Reviewed in Australia on 27 February 2018
WARNING: This edition contains only the theatrical versions of the two Middle-Earth trilogies, not the extended editions that were released a year after each theatrical release.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a masterful writer who achieved something that few authors ever can -- the creation of a full-fledged fantasy world, with a sprawling history and many fictional races.
So it's no surprise that his best-known works -- "The Hobbit" and its sequel trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings" -- were eventually turned into movies, where director Peter Jackson tried to get across the beauty and scope of Tolkien's imaginary world (although occasionally with misfires. "The Middle-earth Theatrical Collection" brings together the two trilogies of movies, following two very different little hobbits and a mysterious golden Ring.
In the "Hobbit" trilogy, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a nice boring gentlehobbit who has no interest in adventures. That is, until Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and thirteen dwarves, led by their prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), waylay him into accompanying them to the mountain fortress of Erebor. They're determined to reclaim their home from the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Gandalf thinks that Bilbo might be useful.
But the journey to Erebor is rife with dangers -- mountain trolls, goblin hordes, suspicious wood-elves led by their king Thranduil (Lee Pace), a grotesque underground creature named Gollum, and a mysterious golden Ring that turns Bilbo invisible. And even if they are able to somehow destroy Smaug, it won't be the end of their troubles. In the meantime, Gandalf is warned by his fellow wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) that an evil force is stirring in the old fortress of Dol Guldur, and he soon finds that it may be their worst enemy of all.
"Lord of the Rings" skips ahead some decades, to when Bilbo (Ian Holm) decides to depart the Shire, leaving his home and possessions to his young cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood) -- including his magic Ring. But Gandalf soon discerns that it is actually the One Ring, a powerful possession of the evil Sauron, which corrupts anyone who comes into contact with it -- and could allow Sauron to conquer the world. Frodo and his faithful gardener Sam (Sean Astin) -- soon joined by Frodo's cousins Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) -- set out to take the Ring to a safe place.
But they soon find that such a place doesn't exist, and that Frodo must take the Ring to the only place in Middle-Earth where it can be destroyed. And before long, Frodo and Sam find themselves alone on their journey to the evil land of Mordor... except for Gollum, who is torn between seizing the Ring and following Frodo. Meanwhile, Gandalf and the king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) seek to stabilize the fractured kingdoms of Middle-Earth, even as Sauron's forces prepare to launch "the last war, that will cover all the world in shadow."
The six movies contained in the "Middle-Earth Theatrical Collection" are some of the best fantasy films ever made -- they capture a great deal of the scope of Tolkien's story, both on an emotional (Sam's fierce devotion to Frodo) and a cinematic level (the sprawling Battle of Five Armies, which dominates the entire movie named after it). And as with the books they're based on, there's always the sense that a vast history and a much wider world are just out of our sight.
And this is conveyed through magnificent battle scenes, sweeping glimpses of medieval kingdoms (the damp rough-hewn Laketown, the elegance of Minas Tirith, the soaring subterranean dwarf kingdoms), and and some truly beautiful writing (Sam's speech at the finale of "The Two Towers"). Furthermore, Jackson is able to bring to life all the mythical creatures Tolkien wrote of, from the moss-bearded Ents to the sinuous, flame-throated Smaug. But the movies never lose the focus on the people who are at the heart of all this conflict, and Tolkien's themes of adventure, valuing home and friendship, and that there are things in the world worth fighting to preserve.
However, there are still some flaws, particularly in the "Hobbit" trilogy, which can run rather long at times. Furthermore, it contains a dwarf-elf romantic subplot that -- aside from being virtually impossible, given the centuries of hatred between their peoples -- is painfully cheesy and contrived.
But the casts are absolutely stellar. McKellen is pitch-perfect as the prototypical crotchety wizard, kind and yet constantly impatient with those around him (especially Pippin), and Wood and Freeman are excellent as the hobbity protagonists -- one is wide-eyed and almost ethereal, while the other is sensible and ordinary, but has a bubbling spring of unconventional fierceness inside him. Both Bilbo and Frodo are transformed over the course of their stories, and the actors handle these beautifully.
They're backed by a brilliant array of actors, including Mortensen, Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Otto, Christopher Lee, Pace, Astin, John Rhys-Davies, McCoy, Liv Tyler, Luke Evans, and Cate Blanchett as the imposing elven queen Galadriel. And each character is expertly sketched out, with detail and care. The Hobbit movies, for instance, have thirteen dwarven main characters, and each one has a distinct personality with individual quirks.
"The Middle-earth Theatrical Collection" collects all the live-action movies to be set in Tolkien's beautifully-drawn world -- and the only problem is that this collection is only the theatrical collection, and not the full extended set. Still, well worth watching.