The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a film that needs no introduction. The third and final part in New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson's big-budget movie adaptation of the novel by JRR Tolkien, it set box office records and was the winner of eleven Academy Awards. Films such as these have a tendency to generate a bandwagon fan-base, with critics and viewers alike praising them to the heavens, regardless of whatever flaws they might have. This jaded reviewer, a fan of the original book, maintains the opinion that, while the film adaptations are good, they are vastly overrated. This review will attempt to explain why.
At the start of The Return of the King, the Ringbearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his gardener Sam (Sean Astin) are being led towards Mordor by Gollum (whose voice and motion capture reference are provided by Andy Serkis), on their quest to destroy the One Ring. Meanwhile, fresh from their victory against Saruman, the rest of the Fellowship head back to Edoras with King Théoden and his men for a night of partying. The festivities are disrupted, however, when Pippin (Billy Boyd) looks into a mysterious glass ball that was found among the wreckage at Isengard. This seeing stone reveals him to the Dark Lord Sauron, who becomes convinced that he is the Ringbearer. Sensing an opportunity to distract Sauron, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) takes Pippin to Minas Tirith, the last bastion of defence against Sauron's forces, hoping to keep the focus on Minas Tirith to buy Frodo some time. The trick works, and Sauron sends all his forces against Minas Tirith. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) decides that the best way of aiding the beleaguered forces of Minas Tirith is to take the Paths of the Dead and enlist the aid of the Oathbreakers, an army of ghosts cursed to remain on the mortal plain until the oaths they broke are fulfilled.
It's an incredibly complex story, due in part to the massive number of characters, locations and agendas, and those who have not seen the first two installments in the trilogy will be at a complete loss if they even try to figure out what's happening. I suspect that such individuals will be few and far between, however, and it is to the filmmakers' credit that they assume at least some form of basic intelligence on the audience's part, rather than spelling everything out.
The film begins with a scene directed by Jackson's wife, co-writer and producer Fran Walsh. It deals with how Gollum game upon the Ring, and was originally intended to appear in The Two Towers, immediately after Frodo called him by his real name. It's a shame this scene was moved, since while it makes for a strong opening to this film (indeed, it convinced me that Walsh is a better director than Jackson), it indiectly refers to a number of moments that would have surrounded it in its original location (the use of Gollum's name and the cry of "murderer", for example).
Indeed, it soon becomes clear that poor planning and bad scene placement are the film's biggest problems. Thanks to these films essentially being assembled in the cutting room rather than at script level, it becomes clear that Jackson changed his mind about several elements, even when different parts of the trilogy had already been released. The most publicized of these is Saruman's confrontation with Gandalf and subsequent denouement, which was originally meant to come at the end of The Two Towers, then at the start of The Return of the King, then dropped altogether. (And nothing anyone says will convince me that keeping the defeat of a major villain off-screen is a good idea.) Equally clumsy is the treatment of the character of Arwen, who in the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring was depicted as something of a battle-savvy ranger, and indeed was intended to appear in the battle at Helm's Deep in The Two Towers, before her character was altered to that of a simpering fairy princess. In fact, her arrival at the end of the film as Aragorn's token bride makes you wonder what the big deal was (you're better off with Éowyn, Aragorn).
As was the case with The Two Towers, a fair amount of the film's running time is comprised of epic battle scenes. While well choreographed, and impressively managing to mix CG with live action almost seamlessly, they all follow a rather predictable pattern, with each battle being played out in the same manner: they all begin with troops charging at each other and bombastic music soaring; then, the troops collide and the music stops; we are now treated to various shaky-cam shots of soldiers fighting, generally with each shot lasting less than a second; eventually, the tide of the battle turns in the enemy's favour, the action goes into slow motion, and a female solo voice begins singing a mournful, wordless tune; various shots are now shown of one of the film's heroes looking around in wide-eyed horror as he sees various comrades being cut down. The tide of the battle then either turns in the heroes' favour, or we cut to a different scene. While this could have been a successful model if used sparingly, the fact that each fight receives the same treatment means that, after a while, I no longer care.
That's not to say that there aren't a number of good elements in the film. Indeed, a number of set-pieces are impressively well-handled, for example the rousing speech Aragorn gives to his troops as they prepare to face off against Sauron's forces outside the Black Gate, even if it is more or less cribbed from a similar scene in Braveheart. Additionally, the moment where Éowyn (Miranda Otto) confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl is beautifully performed and very emotional. Every now and then, Jackson throws in some very impressive imagery, even if his composition for the 2.39:1 frame is at times inept. In terms of acting, there are a number of superb performances, especially Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn who, for someone who had never read the book and was only cast after principal photography had already begun, seems to be more in touch with his character than anyone else. Yet for every Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen, there is an Elijah Wood and an Orlando Bloom (Legolas). Bloom in particular is as wooden as the arrows he fires from his bow, and Wood is thoroughly outclassed in every single scene by Sean Astin. Liv Tyler (Arwen) is also woefully miscast, since while she handled the swashbuckling ranger of the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring with ease, she it out of her league when trying to portray her character as written in the rest of the trilogy. It is also somewhat disappointing to see a number of the characters left behind in this third chapter. In particular, Legolas and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) become little more than window-dressing, and Éomer (Karl Urban), Éowyn and Farmir (David Wenham) all seem to be brushed to one side after the Battle of Pelennor Fields in the middle of the film.
The most publicized aspect of these movies has probably been the portrayal of Gollum, often inaccurately credited solely to Andy Serkis - a true shame, because it means that many people ignore the outstanding efforts of the various character designers, modelers and animators who made him so much more than a man in a white latex suit. Certainly, Gollum represents a milestone in computer graphics, and while he never actually convinced me as a real person (he often stands out too much from the background, and his interactions with the real actors look unnatural), he is undeniably a superb technical feat.
Overall, The Return of the King is my least favourite of the trilogy, and while I certainly enjoyed it slightly more when watching it again on DVD than I did when I saw it at the cinema, it has too many flaws for me to appreciate it fully. While The Fellowship of the Ring felt like a road trip adventure and The Two Towers was an action movie, The Return of the King comes across as something of a tangled web, without a definite idea of where it wants to go. It also doesn't help that, at 200 minutes, this is the most bloated of the three films. While individual elements are quite successful, as a whole it is rather inconsistent, and I simply don't believe it to be deserving of the praise it has received.
The film is presented anamorphically in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. (A separate pan & scan version is also available.)
The image quality of this release is slightly better than that of the previous two Lord of the Rings films (both the theatrical cut and extented edition DVDs), in that it shows a little more fine detail. A great deal of filtering is still being applied, destroying the filmic look and reducing entropy by a fair amount, but at least now some detail is visible. The colours are alternately rich and muted when the occasion calls for them to be, and the contrast is very deep. I spotted no compression problems, which is a pretty impressive achievement given that 200 minutes of material is crammed on to a single disc, and the average bit rate is a low 5.18 Mbps. It does at times have a slightly crushed look, something that the Extended Edition, which will split the film over two discs, will probably improve on.
As was the case with the previous two films in the trilogy, note that the theatrical trailers presented on disc 2 are noticeably sharper than the film itself, especially the first trailer, pictured below:
Above: DVD transfer.
Above: theatrical trailer 1 transfer.
(Differences in colour are the result of digital grading applied to the finished movie by the filmmakers.)
Look at how much more detail is present in Miranda Otto's face and hair, and in Bernard Hill's hands. Notice also how much finer and more film-like the grain is, visible even in this static shot. These static images don't do this comparison justice, however: they really have to be experienced in motion, side by side, to appreciate the difference in quality. Had the film itself featured a transfer of the same quality as this trailer, I would unequivocally have handed out an all-too-rare 10/10 for image quality. As it is, though, this is merely a good transfer rather than an excellent one. I would like to think that New Line might improve the transfer for the upcoming Extended Edition, but I hoped for exactly the same thing with the Extended Editions of the previous two films and was disappointed both times.
As is customary with the 2-disc releases of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King gets a thunderous Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track. Loudness is the name of the game here, and as befits the no-holds-barred action of the film itself, there are plenty of split channel effects and lots of bass. Past experience has shown, however, that the DTS-ES 6.1 tracks of the Extended Editions have improved on their Dolby counterparts, so there is probably better still to come.
English and Spanish subtitles, as well as English closed captions, are included.
The two discs are housed in a dual amaray case. The cover and insert artwork is fairly good, in keeping with the look of the previous two 2-disc sets. The insert includes listings for all 60 (!) chapters, as well as a list of bonus features and instructions on DVD handling. Also included are a rebate for the Extended Edition and a catalogue for various overpriced tie-in trinkets, neither of which will be of any use to UK customers.
The menus are fairly attractive, but their transitions are a little over-long and too frequent. We don't really need extensive fading animation just so we can switch from one screen of extras to the next, do we?
As with the 2-disc releases of the previous two films in the trilogy, this set features no commentaries or extras specially produced for the DVD. Instead, it is comprised of trailers and various made-for-TV documentaries, none of which match the scope or quality of those present on the Extended Editions, but nonetheless are fairly interesting. All the extras are on disc 2, and all include English and Spanish subtitles.
The Quest Fulfilled: a director's vision - Unlike previous featurettes included on the 2-disc releases, this 22-minute documentary actually takes a fairly in-depth look at the genesis of the films, covering Peter Jackson's early struggles to interest studios in the concept, as well as problems that faced he and his writers during the process of adapting the book to the screen, casting, reshoots, and so on. I expect a number of readers will have already seen this documentary on ITV1. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1. Image quality is acceptable, but suffers from quite a lot of dot crawl and smudging.
A Filmmaker's Journey: making The Return of the King - This 30-minute documentary repeats a number of the interviews and is along much the same lines as the previous one. Essentially both give the same information, only with different narration, graphics, music and film clips. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1, the image quality is not particularly good, consistently soft, with uneven colours and a fair amount of bleeding, especially for the clips from the films themselves.
National Geographic Special - This 45-minute documentary attempts to draw parallels between the events in the films and actual historical events. This is the kind of thing that would have annoyed Tolkien no end, since he despised allegory, but it makes for a relatively interesting, if completely speculative, piece of work.
Lordoftherings.net featurettes - These six short featurettes were originally created for the internet, and as such they are brief, relatively lightweight, and quite poor in image quality. There is some interesting material here, but ultimately they do not go into enough detail to be particularly informative. Generally, what we're seeing here is the kind of thing that is greatly expanded on in the Extended Editions' extras. Presented in anamorphic 1.78:1.
Two theatrical trailers and thirteen TV spots are also included, as well as a trilogy supertrailer, which has a 6:30 running time and essentially gives a condensed overview of the first two films, as well as including much of the material from the trailers for The Return of the King. A neat feature, but essentially a useless one.
Finally, there is a three-minute EA video games trailer, briefly covering the game adaptations of the trilogy. No more than marketing fluff, actually.
Overall, this is a below average line-up of extras, but that was to be expected given past experiences with the 2-disc editions of these films. One thing I missed seeing was a preview for the Extended Edition, which was included on the 2-disc releases of both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.
While not perfect, this release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King should tide fans over until the Extended Edition is released in November/December this year. Whether or not the longer cut of the film will actually improve it is anyone's guess, but I personally found this to be the weakest of the three. For fans, however, this DVD features a technically strong although imperfect audio/visual presentation that is more or less in line with the 2-disc releases of the previous two films and should therefore make for an enticing stop-gap between now and the release of the Extended Edition.