With these 'Rings,' we can put the quest to bed

"All Hobbits share a love of things that grow," writes Bilbo Baggins at the beginning of the latest Blu-ray release of "The Fellowship of the Ring." If that's true, the little folks of Middle Earth will go gaga over the new "The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy: Extended Edition," arriving this week.

The nine and a half-hour trilogy now runs more like 11 and a half hours, enough to spread out over six Blu-ray discs in three cases, all of them accompanied by nine other standard DVDs packed with an additional 26 hours of bonus extras and documentaries.

The folks at Warner Home Video and New Line Cinema have made sure that fans can now follow Frodo's quest to vanquish evil and not reappear until they are as pallid and shriveled as Gollum himself.

The three theatrical films and all those other discs come in a handsome antique-gold box that retails for $119.98, though you can find it at considerable discounts in stores and on line. That also makes this one of the video bargains of the decade, if you happen to be among the millions who enjoyed Peter Jackson's cinematic forays into J.R.R. Tolkien's epicfantasy.

The trilogy comes with lossless DTS-HD MA 6.1 audio here for the very first time, and in a side-by-side comparison with last year's Blu-ray releases of the theatrical cuts, the new set's sound is deeper and fuller, bringing added richness and dimension to the mind's stage.

There is a subtle but noticeable difference in the look of the feature films, as well. A darker contrast setting and a general boosting of the cyans and greens, admittedly more apparent in some scenes than others, make this version appear a bit moodier and more feverish.

The initial 2001 release of "The Fellowship of the Ring" has also been given an overdue upgrade, with a new remaster taken from the 2K digital files.

As befits a film series that earned 17 Oscars and grossed over a billion dollars in domestic box office alone, the features' high-def transfers are now fit for a king.

The main advantage of Blu-ray over all DVD editions is what's not there. There's no visual "noise" in the dark recesses of those foreboding caves, no unresolved grays loitering in the shadowed halls of those gorgeous stone palaces. The picture is beautifully clear from side to side, top to bottom, giving you a distraction-free window on what Oscar voters hailed as the film fantasy of a lifetime.

For the uninitiated, "The Lord of the Rings" centers on an all-powerful sorcerer's ring forged in antiquity by a dark lord. To keep it from falling into the hands of the evil Lord Sauron, a feckless band of pint-sized hobbits, led by the pure-of-heart Frodo Baggins, signs on for "ring disposal" duty that takes them on a perilous odyssey to Mount Doom. Meanwhile, sinister underworld forces gather for a final pitched battle between good and evil yet unsullied by modern notions of moral relativism.

On Blu-ray, the magic spell cast by the filmmakers is more potent — from the stunning New Zealand locations that make such a fine stand-in for Middle Earth, to the majestic Howard Shore soundtrack that seems even more attuned to a viewer's emotions in the awesome new DTS-HD mix.

What's new, Middle Earth?

Of more specific interest are the changes made by adding all that "extended" footage into movies already deemed near-perfect by three separate panels of Oscar voters. Peter Jackson himself makes a good case for the added footage.

The extended versions have always been considered works in progress, open to revisionism, says Jackson. Time has given him more perspective on the merging of literary conventions and cinematic possibilities, and he approached the task of integrating lost footage as if he were making "a whole new version of the film."

The introductory sequence to "The Fellowship of the Ring" now reveals more about the death of the ring's first human owner, who uses the magic power to make himself invisible to his enemies. When he jumps in a river to swim away from the battle, it allows the archers to take deadly aim. This establishes an important theme early on about the limits of magic and the unreliability of appearances.

After the titles, the movie now opens not with Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) lazing in the forest, but with his guardian, Bilbo Baggins, sitting down to write "A Hobbit's Tale." This allows Jackson to pay homage to Tolkien by introducing life in the Shire with literary precision, placing all that follows in the context of a folk saga rather than a fairytale or "sword and sorcery" adventure.

Altogether, there are some 30 minutes of such additional material in the first film, including a flashback that establishes the family dynamic between Boromir (Sean Bean) and his brother and father, both of whom will play important roles later on.

"The Two Towers" has an added 43 minutes of material, and "Return of the King" includes nearly as much, including a reported 350 new effects shots. All three extended versions have also incorporated new orchestrations, where needed, again by Howard Shore.

Carried over from earlier collector's editions for the first time are the three Costa Botes documentary journals on the making of the films, effectively showing us just how prodigious an undertaking it was. Botes' chosen method was to hang around the set and try to be there to record the occasional cut or sprain when not casually asking the crew people to explain this or that aspect of their jobs. It becomes quite captivating as the steady accretion of filmmaking minutiae coalesces into a coherent account of the shoot.

Also on the bonus discs are promotional shorts, music videos and cable TV specials from previous DVDs, none of them in high-def but still worth having together all in the same box.

When you've sat through all this, you can activate the BD Live option (if your Blu-ray player has access to the internet) and find related games and fellow travelers. Chances are, though, you'll be as antsy as Frodo Baggins to get on the road with your "precious" possession. So take a few more minutes to download the whole trilogy as a Digital Copy to your portable device of choice.

Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning trilogy was a long time in the making, and a longer time in getting to where it needed to be — on high-definition video. This extended edition sets a new standard for what an ultimate box set can be. It is, indeed, the total Tolkien package.

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