The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Special Extended DVD Edition
It was with keen anticipation, but not a little sadness, that I pulled the shrink wrap from our review sample of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Special Extended Edition. Anticipation, in that I was eager to see the contents of the 50 extra minutes director Peter Jackson had added to this already three-plus hour film—the capstone on his masterful cinematic realization of author J.R.R. Tolkien's classic work. Sadness, in that this would be the end of the voyage of discovery that began in late 2001 with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters, and continued through three commercial releases, three standard DVD box sets, and three extended editions.
You can't please everyone, of course. While I've begun to run out of superlatives to describe my reaction to these films, I was neither an avid reader of the books nor particularly impressed by the initial film in the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when I first saw it. The technical presentation at the Mann Village Theater in Westwood, California was superb, as it always is, given a film print able to do it justice, but the tale of hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, and wizards left me unimpressed.
But then came the DVD, and for reasons I can't explain to this day, I was hopelessly hooked. You may not be so fortunate in being able to succumb to the lure of these three films, but if you are, you may, like me, consider them instant classics. For my part, I believe that this trilogy, taken as a whole, may some day be regarded as the greatest single achievement in film history. But that day must wait a few decades for a time when we can view it in historical perspective. We will also then be able to better judge how well the special effects—effects that look so awe-inspiring today, as they enhance the films without ever detracting from them—will stand the test of time.
The Return of the King, winner of multiple honors, including 11 Academy Awards (and Best Picture), is regarded by most critics and fans as the best of an exceptional trio. Even in its theatrical cut, there's nothing obviously missing, nothing shortchanged, as Frodo and Sam struggle in their quest to destroy the ring while the other inhabitants of Middle Earth battle the forces of the evil Lord Sauron. But for many, however, this Extended Edition will be an even deeper, more rewarding experience, though at 4 hours, 10 minutes it's a long haul at a single sitting. New or extended scenes include the final fate of Saruman; the invasion of Osgiliath, the haunted mountain; Gandalf confronting the Witch King; the opening of the Black Gate; the Houses of Healing; and the climax at Mount Doom.
In fact, the booklet that comes with the box set shows dozens of changes in its chapter guide. But instead of my reciting an extensive detailing of them, it's far better for you to experience this extended cut for yourself. I'll only note here that I don't think the additions were all necessary: some slow down the film, one or two of them give away surprises that come later (particularly for those who have not read the books), and a few add a little too much personality to the orcs and other repulsive villains who, like the Borg of Star Trek fame, are at their threatening best when they remain distant and mysterious.
But I doubt if any fans will be disappointed by the additions. And they won't be disappointed by the extra features, either. The movie itself is spread out over the first two discs. These also include four commentary tracks: one from the director and writers, one from the production design team, one from the post-production team, and one from the cast. Working your way through all of them will take you a marathon 20 hours—including the first four spent experiencing the film itself sans commentary!
The second two discs are dedicated to the equally extensive extras or, as they are called here, the Appendices. Disc three not only includes features about the film production itself, but also a fascinating look at the life of J.R.R. Tolkien. The production extras continue on disc four, with seven original documentaries, including the cast "wrap." The only feature obviously missing here is trailers. Trailers were included in the theatrical cut DVD release, but fans who have been holding off buying that one in anticipation of the extended cut will be disappointed that they have to buy both to get all the goodies.
The most unusual feature on the final disc is uncredited on the outside jacket. It's an extensive tribute to a young New Zealand filmmaker, Cameron Duncan, who showed remarkable talent before succumbing to cancer at the age of 16. The feature isn't specifically related to The Lord of the Rings (though Duncan did visit the set a number of times), but it is clearly a subject close to director Peter Jackson's heart. Duncan reminded him of himself at that age.
When I reviewed the theatrical release DVD, I commented that the picture looked so good I couldn't imagine it being bettered in the extended edition. I was wrong. The images here are sharper, the colors truer (within the confines of the highly stylized processing used in the film) and the picture cleaner. Viewed with a 3-chip DLP projector on an 80" wide screen, the DVD produced a better picture than the one I saw in the theater (the latter, admittedly, much larger).
But I won't go out on a limb again and say that some inevitable high definition version won't reveal further visual delights in this film—and the first two as well. In fact, New Line was one of the studios that just recently announced support for the HD-DVD format, with the promise of releases late in 2005. Will The Lord of the Rings be among them? We have no inside scoop to offer here, but such a release would be a natural "killer app" for the format. I'm sure that lights are burning late in the Blu-ray camp (HD-DVD's rival for a high definition optical disc format crown) over just that possibility.
The sound on The Return of the King is exceptional as well, with powerful bass (though not the deepest I've heard), active surrounds, clear dialogue, and a fine (if just a little bright) recording of composer Howard Shore's incredible score. There's a choice of either DTS or Dolby Digital soundtracks (in 6.1 ES or 7.1 EX form if you're set up for it—I listened in 5.1). Both tracks are dynamite, and while I slightly preferred the DTS, the two were so close that I might change my mind tomorrow. If I have a complaint about the sound from both tracks, it's that the dynamic range is, if anything, a little too intense. This clearly originates with the original soundtrack, and will present a real challenge to your sound system.
How much more can I say about The Lord of the Rings trilogy on DVD without boring even those fans as rabid as I am? Not much, perhaps, but for those who want more, my reviews of the second film may found here and here.
As drama, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is unsurpassed. As DVDs, the extended editions may not be unequivocally superior to the theatrical cuts (though The Fellowship of the Ring, in my judgement, definitely is), but they provide additional depth and richness that any serious fan will appreciate. And their technical quality is exquisite. The films belong in the collection of any serious film lover. History may well judge them masterpieces, but for many of us, they already are.—Thomas J. Norton