Judge Erick Harper bids a fond farewell to Peter Jackson's epic adaptations of the Tolkien books.
Our reviews of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King: Special Extended Edition (published January 25th, 2005) and The Lord Of The Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published March 31st, 2010) are also available.
I'm glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee…here, at the end of all things.
It is clear by now that the world has come to take seriously J.R.R. Tolkien's works and the films based upon them. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King snared an almost unheard-of eleven Oscars in what was seen as a tip of the hat to the trilogy as a whole.
And what a trilogy, what an amazing journey this has been! Peter Jackson undertook what seemed like a fool's errand and dared to film the unfilmable. Mainstream Hollywood thought Jackson and his studio were insane for making what would surely be the most expensive direct-to-video title ever. Instead, Jackson and his merry band of cinematic wizards created a soaring epic. This trilogy has captured our imaginations and allowed our cinematic souls to soar like few films in recent memory, or indeed in the whole history of the movies.
The final installment in the trilogy now makes the first of two appearances on DVD. This is the theatrical cut, clocking in at three hours and twenty minutes. For the more patient among us, the extended edition is scheduled for release in time for Christmas, and is rumored to be somewhere between four and five hours long, depending on to whom you listen.
Facts of the Case
Dark days are upon Middle-Earth. While the valiant, desperate armies of men (and a dwarf, an elf, and a few hobbits) have held off an assault by the forces of evil at Helm's Deep, that battle is mere prelude to the war to come. The armies of Mordor are on the move, ready to crush the kingdom of Gondor and its last citadel, Minas Tirith.
As the armies of light and darkness gird for battle, two hobbits continue their quest to destroy the One Ring. Frodo Baggins and his loyal friend Samwise Gamgee continue their perilous, hopeless journey into the dark and foul land of Mordor to cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, where the Ring was forged ages ago. With them still is Gollum, the embittered, angry creature who held the ring for 400 years and is obsessed with regaining his "precious." Gollum is sometimes friend and guide, and sometimes a thing much more sinister.
While armies of Mordor gather for the greatest battle Middle-Earth has ever seen, another member of their Fellowship takes center stage. Aragorn, ranger of the North and self-imposed exile of Gondor, finally fulfills his destiny as the heir to Isildur's crown.
In the midst of these momentous events and battles that will shake all the peoples of Middle-Earth, the fate of the good in their struggle against the ultimate evil rests squarely on Frodo, Sam, and the seemingly inconsequential golden Ring that they must destroy or all will be lost.
When The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept the Oscars in March of 2004, it was a triumph in many ways. First and foremost, it was recognition of the outstanding achievement or Peter Jackson and his hardworking cast and crew. However, fans of fantasy, both films and literature, may be forgiven if we felt a small sense of victory as well. Here was Hollywood—good old cynical, jaded Hollywood—applauding an epic fairy tale with its simple themes of good and evil and the importance of friendship, duty, and destiny. The key to the success of the films, as is true of Tolkien's books, is the focus on the small stories, the personal and emotional details, in the midst of world-shaking cataclysmic events. We as an audience are as amazed as Sam and Frodo are that the fate of the world rests not on the massive armies clashing in battle, but on two small hobbits trying to claw their way up the side of a mountain. While The Return of the King is by far the most epic and ambitious of the three films, in many ways it is also the smallest and the most personal, and that is what vaults it far above all other sword-and-sorcery filmmaking.
With this intensified personal focus, more than either of the two previous films this movie rests upon the shoulders of four actors: Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Elijah Wood as Frodo, and Sean Astin as Samwise. Mortensen as Aragorn undergoes a marked transformation from ambivalent exile to reluctant leader to truly heroic king. He captures the ambivalence and reluctance very well, probably doing more with it than with the confident, heroic warrior of later in the film. McKellen simply is Gandalf; the documentaries on Disc Two note that he had not read Tolkien at all before accepting the role but took the time to become something of a Tolkien scholar in his own right and took great pains to make sure he was playing the character that Tolkien wrote. The results, as throughout the trilogy, are delightful. Elijah Wood, like Frodo, has a difficult burden to bear in this film. We see Frodo's anguish as the Ring consumes him more and more as the two hobbits make their way into Mordor. The combined effects of the Ring and his proximity to the Enemy himself strain Frodo almost to the breaking point, and begin to unravel his very soul. Wood, who was rather bland in The Two Towers, makes up for it here as the hobbit reaches his most desperate hour.
The Return of the King, like the previous installments in the series, lives up to New Line's reputation for quality. The picture and sound are basically flawless. This is a stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, preserving the all-important theatrical aspect ratio. Every frame is sharp and clear, gorgeous to behold, with color fidelity dead on the mark. I could not find any notable DVD-related defects in the video presentation. Audio is presented in a room-shaking Dolby Digital 5.1 EX mix that comes as close as one could hope to replicating the real theatrical audio experience.
With the past releases in the trilogy, the theatrical editions have been nicely packed with supplements. They have paled in comparison with the extended edition releases, but have had their own assortment of quality extras that would have made them worthy "Special Editions" if they came from any studio other than New Line.
That pattern holds true here…mostly. To be sure, there is an impressive-looking collection of information here. There are three documentaries, running for a total of about 97 minutes. The first two were produced for this DVD, and deal specifically with behind-the-scenes information, interviews, and reflections from all concerned about finally arriving at the end of a quest as epic in its own way as the events portrayed on film. The problem with these two documentaries is the extent to which they repeat each other and cover more or less the same ground. The third documentary in the bunch is National Geographic's Return of the King special. This takes a very different angle, comparing the characters and archetypes found in The Lord of the Rings to various historical figures. Aragorn is compared to William Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry V at Agincourt, and even Winston Churchill. Sam and Frodo, for their part, become a fantasy version of the legendary Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Some of the historical comparisons are fascinating and enlightening, while others tend to be a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, at the very least this 46-minute feature covers ground that few other commentators have considered.
This theatrical edition of The Return of the King also carries six featurettes from Lordoftherings.net. They average about three minutes apiece, and each examines a different aspect of either the story or the making of this film. Theatrical trailers and 14 very nearly identical TV spots are here by way of promotional materials, as well as an extended commercial for Electronic Arts' The Lord of the Rings series of video games. The real gem, though, as far as all these trailers are concerned, is the whopping six minute The Lord of the Rings trilogy supertrailer. Presented in widescreen and with Dolby 5.1 sound, this mini-movie will remind fans of everything they loved about the films, and may inspire repeated viewings of all three.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While for the most part the film is a grand success, there are some small disappointments along the way. In particular, Sean Astin as the loyal and brave Samwise seems to have given himself over to rather overwrought hysterics at every turn. There is no line Sam's dialogue that Astin cannot find a way to shout, scream, or sob. Granted, what Sam and Frodo must face is a more harrowing experience than any one of us could imagine, but Astin could have found other ways to convey this. As it is, his performance veers just a little too close to Chris Farley territory for comfort.
Jackson's work has been criticized for its deviations from Tolkien's rich source material. These creative differences were the most pronounced and extreme in The Two Towers, where the changed and added material set many fans' teeth on edge. The Return of the King sticks closer to the novel, almost achieving the level of fidelity seen in The Fellowship of the Ring. Still, there are some significant departures from the original narrative. CAUTION: There be slight spoilers ahead.
A couple of the biggest changes from the novel involve Aragorn and his ascent to power in Gondor. The reforging of Isildur's sword Narsil is moved here, to the eve of the climactic battle, from its original place in the The Fellowship of the Ring. This is an acceptable change, as it increases the dramatic value of Aragorn's receipt of the sword, as well as highlighting his internal struggle with accepting the place that is his by birthright. It also provides him with the legitimacy he needs to walk the Paths of the Dead and command the allegiance of those who betrayed Isildur many centuries ago. These dead play a much bigger and more visible role in the climactic Battle of Pelennor Fields that they do in the novel. This seems to be a bit of a cheat, since the ultimate victory there is more a result of their intervention than the efforts of the Gondorians or other forces of good. However, since they only fight at Aragorn's command, this change serves to underline his authority as the rightful King and cement his importance in the fate of Middle-Earth. All told, the greater problem with these undead reinforcements is probably the less-than-impressive nature of their CGI incarnation when compared with the flesh-and-blood battle that has gone before.
A more disturbing change is the addition of a new subplot involving Liv Tyler's Arwen. Somehow, Jackson and Co. decided that the fate of Middle-Earth and his fate as Isildur's rightful heir wasn't sufficient motivation for Aragorn; instead, we now have the completely soap-opera touch of Arwen's health and vitality being tied to the tides of battle. Some have tried to explain this blunder away, saying that Arwen had sloughed off her elfin immortality and that her fate, like that of all other mortals, was tied to the outcome of the War of the Ring. I'd buy that, happily, if it were not for a specific line of Elrond's dialogue that says something like "as Sauron's power grows, her strength wanes." Her travails consume only a small amount of screen time and are quickly forgotten, but this is still an aggravating and pointless addition to the story.
Perhaps the most controversial change in the film was Gollum's ability, at a crucial juncture, to undermine the friendship and trust between Sam and Frodo, leading to a brief separation between the two. Some have argued that this undermines one of the great themes of the novel, the undying friendship between these two hobbits. I really didn't see this as undermining the friendship theme, but rather strengthening it as their friendship does in fact recover. Besides, it works well within the dramatic structure of the film.
There is another change that comes as Sam and Frodo deal with Gollum one last time inside Mount Doom itself. This change would be difficult to discuss in any detail without providing a major spoiler, so I will simply say that although no one else seems to have commented on it, I found it far more disturbing than any of the other deviations from Tolkien that have occurred throughout the film trilogy.
In addition to the extra content mentioned above, this DVD provides the ability to link to "exclusive online content." Now, accessing this content requires use of the dreaded InterActual player, which brings us to our semi-annual reminder that spyware is evil. More to the point, I tried for about half an hour to get this online content to work, and I had no luck. If you decide to bite the bullet and give the online portion a whirl, I hope it works better for you than it did for me.
In one of the documentary featurettes, Peter Jackson and friends comment that new technology and filmmaking techniques made them realize that it was now possible to film Tolkien's trilogy, once considered unfilmable. This leads one to wonder what other previously unfilmable works might now be made into new and even grander motion pictures. Tolkien's The Hobbit would seem to be a logical choice for Jackson's next project, but the film rights are tied up in a seemingly impenetrable tangle of legal issues. So, instead Jackson is busying himself with a remake of the classic King Kong. He's likely to do well with that, but I do wish he was setting his sights a bit higher, as he did with The Lord of the Rings.
Not guilty! Peter Jackson and his army of filmmakers have created a satisfying conclusion to their epic trilogy. New Line's DVD looks and sounds great, but the special features aren't up to their usual standards. However, it is more than enough to have me salivating at the thought of the extended edition, due to hit shelves in time for the holidays.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Documentary "The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision"
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