Judge Bryan Byun originally planned to write this review in Elvish, but he ran out of Elvish synonyms for "unfreakingbelievablyawesome."
Our reviews of The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (published June 7th, 2004) and The Lord Of The Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy (Blu-Ray) (published March 31st, 2010) are also available.
There can be no triumph without loss. No victory without suffering. No freedom without sacrifice.
Like millions of other fans of the The Lord of the Rings films around the globe, I felt a profound sense of emptiness when the 2004 holiday season came and went without a new Rings installment. We've been so awash in the mythology of Middle-earth for the past three years that it's a little jarring to realize that it's all over.
Fortunately, we get one last hurrah in Middle-earth, courtesy of New Line's Special Extended Edition of The Return of the King. With this, the concluding volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's monumental trilogy as imagined by Peter Jackson (and by "Peter Jackson," I mean of course Jackson and the hundreds of gifted artists, craftsmen, performers, and others who helped give life to the director's vision), we have finally reached the end of our journey through Middle-earth.
That is, until the next super-duper deluxe boxed set.
Facts of the Case
The final act of the Lord of the Rings saga begins before the beginning, with a prologue that tells of how the once-Hobbit-like Sméagol (Andy Serkis, momentarily peeking out from beneath his CGI skin) murdered his friend Déagol for possession of the One Ring, and of Sméagol's subsequent descent into madness and Gollum-ization. The film then swings back to the current storyline and picks up the action more or less where The Two Towers left off.
As with the previous film, The Return of the King follows several parallel tracks. The Hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), led by Sméagol/Gollum, continue their arduous trek into the heart of Mordor to destroy the Ring in the molten lava of Mount Doom. Meanwhile, Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellan), Aragorn the ranger (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the Elvish archer (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) reunite briefly with ne'er-do-well Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) at the remnants of Isengard, stopping only to deal with the defeated Saruman (Christopher Lee) before splitting up once more. Gandalf and Pippin ride to the citadel of Minas Tirith to warn Denethor (John Noble), the Steward of Gondor, of the impending Orcish invasion, while Aragorn and the rest rejoin the Rohan, in hopes of convincing King Theoden (Bernard Hill) to aid in the defense of Gondor.
As the film marches toward its apocalyptic climax, subplots branch out like the White Tree of Minas Tirith. Gollum connives to sow mistrust and suspicion between Frodo and Sam as he leads them to a starring role on the dinner menu of Shelob, a monstrous spider straight out of our (and Jackson's) nightmares. Gandalf and Pippin arrive at Minas Tirith to find that Denethor, distraught over the death of Boromir (Sean Bean), his favorite son, and none too eager to relinquish his stewardship of Gondor's throne, has become a paranoid lunatic. Denethor's surviving son, Faramir (David Wenham) struggles to live up to his brother's legacy, but his efforts merely earn him his father's contempt.
Over at the Rohan camp, the horsemen make preparations for war. Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Theoden's niece, is nursing the twin wounds of Aragorn's rejection and being pushed to the sidelines in the impending conflict despite her eagerness to defend her people. Aragorn grows nearer to accepting his destiny as the returned King of Gondor as he wrestles with the problem of mustering sufficient forces to defeat Sauron and his evil multitudes. As if that's not enough pressure, the once and future king receives a shocker courtesy of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who informs him that his daughter and Aragorn's sweetheart, Arwen (Liv Tyler) has renounced her immortality for love's sake and now lies dying, her fate tied inextricably to the outcome of the war against Sauron—the war that will also determine the fate of all Middle-earth.
Meanwhile, back in the Shire, a Hobbit farmer takes a break from mowing his lawn and knocks back a cold one.
As with the previous Extended Editions, The Return of the King: Special Extended Edition offers a souped-up version of the theatrical release, with a whopping 50 minutes of new and extended scenes added by Jackson, which includes over 350 new effects shots and additional music composed by Howard Shore specifically for the added footage. The sheer number of additions is truly impressive—consult the IMDb link in the sidebar for a complete list of changes—and makes for a significantly different (for the better) experience. The much-talked-about final confrontation with Saruman is included here (and, oddly enough given the hoopla, feels unnecessary), as well as scenes set in the Houses of Healing—a more meaningful addition for anyone who was curious as to why Faramir and Eowyn (who, in the theatrical version, to the best of my recollection, never even meet until the coronation scene) seem so chummy at the end.
The additional footage does, of course, add welcome texture and depth to the film, filling out story gaps of varying sizes. The biggest beneficiary, however, is Faramir, who felt more peripheral to the theatrical version than he seemed intended to be. Here, we get a much better sense of the who this young man is, and his own unique qualities outside of his brother's shadow and the withering glare of his father. Another, less-trumpeted but significant alteration is the amplification of Arwen's role in the film. In the theatrical version, it's less clear that Arwen's fate is linked to that of Sauron, which makes her presence feel all the more irrelevant; here, it's far more clearly spelled out, and underscores the emotional resonance of Aragorn's stake in the success of his mission—he's not just fighting for Gondor, or Middle-earth, but for the life of his beloved as well, and this is something that really should have been better defined in the original release.
After three commercially and critically successful installments, and enough Oscars to topple a Mümakil, it's hard to imagine a time when The Lord of the Rings was considered a huge gamble and the books unfilmable. That's part of the joy of experiencing these films—an exhilaration born of sheer relief, that the adaptations are actually good, and that, for once, something actually lives up to the hype. Peter Jackson rode into the dismal void left in the hearts of sci-fi/fantasy geeks by two lackluster Star Wars prequels, and restored our faith in the power of cinema to excite our imaginations.
Return of the King presents a tall order on top of a tall order: the challenge of wrapping up the myriad storylines of the epic saga—itself an attempt to corral the even more intricate plot of Tolkien's masterwork—in such a way as to push the crescendo of action built up in the previous film to ever greater peaks of intensity, while respecting the smaller-scale character arcs, which could so easily be dwarfed by the vast dimensions of the overall story. That Jackson and company rise so admirably to the challenge is nothing short of astounding, given the dizzying scope of the project. Whatever one might think of the fantasy genre, or Tolkien's novel, or the fidelity of this adaptation to the source material, no credible critic can deny that The Return of the King accomplishes what its creators set out to create—a sweeping epic on a massive scale that never loses sight of its humanity, that stays rooted in the mundane hopes and dreams of common folk.
The film works its magic with a level of artistry that, at its finest moments, renders itself invisible. When gigantic Orcish beasts of burden appear, dragging an even more gigantic battering ram, we're impressed by the spectacle of the battering ram, yes—but more important, we take completely for granted the reality of those beasts of burden. At some point toward the middle of The Fellowship of the Ring, I stopped being aware that Wood, Astin, Monaghan, and Boyd weren't actually four-foot-tall actors; in Return of the King, that suspension of disbelief is so completely earned that I don't hesitate to make the emotional investments in the characters that pay off so grandly in the end.
There's much about these films that, to modern eyes, is mawkish and simplistic at best, implausible and ridiculous at worst. So many elements of the story, from its "insignificant underdogs save the world" premise to the reductive morality of its black-and-white (literally, as embodied by the dark Orcish hordes besieging the blinding white walls of Minas Tirith) struggle of absolute evil against unwavering good. In short, these films—especially Return of the King, which hits so many unabashedly sentimental chords—really ought not to work. (Check out the underwhelming 1980 Rankin-Bass animated Return of the King, or Ralph Bakshi's disjointed 1978 attempt at an animated Lord of the Rings, to see exactly how it doesn't work.)
Many of the ways that Jackson's Return of the King does work are right up on the screen. Across the board, the actors deliver their performances with solid conviction; nobody, from the main stars down to Orcish archer #6,539, is phoning it in. Casting is pitch-perfect: Ian McKellan is Gandalf; was Elijah Wood ever anything but a Hobbit? The screenplay, by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson, should (and likely will) be taught in film school courses on how to adapt literary works without squeezing the life out of them. The astonishing visual effects demonstrate that it's not technology that's to blame for the lifelessness of so many recent D.O.A. blockbusters. And whoever the genetic engineer was who created Andy Serkis deserves a Nobel Prize.
The primary benefit of the staggering array of special features included with this Special Extended DVD Edition, then, is to shine a spotlight on the not-so-obvious elements that contributed to the success of The Lord of the Rings. Over the course of the hours and hours of documentaries, audio commentaries, and other material spread out across the three Extended Edition sets, we come to appreciate that the production of the trilogy was as epic and tortuous a struggle as anything depicted on screen.
Given the unusual nature of the films' production, it's fitting and gratifying that the production features are not only plentiful but beautifully packaged, with the documentaries presented in anamorphic widescreen with English and Spanish subtitles. It's evident that a great deal of thought and planning went into these extras; I'm not normally a huge fan of behind-the-scenes featurettes—they're too often merely mutual lovefests or glorified commercials for the film—but in this case the extras are not only entertaining in their own right but provide a genuinely useful supplement to the main feature.
Bonus materials are spread out over the four discs:
Discs One and Two
The first two discs offer four separate audio commentaries, which works out to about seventeen hours' worth of chatter:
The director and writers: Features Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. These three folks must surely be a little burned out on talking about The Lord of the Rings by now, but they nevertheless manage a lively, entertaining and often funny commentary, focusing for the most part on story and character choices within scenes, areas where they diverted from Tolkien's text, and their reasoning behind the placement, movement, or deletion of scenes between the three films and between the theatrical and extended cuts of Return of the King. The trio share some interesting bits of trivia, such as that Pippin's song in Denethor's court was inspired by a cast and crew karaoke night, when it was discovered that Billy Boyd could carry a fair tune (Boyd ended up composing the music for as well as singing Pippin's song). Also of note are close discussions of aspects of the story that tend to get pushed to the sidelines of the film, like Faramir's relationship with his father, or the friendship (more evident in the extended than the theatrical cut) between Faramir and Pippin. Jackson and company clearly took this project seriously, but they don't take themselves seriously at all; one especially amusing part of this commentary is Peter's running joke about all the "lost footage" he's saving for the 25th Anniversary Edition (Gandalf brushing his teeth, etc.)
The design team: Features Grant Major, Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, John Howe, Dan Hennah, Chris Hennah, and Tania Rodger. This commentary, as well as the other technical commentary, might be more entertaining if you've already seen the documentaries, since you'll have become more familiar with who these folks are and will be able to put faces to names like Ngila Dickson, the costume designer, or production designer Grant Major. With so many voices on board, you can expect a lively discussion with very few pauses for the entire four-hour-plus length of the film. Although many of the facts and anecdotes offered here are repeated from the documentaries, we get a fuller picture of the design process than in the documentaries' sound bites. Given how critical the work of artists like Alan Lee and John Howe were, not just to the look of the film but to characterization and story choices, this is a pretty engrossing commentary even if you're not necessarily a student of art direction or costume/production design. I found Ngila Dickson's input especially fascinating, given the amazing level of detail that went into the costume designs, many of which, like the Orcs' armor, weren't even given much close-up screen time.
The production/post-production team: Features Barrie M. Osborne, Rick Porras, Mark Ordesky, Howard Shore, Jamie Selkirk, Jim Rygiel, Annie Collins, Ethan Van der Ryn, Joe Letteri, Mike Hopkins, Randy Cook, Christian Rivers, Brian Van't Hul, and Alex Funke. Again, a lively commentary track with many participants. With the wealth of information provided in the documentaries regarding things like visual effects and miniature work, I didn't find this commentary as consistently illuminating as the others, but it seems like pretty much everyone who worked on this film has a collection of on-set war stories to share, so the proceedings don't drag at all in this briskly paced discussion. These technical commentaries often get skipped over by more casual viewers—with good reason, since they typically feature one or two nerdy types droning on monotonously about details only a film school student could love—but if you've got the time and the interest in these films to spare, they're definitely worth the effort.
The cast: Features Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis, Lawrence Makoare, Sméagol, and Gollum. That's right, I said Andy Serkis, Sméagol, and Gollum—Serkis offers a one-man roundtable commentary, speaking as himself and also slipping into character from time to time, to amusing—and disconcerting—effect. As one might expect, this commentary isn't the most substantive of the four, but is certainly the most entertaining, thanks to a steady stream of wisecracks by class clowns Boyd and Monaghan. Most of the actors appear to have recorded their commentaries separately or in groups, so there isn't a tremendous amount of interplay (which is maybe for the best, since so many cast commentaries sound overly hectic, with voices constantly interrupting and speaking over each other), but some of the participants respond to other actors' comments, so there is a bit of interaction. Of particular note: John Rhys-Davies popping in for a quick discussion of dwarven flatulence. Not to be missed.
Overall, these are some of the best feature commentaries around; the participants are quite candid about their disappointments as well as their successes, and create quite a detailed panoramic portrait of the film's production. As with the other sets, the presentation of the commentaries is excellent, with on-screen titles identifying the speakers (a feature every commentary track with more than two participants ought to have), and clever use of the audio channels to subtly differentiate the speakers.
Incidentally, for those interested in easter eggs, they're to be found on these two discs.
The third and fourth discs are devoted solely to bonus features, or the Appendices as they're referred to here, and total about three hours' worth of viewing.
•Introduction: You know you're about to scale a tall mountain when the special features include a taped introduction by the director explaining how to navigate the extras. Actually, the navigation is fairly straightforward, without any cheesy DVD-menu games to sit through, although the image galleries can be a little tricky to locate.
Nearly all of these extras are presented as documentaries, which can be viewed as a single piece (if you select the Play All option), separate features organized by theme, or as even smaller featurettes (if you use the Index to view the subchapters).
• "J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle Earth": This first documentary offers a surprisingly in-depth analysis of the origins of Tolkien's work, biographical background, and elements of Tolkien's personal life that contributed to the complex tapestry of his Middle-earth. Especially notable is a discussion of the characters Beren and Luthien, who figure in Middle-earth mythology and who were meant to represent Tolkien and his wife Edith; Tolkien evidently was devoted to Edith, and aspects of their relationship are reflected in the books by the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen. Tolkien scholars as well as film participants such as John Howe are on hand to offer their insights, making this documentary an absolute must for anyone not familiar with Tolkien's life and work.
• "From Book to Script": This documentary focuses on the adaptation process, and the challenges of taking a sprawling saga—which Tolkien himself declared "unfilmable"—drawn from an even larger mythology, and distilling it into a coherent cinematic narrative. The interview subjects, who range from Jackson to various cast and crew members, are frank and open about the choices they made in rearranging events from the books, and what they left out, altered, or invented for the films. Jackson doesn't pretend that these are slavishly faithful adaptations; rather, he and others refer to the films instead as re-imaginings that stay as close as possible to the spirit, if not the letter, of the books. It goes without saying that Tolkien purists, for the most part, probably won't be won over by this documentary's justifications for the departures from the original material, but the filmmakers make a very compelling case for the changes and for the overall approach taken by this adaptation.
•Abandoned Concept: "Aragorn Battles Sauron": Accompanying the "Book to Script" documentary is a storyboard animatic (complete with music, sound effects, and dialogue) depicting a battle between Aragorn and Sauron (who was originally to have been given a humanoid manifestation in this film) at the Black Gate, intercut with a different version of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum's scene within Mount Doom. It's an interesting alternate take, but the final version of the scene is much more streamlined.
• "Designing and Building Middle-earth": This documentary is split into four featurettes, accompanied by a design gallery.
"Designing Middle-earth" covers pre-production designs, and, appropriately, features Alan Lee and John Howe prominently. If you've seen earlier installments of this documentary from the other sets, you'll already be aware of how fundamental the work of these artists was to the project, but it's still illuminating to witness how elements of this film, such as the eerie Minas Morgul, evolved.
"Big-atures" covers the miniature (and not-so-miniature) work on the film, on settings like Minas Tirith and Cirith Ungol as well as props like Grond the battering ram, and the inspirations for many of the design elements (dental instruments apparently played a major role in John Howe's design for Minas Morgul, which explains much of its creepiness). As with many of the other featurettes in this set, this isn't merely a dry examination of technical issues; it also documents the more personal experiences of the miniatures unit, which helps humanize the production.
"WETA Workshop" enters the realm of the propmakers who created such things as armor, weapons, and prosthetics for the film. The amount of detail that went into these props is truly staggering, as is the thought that went into their design (the Gondorian armor in Return of the King, for instance, reflects a carefully developed evolution from the ancient Gondorian culture glimpsed briefly in the first film).
"Costume Design" has costumer Ngila Dickson relating the quite arduous process of designing and creating the thousands of costumes used in the trilogy. Again, the amount of thought that went into even minor aspects of the films is impressive; there's a discussion of Sméagol's costume from the opening flashback that illustrates the interplay between character and design choices (and all for a scene that flashes by in scant minutes). Ian McKellan pops up to lament that they never came up with any decent underwear for Gandalf.
The design galleries are galleries of production artwork for characters, locations, and miniatures, and are worth checking out, especially since some are accompanied by audio commentaries.
• "Home of the Horse Lords": This documentary details the enormous challenges of training and filming the vast numbers of horses used in the films. Recommended especially for horse lovers; there's also a sweet anecdote about an act of generosity by Viggo Mortensen toward one of the horse trainers.
•Middle-earth Atlas: Subtitled "Tracing the Journeys of the Fellowship," this is an interactive map that allows the viewer to follow the characters' progress through Middle-earth during the events of The Return of the King. The map offers four possible routes, each following a different subplot: Frodo and Sam; Merry; Gandalf and Pippin; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Each "stop" on the map links to a brief clip of the action that takes place there. It's quite well done; I'm not sure how many viewers actually will want to trace every step of the characters' travels through Middle-earth, but for those that do, there are good times to be had here.
•New Zealand as Middle-earth: This is sort of a combination of documentaries and interactive maps; the viewer can choose between six Middle-earth regions (East Ithilien, Dunharrow, Paths of the Dead, the Pelennor Fields, the Black Gate, Mordor), which highlights a selection of real-life New Zealand locations that stood in for those regions, then click on one of the map locations to view a short featurette about the filming that took place there. Here's a case where fancy DVD menu design actually has some value apart from eye candy; being able to see and select locations from an interactive map reinforces the sense of place, which is so easily lost in the flurry of unfamiliar names.
•Filming The Return of the King: This selection is divided into a featurette, "Cameras in Middle-earth," and a set of production photos that can be viewed individually or as a slideshow. "Cameras in Middle-earth" has Jackson discussing the film's shooting schedule, mishaps (including a flood), and other stories from principal photography and subsequent reshoots. Much of this material (like Christopher Lee's apparently firsthand knowledge of what a man sounds like when he's being stabbed in the back) is covered in the commentaries, but here we get to see the on-set footage, as well as cast and crew interviews.
•Visual Effects: This section is presented in two parts, a "WETA Digital" featurette and a visual effects demo reel depicting a 30-second sequence from the Mümakil battle, edited to showcase the various aspects of the work done by the team. This sequence can be viewed either via the Angle button, which cycles between the elements, or the Play All feature, which shows the elements in sequence. Given how much we've already been told about the visual effects in this film, and how many films these days feature extensive glimpses into their visual effects work, I found this documentary less essential than the others. Still, it's a solid feature, primarily because it tends to focus less on the techy aspects of the visual effects than the rather intense drama involved in their production, given the tight schedule and Jackson's propensity to make daunting last-minute changes.
•Post-Production: Journey's End: Possibly the lengthiest section of the Appendices, this feature is divided into four parts:
"Editorial: Completing the Trilogy" covers the editing process of The Return of the King; Jackson used a different editor on each of the films, and on this final installment brought in Jamie Selkirk, a longtime collaborator who worked with Jackson on most of his earlier films, including Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners (Selkirk will also handle editing duties on Jackson's upcoming King Kong). There's a fair amount of discussion regarding Selkirk's and Jackson's editing choices, in comparison to the previous films, as well as accounts of the screenings of the rough cuts of the film, and (yet another) bit about the excised Saruman scene.
"Music for Middle-earth" focuses on Howard Shore and the creation of the score for the third film. Shore's music being such a critical factor in the success of these films, this is one of the most fascinating featurettes in the set. Shore discusses some of the differences in his compositions for the three films, as well as his points of inspiration and how the music for various key scenes (such as Shelob's lair) was developed. This is a solid featurette, but my only complaint about the extra features is that we don't get an even more extensive treatment of the music; an isolated score and commentary by Shore would have been ideal. Jackson apparently decided to reserve the bulk of this material for the Howard Shore: Creating "The Lord of The Rings" Symphony DVD included with the Collector's Gift Set of Return of the King, which is disappointing, but the separate disc is a solid bonus for those who are willing to shell out the extra bucks.
"The Soundscapes of Middle-earth" features the sound designers and sound effects teams, and goes into some detail, revealing the origins of such effects as the Mümakil roars (they couldn't sound too much like elephants, for fear of eliciting too much sympathy, so more ominous elements, like lion and tiger roars, were blended in), and the painstaking development of the film's sprawling, detailed sonic landscape. As with the section on visual effects, much of the drama here centers around the hectic production schedule; a brand-new recording building was constructed for the sound team, but was very nearly rendered unusable since construction wasn't completed in time, meaning that recording had to go on amidst a chorus of hammering and sawing.
"The End of All Things" covers the post-production phase of Return of the King, and the whole process is pretty much summed up by a weary-looking Peter Jackson's rueful laugh. All I can say after seeing this is that I'm amazed that Jackson and his crew managed to maintain their sanity throughout the agonizing, nightmarish final days, when the company struggled to deliver an enormous quantity of visual effects, sound effects, and music at almost literally the last minute. As one team member notes, in the last two months before deadline, they had to deliver as many visual effects shots as were in the first two films combined. The tension and strain are evident in people's faces in the production footage, as is the rueful "at least we can laugh about it now" amusement in their present-day interviews. If one of the purposes of this behind-the-scenes material is to make the viewer appreciate the effort put into the film, this single featurette accomplishes that task in spades.
• "The Passing of an Age": This documentary covers the premiere of Return of the King and its worldwide reception, including the triumphal Oscar sweep. It's quite amusing to learn that Peter Jackson ambushed executive producer Mark Ordesky into having the world premiere of the film in Wellington—which turned out to be a terrific idea, as the city pulled out all the stops to welcome the filmmakers and cast and celebrate the film. We're also shown the subsequent world tour of the film and the rapturous embrace with which it was greeted around the world. It's quite the emotional capper to the grueling production saga, and if it's all a bit self-congratulatory, in this case the back-patting is well earned.
•"Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for 'Into the West'": This was, for me, the big surprise of the bonus materials, as I'd never heard of Cameron Duncan or known about his role in the production. Cameron was a 16-year-old New Zealand filmmaker who came to Jackson's attention when the director was looking for someone to shoot a public service announcement for organ donation. Sadly, it turned out that Cameron, an enormously talented young man, was terminally ill with cancer. Jackson invited Duncan to the set, and the teen became friends with many of the cast and crew. Following his death, Fran Walsh drew inspiration from Cameron's story while writing the lyrics to the "Into the West" song performed by Annie Lennox (which eventually won the Oscar for Best Song). The featurette on Cameron includes two of his short films, DFK6498 (a heavily symbolic meditation on illness and hospitalization) and Strike Zone (about a losing softball team, starring Duncan as their terminally ill coach), both of which are available as separate selections. In all honesty, I didn't expect these films to be very good, but they are. I was surprised by how effective and polished they were; Cameron was obviously a genuine talent, and it is truly tragic that he never got a chance to realize his potential.
Overall, this is about as perfect a set of extras as any fan of the films could ask for. There's enough survey-level material to satisfy the casual viewer, and levels upon levels of deeper, more detailed information for the more curious fan. Anyone who leaves this set demanding more should probably apply for a job at WETA.
New Line's Special Extended presentation of The Return of the King excels in the areas of sound and vision; no surprise there, if you've seen the previous extended sets. Audio is offered in flawless DTS 6.1 ES, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, and Dolby Digital 2.0 surround, all in English language only, with subtitles in English and Spanish. The sound is excellent—that is, as much of it as I was able to play without having the neighbors call the cops. Suffice it to say that, should you want the aural sensation of several hundred thousand Orcs marching through your living room, these tracks will deliver. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is similarly flawless; this film's color palette is more subdued than the previous films, dominated by blacks, grays, and whites, and the disc captures those subtle shadings perfectly. For both audio and video, this is a reference-quality disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It should be fairly evident by now that I enjoyed The Return of the King, as well as this special edition DVD presentation. On the whole, it's the best of the three films, as it was designed to be: This is the one where Jackson pulled out all the stops, where the drama and spectacle reach their apex, and all of the trilogy's emotional threads pay off. But as the grand conclusion of a sweeping, complex story, The Return of the King also bears a heavier narrative burden, and it's perhaps inevitable that the film can't pay off all of the debts it's accrued over the previous installments.
Before I get to that, let's dispense with two of the most frequently cited criticisms:
1. What's with the multiple endings? Jackson and gang do a credible job of dismantling this particular complaint in the commentaries, and out of all the reasons to carp at The Return of the King, this is by far the silliest. Yes, there are several dramatic moments at the end of the film where it could have faded to black and left everyone more or less satisfied (though I guarantee that for each one of the so-called multiple endings, a sizable contingent of fans would have angrily protested its absence). But to truncate the conclusion of this piece merely to serve Hollywood convention would be misguided and untrue to the spirit of Tolkien's story.
As Jackson points out on the DVD, The Lord of the Rings is not merely about a war, but also about the aftermath of war. It's entirely relevant to show what happens to the Hobbits and other denizens of Middle-earth after the emotional climax of the coronation scene, because Tolkien wanted to show how the experience of war irrevocably altered its participants. Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Sam may have returned to the Shire, but they haven't truly come home, and—at least in the case of Frodo—never will. That almost anticlimactic coda is crucial, because Tolkien's saga, at its heart, is equally a celebration of an age and a lamentation of its passing.
If nothing else, let's remember that these are not totally separate films, but parts of one huge story. Proportionally speaking, even an hour-long finale wouldn't have been inappropriate for what amounts to an eleven-hour film.
2. They changed the book! I once had a friend, a diehard Stephen King fan, whose sole criterion in judging the merit of a King adaptation was its fidelity to the source material. The direction, acting, and every other aspect of the film could be complete crap, but as long as it was faithful to the letter of the original, it was a good movie. That's an extreme position, but one that is shared to some extent by many Tolkien fans.
As irritating as it can be to watch a film that departs in significant ways from a beloved, familiar text, the reality is that the only pure existence the source material can have is in its original form. Anything else is not a replication but a reimagining, a brand-new entity that, if done well, can provide many of the same thrills and satisfactions of the original, but never the same experience.
The best adaptations don't merely add sound and vision to the text, but embody the very reason for that story to exist in the first place. The story is already there, in book form, loved by millions; why do we need another telling, from another storyteller? The primary responsibility of a literary adaptation, then, is not to duplicate the book, but to justify its own existence. Therefore, it's perfectly valid to quibble over the differences between the adaptation and the source novel, but such discussions are really academic exercises rather than true reflections on the artistic worth of the film.
Seen on its own terms, then, The Return of the King does have its weak points, which to some extent is unavoidable given the enormous scope of the overall story and the limitations of commercial cinema. With all of the narrative strands unfolding throughout the films, it's virtually impossible to serve all of them equally well; something has to give. Here, the most significant letdown is in the development of Aragorn. For a character whose journey is enshrined in the film's very title, Aragorn's story gets short shrift in comparison to that of Frodo, or even Eowyn. The ranger and future King of Gondor moves dutifully from plot point to plot point, but the internal, emotional journey promised in The Fellowship of the Ring never comes to fruition with quite the dramatic heft that we're led to expect. I'm not saying it doesn't happen; it happens in quiet, subtle ways, like Aragorn's comforting of the young lad at Helm's Deep in The Two Towers. But when Aragorn finally comes to the fore as a King of Men, in his stirring speech to the soldiers at the Black Gate and his courageous charge into the maw of Sauron, it's a wonderful, thrilling moment—but it's not as triumphant as it could have been, had the journey not been so frequently overwhelmed by more spectacular events.
In a similar way, Arwen gives the impression of being a far more pivotal character in the trilogy than she ends up being. In The Fellowship of the Ring, she's an active participant, a full-fledged heroine who lives and breathes within the story. But by the third film, once she's fulfilled her narrative purpose of getting Elrond to re-forge the broken Sword of Elendil, she's barely more than a prop. It's true that Arwen's impending death lends urgency to Aragorn's mission, but the character is invested, earlier on, with so much more vitality and strength that she seems wasted as merely the passive Sleeping Beauty waiting for her Prince's magic kiss.
Finally, although most of Jackson's quirky personal touches work splendidly, some don't work as well. On an intellectual level, I can rationalize Legolas's skate-punk moves, but that doesn't stop me from wincing when I see him surfing on the giant elephant. That involuntary wincing happens a few times with Frodo and Sam, too, whenever the actors tread that thin line between pathos and bathos, or whenever Frodo's fragile warble becomes just a wee bit too precious (so to speak) for even my high twee threshold.
In these degraded times, it's not surprising that audiences have so joyfully embraced The Lord of the Rings; these films present an irresistible scenario of pure, simple good overcoming an equally pure and simple evil, and offer a desperately needed moral clarity that is nowhere to be found in the real world. What elevates the trilogy, however, from a rousing but familiar adventure tale to a uniquely thrilling, transcendent experience, is the total sincerity and limitless dedication that the filmmakers brought to the project. That dedication can be felt in every aspect of the trilogy, from the performances to the smallest details of design. The people involved with this enterprise clearly believed in it wholeheartedly, and that belief energizes every second of the films.
It's too bad that we can't enjoy at least one film like this every year; failing that, we can at least have these DVD mementos to carry us through the long drought…until the 25th Anniversary Edition of The Lord of the Rings.
The court finds The Return of the King: Special Extended Edition not guilty on all counts. John Rhys-Davies, however, is sentenced to thirty days in an Orcish prison for that bit about dwarven farts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Audio Commentary: The Director and Writers (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens)
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