Middle Earth Ultimate Collector’s Edition 4K Ultra HD Review: Beautiful Box but Incomplete

A cover for the Middle Earth Ultimate Collectors Edition  

The Lord of the Rings is a landmark of modern cinema. New Line’s audacity of committing to a trilogy before a successful film has been produced is only matched by Peter Jackson’s exacting, completely committed vision. It’s hard to overstate what a gamble it was and how much of an impact it had on cinema. They proved there was a market, a huge market for fantasy and specifically nerd/geek related material that was the foundation for our current pop culture landscape, completely dominated by nerdy cinema.

Don’t blame The Lord of the Rings trilogy for that, though, because they are genuinely excellent films, and intelligent adaptations of material that was not entirely suited to cinema. The problem with turning the novels into three films is that the story is intentionally meandering – it is about a journey, and no good journey goes in a straight line. Every novel had tons of material that had to be excised in the film, even in the extended editions that were released, on the regular, one year after the theatrical film hit the screens.

The Lord of the Rings films made Peter Jackson a power player in Hollywood, able to pick his own projects, and one thing he was rather adamant about was not making a Hobbit film. When it became clear New Line was going to make one (their rights to the material were expiring), Peter Jackson came on board as a writer and a producer, with Guillermo Del Toro to direct. That, of course, fell through, and Peter Jackson was again in charge. Here he had the opposite problem: turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s rather slim fairy story of a hobbit in the company of dwarves on a picaresque adventure into an epic to rival his original trilogy.

It didn’t. But it did create a completion of Tolkien’s original work in cinematic form, and was released similarly in home video extended editions that filled out an already overstuffed story. It is these films, The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies which fill out this Middle Earth Ultimate Collector’s Edition. An enormous 31-disc boxed set, this Collector’s Edition contain both trilogies in both their Extended and Theatrical release forms, on both 4K and Blu-ray.

The size of the boxed set (31 discs!) sounds like something almost as overstuffed as The Hobbit trilogy itself, but sadly it actually is less than it seems. The Hobbit films add up to four discs a film – each version of the film on its own disc, Blu-ray and 4K. The Lord of the Rings films are on six discs – one for the theatrical, two for each extended edition, Blu-ray and 4K.

The 4K releases have been released before, and they are still astounding. There have been complaints online about the level of digital noise reduction and the lack of grain on these films, but on my setup these releases have a clarity and beauty they’ve never had before on home video. Especially notable in the early scenes of the Shire in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are incredibly rich in detail and texture. The Blu-rays are also remastered, and though they can’t compare in quality to the 4K, are (at least for Lord of the Rings, where I could do a direct comparison) generally of higher quality than the previous release.

The question for this release isn’t necessarily about the films, which everyone has their own opinions about. I think The Lord of the Rings is the best film trilogy ever made. And The Hobbit has some good points (and, I might be alone, but I think The Battle of the Five Armies is the most enjoyable of the three films, even if it has the least to do with the novel it is supposed to be adapting.) And these 4K editions are absolutely beautiful.

But one thing that the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit home video releases are known for, especially in their extended editions, is their extras. Tolkien’s original novel had several chapters of notes about the world he creates called The Appendices. In fact, the entire story of Aragorn and Arwen, which is prominent in the films was relegated to these appendices in the novels. The films had their own appendices, detailed and informative documentaries about the making of these films.

Making-ofs come in many distinct flavors. The most useless are the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) which might have information, but are essentially advertisements for the film. Peter Jackson almost single-handedly created the New Zealand film industry, and he was never shy about showing how he did it. He loves openness about his filmmaking process, and as much as any filmmaker enjoys a “warts and all” approach to his filmmaking extras. Controversies, complaints, problems, he lets them air. Sometimes not in full (Stuart Townsend being replaced as Aragorn is mentioned, but not that prominent in the docs) but he does not impose a rosy “everything is fine and everyone had the best time” narrative on his bonus features.

Every film in the Middle Earth saga has extensive extras. And nearly none of them are available on these discs. The Blu-ray editions have legacy commentary tracks, but the extensive documentary material is nowhere to be found. For an “Ultimate” collection, you would think that attention to the behind-the-scenes material would be expected. But no.

There is a Blu-ray with extra material (the 31st disc) which has new interviews from 2021 with participants in the film. It’s mainly (unfortunately, but not unexpected, given that they were recently made) Zoom interviews and not the actors in public. But it’s fine. The complete elimination of some of the best filming documentation of the DVD era of movies is less fine.

The packaging of this Ultimate Collection is mostly beautiful. It does highlight a difference from the old DVD extended editions, and from when New Line was in charge as opposed to when Warner Brothers took over. The old extended editions were covered in Tolkien style runic lettering. This new ultimate collection is covered in movie art. It’s well produced, but it’s still a difference of kind.

Part of the production are the box-sets different presentation styles. The box can be shown in several different configurations, for displaying the art, or accessing the materials. All of them are attractive, but that highlights the Ultimate Collection’s purpose: it’s an object to admire. It’s a pretty box set. It is not definitive. It is certainly not ultimate. But it’s very pretty. This is, in my opinion, a gift box set. You know your relative (son? brother-in-law? Long lost uncle?) loves the Lord of the Rings, and you want to spend more than $200 on him. This is a reasonable purchase in those circumstances.

For the actual material available, it’s not a bargain. The 4K releases are available elsewhere. The extras are fun, and good, but pale in comparison to what’s come out before. The digital copy does contain the complete appendices for The Hobbit movies, but are much spottier for extras from Lord of the Rings.

I love these films: unreservedly for The Lord of the Rings and with praise and caveats for The Hobbit. And the presentation for just these movies in this box set is as good as has ever been presented. But at a nearly $250 MSRP, this is clearly a luxury purchase. The various display configurations are attractive, but the amount of material that is not present makes the name “Ultimate” feel like at least an exaggeration.

Middle Earth Ultimate Collection has been released in a box set with both 4K editions and Blu-ray discs by Warner Brothers. These consist of the six films, both in their theatrical releases and extended editions: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and the Battle of Five Armies, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. For the Hobbit movies, each has a commentary track by the filmmakers, only available on the Blu-ray. They also have brief documentaries about New Zealand, where the films were shot. The Lord of the Rings films have four commentary tracks on each film, also only available on the standard Blu-rays. The 31st disc contains several video extras: “Alamo Drafthouse Presents The Lord of the Rings Cast Reunion: The Fellowship of the Ring” (40 min); “Alamo Drafthouse Presents The Lord of the Rings Cast Reunion: The Two Towers” (33 min); “Alamo Drafthouse Presents The Lord of the Rings Cast Reunion: The Return of the King” (30 min) and “Festival de Cannes Presentation Reel” (27 min), the most interesting extra here, the preview reel of The Fellowship of the Ring that was screened at Cannes in 2001 and was the first anyone saw of The Lord of the Rings outside of the production crew.

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Kent Conrad

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