The final moments of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Return of the King" is the biggest film; whether it's the best is really not a question that needs to be asked - simply because this series continues to be such a monumental cinematic achievement that picking a "best" of the three seems silly. The film picks up where "The Two Towers" left off; Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) are approaching the dark land of Mordor, to destroy the ring in Mount Doom. However, the ring is starting to have grave effects on Frodo. The two hobbits also continue to have doubts about whether their new friend is friend or foe.
Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Ghimli (John-Rhys Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) have reunited with friends Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd). The reunion doesn't last long, however, as a mistake on Pippin's part leads him to join Gandalf in the journey to Midas Tirith to warn the city of armies planning an approach. Elsewhere, Aragorn begins to learn of his fate - he is to be the new king.
There is no doubt that the third in the trilogy is the biggest and most epic of the three: there seems to have been no expense spared in creating some of the most remarkable battle scenes that have ever been seen on film, while the film also has the longest running time of the three. The battle scenes take things to another level beyond that seen previously in "Helm's Deep". While the rain and gloom of the "Helm's Deep" scenes added an unforgettable sense of dread to those scenes, the siege of Minas Tirith and the battle of Pelenor Fields here are visually breathtaking, with giant creatures and spectacularly choreographed action. Some of the finer moments of "Return of the King", however, are not the flashiest or most spectacular: a scene where two cities communicate with each other by a series of lit fires across the mountaintops.
While the film is superb in many ways, there are a series of minor faults to the film. While the final scenes are remarkably moving, there are a few "curtain call"-ish moments with the characters saying goodbye. It's not necessarily a wrong choice, but there's a couple of scenes (one having Frodo name each of the characters as they arrive) that grind these moments to a halt. As for the opening, Jackson could have skimmed a little bit of the introductory moments and gotten into the meat of the story a little faster. While the film moves at a pretty remarkable clip for a film running 3+ hours, there are still a few moments here-and-there that feel slightly excessive.
There are also a few little character issues, too: while Miranda Otto's performance as Eowen is terrific, Jackson sort of goes into a "love triangle" between Eowen, Aragorn and Liv Tyler's Arowen, but leaves it in a way that kind of kicks Eowen out of the picture. Tyler's performance is good, but I continue to feel that the character might seem a tad more fully realized if she'd had a couple more scenes. While Austin's Sam has a larger role here, he is believable as a great friend; once the character becomes something of a warrior later on, it's a little much.
Once again, the performances are terrific. Mortensen's performance is even more dynamic than in the previous films. Although Wood seemed a questionable choice when the trilogy was announced quite a few years ago, he's been excellent as Frodo and this film, where he must show the burden of the ring, offers his finest hour. The heroics of Austin's character become a little much, but his quest to aid his friend results in some of the most moving moments of the film's second half. While I thought Bloom really didn't fit into "Troy", his performance here is swift and smart. McKellen is, as always, outstanding. The supporting roles are all extremely well-played, too.
I'm pretty sad to see these films come to an end - not just because I've grown to enjoy watching the journies of these characters for three films and two (soon to be 3) extended editions of said films - but also because there hasn't been anything this ambitious in cinema in years.
VIDEO: "Return of the King" is presented by New Line in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is not quite a flawless presentation, but given the fact that this is a nearly 3-1/2 hour film that is spread across one platter, it's remarkable that it still looks astonishingly good. Sharpness and detail are extraordinary at times, giving the film a smooth, "film-like" appearance, with fine detail often visible into the backgrounds. Although it may simply be the look of this particular film, contrast seemed stronger here than it did on the previous two films.
The only issue that I noticed with the presentation was the presence of some very slight edge enhancement in a couple of spots. No compression artifacts were spotted, while the film also remained utterly free of any sort of debris or wear on the print. Colors appeared beautifully rendered, with strong saturation and no smearing. Overall, this was an excellent effort that is surprisingly good, given the length of the film.
SOUND: "Return of the King" is presented by New Line in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX audio. The film's audio is often stunning, as were the sound mixes for the other two films. Surrounds flare up with a great deal of discrete effects both subtle and thunderous, while also adding some reinforcement to Howard Shore's magnificent score. Bass response during the battle is, as one would guess, appropriately thunderous. Dialogue is clear and cleanly produced by the center channel.
EXTRAS: The "extended edition" set for "Return of the King" has not yet been announced and will hit stores sometime this Winter. This 2-DVD set does have a mild amount of supplemental features, though. First is a 45-minute "National Geographic: Behind The Movie" special, which takes a look at the characters and the battles in the film, comparing both to real-life figures and events. A 23-minute "making of" has a few tidbits of information within and some good behind-the-scenes info, but it feels a little fluffy and promotional overall; it's obviously not something that was made for the DVD, but to promote the theatrical release. Another 28-minute "making of" doc is a little better, as it gives a fuller look at Tolkien's writing and how the trilogy came together.
Finally, we get 6 brief featurettes that originally appeared on the website, two theatrical trailers, 14 TV spots, a "trilogy trailer" and a video game promo.
Final Thoughts: "Return of the King" is a grand farewell to the characters that many have come to know so well over the past few years: the battles are astonishing in their scope, the drama continues to heighten and the resolutions are mostly very well done. New Line's 2-DVD set provides a respectable amount of supplements, although fans will have to wait for the boatload of supplements on the extended version. Audio/video quality here are also quite stellar. Highly recommended.