excellence in sound design through out the film. This is a noisy movie with loud characters, loud animals and orcs, some dragon scenes, deep rumbling stone giants and lots of general chaos.
But, the dialog is always ready and easy to hear, including some pretty subtle Ian McKellen lines that come through just fine. In fact, if you have the proper system in your home, sitting in the middle of the sound environment, closing your eyes and just listening is a real pleasure.
This movie is worth owning a Blu-ray player for. The film, no matter how much you like it or don’t, is technically amazing. The extra scenes improve it slightly but just as importantly, there is a wealth of documentaries that are collectively and individually great and paint an excellent picture of what made “The Hobbit,” happen. I meant it when I said it above, this is among the finest home video releases in history. Minor quibbles aside, MGM and Warner Bros. did right by fans and this does stand alongside its LOTR EE predecessors. While this film doesn’t extended as much or as importantly, its extras are as good and perhaps better.