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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Extended Edition

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                    

This is it, ladies and gents. Unless director Peter Jackson gets a Lucas-y itch to tinker with these films in a couple of years (and he suggests as much in the supplements) — or enough money can be put together and enough egos put aside to make The Hobbit The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Extended Edition is the final piece of the LOTR puzzle to come down the pike.

And now that it's all over, a new perspective can be had on these films. It was easy to get caught up in the hype; since 2001 there's been new material to savor with a steady stream of theatrical and DVD releases. Ultimately — and this is something the supplements reinforce — these are home movies done on a grandiose scale. Director Peter Jackson has been making films in his backyard since he was a youth, and from his first feature (1987's Bad Taste) to this, he's infused his pictures with a childlike delight. It explains why it's easy to forgive the movie's weaker points (for instance, there's the occasional sloppy effects-shot, and that Peter Jackson and his offspring show up in all three films). But it's also why they work.

Because, much like watching someone's movie in their basement, the sense of enthusiasm and excitement of doing it comes across in every single frame. More so, the trilogy (which could have been just another set of "f-ing puppet movies") succeeds not just because of this enthusiasm, but because it pushes the art and its makers to be as good as they can be. Other DVD supplements are smothered in comments about how everyone on the set got along (often in the face of contradictory press), but here there's a special kind of magic that radiates throughout this series. Call it a dream fulfilled, call it something decidedly less hokey, but there is a heart and soul here, a care for the material, and an interest to thrill and involve the audience. In the supplements one can witness Jackson weeping after filming star Elijah Wood's last scene, and it's a genuine moment. It's fall-in-and-enjoy-the-ride filmmaking at its absolute best. Let it be said, with as much distance as this new cut provides, these are masterpieces.

And, honestly, it shames filmmakers like George Lucas and others who've become lazy and/or corporate in their approach to this sort of cinema, people who allow the effects become the story and let the technical side overwhelm the acting and directing. Here, even the minor players get to shine as often as the special effects departments; thespians Bernard Hill's nuanced performance as Theodin and John Noble's arch Denethor help keep the film grounded; Elf leader Elrond's (Hugo Weaving) ability to be noble and yet a parent (Weaving's performance as he gives his daughter away is perfection in an aside). We feel for all of them.

Granted, Jackson and company are working with well-respected fantasy material and have a text to fall back on, but the series takes such films as the prequel efforts (of this date) out to the toolshed and give them the spankings they deserve. This is art, crafted from one of the least respected genres in cinema that's previous "bests" consisted of the Conan and Beastmaster titles. Though this may sound hyperbolic, it seems the Academy and the general public agree — the series has been rewarded with 17 Oscars (including Best Picture) and untold riches. It couldn't happen to a nicer series of films.

*          *          *

Following up on the theatrical cut of Return of the King, and finishing out the Extended Edition trilogy (with the first reviewed here and the second here), the new cut adds 50 minutes of new footage to the Best Picture winner and — much like the theatrical cut of RotK — is the longest of the bunch at four hours and 10 minutes (with an additional 20 minutes of fan credits). And here the journey has changed. In the theatrical cut it's Samwise Gamgee's (Sean Astin) film, here it becomes his. The majority of the new additions aren't to his, Frodo (Elijah Wood), and Gollum/Smeagol's (Andy Serkis) journey, but to the others. It's safe to say that Jackson felt theirs was the most important narrative, and cut little from it. Though there are a couple moments, with the longest being when Frodo and Sam dress as Orcs and unintentionally get suckered into marching to battle.

What may be most surprising to those who were looking for some of the "important" scenes trimmed but rumored to be filmed is how the majority are brief. The long spoke of "Mouth of Sauron" scene, in which a nefarious ambassador (Bruce Spence) meets Aragorn's army at the Black Gates, takes about a minute. The "House of Healing" sequence is only marginally longer and is conveyed non-verbally, while future lovers Eowyn's (Miranda Otto) and Faramir's (David Wenham) extended courtship amounts to more shots of the couple making googly eyes at each other. Gandalf's confrontation with the Witch King clocks in at a minute; Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) grabbing the palantir to tell Sauron that he's the returned king is also succinct. They are welcome, but it points to how much was sacrificed to get the film down to its already unwieldy theatrical length.

The longest addition is the one that fans (and Christopher Lee) have been clamoring for since it was announced that it was snipped: the resolution of Saruman (Lee) and Grima Wormtounge (Brad Dourif). But in finally seeing the sequence, it's easy to see why it was excised; though it caps off two characters who were prominent in the last film, their fates don't really advance the plot that much, and the movie already has too much to cover before the battle for Minis Tirith. But it's a welcome addition just the same.

Fan favorites Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Meyers) offer more comedy with a drinking game and from Gimli during the army of the dead sequence. Alas that's about it. Purists may be unhappy with all the bawdy comedy, but they're sure to be pleased with Faramir's new scenes as they connect more with the character in the book. As his father calls him "the wizard's pupil." This sequence also adds one last brief glimpse of Boromir (Sean Bean). Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippen (Billy Boyd) also get additional sequences, but those looking for Denethor consulting with a palantir are condemned to be disappointed; in both the Theatrical and Extended cuts it's implied he has one, but never made explicit.

But though the running time is elongated, the film's rhythms play better here; Return of the King now gets to take its time. It allows for more grace notes, and characters get to breathe a bit more (though the film was always driven by its characters). Jackson has made a great film better.

Discs One and Two: The Film

The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and is spread over two discs, in keeping with the template already established for the series. And like the earlier EE releases, the transfer is stunning. The audio is similarly spectacular and available in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Dolby Surround 2.0, and DTS 6.1 ES. These DVDs were made to be used for demo pieces. And on each disc there are Easter eggs at the bottom of the final Scene Selection screen. The first is a humorous interview between Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan (8:59), the second an MTV Film Awards parody clip (5:50) in which Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn press Jackson to make more sequels.

Most of the commentarians have graced the previous sets — the lineups are nearly identical — giving a sense of continuity to the supplements (whether this makes them more or less interesting is up to the viewer). The first commentary features Peter Jackson and screenwriters Frances Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, and as always there's jovial but insightful about their work, and Jackson is quick to point out how much was directed by others (though under his supervision). Next up is audio commentary with design team, including costume designer and Weta workshop supervisor Richard Taylor, Weta workshop supervisor Tania Rodger, production designer Grant Major, art directors and set designers Alan Lee and Dan Hennah, art department coordinator Chris Hennah, and conceptual designer John Howe, in addition to costume designer Ngila Dickson, who skipped the Two Towers commentary.

This is followed by a commentary by producer Barrie Osborne, executive producer Mark Ordesky, co-producer Rick Porras, composer Howard Shore, visual effects supervisors Jim Rygiel and Joe Letteri, sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins, creature effects supervisor Randy Cook, art director Christian Rivers, visual effects cinematographer Brian Van't Hull and visual effects director of photography for the miniature unit Alex Funke. New to the track are editors Jamie Selkirk and Annie Collins (different editors worked on each film so this is fitting). The final commentary is with the cast, including Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, and Andy Serkis. Coming back to the commentaries is Ian McKellen, while new additions are Hugo Weaving, Witch King/Gothmog Lawrence Makoare, and Smeagol and Gollum. Yep, Serkis provides some comic relief as everyone's favorite bipolar case provides his thoughts on the making of. Some of which is funny, some of which… less so.

Disc Three: The Appendices, Part V — The War of the Ring

As with all of the Extended Editions, there is both an introduction on the first disc by Peter Jackson (1:33) and the wonderful "play all" feature to watch all three-plus hours of featurette footage in sequence. There's also the index, where one can get access to everything without slogging through the different sections. In fact the layout, and most of the sections are so directly modeled on the previous sets that (unfortunately) it can get a bit sluggish, especially on this first disc.

For instance, every set has a Tolkien section — here it's J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-Earth (29 min.) (the first was titled "J.R.R. Tolkien: Creator of Middle-earth," while second was called "J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-Earth"), which speaks to Tolkien's creation of the languages of Middle Earth and the roots of his mythology, while delving into themeatics that correlate to the author's life, as analyzed by Tolkien scholars.

This segues well into the next section, From Book to Script: Forging the Final Chapter (25 min.). Tolkien thought that his trilogy could never be filmed, partly because timelines overlap in different books; stories in Two Towers have parallel action in King. A nightmare to solve, it's probably why screenwriters Jackson, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh netted their Best Screenplay Oscars. Here, the filmmakers discuss how they reworked the book into filming shape, and what didn't make the cut (even after filming stopped) especially a cut scene featuring Aragorn fighting Sauron — which was thought needed to give the final struggle to destroy the ring more drama, though proved unecessary — and the absence of the long missed "Scowering of the Shire" sequence. There's also a frank discussion of the film's multiple endings. In this section one can also see the early animatics for the Sauron-Aragorn fight (5 min.).

In Designing and Building Middle Earth (39 min.), the struggles of creating the worlds for final chapter is under scrutiny, with the main new addition for the film being Minas Tirith. This section features footage from Jackson's Dead Alive as the Dimholt road sequence was filmed in a shared location, where Bad Taste is featured in the Bigatures section (19 min.). It covers all of the large miniatures used in making the film. Weta Workshop (47 min.) offers an in-depth look at the New Zealand's team's work on the special effects, and on the design of the main villains, including the added Mouth of Sauron. Costume Design (12 min.) tracks the new outfits, while in this section one can also access Design Galleries, which has sections for "The Peoples of Middle Earth," "The Realms of Middle Earth," and "Miniatures."

Home of the Horse Lords (30 min.) bespeaks the actor's relationships with their equine counterparts. Most of the horses were difficult at best, while horse doubles (sometimes something as simple as a barrel) were used. New Zealand as Middle-Earth (16 min.) covers all the Kiwi locations of the third film, while Middle Earth Atlas allows the user to track the paths followed through Middle Earth in the course of the movie.

Disc Four: The Appendices, Part VI — The Passing of an Age

This disc beings with an introduction from Billy Boyd, Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan (1:40) and repeats the info about playing all. Next up is the section Filming Middle Earth, which has two sections: Cameras in Middle-Earth (73 min.), and Production Photos. Cameras is easily the set's best supplement — it's the one that covers the production of the third film, which features a lot of the cast and crew saddened by finishing the series (many of whom were involved with it for nearly a decade).

In the area entitled Visual Effects is the featurette Weta Digital (42 min.) and it reveals the labor that went into the film's 1,488 special-effects shots, more than the two previous films combined. Also in this section is Visual Effects Demonstration: "The Mumakil Battle" (:31) which offers seven angles on a short sequence from the Mumakils (the large elephants) vs. Horses fight with optional audio commentary on each angle.

In Post Production: Journey's End there's Editorial: Completing the Trilogy (22:14). It sets up how RotK was forced to contain footage originally intended for inclusion earlier (such as Sarumon's final scene and Smeagol's discovery of the ring), while also shows how this film reunited Jackson with editor Jamie Selkirk, who worked on all of Jackson's films previous to Fellowship of the Ring. Music for Middle Earth (22 min.) focuses on Howard Shore (who won an Academy Award for his score), and the songs that come into play in the theatrical and extended edition.

The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth (22 min.) goes behind the sound-effects work, and to what lengths the recording crew went to find the noises they needed, which in one case meant getting close to horse raring to breed. The End of All Things (21 min.) talks of the bum-rush that went into finishing the final film, which had so much work being done on the technical end that the movie was worked on up until the very last minute.

The Passing of the Age (25 min.) spends much of time talking about the film's premiere, the Oscars, and a short autopsy on the series. But the heart of the disc is Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for "Into the West" (32 min.), which is about Duncan (1986-2003), a young filmmaker who Jackson and company brought into the fold because Jackson saw some parallels between Duncan's work and his own. Unfortunately Duncan developed terminal cancer, but he provided the inspiration for the Oscar-winning song "Into the West." Also included are two of Cameron's short films DFK6498 (4 min.) and Strike Zone (11 min.).

—Damon Houx

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