The first time I saw Fellowship of the Ring, I fell asleep. Give me some credit, though - I was in my 36th hour of wakefullness. I caught some Zs during the Weathertop sequence and right around the appearance of the Argonath. Fittingly, I enjoyed, but was not overtly impressed by, the film.
August's DVD release changed that (as did dating a woman who watches it whenever she can manage). Fellowship began encroaching upon more and more of my life. I began imitating Pippin's lines ("We've had one, yes. But what about second breakfast?"), and I dressed as a Ringwraith for Halloween (and was locked out of my apartment since Wraiths don't have pockets).
Now, thanks to the Extended Edition DVD, all hope is lost. I love this film. I want to mate with every single one of the four discs (did that come off as...odd?). This is not only one of the greatest films ever made by anyone, but it's also the single greatest DVD in the history of the format. Period.
As you likely know, Fellowship of the ring benefits from an extra half-hour of material. Director Peter Jackson wasn't foolish enough to simply dump a few new scenes in at the appropriate spots. Almost the entire film is re-edited slightly to accomodate the fresh material. Some things were even removed (don't despair...those things that were taken out are given better versions moments later).
First off, after a slightly expanded prologue (we get to see more of whimpy-pants Isildur's final fate), we open on Bag End, with Bilbo furiously beginning his book "There and Back Again". He narrates a very whimsical segment entitled "Concerning Hobbits," as we learn about the quiet nature of the Shire and its inhabitants. This bit is very amusing and a perfect way to begin introducing major characters.
Then, as the saying goes, we're off. In most cases, the extra material is so beautifully incorporated, you wonder how you ever did without it. It's especially important to the character of Aragorn, whose backstory and personality are fleshed out. While the Theatrical edition was Frodo-centric, here the hobbit shares the spotlight with the exiled king. I haven't read "The Two Towers" or "Return of the King", but I'm assured that this split focus (which works marvelously from a dramatic standpoint) is also necessary to the rest of the series.
There are two instances where the added material doesn't appear to gel. There's a sequence added to the Council scene that is very cool and a great test of the Dolby 5.1 stereo system, but it just doesn't work, and was probably better left out. Also, the giving of the gifts at Lothlorien is also very neat and needed (apparently) for the later films, but it stops the pace of the film dead. It's far too long and cumbersome.
The video is a bit better than the Theatrical Edition. The colors are much richer, and the look is much sharper and precise. You really feel transported to another world.
However, it is the sound that really needs mentioning. I watched Fellowship of the Ring on a fairly decent Dolby 5.1 system (with the rear speakers turned up a few notches), and I was flabbergasted at how excellent the sound quality was. I don't think I've ever heard such excellent audio from a film ever, and I'm including sitting in a plush theater. You will be surrounded by Middle Earth. This is the rich kind of surroundings you wish you got out of the real world.
Regarding Disc 3 and 4, which contain the "Appendices," I have two words:
That option should become your most trusted friend in this endeavor. Contrary to what marketing may tell you, what you're really dealing with is not several mini-documentaries - you're dealing with one huge six-hour look at the film, from the birth of J.R.R. Tolkien to the New Zealand premiere.
This is the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes of a movie EVER. The individual pieces range from highly informative (WETA Workshop) to really funny (Fellowship of the Cast, A Day in the Life of a Hobbit). You'll learn mind-boggling things about the adaptation process, the production, the post-production. There's an entire segment on sound design which is just too cool. The bits range from 10-50 minutes, depending on the subject. The misleadingly titled "Cameras in Middle Earth" (which one would think is about cinematography) is the longest, covering the off-camera shenanigans in sequence (beginning at The Shire and ending at the woods by the Argonath).
What's most important, though, is that the documentary only increased the sense of awe that I felt about the film. This is probably the riskiest concept in filmdom, one that could have totally collapsed if Peter hadn't surrounded himself with some very brilliant people. You'll learn to respect the word WETA (which is like Jackson's very own ILM combined with a makeup, props, and art department).
You'll also fall in love with the cast (with the possible exception of Viggo Mortensen, who is just a little aloof). Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, who play Merry and Pippin, seem just as mischevious as their respective characters. Monaghan (referred to as Dom) does impersonations of nearly everybody, including scale doubles and John Rhys-Davies (his Viggo is just a bit off, though). Elijah Wood is all wide-eyed enthusiasm, and is very refreshing - especially when he's making fun of Sean Astin's motherly tendencies.
In addition to the documentaries, there's a bevy of photo galleries (which are fabulous). Also, the animatics galleries are very telling of how much planning went into the final vision of the film. Also check out the editing demonstration, where you can sort of (but not really) construct your own version of the Council of Elrond.
Oh, and the screen test of Bag End with Peter Jackson as Bilbo is a must-see. A puppet head of V.I. Lenin stands in for Gandalf. Kooky.
The commentaries are very informative. The Cast commentary (which is the only one that I listened to in full) is most amusing. All of the hobbits recorded together, so there's a very great sense of camraderie there. Their interjections are amusing as well as informative, and are the best indication of the atmosphere surrounding the shoot. Sean Bean and Ian McKellen delve more into character motivations and the experience of the film. Liv Tyler (who is sadly absent most of the time) is very, uh, perky. Christopher Lee makes rare appearances, and tends to take the role of the Tolkien scholar, dispensing interesting bits about the book (and when any changes are made, he pronounces them "improvements"), and Rhys-Davies seems very enthusiastic about everything, including the terrible eczema he contracted during filming.
The director/writers commentary focuses mainly on how difficult it was to adapt the novel, and the interesting things that cropped up during shooting. Fran Walsh is a very rare participant, so its mainly up to Jackson (who speaks frequently and at great length) and Phillipa Boyens to carry the track. This is fine, since all of the very best commentaries are between just two people anyway. Things go at a fairly good clip, with very few holes. Jackson also speaks often when a new bit comes up, and why it was taken out and why it was put back in.
Headed up by Richard Taylor, the art design commentary (or the WETA commentary) is the richest with background information about every little piece of the film. These folks had their hands in everything, and the wealth of knowledge possessed is just fascinating. It really drives home how many different people contribute to making a film of this scale (or any scale for that matter).
The production/post-production commentary is dead boring (except for the parts about sound design). These people add nothing that isn't said in the documentaries, and they drone on and on about things that aren't particularly interesting. Don't waste your time unless you must know EVERYTHING about the film, and have no life to speak of (which probably indicates that I should have listened to it straight through). Oh, well.
Note on the Gift Set: In case you're wondering, the Argonath bookends are VERY nice. All the little extra things you get (including three trading cards, a miniature issue of the Lord of the Rings fan magazine, and an expanded National Geographic Behind the Movie DVD) are all very cool. Unfortunately, none of them are worth the extra 30-40 dollars.
If I haven't made this clear up to this point - GET THIS DISC. I don't care how much it costs. Forget picking up that copy of Bad Company, and hold off buying Episode II. This is one DVD set to rule them all...