The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Special Extended Edition) Review
“So it begins, the great battle of our time...”
The war is only just beginning as The Return of the King opens, but a cinematic legacy is drawing to a triumphant close. The trilogy behind him, Peter Jackson has become the most powerful director in Hollywood (whether Mr. Spielberg still holds that mantle, is up for debate). After all, he now has carte blanche; the opportunity to pursue any project that takes his fancy, and the brass to demand a paycheque fit for A-list stars. Most people will agree, that he deserves every last cent. Turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s lengthy trilogy into cinematic gold must have been daunting, but somehow, this overweight Kiwi known for his low-budget horror pictures, has produced one of the greatest adaptations ever (an honour which few films can oppose). Now that the final chapter has come and gone, we can all breathe a massive sigh of relief. Not only is The Lord of the Rings one of the greatest achievements in the history of the moving image, it’s also closer to perfection than any other adaptation before or since. In such jaded times, the notion that Jackson - the auteur behind Braindead - would create a film that inspires genuine awe, is something that will never be forgotten. We saw something important here. Something special.
Of course, we all know that Return of the King is a masterpiece. Such opinion is welcomed by the masses (and the Academy, who gave it 11 Oscars). So highly is Jackson’s film regarded, that many have forgotten the path it took to reach the screen. Thanks to New Line, the shooting of three entire epics was given the greenlight. So began the biggest gamble Tinseltown has ever seen. $300 million might seem like a more-than-adequate price tag, but for a studio who’d existed for barely 20 years, it was a project that could transform them into giants, or sign their death warrants. Thankfully, everything turned out fine. With a world-wide gross many times the value of some countries, the fate of Lord of the Rings was set in stone. If only Tolkien was around to see it...
The key to Jackson’s success, seems to be interpreted differently by most critics. On a technical level, it really did exceed our expectations. The term “breaking ground” is used far too much, but in terms of film-making and digital wizardry, this trilogy didn’t just break ground, it blew it away. Every area of the “foreign” production is first-rate, proving that New Zealand is the place to go for fantasy tales. Of course, the film would be nothing without its cutting-edge effects work. Much better than the average blockbuster, WETA’s visual prowess helps to give The Return of the King its epic sweep; its sense of luster, and most importantly, a degree of verisimilitude that punctuates the fantasy violence. But a film can’t stand on technology alone. Jackson might have rounded up the best crew imaginable, but it’s Tolkien’s story that emerges triumphant. Filled to the brim with emotion and razor-sharp characterisation, this is a story that moves rather than stirs. And now that the final chapter is 48 minutes longer, those moments have greater impact.
The tale begins where The Two Towers ended, with hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and demented creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) approaching Mordor - the source of Middle-earth’s evil. Elsewhere, Gandalf the White (Ian McKellan), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), reunite with their hobbit friends Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), who have just laid waste to Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) lair at Isengaurd. However, their meeting is brief, and the Fellowship is once again separated. Frodo is starting to feel the full effects of the Ring, and after trusting Gollum, is snared in the web of giant spider Shelob. Will Sam save him? Meanwhile, Gandalf and Pippin travel to the city of Minas Tirith to warn them against a coming invasion, while Aragorn prepares to announce himself as Isildur's heir, the returned king of Gondor. Let the battle commence...
I should admit now, that The Return of the King failed to rock my world on its original release. Anticipation had skyrocketed, and after seeing the masterly work for Fellowship and The Two Towers, I expected the final chapter to drop the ball. After all, the finale of any trilogy is usually problematic - The Godfather Part III and The Matrix Revolutions spring immediately to mind. But I shouldn’t have worried. While my cinematic experience was the least of the three, it has slowly become my favourite part of the saga. In my mind, the Extended Edition is by far the better film; boasting sequences that should have played in theatres. Indeed, Jackson's only gaping misstep in the saga, was to leave out Saruman's grisly demise. It made little sense, and the film is much more satisfying with this sequence intact.
My only other gripe, was the bloated running time. The film was too long for theatres; yet another problem solved with the leap to home video. After all, you can stop a DVD anytime you like (and the gap between discs provides a welcome intermission). Now we are able to see the big picture. Watched in quick succession with its predecessors, the quality of The Return of the King takes a quantum leap. Jackson is clearly loving the chance to end these story arcs, and he goes to great lengths to tie up every loose end imaginable. In most respects, the trilogy gets better with time and reflection. The audience has been with these characters every step of the way, so wasn’t Jackson wise to provide a lengthy epilogue?
After a slow and stately build-up, The Return of the King leaps into action. Once again establishing our heroes, Jackson goes for a completely different tone; the final leg of the journey much darker than before. The vibe is perfectly established with the opening flashback (directed by Jackson's partner Fran Walsh), with Serkis given the opportunity to appear sans green leotard. Gollum’s perversion by the Ring is acutely portrayed, and the sense of melancholy never lets up. In fact, the film gets very bleak, even scary. Seeing Frodo stuck to Shelob’s web is nail-biting, and Jackson milks the situation for every last drop of suspense. So tense is Frodo’s journey, that we cheer at the sight of Sam’s return. Still, it is the battles that provide the lasting impression. Early on, the fight at Pelennor Fields manages to raise the heart rate, with some truly breathtaking eye candy. But Jackson never forgets his characters, and the action is covered in pathos. Without it, the spectacle would be meaningless.
And speaking of spectacle, would this review be complete without assessing the siege of Minas Tirith? Easily trouncing the Helms Deep skirmish of The Two Towers, Jackson spares no expense in creating total carnage. Thousands of orcs attack the city walls; carefully computer-rendered to full effect. The sheer size of the assault certainly took me by surprise, especially when those giant elephants arrived, trampling over everything in sight. There are so many cool moments here - the sight of horses charging through orcs; dragons destroying the city; boulders launching into the sky. This must have been a mammoth undertaking, and the work paid off. Despite the intense action, Jackson still finds the time to tell personal stories. Gandalf gets to show his true power here, helping the defences with his magical abilities. Pippin also reveals his courage, and manages to save the life of Faramir (David Wenham), who is about to be burned at the stake by his tyrannical father. That said, everything goes up a notch when Aragorn and his cohorts arrive. After all, seeing Legolas take down an Olyphant single-handed is worth the price of admission alone.
Apart from Andrew Lesnie’s visuals, and a water-tight script, Jackson’s greatest weapon is his cast. Elijah Wood gives us his best performance as Frodo, contrasting with the bright, effervescent soul we once knew. It’s a role that clearly demanded a lot, and to his credit, Wood manages to show the power and lure of the One Ring well. Astin goes through the most significant change though, transforming Sam into a genuine hero; rescuing Frodo from Shelob, Gollum and the hordes of Mordor. Mortensen also has his most important work here, adding extra dimensions to his tortured ranger. His ascension to royalty is handled thoughtfully by the actor, turning Aragorn into the very definition of a folk hero, and one of cinemas more memorable. As before, Bloom and Rhys-Davies have little to do, but in a film as dense as this, it’s good to have comic relief. That said, it is up to McKellan to provide the knockout performance. Gandalf is at his best here - stripped of the heavy exposition he had to deliver before - and becomes a central figure in the ongoing fight. And what a fight it is. Blood is shed, lives are lost, and two hobbits hold the fate of the world in their hands. It’s the kind of material actors live for.
And what of the endings? For those who appreciate long goodbyes, The Return of the King will make you profoundly happy. Jackson’s 20 minute epilogue seems much richer in this cut, completing this four hour journey in tear-jerking fashion. I’m man enough to admit it - the end of this story is downright heartbreaking, and there was barely a dry eye in the house. It’s a beautiful denouement, ending on the same note as the book. When “The End” appears on screen, I dare you not to be moved...
After three long years, we come to the final DVD release - confirming Jackson’s genius, and allowing us to complete our collections in style. The “Extended Editions” of the saga have been some of the finest works on the format (not to mention, some of the best-sellers). The boffins at New Line have cemented their reputations, and their work for Return of the King maintains the company’s high standard. As expected, this is a set boasting meticulous detail, and many hours of orc-infested entertainment. Shall we bid farewell to the Shire?
The Look and Sound
Is anyone really expecting Return of the King to flounder in the looks department? Naturally, the film looks astonishing. Presented in ultra-sharp anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), this is one beautiful transfer. Image detail is sky-high, with those Middle-earth locales taking on some pleasing depth. Jackson’s command of the frame is practically flawless, and the disc certainly does it justice. Compared to the previous sets, there are differences though. After all, Andrew Lesnie’s photography takes on a different tone - with washed-out colours, and a bleaker palette overall. That said, the eye candy doesn’t suffer, and the image is clear throughout; even in darker sequences (no clarity was lost during Frodo’s stint in Shelob’s lair). This is a great transfer every step of the way, and I’d find it hard to pick faults.
Even better, are the sound options. We get a choice: 5.1 EX, Stereo Surround, and DTS-ES 6.1. All of them are well above-average, and really showcase the films magical set pieces. Of course, the DTS track is the one to go for, and let me tell you, it packs a punch. It’s loud and full of bombast; creating the world effortlessly. The surrounds really give you a feel for the different environments, and the different elements are handled seamlessly. Howard Shore’s score is an obvious highlight, and the tracks do it justice (the sequence in which the beacons are lighted, is overwhelming in its beauty). Same goes for those all-important battle sequences, and the assault on Minus Tirith sets the sound-stage alight. Ultimately, the technical aspects of this release reign supreme. It’s one of the years greatest, and until the trilogy reaches Hi-Def, this is the best place to witness The Return of the King.
If you own the previous Extended sets, you should be familiar with the menu designs. Suffice to say, they follow the same scheme, and continue to please. Wonderfully animated with a touch of class, they look great, and do their job well. New Line have always taken great relish in this area, and they complement the style of Return of the King perfectly.
“Fully loaded” is the phrase I’d use to describe these sets, and the final chapter continues the trend of over-indulging on bonus material. The shoot of this truly amazing project has been documented so passionately thus far, so it didn’t surprise me that the final helping is just as thorough. Coated with a bittersweet finish - this really is the end of an era - I once again found myself in awe.
The Appendices: Extras Overview
THE APPENDICES PART V: "The War of the Ring"
Disc intro by director Peter Jackson
"J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth" documentary
From Book to Script:
"From Book to Script: Forging the Final Chapter" documentary
Abandoned Concept: Aragorn Battles Sauron
Designing and Building Middle-earth
"Designing Middle-earth" documentary
"Weta Workshop" documentary
"Costume Design" documentary
Design Galleries - 2,123 images
The Peoples of Middle-earth
The Realms of Middle-earth
"Home of the Horse Lords" documentary
"Middle-earth Atlas: Tracing the Journeys of the Fellowship" interactive map
"New Zealand as Middle-earth" interactive map w/on-location footage
THE APPENDICES PART VI: "The Passing of an Age"
Disc intro by Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan
Filming The Return of the King
"Cameras in Middle-earth" documentary
Production Photos (gallery) - 69 images
"Weta Digital" documentary
"The Mumakil Battle" demonstration / multi-angle interactive
Post Production: Journey's End
"Editorial: Completing the Trilogy" documentary
"Music for Middle-earth" documentary
"The Soundscapes of Middle-earth" documentary
"The End of All Things" documentary
"The Passing of an Age" documentary
Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for "Into the West"
"Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for 'Into the West'" documentary
"DFK6498" short film
"Strike Zone" short film
If there’s one area the Extended cuts excel in, it’s with their commentary tracks. Like its predecessors, Return of the King bags 4 yack-tracks, each running for the entire duration of the film. Naturally, that’s an awful lot of information to take in, so it shouldn’t surprise any of you that I’ve only sampled each track (which, incidentally, is all I’ve ever done with these sets). What we have here, is over 10 hours worth of audio material, which is only the tip of the iceberg. The first track assembles writer/director Peter Jackson, and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. It’s the one track most of you will listen to, and thankfully, it’s worth the effort. As expected, a lot of time is taken to discuss the scriptwriting process, and how daunting it was to once again transform Tolkien’s work into an entertaining motion picture. Walsh and Boyens trade many tales of how amazing (and large) the project was, giving us the impression that they ate, drank and slept Lord of the Rings throughout the scripting stage. But, this is Jackson’s track, and his jovial presence makes the comments all the more interesting. He highlights the reasons why some of the scenes were cut for theatrical exhibition, and what is new in this cut. His memory for production details is also admirable, and the group provide plenty of anecdotes amidst friendly backslapping. This was a fun track.
Moving on, the design team have their moments to shine. With a trilogy this vast and detailed, the team certainly had their work cut out, and their comments provide some invaluable insight. Here, we have production designer Grant Major, creative supervisor Richard Taylor, conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, art director Dan Hennah, art department manager Chris Hennah, and finally, workshop manager Tania Rodger. The group bombard us with details, with factoids revealed left and right. Want to know how your favourite set was designed and constructed? This track will probably give you the answers, and a lot more besides. The costumes are covered heavily too, and the decisions they made with the visuals are well documented. The work of Lee and Howe proves the most interesting, since it was their art that directly influenced the look of the trilogy (a look which is revealed elsewhere in the set). Fans with an interest in such areas, will be well served here.
The third track features the production and post-production team, who also give us many details on ending the trilogy. Along for the ride, are producer Barrie M. Osborne, executive producer Mark Ordesky, co-producer and editor Jamie Selkirk, additional editor Annie Collins, co-producer Rick Porras, composer Howard Shore, visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel, supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins, animation designer Randy Cook, VFX art director Christian Rivers, VFX cinematographer Brian Van't Hull, miniatures director of photography Alex Funke and visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. This is by the far the stuffiest commentary in the set, but it is consistently engaging nevertheless. Talk of digital effects has the tendency to bore me to tears (and the discussion once again swerves into Gollum territory), yet the producers follow up the mumbo-jumbo with some valid information. After all, such a project was hardly a walk in the park, and they remain proud of their work.
Last but not least, is the cast commentary. Most DVD users will know that cast tracks rarely bare fruit, but with an ensemble like this, you can guarantee a fun time. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis, Lawrence Makoare, Smeagol and Gollum (Serkis in character), all contribute, giving their thoughts on the biggest undertaking in cinema history. Naturally, the track is tinged with some sadness - the adventures have ended, yet each of them have nothing but fond memories of the never-ending shoot; the bond between all of them never clearer. However it isn’t all tears and hugs, with Boyd and Monaghan injecting a lot of humour throughout. Thankfully, the name of the speaker appears on screen (as is the case with the other tracks), so you shouldn’t be too confused. A fitting end to a great selection of yack-tracks.
Featurettes and Galleries
Now for the real meat and potatoes of this set. Boasting plenty of video material, this is a bittersweet farewell from all involved, and suffice to say, I was riveted from the get-go. On each disc, you’ll get the chance to “Play All” of the featurettes as one, which is perhaps the best way to do it. To begin, "J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth" (30 minutes), a behind-the-scenes look at Tolkien’s legacy. Very similar to the documentaries from the first two films, this helps to shed light on his creative process, and his fascinating life in general. "From Book to Script: Forging the Final Chapter" (25 minutes), is yet more details on the scripting of Return of the King. Jackson, Boyens and Walsh all appear, giving tips to aspiring screenwriters everywhere. Following this, a deleted animatic, and "Aragorn Battles Sauron" (5 minutes), is proof that a 4 hour movie still has footage to lose.
Moving on, we have documentaries delving deeper into to the pre-production process. "Designing Middle-earth" (40 minutes), is pretty self-explanatory. So much effort was taken to make the film look as impressive as possible, the crew get their due with this detailed piece. All of the talking head footage is interspersed with behind-the-scenes action; with plenty to take on board. This is followed by the "Weta Workshop", "Big-atures", and "Costume Design" featurettes, all of which give extra insight into how words on the page become objects on screen. More interesting though, is "House of the Horse Lords" (30 minutes), an interactive “Middle-earth atlas”, and “New Zealand as Middle-earth” feature that reveals the real-life locations that were transformed by the crew. In other words, it’s the best travelogue ever.
And now for the galleries! The photo archive comes complete with optional commentary, and there are 50+ of them to get through. Like before, we get galleries for each of the main areas - miniatures, sets, locations, characters - everything you’d expect. And if that isn’t enough to salivate your fan-boy lust, the fourth disc should make you profoundly happy. It begins with the wonderful "Cameras in Middle-earth" documentary, which runs 73 minutes. It mostly covers the advanced shooting methods employed to put this story on screen, with Andrew Lesnie on hand to highlight his bravura photography. "WETA Digital"(42 minutes) is just as detailed, giving the tech-heads ample room to spew their technical lingo. "Editorial: Completing the Trilogy" lasts 22 minutes, assessing how the film was put together, from the editing suite to the FX computers. "The End of All Things" (21 minutes), is a glimpse into the final days of production with the crew adding most of the finishing touches. Which leads us to "The Passing of an Age" (25 minutes), a tear-jerking piece that sees much of the cast and crew parting ways. It’s almost heart-breaking to see this.
That said, there is still material to see! The "Music for Middle-earth" featurette (22 minutes) and "Soundscapes of Middle-earth" (22 minutes), give us a neat account of how the sound design and score were prepared. Fans of veteran Howard Shore, will be pleased with these vignettes. At 32-minutes, is a piece on Cameron Duncan, called "The Inspiration for 'Into the West'". A very interesting man, this piece is worth watching, and is all the more involving when followed by his short films DFK6498 and Strike Zone. Struck down by cancer, the filmmaker clearly influenced Jackson, and this is a touching tribute to his work. The set comes to a close with a multi-angle visual effects demonstration (with optional commentary), and a final stills gallery. Phew!
As Gandalf so rightly states at the films conclusion, “not all tears are an evil”. We may weep at the end of the greatest trilogy ever (don’t hate me Star Wars fans, you know it’s true), but the memory of this achievement will linger for decades to come. We’re lucky to have seen such a colossal work in our lifetimes, and if Jackson’s magnum opus doesn’t re-ignite your passion for cinema, nothing will. The Lord of the Rings is a bona-fide work of art - a work to be proud of, and something tells me, that we’ll be celebrating The Return of the King for quite some time. Amen to that...