Plot: What’s it about?
The journey to Mount Doom has been long and dangerous, as Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his friend Samwise (Sean Astin) have discovered. In addition to Sauron’s imposing forces, the two have faced vicious landscapes, horrific creatures, and the unstable nature of their guide, Gollum. While Frodo feels that he is worth trusting, Sam hasn’t liked Gollum from the start. The trio continues down the path to Mount Doom, where Frodo can destroy the ring and restore the balance of power. Even if Gollum’s presence doesn’t stop them, Frodo and Sam will need some kind of help, as the Eye of Sauron never blinks. Sauron’s forces have taken aim on Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. This is where the final battle will take place, as the masses in Sauron’s legion march ahead, with total destruction the lone goal. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) rides to Minas Tirith to ensure a call for help is put out, as King Theodon will not send his men without such a request. At the same time, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) venture into the Cursed Mountains, where the ghosts of former warriors are thought to reside. The warriors were cursed in the past, doomed to remain in limbo until their vow to fight was honored. Only Aragorn could make the request to have the vow honored, but even he isn’t sure the ghosts will obey his command. As Frodo nears Mount Doom, he is being taken over by the darkness of the ring, which Gollum uses to alienate him from Sam. This allows Gollum to be in a position to reclaim the ring, which would mean certain doom for Middle-Earth. Even if the battle at Minas Tirith allows Frodo a chance to destroy the ring, will he be able to overpower the darkness and do so?
The Lord of the Rings series has refined the modern epic, thanks to incredible visuals, sweeping storylines, and dynamic performances. Peter Jackson, best known for his horror films before this trilogy, took the production to his native New Zealand. The move was a perfect choice, as the locations are magical, but retain a sense of realism that drives in the atmosphere. The final chapter is always the hardest and in this case, the end of a three part epic of this magnitude, the pressure was immense. I have to admit, I was a tad let down by the ending, but only because it seemed to stretch on too long. A quick, decisive finale was what I wanted, but Jackson delivered one that filled in most of the blanks. In this new Extended Edition, almost an hour of new material is back in the movie and that changes the film’s dynamic. The end is the same as before, but with a longer duration to the feature, the end doesn’t seem as drawn out. Jackson has fleshed out just the right sequences in this new version, which trumps the theatrical version in all respects. The same praise heaped on the previous two movies applies here, top rate performances from a massive cast, awesome special effects, and some wicked battle scenes that are some of the grandest ever shown on screen. I loved the first two films, but even I had doubts if this final volume could live up to the expectations, but The Return of the King satisfies in every aspect. This Extended Edition has the new footage, as well as DTS audio, plus a slew of bonus materials. So without question, this is a release that most folks will want to own, as the movie is excellent and New Line’s treatment is superb. I am sad to see the end of this series, but at least it goes out in grand style with The Return of the King.
He has been a central character throughout the series, but until this volume, the true importance of Samwise, played by Sean Astin. He wasn’t the flashiest of the lot, no epic sword battles, slinging supernatural arrows, or magical moments, just a normal Hobbit in an incredible situation. His loyalty and courage were obvious, but in this installment, he is shown to be the hero he is. Not in a grand, in your face fashion, but we see more of his loyalty and dedication, as well as courage, even when his own life is in mortal danger. He isn’t the biggest, strongest, or even smartest, but he never succumbs to defeat. Even as his best friend begins to turn toward a darker side, he stays by his side and tries to console him. Frodo’s struggle with the darkness is made more effective by Sam, thanks to Astin’s superb performance. This kind of role could turn into a gushing one, but Astin tows the line and that ensures there is emotion, but not to an unnatural level. Other films with Astin include 50 First Dates, The Goonies, Encino Man, Toy Soldiers, Rudy, and White Water Summer. The cast also includes Orlando Bloom (Troy, Black Hawk Down), Sean Bean (National Treasure, Ronin), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, The Aviator), Ian McKellen (Apt Pupil, X-Men), Viggo Mortensen (Crimson Tide, A Perfect Murder), Miranda Otto (Human Nature, What Lies Beneath), and Elijah Wood (Deep Impact, Radio Flyer).
Video: How does it look?
The Return of the King is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. As expected, the movie looks pristine and excellent, just as the other installments did. The image here is crisp, clean, and well detailed, with no real problems to mention. A couple minor instances of edge enhancement aside, this transfer looks excellent and given the dark visuals, that’s impressive work. New Line has used a pristine source print here, which means no nicks or debris are evident, so the other elements are never hampered. The colors seem lush and natural, as they should be and flesh tones look normal, no inconsistencies to make note of there. The real praise belongs to the contrast however, as black levels are rich and refined at all times, which is vital in the film’s dark visual scheme. This one is not quite perfect, but it is close enough to deserve immense credit, so fans should be thrilled.
Audio: How does it sound?
This set includes surround options in Dolby Digital & DTS tracks, so both camps should be pleased here. This is a nice balance between subtle presence and power, as both sides of the coin are explored and with excellent results. The surrounds don’t always assault the senses, but they are used very well and create a lot of atmosphere, which is important as well. There are scenes that let the speakers open up and rock the foundations, but the tracks also handle the smaller touches with ease. So you won’t always be shaking from the bass, but you will always be immersed within the movie, thanks to these effective tracks. No issues with dialogue either, as vocals remain clear and well placed from start to finish. In case you’re curious, I give the edge to the DTS track in this case, but both options more than deliver the goods. This release also includes a 2.0 surround option, as well as subtitles in English and Spanish.
Supplements: What are the extras?
As usual, New Line has delivered a wealth of supplements for this Extended Edition, starting off with four audio commentary tracks. Yes, that is around sixteen hours of total audio comments, so if you want the inside scoop and have a lot of free time, you’re in luck. Over forty cast and crew members sit down to discuss the movie, so almost every perspective you can think of is covered. The tracks group together similar workers, so that helps keep a certain focus within the sessions. Peter Jackson is joined by the writers, the second track is with the design team members, the third track features various members of the production staff, and the final session is with those lovable cast members. I listen to all four tracks from start to finish and I must admit, I was never bored with any of them. There is minimal silence, as so many folks are involved and each has stories to tell, so there isn’t a dull moment in these tracks. I think Jackson’s comments and the cast session will be the most popular, but all four more than warrant a listen.
On the third disc, we find a treasure trove of supplements, which can be viewed in one lump sum or viewed as individual featurettes. As a whole, the piece runs well over three hours and covers almost all aspects of the movie’s production. A total of five main sections are covered, the adaptation from Tolkien’s work, the inspirations behind the books, the production design of the movie, how the horses were used in the production, and how New Zealand was transformed into Middle-Earth. These are in depth featurettes too, not promotional tools, so expect a real look into how the production unfolded. In the design section, you can also browse exhaustive slideshow galleries on how the characters and locations were designed, from sketches to the finished product, with audio comments from the artist involved. The Middle-Earth Atlas is also found here, which allows you to trace the paths taken by the various characters, complete with clips from the series. Not sure if I will ever revisit that feature, but the insightful featurettes were excellent.
The fourth and final disc is home to even more incredible features, including Filming The Return of the King, an over hour long documentary. The rather broad approach means less focus, but this is a brisk and enjoyable look inside the production. And on most other releases, this would be a centerpiece of the supplements, just not on an epic release like this one. A special collection of production photos can be found in the same section, so make sure not to miss those. Journey’s End follows the post production process via four twenty minute featurettes, which focus on the music, editing process, the sound design, and the finishing touches. The editing piece is the best of the lot, but all are worth a look. I was most taken with a forty minute look at Weta Digital, the studio that handled the special effects within the series. Some of the material has been covered before, but this is still a most intersing look at how the magic was created. This disc also includes a half hour look at how the film was promoted, as well as a special featurette on the filmmaker who inspired the song “Into the West”.