By Steve Jones, USA TODAY
Ten years after the release of the first film in director Peter Jackson's beloved The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the franchise based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien gets a Hi-Def video treatment that is as expansive as Middle-earth itself.
The 15-disc boxed set The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy: Extended Edition ? Blu-ray (2001-2003, Warner Bros., PG-13, $120) restores nearly two hours of deleted scenes to 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring, 2002's The Two Towers and 2003's The Return of the King. The running time for the three films alone exceeds 11 hours, and there is an additional 26 hours of bonus material.
The fantasy tale tells the story of the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) who battles to save his world from the evil Dark Lord Sauron. He and a band of heroes undertake a treacherous journey through a war-torn Middle-earth, a world peopled by all manner of humans, dwarfs, elves, wizards and other strange creatures, to find and destroy Sauron's greatest source of power, The One Ring.
Tolkien's vision is brought to life by groundbreaking special effects and an all-star cast that includes Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Ian Holm and Sean Bean.
The films were wildly successful critically and commercially. They earned a combined 30 Oscar nominations and won 17. The Return of the King won all 11 for which it was nominated (tying Ben-Hur and Titanic for most received). The movies were all filmed concurrently in Jackson's native New Zealand at a combined cost of $281 million. They wound up earning $1 billion at the box office in the USA and $3 billion worldwide.
In the boxed set, five discs each are devoted to the films. The movies themselves are split into two parts on separate Blu-ray discs, and three DVD discs of bonus material accompany the movies. Each gets a feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary created by filmmaker Costa Botes (Saving Grace) on the sets of each movie.
Other discs feature commentaries by the director, cast and crew members, discussions on how the screenplay was developed from the books, the creation of the elaborate sets, how the hundreds of special effects were integrated, and an interactive Middle-earth atlas.
Jackson is not done with Tolkien and neither are many of the actors from the Rings movies. In March, the director began filming The Hobbit as a two-part epic prequel to the trilogy: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit:There and Back Again. Filming again is taking place in New Zealand. The movies are scheduled to be released in December 2012 and December 2013, respectively. Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo Baggins and Richard Armitage stars as Thorin Oakenshield. Wood, McKellan, Bloom, Weaving, Holm, Lee and Blanchett will reprise their roles.