[box cover]

The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King

New Line Home Video

Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen,
Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Miranda Otto, John Noble,
Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, David Wenham,
and Andy Serkis

Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens
Directed by Peter Jackson

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Review by Damon Houx                    

For anyone who enjoys them, the least favorite part of a rollercoaster ride is when it stops.

This may explain why final chapters of any series or trilogy are usually considered the weakest. But is this the film's fault? It may just be that no one likes conclusions after having invested so much time and energy into a thing. It's like death in its way; a letting go, a finality that suggests something is definitively done with. Or it could be that — as human beings who witness good and evil in everyday life — rare is the time when evil is truly and utterly defeated. In life it's unnatural for everything to work out and have all loose ends to be tied up. Then again, sometimes filmmakers run out of ideas, lose interest, or let the wrong person conclude a series (eg. The Matrix Revolutions or Return of the Jedi).

With that in mind some blacklash against 2003's The Return of the King, Peter Jackson's marvelous final installment of the Lord of the Rings films, should be expected. Actually even more so because, besides concluding the series, it also won eleven Oscars (including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay). And if the Academy Awards have taught us anything, it's that they're usually wrong. This sweep of awards can be seen as a reward for the whole accomplishment (as it was thought it might be when both Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers lost their Best Picture nominations); prizes for the near ten-year journey director Peter Jackson and crew spent trying to make these films. It could also be seen as a career win for Jackson, who's early career includes such ghoulish highlights as Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead-Alive — or at least it might for the fans of those earlier works. But for whatever reasons the film was rewarded, it was deserved; The Return of the King is the rousing conclusion to one of cinema's great trilogies.

*          *          *

Starting with a flashback to when Smeagol (Andy Serkis) found the Onering that transformed him into Gollum, the film quickly sets up something so easy to forget; the Onering pollutes most men's minds and turns them into power-hungry killers, making Frodo's long quest all the more impressive. The film then picks up immediately after the end of Two Towers, with hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood), Samwise (Sean Astin), and Gollum trekking to Mount Doom — the one place the ring that gives the evil Sauron his power can be destroyed — while human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), wizard Gandalf (Iam McKellen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) trek to Saruman's wrecked castle to reclaim hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippen (Billy Boyd). Though the battle for Helm's Deep is over, that was simply Saruman's army, while in Mordor (home of Sauron, who's represented by a large fiery eye) Sauron's army is getting ready to lay siege to Gondor, and Sauron's army will make the Helm's Deep fight look like a cakewalk. To persuade the ruler of Gondor to fight, Gandalf takes Pippen with him, since Pippen is accidentally thought by the forces of evil to be the ringbearer.

Gondor was where fallen comrade Boromir (Sean Bean) came from, and Aragorn and Gandalf know their Steward Denethor (John Noble) will not be happy to see them. In waiting for the heir of Gondor to return (who is Aragorn), Gondor has had Denethor running the place in the King's absence, so even if mankind can defeat the forces of Sauron, Denethor is out of a job and less one son. While Gandalf and Denethor argue, Aragorn receives resistance from Rohan's leader Théoden (Bernard Hill) in joining the battle because the Rohan people had to defend themselves at Helm's Deep whilst Gondor did nothing to help.

Throughout this, Aragorn is put into a position of leadership, a position he's never been comfortable with because of the failings of his ancestors — Aragorn's line had the chance to destroy the ring but couldn't resist its evil lure. He's also in love with the elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), and because she chose a mortal life she will die if Sauron wins, so Arwen's father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) reforges the sword Aragorn's heirs used to first beat Sauron. While Aragorn has to also demurely handle the affections of Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Théoden's niece, heir to the Rohan throne, and a woman who wants to join her men on the battlefield. To defend Gondor Aragorn needs a bigger army than he has, and only the King of Gondor can convince the army of the dead to fight for him. Though Gandalf and Pippen do their best to convince Denethor what the best thing to do is, he's rather nuts and won't listen, sending his other son Faramir (David Wentham) to almost certain death. Though Denethor protests, the war cannot be stopped, and Gondor's kingdom of Minis Tirith is forced into combat.

Yet for all the warfare and politicking, Aragorn and company are simply trying to distract Sauron from realizing their real mission: Letting Frodo and Sam slip past Sauron's eye to get to Mount Doom to destroy the ring. And another war is being fought between Frodo and his soul as he and his companions struggle to get the ring to the one place it can finally be destroyed while their supplies and optimism dwindle. Gollum uses Frodo's fragile state to drive a wedge between Frodo and Sam, which Gollum also does because Sam is wise to his plan to kill both hobbits and take the ring for himself. Frodo is too harried to realize the trickery and Gollum leads him to the "she" in question at the end of Two Towers, a giant spider named Shelob. Fortunately Sam comes to his senses and comes back for Frodo, but much will befall them before they can get to Mount Doom.

*          *          *

Now that the conclusion of the series is finally upon us, it's possible to have almost all of the pieces, and the series can be enjoyed in total (there's one last chunk, the Extended Edition of RotK, while hope is held that Jackson and company will do the prequel book The Hobbit since everyone involved with this series has expressed interest, but that film is tied up in rights issues, so it may not happen with Jackson's involvement, and therefore may never happen, period). Now that it's all over, it's hard not to reflect at what a hugely impressive accomplishment it is. Seriously, these are films for the canon, and will likely be enjoyed for a long time to come — even if its fan-base solely becomes adolescent boys. Just the same, it's hard not sit back and let one's jaw drop at the sheer scale and accomplishment of it all.

And in it's way The Return of the King is the crown jewel because it does an amazing job of topping the scope of the previous entries, while managing to wrap things up without cheating — there are no ridiculous deus ex machinas, no twists that feel forced. This is probably because author J.R.R. Tolkein wrote the series as single book, which was only broken up by the publisher, and that perfectly mimics the way Jackson shot the film. This single-idea approach gives the story more continuity that other trilogies where authors become too aware of pleasing their audience or obviously don't know exactly where they were going, even when they've said that they had a trilogy in mind in the first place. But because of the through-line, there aren't any distracting and unresolved tangents, or a sense of characters feeling "cheated." Which is one of the reasons why the third film is so spectacular.

But if praise is to be dished for RotK, first and foremost should be the technical bravado. Few things are as stunning as watching men on horseback fighting against giant elephants; it's a sight that only cinema can bring about, a show-stopping sequence in a movie full of them — like dragons versus giant birds. And though much of the film is quite obviously a digital pastische, cinema (and cineastes) should be at the point were they must accept that to show something that never existed before, it's cheaper to create it on a computer than build it. That said, the digital artistry, the miniatures, the costumes, and all the things that went into to making this film look and sound great are near immaculate. Each film in the LotR trilogy has spent time in different locations, and this installment is all about Gondor and Mordor. The castle of Minis Tirith, with its layered levels of defense, and the volcanic Mount Doom look spectacular, but they're fully realized places that have their own feels totally removed from the other locations of the series, while also feeling distinctly of its world. This sense of the spectacle gives Middle Earth the thing that makes all great sci-fi and fantasy: a sense of reality amid the fantastical.

Howard Shore also deserves a huge pat on the back (though he's already received three Academy Awards for his work on this series), since his score integrates the numerous themes and leitmotifs developed in the first two films for each of the characters, their journeys, and specific locations — which helps the audience subconsciously orientate themselves during all the cross-cutting — and introducing new themes for this chapter. His score manages to enhance whatever emotion the film is going through without ever feeling cloying or overstated, and it feels rare these days for a score to work so symbiotically.

Technical proficiency only gets you so far, though; it takes a lot of work condensing and reshaping material for the big screen, and writers Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Jackson do an amazing job of finding form to this unwieldy text (there's a reason it took so long to reach the big screen, Ralph Bashki's attempt withstanded). There are some plot-points missing, and it's worth noting them (something this critic did with the help of DVDJ staffer and Tolkein enthusiast Scott Anderson).

With this book the biggest missing chunk is the "Scouring of the Shire" chapter; this section had the hobbits returning to Hobiton only to find Saruman and his sidekick Wormtongue trying to rule over their land, leading the quad to kick wizard butt. Jackson told the fanbase of this change, and so time may have healed some wounds, but with the series already at such long running-times (as had been said before of this series, the gamble New Line took to make these films could have sunk them, and the foresight to allow Jackson — Peter Bad Taste Jackson — to make these films, all with three hour running-times, cannot and should not be understated), adding an additional fight after the major battles of Minas Tirith and Mordor might have come off as anticlimactic and redundant. Yet it would have been nice to see Christopher Lee (as Saruman) and Brad Dourif (as Wormtounge) return for the final effort, and the two had a scene snipped before release (though word has it that it's set to be included in the extended edition). All said and done, they're not terribly missed, but it seems unfortunate that Lee could not be in all three films. Heck, Sean Bean's Boromir gets cameos in the later two films, even though his character was killed off in Fellowship.

But there are plot points that seem to have been excised for pacing (it's a 200-minute movie, running 21 minutes longer than either previous entry), and they are notable if you know the text. Denethor's character is crazy not just because he's a middling bureaucrat who sees the writing on the wall, but because he's under the power of Sauron through the Palantir (a seeing eye) he keeps using. This is hinted at pretty directly (Denethor says he "knows things" ominously), but Denethor's madness works with or without it, simply because he's grief stricken at the loss of Boromir. Another obviously excised chunk is Gandalf's battle with the Witch King, which is another plot point hinted at, and not completely excised (a shot of the beginning of the confrontation can be glimpsed in the supplements). One can also guess where the section is, as when Gandalf tries to rescue Faramir from Denethor's insanity he looks wiped out, like he just fought a very hard battle — fitting as its noted that the Witch King is said to be impervious to mortal man. Again, unless you're looking for it, it's hard to know it's gone. The final chunk revolves around the final battle against Mordor, when Aragorn goes to Mordor's gate and is informed by the voice of Sauron (originally Bruce Spence was listed for this role on the IMDb, but this credit has been removed) that Sauron thinks he's killed Frodo when his Mithril armor was accidentally left behind at a Mordor castle. This makes Aragorn's last battle all the more suicidal.

Also of note is that in the special features (in the National Geographic special) there is footage of Merry offering his services to Théoden, and of a drinking game between Legolas and Gimli. But, though the Extended Edition may include all or none of these scenes, in terms of pacing these cuts feel right in an already epic film.

*          *          *

But what the screenplay does right, so right (something matched by the directing and acting), is balance the epic scale of the battle for Middle Earth with a sense of intimacy for the characters who are trying to make their way through it. One cares about the fate of Middle Earth, which is more than one can say for Ewoks, or The Matrix's Zionists. This is because Jackson feels no need to focus too long on anyone that the audience doesn't already care about. Though the conclusion may seem obvious (it's hard to imagine a studio greenlighting a $300-million-plus enterprise that results in the good guys losing), because the audience can invest so heavily in the members of the Fellowship, the final battles are kinetic, visceral, and emotionally gripping. This is because the final chapter is specifically about sacrifice; knowing that it's sometimes more important to complete one's mission than live through it. All of the main characters know this, and the actors properly convey this fatality, while also mixing in some gallows humor (specifically Legolas and Gimli, whose roles feel reduced in this final effort).

But if one the performers steals the movie, it's Sean Astin. Who knew the former Goonie child star could give such a moving and emotive performance? (The obvious answer is: Peter Jackson.) Though he had much to do in the first two films, he becomes Frodo's watcher to the point that this once-meek character holds his own against Shelob, and manages to take out some orcs along the way. He also is the true hero of the story, something that he manages to keep to himself, which makes his accomplishments and journey that much more impacting.

*          *          *

Perhaps the thing that garnered the most complaints about the film upon release was the sense of the story having five endings (Yahoo's main page had it in their "in the news" bubble). But every segment after the most obvious conclusion helps wrap up the characters, and though some may lose their patience, the complainers don't seem to realize how character-centric this entire series is. Each scene adds critical details, and (as fellow DVDJ staffer D.K. Holm likes to note) when people make this argument as they do, they're on the side of the bean-counting producers, and not the artists.

And it is in the minutiae and the eccentric moments that elevates this film to classic status. The scene in which Gandalf expresses what death is to Pippen. The moments of levity and friendship between Legolas and Gimli. Aragorn's under-the-breath comment before launching an unwinable war: "For Frodo." Samwise's ability to go from laughable to warrior when trying to protect Frodo. Frodo's moment of recognition of what the shire is as he waits on Mount Doom. And the film's melancholic ending that suggests (something WWI survivor Tolkein must have been all to familiar with) sometimes you can't go home because of what you've seen, and what that's made you become.

Peter Jackson said before release that the reason you make the first two film is to do the last, but fans will surely be divided on what's the best film of the set and will argue the relative merits of each, and the merits of theatrical versions vs. the Extended Editions for the rest of humanity's existence. But for this critic, while Two Towers has the best pacing of the group, it is The Return of the King, rare as it may seem for a concluding chapter, that is the best of bunch.

*          *          *

New Line's two-disc set presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and in Dolby Digtal 5.1 audio (a pan-and-scan version is also available). As to be expected, the soundtrack is phenomenal, as is the picture quality. Due to the length of the film, all supplements are relegated to the second disc, and like the theatrical editions for the series' previous entries, the really good supplemental material is being saved for the Extended Edition, though — unlike the first two — this disc doesn't include a preview for that EE, giving those wary of double dipping even more excuses to wait. That said, the supplements here aren't without merit, especially for those who like to have trailers, which aren't included with the EEs. Also, note to New Line: Couldn't you get a better quote for the box art — especially for a Best Picture winner — than one by WNBC's Jeffery Lyons?

The first supplement on Disc Two is The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Journey (23:00). It's a standard "making-of" EPK covering the entire trilogy that talks to many in the cast and crew as they describe the film, and why they like it, though the major point it makes is how great Peter Jackson is. Included is a snippet of Jackson's 35-minute demo reel, which he used to sell the film to studios, and one hopes that it is included on the final EE. A Filmmaker's Journey: Making The Return of the King (28:30), speaks more to the final effort, and is also rather puffy and contains some overlapping anecdotes, but the commentary by the cast and crew is reasonably articulate, and both this and Quest feature brief snippets one expects to see in the EE. Perhaps the most interesting note is that The Beatles wanted to make a film of the series.

National Geographic's Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (45:56), spends its running-time connecting the fictive stars to historical figures. Aragorn is compared to William Wallace, Henry V and Teddy Roosevelt, Gandalf to William Cecil and Benjamin Franklin, Grima Wormtounge to Rasputin, Faramir to George Pickett, man's battle against Mordor to the RAF, the friendship of Frodo and Sam to Lewis & Clark and Robert Perry & Mathew Henson, and Gimli and Legolas's relationship to Edmund Hillary & Tenzing Norgay. It also features the cheap recreation footage that makes this the sort of thing meant for children who need some sort of tie-in pop culture reference to find interest in their homework. The best reason to check it out is for the cut footage.

Next up are the mini-featurettes created for the Lord of the Rings official website — these are mostly fluffy, and are of lesser image quality, but they occasionally offer nuggets. And, more importantly, there is commentary from RotK-excised Christopher Lee. First up is Aragorn's Destiny (3:27), which talks of Aragorn's lineage and how he feels as the reluctant hero, while Minas Tirith: Capital of Gondor (3:13) speaks of the new location to the LOTR world. The Battle of Pelanor Fields (2:17) talks of the siege on Minas Tirith, while Samwise the Brave (4:34) talks about the star of the film. Eowyn: White Lady of Rohan (3:45) spotlights Miranda Otto's character, while Digital Horse Doubles (4:38), probably is the best of the bunch as it goes in depth to how the digital artists created the faux equines.

Next up is the basics: There are two Trailers, the teaser (1:03) and the theatrical (2:58), which really do a great job of selling the movie. Then there's 13 TV Spots (6:47) that become repetitive upon watching in total, but also are well cut. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Supertrailer (6:38) plays more like a greatest-hits package of the first two films with the theatrical trailer for RotK cut in, so it doesn't do what a great trailer does (get you excited to see the entire product), but it may be nice to watch before putting on disc one, simply for the recap factor. Finally, there's the Video Game sneak preview (3:03), the synergetic promo for a new trilogy-spanning game.

— Damon Houx

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