The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (DVD, 2007, Extended Edition with Movie Pass)

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A Cinematic Feast

Dec 21, 2004 (Updated Dec 21, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fine ensemble acting, glorious photography, great music, mind-blowing special effects, etc., etc., etc.

Cons:Still seems to "end" at least three times.

The Bottom Line: One of the best "Best Pictures of the Year" ever.


Anyone who's seen Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, whether they liked it or not, has to agree that it represents probably the most monumental film making task in history. To take the sprawling works of Tolkien and translate them to the screen, complete with a large cast of key characters, armies of men, creatures, beasts and demons, and to film all three of the books at once (over a period of 7 years) was a task certainly described as, at the very least, "herculean." Moreover, for each subsequent release to outperform its predecessor in each and every way, is nothing short of miraculous.

That being said, The Return of the King outshines both The Twin Towers, and The Fellowship of the Ring in every way imaginable. It's bigger, more exciting, considerably darker and ultimately a supremely uplifting, and fitting conclusion to a stunning threesome.

Peter Jackson deserves all the credit one can give him for making all of this work, and work so well. For starters, there's the superb ensemble cast. No one actor outshines another (though my personal fave is Sean Astin's Sam), and he actually manages to get a fine performance out of Viggo Mortensen whose past efforts (notably his awful portrayal of Marion Crane's boyfriend in the critically-blasted remake of Psycho) showed him capable more of mumbling his lines than giving a decent performance.

Jackson then combines the work of this ensemble with hundreds of extras, all wearing tons of incredibly realistic looking makeup and/or masks; positively breathtaking photography of some of New Zealand's most magnificent scenery; a masterful and soaring musical score; and the flat-out awesome work of Weta Labs to produce some of the most remarkable special effects to date in movies. The result is one of the best motion pictures in memory, because each and every element works not only by itself, but in conjunction with all the others. This is not a movie to just oggle at (though there's certainly enough of that stuff), but one to savor in all respects.

A special note here is necessary about Weta labs' work: digital effects, when done well, are so realistic looking, that it's hard to tell what's real and what isn't. Of course, a huge, flying demon isn't "real," but can certainly look it, if done well, and The Return of the King isn't lacking whatsoever in that regard.

To my utter amazement, most of the sets (particularly the city of Minus Tirith) weren't digitally-created at all, but masterpieces of miniatures which took months to create. I had thought the art of building miniatures had faded away long ago, but I couldn't have been any more wrong, and the work here for cities, battering rams that look like beasts, catapults and towers is plainly and simply marvelous, and the best ever in film history.

What is also so amazing about the trilogy, and The Return of the King in particular, is that in addition to being masterful movie making, this is also positively brilliant movie marketing. No matter how artistic or sincere Jackson's motives may have been, the filming of Lord of the Rings is also a business, and in this respect, Jackson has done something heretofore undone, and not likely to be repeated any time soon.

Each of the three films in the trilogy was released first as a theatrical release, then as a DVD, and then as an "extended edition" DVD. The timing of the release of any one of these elements was done not to coincide with another: no DVD was simultaneously released while another version was still playing in the theatres.

As seems to be the opinion of most critics, and me, the extended editions are vastly superior to their original releases, with Return of the King being no exception. Therefore, one might ask, "Why wasn't the film released like this in the first place?" Certainly not an illogical question, but one with a host of different answers.

Certainly, there is the obvious fact that releasing each film in three formats, at three different times, gives the producers three different opportunities to make money. Nothing wrong with that, and certainly a viable answer to the question, but not the primary reason, I don't think. I suspect it is also quite likely that the increased length of the films in the extended format would have caused difficulties in the theatrical releases, as few audience members are used to (or even want to) sit still for a staggering 4 hours! Hollywood epics like Ben-Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told and Cleopatra all had running lengths close to 4 hours, but each was presented with an intermission - something no longer done.

Then there is the aspect of what's become known as "The Director's Cut:" a different version of a theatrical release with scenes the producers and distributors of the film felt unnecessary, but that the director felt crucial to his purpose. I don't know if this is the case here, but it's certainly a possibility.

And, then there's the aspect of appealing to an actor's ego: Christopher Lee was outraged upon learning that his death scene was cut from the theatrical release of The Return of the King. Fortunately, and prior to the theatrical release, Jackson announced that Lee's death scene would be included in the "extended" DVD of the film.

I had been under the impression that these extended versions were the manner in which each of the three films was done initially, and that the theatrical releases, and the initial DVD releases were edited versions of them. After watching a very small portion of the many, many hours of extras on the additional discs in the "deluxe" packaging, it became quite obvious upon hearing some of Jackson's commentary, that the "extended" versions were done as separate entities right from the start, and were essentially "works in progress" for an undetermined amount of time. Some of the Weta Digital folks, after accepting their justifiably earned Academy Award for special effects for The Return of the King, actually stated that they were still working on finishing touches for the extended version!

So, whatever the reasons for the three different versions of each of the three films, there is still no doubt in my mind that The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, especially in the newly-released "Deluxe, Extended Edition," deserved each and every one of 10 of the 11 Academy Awards it earned. The lone holdout is that for "Best Song," which I feel should have gone to the delightful, catchy and toe-tapping signature theme of The Triplets of Belleville. That song was actually a key element in the story telling, which most "Best Songs" aren't.

That one small quibble aside, as well as the fact that The Return of the King still seems to have three completely distinct "endings," doesn't keep me from giving this stunner of a movie the 5 stars it deserves. Enjoy!


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