The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition) [DVD]
Director : Peter Jackson
Screenplay : Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson (based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sean Astin (Sam), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Billy Boyd (Pippin), Dominic Monaghan (Merry), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Bernard Hill (Théoden), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Miranda Otto (Eowyn)
With The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Peter Jackson brought his stunning masterwork of an epic to a resounding conclusion. Grandly epic in scale, yet deeply human in emotion, The Return of the King is a fitting capstone to one of modern cinema’s greatest gambles.
The film works so well because it maintains the intensity and vigor of both The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), which depicted a world of peace sliding into chaos, and The Two Towers (2002), which depicted that world enmeshed in chaos, and builds on them, boldly striving toward the myth of total redemption with the kind of audacious cinematic greatness that is all-too-often lacking in today’s tepid, formulaic movie industry. If The Return of the King seems like the best of the trilogy, that is because it is not only a great film in and of itself, but because it has all the emotional and narrative resonance of the previous two installments throbbing as its base. In the future, it will be difficult to think of these films as separate entities; rather, as a true trilogy should be, they are cut of the same cloth--intricately interlocking pieces of a grandiose whole that is greater than the sums of its undeniably great parts.
As with The Two Towers, The Return of the King picks up the story immediately, trusting that the audience does not need a recap of the narrative up until this point, and then plunges straight ahead. The majority of the film is divided between two narrative strands, both of which are crucial in the ultimate goal of saving Middle-earth from the clutches of the evil wizard Sauron. In the first strand, the weary, but determined hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) plunge ever deeper in the dark, terrifying realm of Mordor in their quest to reach the peak of Mount Doom, the only place in which the one Ring of Power can be destroyed. They are, of course, led by the tortured creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), who was once a hobbit before ownership of the ring for 500 years twisted and destroyed him (the film’s opening sequence shows us how Gollum, then called Smeagol, came to own the ring, and it is one of the series’ most brutal and disconcerting moments).
Meanwhile, the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the Ranger-turned-returning-king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) join forces with King Théoden (Bernard Hill) of Rohan to aid the land of Gondor in defending Minas Tirith, an enormous fortress of a city built into the side of a mountain, from an onslaught of 200,000 of Sauron’s orcs, goblins, and trolls, making the Battle for Helm’s Deep, which was the gargantuan centerpiece of The Two Towers, look like a barroom scrap. Minas Tirith is the last stronghold of the world of men, and if it falls to Sauron’s forces, so does the rest of Middle-earth.
The greatness of The Return of the King, as with the previous two films, lies in Jackson’s ability to balance the small and the grandiose (his complex interplay of vast landscapes and great close-ups brings to mind Sergio Leone at his most operatic). The sense of storytelling evinced by Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, is outstanding; they cut back and force between intimate human drama and large-scale spectacle without ever once suggesting that there is any difference between them in the grand scheme of things; in this way, Jackson’s film is a deeply humane project, a rarity in modern blockbusters.
The details of the characters’ relationships have grown deep and rich over the course of the three films, and it’s hard not to feel tears welling up at the joy of seeing the ever-competitive Legolas and Gimli finally vocalizing their friendship, the poignancy of the hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) insisting that they be in the fray despite their small size, or the pain of watching Frodo, his mind poisoned with Gollum’s cunning lies, casting Sam out and declaring him a traitor.
The Return of the King gets much of its gritty intensity from its palpable depiction of just how exhausting--physically, mentally, and spiritually--Frodo and Sam’s journey has been, and it is disheartening to realize how hard it is to see any traces of their clean, shiny, happy faces from the opening passages of the The Fellowship of the Ring in their now haggard and dirty visages. The moments between Frodo and Sam constitute the film’s true heart (whether you read a gay subtext into it or not), although a fascinating new wrinkle is introduced in their interplay of heroism.
Up until this point, Sam has been the devoted follower of Frodo the heroic ring-bearer, but once they are deep in Mordor, it is Sam’s turn to demonstrate his absolute determination and loyalty to both Frodo and their dangerous quest. In many ways, The Return of the King, despite its ending-ruining title, is Sam’s film, and it suggests that the entirety of the narrative has really been his, not Frodo’s.
The special effects throughout the film will not disappoint, as Jackson and his army of FX craftsmen have again molded sequences of breathtaking digital spectacle. The battle that engulfs Minas Tirith is riveting in both its scope and its emotional impact, as Jackson throws in everything but the kitchen sink, including lumbering trolls pushing immense battle towers with catapults capable of launching enormous boulders (not to mention decapitated human heads), gigantic elephant-like creatures driven like tanks, and wicked dragons flown by the Ringwraiths that drop out of the sky like divebombers. And, just when you think the film can’t possibly top itself visually, Aragon shows up with an army of undead ghost warriors.
Nothing, though, is so effective as the depiction of Shelob, a grotesquely huge spider that lives in the mountains of Mordor and hunts Frodo for prey. In these moments we are reminded that Jackson got his start making horror movies (albeit campy horror-comedies), and he knows just how to use the edges of the frame to elicit goosebumps and shrieks from even the most hardened moviegoer.
In a word, The Return of the King is stupendous. It’s the crowning jewel of a magnificent achievement, one of the great epics of modern cinema, and Peter Jackson and everyone else who worked so long and hard crafting it should be celebrated for their vision, their audacity, and their willingness to try something that so many others said was impossible.
A Note on the Extended Edition: For the special edition DVD release, Jackson has reedited some 50 minutes back into the film, bringing its running time to more than 4 hours. While that seems overwhelming, the pace of the film remains brisk and absorbing, and it never feels bloated with extra scenes. As with the previous two special edition versions of The Lord of the Rings films, the longer version of Return of the King benefits from deeper character development, and it also replaces a crucial scene near the beginning in which Saruman (Christopher Lee) is killed.
|The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Special Extended DVD Edition (Platinum Series 4-Disc Set)|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround |
English DTS ES 6.1 Surround
English Dolby 2.0 Stereo Surround
|Distributor||New Line Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||December 14, 2003|
|As with the previous two Lord of the Rings discs, this one boasts a stunning, reference-quality widescreen transfer that brings out all the depth and detail in the film’s imagery, from the bright, sunny greens in the film’s opening sequence, to the dark, fire-streaked realm of Mordor. Much of the film has an intentionally washed-out look, with browns and grays being the dominant colors (particularly in the scenes around Minas Tirith). However, when the film does use bright colors, as in the coronation ceremony near the end, the colors are rich and vibrant.|
|The two digital surround soundtracks, a Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track and DTS 6.1 track, are both outstanding. The sound design and mixing on this film is nothing short of amazing, and both tracks replicate all the details--from the smallest ambient noise to the crushing sound of falling boulders--with enveloping, lifelike precision.|
| Following right in line with the special editions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, this four-disc Extended DVD Edition of The Return of the King is mind-bogglingly in-depth and comprehensive. The vast array of supplements are spread across two DVDs and cover virtually every facet of the film’s production. If you’ve gone through the supplements on the previous two special editions, you’ll have a good idea of what’s in store here because they follow the same basic pattern. One of the differences with the supplements on this edition is that, while they focus primarily on The Return of the King, most of them are also summative of the entire experience of making all three films. There’s a lot of stuff here, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it took me several days to get through all of it, and I didn’t even listen to all the audio commentaries from start to finish (that alone would take close to 17 hours). |
As with the previous two special edition box sets, this one is encased in an elegant, well-designed, and surprisingly sturdy cardboard slipcase with a fold-out digitpak inside. Also included is a useful insert booklet with a fold-out map of all the supplements and supplements-within-supplements, all of which are presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1).
Four feature-length audio commentaries
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth
From Book to Script
Designing and Building Middle-earth This is composed of five sections that detail the nuts and bolts of the film’s physical production. Designing Middle-earth is a 40-min. documentary that lovingly focuses on the six years of work that went into the artistry of designing the sets and locations. You gets lots of behind-the-scenes footage of sets and models being built. Big-atures (20 min.) looks at the amazing, tremendously detailed work done with miniatures, which are referred to as big-atures because they were so large (a city built at 1:120 scale is still pretty enormous). The most amazing by far is the miniature for Minas Tirith, which filled an entire room. Weta Workshop (47 min.) examines the work done by the make-up and prosthetic special effects department, which was responsible for not only the monster designs, but also all the armor and weapons. Much of this featurette focuses on the design and use of the armor, although some of the most interesting stuff is on the design of Shelob, the giant spider, and on the Army of the Dead.Costume Design (12 min.) focuses on, well costume design. Finally, the Design Galleries, which contain hundreds and hundreds of photographs and sketches, are divided into two parts, “The Peoples of Middle-Earth” and “The Realms of Middle-Earth,” each of which is further divided into subcategories. Some of the images have optional commentary by the artists who designed them.
Home of the Horse Lords
New Zealand as Middle-earth
Filming The Return of the King
Post-Production: Journey’s End
The Passing of an Age
Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for “Into the West”
Copyright ©2003, 2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © New Line Home Video