Note: The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy was released as a boxed set by New Line awhile ago, and it contained the theatrical versions only. New Line has now released each title on its own, outside of the boxed set. There are no discernable differences between the discs in that boxed set and the discs in the individual releases - and yes, these are still the theatrical versions, not Jackson's extended cuts.
Picking up where the second film left off, The Return Of The King basically begins when the ultimate battle for Middle-Earth is set into motion. Frodo and Sam, with Gollum leading the way, continue their quest which they hope will bring them to Mount Doom where they intend to finally destroy the ring. Aragorn leads his troops, vastly outnumbered as they may be, against an increasingly powerful Sauron to help Frodo do what he has to do with as little interference from Sauron and the evil orcs as possible. A massive battle ensues, the whole good versus evil thing is resolved, and not everyone will make it back to Hobbitsville alive and in one piece.
Proudly claiming eleven Academy Awards at the 2003 Oscars, including the much coveted Best Picture award, Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings - The Return Of The King is once again a visual treat. The cinematography is excellent and occasionally even breathtaking, while the effects work, of which there is plenty in this third and final chapter, is just as good, if not better, than the two chapters that came before it. The acting is strong throughout, with the good characters all racing towards what can only be described as their ultimate destiny, and the bad guys ramping up their evil ways as it all comes to a boil. There's quite a bit of action here and a fair bit of suspense as well, all of which walks hand in hand with some stand out set pieces, iconic Hollywood moments, and memorable snippets of dialogue many of which have gone on to become part of our own pop culture lexicon.
Why, then, is The Return Of The King considered by many to be the weakest of the three films in the series? How could this happen after that vast improvement made between The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Two Towers? Well, the predictability factor plays a big part in this. Where the first film took its own sweet time introducing us to the various characters and setting up the specifics of the quest and the second film really kicked things into motion and brought about a sense of impending doom, this third film is, by its very nature, where it all ends. Since this is adapted from one of the best known works of literature in history, we basically know how it's all going to play out. We can't fault Jackson for this - you can't really go about changing the ending to Tolkien's books now, can you? - but it does take some of the mysterious and anticipation out of the whole thing. This isn't really anyone's fault and it's not even a flaw per se, but as it all wraps up, if you have any familiarity with the source material at all, you find yourself knowing where it's all going to end up. Compare this to something like The Matrix Trilogy which wasn't based on classic literature - sure, it's not nearly as good as what Jackson's done but it's finale had some suspense and some excitement precisely because we didn't know what was going to happen to Neo and his pals. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy doesn't have that quality, it's simply too well known. When you watch the trilogy as a trilogy, this factor is lessened a fair bit, but taken on its own, well, you can't help but notice it.
Getting off that soap box now, the film is far from a waste of time, even if in some ways it can't help but be a bit disappointing. The movie delivers some epic battles that are shot quite masterfully and full of exciting action and effects work. They look great and there's an amazing eye for detail evident in the production design, from the costumes to the weapons to the sets and props - it all looks amazing from start to finish. Jackson's vision is an impressive one and he gets so much of his interpretation of Tolkien's material up there on the screen even in this abbreviated theatrical cut that you can't help but be wowed by it. There are certainly moments that the extended version fleshes out more and it fills in quite a few gaps that this theatrical version doesn't, but this cut of the film does have its fan base and their reasons for preferring it are as valid as any others.
Oddball closing shot aside, Jackson has done a pretty remarkable job with all of this. Interpretations of written source material have and will always vary but he's done a fine job of capturing the spirit of the material. The Return Of The King isn't as exciting or tense as the second film but its wraps up the story well enough.
The VC-1 encoded 2.40.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p high definition transfer for The Return Of The King is the best looking of the three films in the trilogy, but again, it still suffers from some of the same problems. Overall the image is good, sometimes even great but again, there are some inconsistencies to take note of even if this second film does show stronger detail than the one that came before it. There is some minor, albeit noticeable, DNR throughout all the film that is definitely going to irritate some people and it pops up frequently enough that those irks are going to be completely warranted. Color reproduction generally looks good and there aren't any compression artifacts to note. Print damage isn't ever an issue and on that level the image is nice and clean, but yeah, those flaws are definitely there. On the other hand, there are moments here that are amazing in their clarity and their depth. Certain close-up shots show every nook and cranny on the performers' faces and all the texture and detail in the costumes. Had the image been like this consistently it would have made a lot of people very happy but even if that were possible, it hasn't happened here, there are just a few too many shots that don't look quite perfect to let it slide. This is The Lord Of The Rings, after all, and it should look perfect. This isn't as inconsistent as The Fellowship Of The Ring but like The Two Towers it does leave room for improvement.
The Lord Of The Rings - The Return Of The King gets the DTS-HD 6.1 Master Audio treatment on Blu-ray in English with an optional standard definition Spanish language dub also supplied. Subtitles are offered up in English SDH and in Spanish as well. While there are very valid reasons to complain about the video quality of this release, you're going to have a much harder time complaining about the audio. The 6.1 track included for this film sounds spectacular, with all the surround activity you'd expect from the picture and maybe even a bit more. Bass response is very strong and powerful without burying the performers in the mix while dialogue is always perfectly balanced, clean and clear. Of course, it stands to reason that the battle scenes are going to impress, and they do, but even quieter and more dramatic moments sound great with some welcome and entirely appropriate ambient noise noticeable in the rear channels. The score is as majestic and powerful as you'd want it to be and nicely spread across the sound stage and there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion to note. The Fellowship Of The Ring sounds great on Blu-ray.
The extras for the last film kick off with the twenty-three minute A Quest Fulfilled which is a fairly interesting look at what Jackson did to get this project made and how it was essentially his personal vision for a few years solid. It probably could have gone more in-depth but as it stands it's a decent piece. The twenty-eight minute A Filmmaker's Journey that covers the basics of the film like casting, costumes and other standard subjects but which also provides some interesting history into the trilogy, different versions that were at one point planned, and how this final, finished one came about.
The best extra on the disc is the forty-six minute National Geographic Special - The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, which does a great job of putting the history of the series into context alongside specific events from the real world which helped to shape them. It makes some bizarre and unlikely comparisons from time to time but it's always interesting even when some of the content seems like a bit of a stretch.
Rounding out the extras for this film are a few television spots, a collection of Lord Of The Rings web promos, and a preview for the extended edition of the film.
As it was with the first two single film releases, The Lord Of The Rings - Return Of The King is a mixed bag on Blu-ray. The audio is great and the transfer good, if flawed, but the extras should have been better and while this may be restating the obvious, this is a standalone release of the theatrical cut. The release is recommended on the strength of the movie itself with the caveat that the boxed set release makes a whole lot more sense if you want the theatrical versions, and if you don't, well, keep waiting. New Line will have to get to them sooner or later.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.