Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings really did get better with each successive film in the trilogy. Ten years ago I ventured into theaters, despite my aversion to the fantasy genre, to see The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I was bored with and disliked both (the first more than the second), so I skipped the third one. Revisiting the first two with the recently released standalone Blu-rays of the extended editions, my opinions had softened somewhat. I still don’t believe these films need to be so freaking long, but the second one proved to be much more exciting and involving than I remembered.
The trilogy was highly decorated, with each winning a plethora of awards, but The Return of the King positively cleaned house. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it managed to win every single one, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. While I understand the Academy was basically awarding the entire three-film saga, it’s still odd to me to name any movie Best Picture that can’t stand on its own. Understanding and enjoying Return is totally dependent upon having seen the two films that came before.
That said, this is a massively impressive film that easily provides the most rewarding viewing experience of the three. From Andy Serkis’ appearance during a flashback as Sméagol, the man who would eventually become Gollum, to the final encounter between Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum at Mount Doom, this is the film that finally won me over. Yes, at 263 minutes it’s still kind of insanely long. But even though this is by far the lengthiest extended edition, it doesn’t feel like it. The action set pieces are mind-blowing, outdoing even those from the first two films. The interplay between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum had deepened by this point, with Frodo nearing the mental limit of exposure to the ring’s power. Gollum constantly tries to undermine Sam in order to turn Frodo against him, which he eventually does.
Wood and Astin had really grown into these roles by this point. The ordeal Frodo and Sam have been through as they continue their march toward Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring gives the actors more emotional range to express. Astin, in particular, walks away with the film’s best performance as Sam is not only abandoned by Frodo, but still finds the courage to continue doing what is right. As the voice and motion capture subject of Gollum, Serkis continues to mine the duality of the character. We despise him, especially after the devastating opening flashback sequence, but we also feel sorrowful over the sight of a once normal person who has long since lost his soul.
There’s a lot more to the movie, of course, and as with the previous installments, I feel it is overstuffed with characters that aren’t essential. For instance, Éowyn’s (Miranda Otto) unrequited crush on Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) leaves me not only unmoved but also uncaring. But I’ve come to better appreciate the lived-in, complex world that Jackson and his team have created. Some have complained about the extended versions being split in half between two Blu-ray discs. Not only was this necessary to preserve the excellence of the video transfers, it also effectively splits the trilogy into a six-part series. Watching one of these films, let alone all three, requires a significant time commitment. Since none of them really has a defined beginning, middle, and end to begin with, splitting them into roughly six two-hour movies makes the whole thing a little more economic, time wise.
The 1080p transfer is awesome, with a crystal clear image that boasts a tremendous amount of fine detail. As with the previous two films, the clarity of high definition sometimes reveals the limits of its era’s special effects technology. But on the other hand, some of the CG work is deliriously effective, with the fleshy texture and detail of the huge elephant beasts displayed with fantastic quality. Another scene that looks great is when Shelob, the gigantic spider, attacks Frodo. Despite being a dark, black arachnid, the details of each segment of its body are a highly impressive sight. It might sound like a cliché, but The Return of the King is truly a feast for the eyes.
The 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is, if anything, even more intricate and immersive than the first two films. This is a soundtrack that features an almost overwhelming amount of elements, yet they are perfectly balanced. Dialogue always emerges intelligibly from the din, no matter how raucous. When those elephants came thundering forth, the viewer quite literally feels every step they take with booming LFE activity. This is a fully realized surround sound mix that knows exactly what is right for any given scene.
Falling in line with the two earlier extended edition Blu-ray releases, The Return of the King packs a serious supplemental wallop. Four audio commentaries are included to accompany the feature film, with the director and writers, cast, production team, and design team. The video-based features are spread out over three standard DVDs. Between disc three’s “The Appendices Part 5: The War of the Ring” and disc four’s “The Appendices Part 6: The Passing of an Age,” there are about eight hours of documentaries detailing every aspect of the production. As with the previous sets, the fifth disc contains a feature-length documentary by Costa Botes. This one is the longest, clocking in at 113 minutes.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – Extended Edition is an exhaustive capper to an exhaustive series of Blu-ray releases. Clear your schedule completely and you might be able to get through everything in about a week. Fans who already own the extended editions box set, released on Blu-ray in 2011, won’t need this since there isn’t anything new added. The separate Blu-ray releases allow fans to piece the trilogy together one film at a time rather than springing for the whole set at once.