So here we are: in the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings.
Fellowship of the Ring was about beginnings, The Return of
the King is about endings: the story threads that were so
intriguingly introduced in the first film and drawn out in the second
film must now find a resolution. Director Peter Jackson has had
different challenges in each phase of what's been essentially one
long project, but The Return of the King basically puts all
the cards on the table. Does the film trilogy finish strong, making a
The answer is a resounding yes. Jackson's handling of The Return
of the King is fantastic, and the film rises far above the weaker
middle segment, The
Two Towers, to tell a compelling, exciting, and emotionally
moving story in which all the elements that have been put into motion
in the previous two films finally come together into a thrilling
As with each film in the trilogy, The Return of the King
continues the overall storyline of The Lord of the Rings,
while subtly shifting the emphasis of the story. The Fellowship of
the Ring was a very personal tale, in which the hobbits (and
Frodo in particular) gathered the courage to embark on a dangerous
journey whose end they could not foresee. The Two Towers
shifts more into the epic mode, dealing with the threat of Saruman
and the corruption at the royal court of Rohan, and showing Aragorn
finally starting to come into his own. Now, in The Return of the
King, these two types of story – the personal and the epic
– fuse together. One portion of the film follows the heroic
thread of the story, as Minas Tirith prepares for the final attack by
the forces of Sauron, while the other main story being unfolded is
the very personal struggle of Frodo and Sam to bring the One Ring to
the fires of Mount Doom.
Here Sean Astin should get a lot of credit for an exceptional
performance in a pivotal role, because the character of Sam is now
one of the most important in the entire film. This story thread
starts to take on the mythic overtones of the hero's descent into the
underworld, which could have had the effect of distancing us from the
characters involved. But cleverly Tolkien – and Jackson –
uses the utterly down-to-earth and fully three-dimensional character
of Sam to anchor this thread of the story. Frodo may be on a hero's
journey, but Sam worries about food, shelter, getting a good night's
sleep, and – most importantly – about his friend's state
of mind. And while Frodo (and Aragorn) basically get all the credit
for being heroes, it's Sam who has the determination and strength on
a personal level to actually get Frodo to Mount Doom.
The fact that Jackson is able to make this fusion of the distant epic
and the close-up personal story actually work, and work well, is a
testament that he understood very well the difficulties inherent in
adapting The Return of the King for the screen, and that he
found successful ways to overcome those difficulties.
There are many reasons why Tolkien's massive novel is difficult to
bring to the screen, but perhaps the most overlooked one is that the
internal structure, pacing, and development of The Lord of the
Rings often have more in common with medieval sagas than the
modern construction we call a "novel." In a saga,
characters are two-dimensional, conflicts are drawn in bold strokes,
motivation is rarely developed, if it's even considered, and plot is
incidental at best. In contrast, the novel's focus on characters, and
its more modern pacing and attention to plot development, make the
latter form more amenable to adaptation for film.
This is to a great extent why The Fellowship of the Ring
translates best into film of any of the three parts of the story.
Fellowship is fundamentally the hobbits' story, and the
hobbits are the most psychologically modern characters in the story;
the portions of the story that focus on them are the most novelistic
in terms of plot and characterization. Then, in The Two Towers
and The Return of the King, the story starts to shift from
this focused, character-based, novelistic type of storytelling to a
more epic, saga-based type of storytelling, before eventually
returning to a novelistic style at the very end. This presented Peter
Jackson with a difficult challenge in bringing the last two parts of
the story to the screen: balancing the epic and the personal levels
of the story to make a satisfying film.
While I don't think Jackson got the balance right in his adaptation
of The Two Towers, he strikes just the right notes in The
Return of the King. Here, the storyline certainly takes on epic
proportions, as we can see in the new importance of the kingdoms of
Rohan and Gondor to the story, and in the shift from Sauron's menace
as a personal threat to Frodo and the Fellowship, to a large-scale
menace that threatens entire civilizations. Yet in this film the epic
always remains rooted in the personal, so we genuinely care about
what happens, and are struck with awe and terror by the events
One reason The Return of the King's epic scenes work so well
is that we are more invested in them: the characters we know and love
are caught up in the events on-screen, and what's even more
important, they are changed by these events. For instance, Merry and
Pippin were basically just along for the ride in The Two Towers,
and they start out The Return of the King as exactly the same
happy-go-lucky characters that they were before any of the story
began. In The Return of the King, though, they finally are
faced with tough decisions and the very real possibility of loss and
pain. The involvement of the two hobbits with the fighting forces of
Rohan and Gondor not only develops their characters, it also gives us
a personal connection to the conflict.
When it comes to the journey to Mount Doom, Jackson was able to stick
closely to the story as written, simply choosing to emphasize some
aspects more than others. Gollum is a remarkable character in The
Return of the King, with the film effectively fleshing out his
interior conflict into full-blown schizophrenia between his "Gollum"
and "Smeagol" personalities. This split is certainly
present in the original book, but the additional development that
Jackson gives it makes Gollum into an even more captivating and
Not all of Jackson's adaptations work perfectly. One of his changes
was to highlight some of the female characters, who are generally on
the sidelines or completely off-stage in the original book. In the
case of Eowyn (Miranda Otto), the warrior princess from Rohan,
Jackson gets it exactly right in this film: she's given just the
right amount of screen time, especially now that the Extended Edition
pays more attention to her, and she's a very appealing and
sympathetic character. Arwen, on the other hand, could have been
written out of the script entirely and the film would have been the
better for it. For one thing, she's essentially irrelevant to the
plot, unlike Eowyn. For another thing, as Liv Tyler gets more screen
time, it's more evident that there's very little substance to her
performance. Tyler may periodically allow a tear to trickle down her
cheek, but her range of emotion here seems to be limited to "vaguely
melancholy or mediative."
There's also the question of Jackson's handling of the conclusion of
The Return of the King... a very interesting question.
Where does the story of The Return of the King fundamentally
resolve? With Frodo and Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom, the Ring
destroyed, Sauron defeated, and Mordor shaking itself to pieces
around them. The Fellowship's mission has been accomplished, Middle
Earth is safe, and the bond between Frodo and Sam has survived every
I think the film could have ended here, and it would have been a
daring and possibly quite effective choice, but it would not be in
line with Tolkien's own vision. Fundamental to Tolkien's conception
of The Lord of the Rings was what he called the
"eucatastrophe": the sudden "turn" in which the
darkest moment in the story turns to joy. For Tolkien, this moment is
the scene in which Frodo wakes up in Gondor. And, in fact, it does
work quite well in the film to continue past the climax at Mount
Doom: the tension has come to a peak, and it has been released. As
viewers, we can share the joy of the moment in which Frodo,
incredulous, finds himself safe and surrounded by his friends. The
remainder of the film is basically just tying up the last loose ends.
In the theatrical cut of The Return of the King, I felt that
the film from this point to the end was very badly handled: it felt
far too long, and the drag in the pacing really diminished the impact
of the ending overall. Considering that the Extended Edition has
exactly the same conclusion as the theatrical cut, I expected to have
the same reaction... but I didn't.
I do still think that the ending could have been made a little
tighter, but it works significantly better in the Extended Edition
than in the theatrical cut. One reason for that is simply context:
the 20 minutes of final material is a smaller percentage of the
overall film in the four-hour cut than it was in the three-hour cut,
so it doesn't feel too long in proportion to the whole film. Another
reason is that the pacing of the ending material is slower than that
of the theatrical cut, but it's consistent with that of the Extended
Edition, so it fits better here. Most importantly, though, I think
the ending works better because the Extended Edition gives us more
depth for the characters and more reason to care about them. When
Frodo says goodbye to Merry and Pippin, he's saying goodbye to
genuine friends and companions in adventure, since we've seen much
more how the two young hobbits were involved in the story. And the
closing shot of Sam with his family has a lot more emotional power
now that we've come to appreciate just how important Sam was to Frodo
and to the Fellowship as a whole.
I've been mostly talking about character and story here, but the
review wouldn't be complete without a nod at just how fantastic The
Return of the King looks: not just in terms of image quality on
the DVD (we'll get to that later) but in terms of how realistic and
convincing the fantasy world of the film is. If we're to fully engage
with the film, it's important that we believe in it while we're
watching, and The Return of the King excels in this
department. Obviously, the amazing CGI has a lot to do with this: the
fact that it's possible to genuinely forget that Gollum is not real
is simply astounding. But I suspect that the overall realistic feel
of The Return of the King has a lot to do with Jackson not
relying too heavily on CGI. There's a lot of model and miniature work
in this film, and I think we can see the benefits in the convincing
texture and sense of solidity of the places, people, and things here.
When 50 extra minutes of material are added to a film that's already
more than three hours long, you have to ask: what effect is this
going to have? Sometimes adding material to a long film just bloats
it even more, but oddly enough, sometimes the extra running time
makes the whole film pull together better overall.
In the case of The Return of the King, the extra material is
undeniably a success, making an already good film significantly
better. I liked the theatrical cut of The Return of the King,
but it didn't bowl me over; in contrast, the Extended Edition
completely impressed me.
There are two kinds of new material here: extensions of existing
scenes, and several totally new scenes.
Twenty-two separate scenes have added material, over the course of
the entire film. For the most part, these additions give us a more
personal glimpse of the characters and their reactions to the events
going on around them. One story thread that benefits greatly from the
extended material involves Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. Here it's
clearer that he has fallen into madness in his grief and despair at
Boromir's death and the invasion of Gondor, and his final scene in
the Tomb of the Stewards takes on a Shakespearean quality that's
quite effective. Aragorn's journey through the Paths of the Dead also
benefits from some additional material, with the Haunted Mountain
sequence becoming even more chilling.
Fourteen completely new scenes are added as well. These range from
substantial additions that add depth to the plot, to shorter segments
that serve mainly to adjust the pacing of the film, providing a pause
to take a breath between two highly-charged scenes. One of the best
new scenes takes place early in the film, and shows us a
confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman. It's a compelling scene in
its own right, and also provides a touch of dread for what's to come
later as Sauron attacks in force. A parallel scene late in the film,
with Gandalf and the Witch King, is another great addition. The final
action in Mordor is also enhanced by several new scenes: one with the
"Mouth of Sauron" confronting Aragorn's forces, and another
with Frodo and Sam trying to cross the orc-filled plains of Mordor.
All in all, The Extended Edition of The Return of the King
wins out over the theatrical cut: it's a significantly better film in
its longer cut, and it's saying a lot for me to feel that way. I was
afraid before I saw the Extended Edition that it would be too much of
a good thing, but the longer cut really won me over. This is the
superior version of the film.
The Return of the King: Extended Edition is packaged in the
same style as the two earlier Extended Edition releases. It's a
four-DVD set, with the movie split between the first two discs and
the special features on the remaining two discs. The DVDs are held in
a fold-out cardboard holder which fits snugly into the sturdy
cardboard case. This set is in blue, with the same attractive design
and art on cases and discs as the other releases. A small insert
booklet is also included, with chapter titles (conveniently
indicating scenes that are new or expanded for the Extended Edition)
and an overview of the special features content.
The menus are attractively designed, simple to use, and faster to
navigate through than those in the theatrical cut.
The video transfer of The Return of the King is
reference-quality. I scrutinized the image throughout the whole
movie, and it holds up impeccably in all circumstances: there is
nothing whatsoever wrong with this transfer, and let me tell you,
there's a whole lot that's right with it.
Let's start with the print: it's clean as a whistle. No noise, no
specks, no scratches, no hint that this is anything but a window into
Middle Earth (and one that was recently washed, no less). I could not
find a single instance of edge enhancement in the film, even in the
most challenging shots, so the level of natural-looking detail is
incredible. Even the layer changes are secreted into just the right
moments, so I never noticed them.
The transfer does a phenomenal job of capturing all the subtle
variations in color and shading throughout the film. Colors always
look clean, richly textured, and natural, whether they're the subdued
grays and browns of Mordor, the dazzling white of Minas Tirith, or
the vibrant primary colors of the Shire. Many of the scenes
throughout the film present significant challenges in terms of
contrast, with images that have both brightly-lit and very dark areas
in the same frame, but the transfer always handles these situations
perfectly. Black levels are nicely deep and dark, but even in dark
areas of the scene there's always just the right amount of detail and
The Return of the King appears in its correct widescreen
aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. As far as I
can tell from comparing scenes from the two versions, it's the same
transfer as the theatrical edition.
If you don't have DTS capability in your home theater, The Return
of the King: Extended Edition is a perfect argument for
upgrading. The DTS 6.1 track is absolutely phenomenal. First of all,
there's the rich and vibrant quality of the sound overall. It's
powerful while never being overbearing, and always sounds natural,
whether we're listening to the dialogue, the music, or the
environmental effects. Then there's the incredible immersive nature
of the audio environment that this track creates: we're really
transported into the middle of the action, with full use of all the
sound channels. Think that's it? No, we also get fantastic use of
localization and movement of the sound through the different
channels. On many different occasions, the sound design creates the
convincing illusion of events taking place to the viewer's left or
right, or behind, or moving around... it's amazingly effective.
A Dolby 5.1 track is the next best choice, offering an exceptional
sound experience in its own right, though once you've treated
yourself to the DTS you'll see that it's not quite as rich or
immersive as the DTS track. The Dolby 2.0 is obviously the weakest
track: it's competently presented, but for a movie like The Return
of the King, you really need surround sound to fully appreciate
The Return of the King: Extended Edition follows in the path
of the two other Extended Editions in terms of the quantity of bonus
materials. For overall quality, The Return of the King still
gets a very high rating, but not quite so high as the earlier DVD
The special features offer a comprehensive look at the making of The
Return of the King, with a lot of behind-the-scenes footage,
interviews with many different members of the filmmaking team as well
as the Weta Workshop people. Pretty much every aspect of the film
gets analyzed in exhaustive detail, from the adaptation of the source
material to the day-to-day filmmaking to the special effects. The
only problem is that for many of these subject areas, there's not a
lot that's changed from doing The Fellowship of the Ring and
The Two Towers to this film. After presenting reams of
detailed information on the making of the costumes, makeup, props,
miniatures, location shooting, artwork, and special effects in the
earlier DVDs, the coverage of these topics in The Return of the
King is often just more of the same.
That's not to say that there aren't some very interesting featurettes
here; it's just that by now, the glimpses of movie-making-magic in
the earlier DVDs have become, to a certain extent, information
overload here. So with that caveat in mind, let's take an in-depth
look at what's on offer here.
1 and 2
The first two discs have the audio commentaries, of which there are
four: Peter Jackson and the writers; the design team; the production
and post-production team; and the cast. Given the vast quantity of
separate special features on the remaining two discs, I'll bet that
only the most dedicated fans will have the time or inclination to
check out all four of these commentaries (that's a total of over
sixteen hours of commentary!) but for those who are interested, they
do seem reasonably solid. The participants seem to have a pretty good
idea of how to do a commentary, especially in the "crew"
commentaries, and provide interesting behind-the-scenes information
that's focused on the scene at hand. The cast commentary isn't quite
as insightful as the others, but it's not bad.
Disc 3 is where the bulk of the special features start. All the
material, incidentally, is presented in anamorphic widescreen, which
is a nice touch. A "play all" feature conveniently knits
together all the featurettes into a single documentary running three
hours and 24 minutes, broken down into five main sections. An "index"
feature also allows you to look up specific sub-topics and jump
directly to them.
After a very short video introduction from Peter Jackson (not
included in the "play all"), the first featurette on tap is
one of the most interesting in the set: "JRR Tolkien: The Legacy
of Middle-Earth." Running 30 minutes, this piece focuses on the
inspirations and background material for Tolkien's immense novel.
Various Tolkien experts from academia provide interesting insights
into the linguistic and historical roots of The Lord of the Rings;
I recognized some of them from when I was researching Tolkien for my
dissertation, so we're looking at quite credible sources here.
Next is a section called "From Book to Script," which opens
with a 25-minute featurette called "Forging the Final Chapter,"
on the difficulties of adapting The Lord of the Rings in
general and The Return of the King in particular to the
screen. There's particular emphasis on how Jackson handled Tolkien's
technique of interleaving the two main strands of the story, and how
he re-arranged some material from The Two Towers and The
Return of the King. This is a reasonably interesting piece. Also
in this section is a storyboard for an abandoned concept of Aragorn
battling Sauron; this isn't included in the "play all"
feature, but can be selected separately from the special features
Moving on to "Designing and Building Middle Earth," we get
several hefty featurettes under this heading. First off is "Designing
Middle Earth," (40 minutes), followed by "Big-atures"
(20 minutes), "Weta Workshop" (47 minutes), and "Costume
Design" (12 minutes). Despite the substantial amount of time
devoted to these features, I felt that they're relatively weak,
considered in the context of all the Extended Edition bonus material.
The general topics are pretty much a rehash of material that's been
discussed in great detail in the earlier Extended Editions, except
that this time it's specific to the sets, costumes, monsters, and
props of The Return of the King. Truly die-hard fans will
undoubtedly enjoy this section, but I found it less than compelling
Also in this section (but not included in the "play all"
feature) is a set of "Design Galleries." These are
slideshows of sketches and preparatory material, in the categories of
"Peoples of Middle Earth," "Realms of Middle Earth,"
and "Miniatures." There's a fairly large amount of
menu-navigating here, as each category breaks down into multiple
slideshows (for instance, one for each major character) and there's
no "play all" for this section. Within the slideshows,
selected images have short audio commentary clips from the artist.
The next feature, "Home of the Horse Lords," is my favorite
of the set. This 30-minute piece focuses on the use of horses in the
making of the movie, with the horse trainers, riding doubles, and
actors discussing the challenges and unique "tricks"
involved in getting the animals to do their part in an atmosphere
that was, for a horse, very unnatural. This featurette is
particularly interesting as it explores a topic that's completely
fresh and at the same time fascinating.
The "Middle Earth Atlas" is not included in the "play
all" feature, which might serve as a good reminder that you
might as well skip it. Here you can view a map of Middle Earth and
trace the path of four different character groups from the
Fellowship. At various points on the journey, you can click to see a
clip from the film at that point. Perhaps I'm missing something, but
this feature seems like a colossal waste of time.
The last feature on this disc is "New Zealand as Middle Earth,"
which is broken down into six segments (with its own "play all"
feature) running a total of 16 minutes. Here, you can select one of
the locations featured in the story and see a short featurette
discussing the location and its use in the film.
Disc 4 also opens with a short introductory clip, this time by Billy
Boyd and Elijah Wood. There's a "play all" feature and an
index as well.
The first item under the heading of "Filming The Return of
the King" is the massive hour-and-13-minute documentary
called "Cameras in Middle Earth." As you might expect from
the title, it's an overall look at the filming of the third Lord
of the Rings film, with a lot of behind-the-scenes footage; it
pretty much goes through the whole film, with each chapter focusing
on the making of a specific scene. It's certainly long, but I found
it to be not particularly information-dense, especially when compared
to the more topic-specific featurettes on Disc 3 and later on this
disc. Also in this section is a set of production photos, which are
not included in the "play all" but can be selected from the
The "Visual Effects" section starts off with a 42-minute
piece on "Weta Digital," which has the general theme of how
much better the Weta team has gotten over the course of making the
effects for the trilogy. It's not bad, but feels like it's going over
material that's already been covered elsewhere. The other, more
interesting, piece in this section isn't included in the "play
all" but is worth checking out from the special features menu:
it's a demonstration of visual effects of a major battle sequence.
For the 30-second clip, we see multiple windows each displaying a
different aspect of the visual effects creation process. You can
select an individual window to display that aspect full-screen, or
you can choose to play them all in sequence full-screen.
"Post-Production: Journey's End" contains four featurettes,
each running about 20 minutes. "Editorial: Completing the
Trilogy" is a reasonably interesting look at the mammoth task of
editing together the final film, given the superabundance of both new
material from The Return of the King and unused material from
The Two Towers. "Music for Middle Earth" and "The
Soundscapes of Middle Earth" look at the musical score and the
sound effects for the film, and don't really go over much new ground.
"The End of All Things" is a bit more interesting, as it
covers the scramble to get everything finished and put together into
an actual, complete film.
"The Passing of an Age" is a single 25-minute piece that
focuses on the promotion of the film, after it was finally complete
and released to theaters. It's moderately interesting, as we get to
see the cast and crew at the World Premiere in New Zealand and going
on a massive world tour as well.
The last section in the special features feels a bit out of place.
"Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for 'Into the West'" is a
32-minute featurette that focuses on a young New Zealand filmmaker
who was the inspiration for the song that closes The Return of the
King. We learn about him and his struggles with cancer, and get
to see clips of his work, but it doesn't really feel particularly
relevant or compelling.
All in all, the sheer volume of material on The Return of the King
is a bit exhausting as well as exhaustive. It's still a very
impressive set of special features with many interesting segments,
but there's not quite as much truly fascinating stuff here as in the
two earlier DVD sets.
Return of the King: Extended Edition is a vastly better film than
the theatrical cut, and it's within a hairsbreadth of being as
phenomenal as The
Fellowship of the Ring: Extended Edition. While there are a
few things that don't work quite as well as they might have, like
Arwen and the slightly overlong ending, the extra material in this
version of The Return of the King really makes it shine. There
are few scenes that I can point to specifically as tipping the
balance: it's more that the film is now better paced and more fully
developed, and now all the pieces fit together into an extremely
given it a relatively low replay value simply because it's so long:
watching a four-hour film is basically something you have to schedule
your day around, rather than something you can just do on an whim.
I'd say that the film itself will stand up quite well to viewing
multiple times, though, so it's definitely worthwhile to have in your
collection, even if it doesn't get watched as often as other films.
of being a fantastic movie, The Return of the King boasts a
reference-quality video transfer and knockout DTS sound, so really
this is a film that amply deserves to be part of the DVDTalk
Collector's Series. It's a fabulous way to wrap up the long, exciting
journey of The Lord of the Rings.