A few years after the fact, there now seems to be two distinct camps where the Lord of the Rings series is concerned: Those who still maintain a juicy and passionate affection for the trilogy, and those who are simply sick of the whole affair by now. Me, I'm firmly a part of the former group. If anything, subsequent viewings of the trilogy have enabled me to love the films even more, and while I'm able to spot a few seams here and a few ripe lines there -- my simple opinion is that Lord of the Rings represents one of the finest big-budget achievements you'll ever come across.
The movie section that follows consists of excerpts from my original theatrical review of The Return of the King. For more specific info on these particular DVD releases, please skip on by and scan on down...
From four distinct sources has this wondrous trilogy been born:
1. A movie studio willing to bankroll a stunningly dicey (and amazingly massive) project. Sure, with hindsight it might look like a no-brainer, but what if Fellowship had turned out popular with Tolkien fans, 15-year-olds, and no one else? It would have grossed about $85 million and a lot of folks over at New Line Cinema would have been sprucing up their resumés right quick. New Line originally plopped 300 million smackers down to produce the trilogy, and that's not including reshoots, marketing, and all the other stuff we never really hear about.
2. A filmmaker so single-mindedly passionate about a book that he'd be willing to devote the better part of a decade to get his movie version done the right way ... right down to the smallest tuft of pipe-weed. A guy driven by his passion for the source material and not just a simple payday. From locations to casting to screenplay (to say nothing of the myriad tough decisions and controversies) to effects work and on and on... That one director (and one not exactly known for massive epics) could rein all this together is staggering. That his films have turned out this blissfully entertaining is cause for the highest praise a filmmaker can receive.
3. Special effects outlet extraordinaire 'Weta' and all the FX artists who've come before, consistently nudging the technologies along with baby steps. We've reached an FX renaissance over the past several years, what with CGI proving to be every lazy filmmaker's favorite onscreen distraction. But such is obviously not the case here. You could have the world's most brilliant director, 500 million bucks, and the coolest adventure story of all time ... but without the technology to actually CREATE an entirely new world, and to do it in a thrillingly convincing fashion, you simply don't have a movie. Let alone three. As a whole, Weta's work here is the new benchmark in special effects, a revolutionary achievement that other filmmakers won't even try to top. For a little while, anyway.
4. The man we can thank for all of it: Professor J.R.R. Tolkien. Some might say that a life spent studying languages would seem fairly dull, but seeing what Tolkien's imagination had to offer refutes that theory in short order. It's not often that the true classics are written in the Modern Era ("classics" generally need more than a few decades to ripen) and it's for this reason that Tolkien has taken on an almost mythical stature in his own right. The author's defining achievement, The Lord of the Rings, is quite simply one of the finest stories ever told. And from them came one of the finest movie experiences ever conceived.
Prior to the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring, did anybody really expect that we'd be soon comparing this trilogy to those of Lucas and Coppola? (Those would be Star Wars and The Godfather, for those not paying attention.) That each film would be laden with basically everything a film needs to be loved and admired and cherished for the next hundred years? That we'd finally met a filmmaker perfectly suited to bring Tolkien's globally-adored book to the screen in such majestic and stunning fashion?
Frankly, no. We didn't. Most of us were probably quite excited for the movies, and we really hoped that they'd be worthy of the name Tolkien, to say nothing of our own nine bucks. We expected a solid double off the wall. We would have been satisfied with a bases-clearing triple.
What we got (to complete the painful baseball analogy) was this: Three trips to the plate resulting in three home runs, the third of which comes at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the World Series of Fantasy Cinema on the line.
Despite Tolkien's work being labeled as "unfilmable"; despite the fact that the Fantasy Genre is generally considered fanboy-centric and a black hole for production costs; despite a stunningly arduous four-year production and the constant nitpicks from the Tolkien faithful....
I believe that The Lord of the Rings is indeed one of the finest achievements in the history of cinema. And that may be putting it mildly.
Lest you attribute these enthusiastic ravings to someone knee-deep in Tolkien Love and relatively unable to keep a certain objectivity, let me clarify: I'm certainly no sort of expert on Middle-Earth. The only reason I finally picked up the books and read them was because I was so wholly blown away by Jackson's brilliant first film, and the excitement spilled over into my stack of reading materials.
But fan or not, there's simply no denying that The Return of the King is a history-making film for several reasons. It's easily the finest "Part 3" to ever complete a trilogy; it's one of the most emotionally powerful and thrilling war movies ever produced; it's a sweet-natured juggernaut that reminds us about loyalty and friendship and love; and it's nothing less than a powerful new statement regarding the blissful magic of movies.
What's most impressive about Jackson's trilogy (and The Return of the King in particular) is that several key elements of storytelling (characterization, drama, tension, sincere emotion) are what tower over the astonishing collections of production design and stellar visual effects. The Lord of the Rings, as a whole, shows that flash and glitz can work wonders in a movie ... if they're used in the service of a worthwhile story. It's amazing how few filmmakers seem to understand this simple concept.
The plot reads like a delicious soap opera from another dimension: Sam, Frodo, and Gollum are slowly trekking closer to the malevolent Mt. Doom, while Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf (now reunited with hobbits Merry and Pippin) return to Rohan for a small sort of 'calm before the storm' celebration. There's also the issue of Aragorn and Arwen's doomed love affair to contend with, the rugged Rohirrim (led by King Theoden) who need some convincing to join yet another massive battle, the Shakespearean melancholy between the admirable Faramir and his hateful father Denethor, and more fascinating little subplots to keep things moving along. (Part 3 also has undead soldiers!!)
It also has the single most amazing battle sequence yet committed to film. I hate to harp on the visuals of a film so steeped in honest emotion, but it's not every day you get to see 200,000 monsters sweeping across the plains as stadium-sized elephants trample everything in their path while a dozen distinctive heroes cling desperately to one final hope. Rare is the film that features a giant spider this horrifying, a mountainside castle this achingly beautiful, a musical score this inspiring, and four or five scenes guaranteed to jam a few lumps into your throat as you applaud from your seat.
Simply put, this is what we go to the movies for. Period.
Video: OK, so after scanning through my Extended Edition discs and comparing them with this Limited Edition release. After doing a good deal of research and picking the brains of people who know a lot more about video specs than I do, I've come to the following conclusion: The transfers are pretty darn excellent. I'll leave it to the more eagle-eyed nitpickers to call me wrong on this one, but I couldn't spot any improvement (or downgrade) in the picture quality. The anamorphic widescreen transfer delivers this epic in stunningly fine fashion.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX or DD 2.0. Again, the 5.1 track sounds a aurally impressive as did the audio on my beloved Extended Edition releases. Your mileage may vary of course, but I think both releases are aces in the sound department.
If the Limited Edition releases offer two main selling points, they are these:
1. The LEs offer the theatrical versions AND the extended editions in one handy package. There's been much hand-wringing over the fact that, regardless of which version you prefer, you must flip the disc in order to watch the entire movie. Those with multi-disc players have a legitimate gripe here.
2. The massive trilogy of "fly on the wall"-style documentaries that are exclusive to the Limited Edition releases. On the one hand, these are excellent pieces, unpolished and often candid glimpses of the astonishingly huge production and the army of good-natured people who worked on it. If you're a LOTR completist, you definitely won't mind dropping the few extra bucks for these docos. Those who have just a passing curiosity for the new supplemental material would be best served by renting or borrowing all three of the bonus discs. As insightful and illuminating as Costa Botes' documentaries are, I don't think they offer much in "replay value."
Documentary running times are as follows:
Fellowship: 85 minutes
Towers: 106 minutes
King: 112 minutes
It's easy to see why the LOTR fans have been of two minds on the Limited Edition releases. On one hand you're getting both versions of each film, plus a massive collection of behind-the-scenes footage. On the other hand, you might not even want the theatrical cuts (frankly I don't need 'em), plus it's annoying to keep flipping discs during your Tolkienathon.
The movies are perfectly awesome, so if you don't already own the (Extended Edition) DVDs, this Limited Edition comes Highly Recommended. (Then again, the EEs have some really excellent extras on 'em!) If, however, you already own all three Extended Editions, I'd have to downgrade my rating to simply Recommended.
Double-dip it may be, but it'd take 30 years and 40 re-releases before I could find something nasty to say about Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.