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Overall Grade
5 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
4.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
5 Stars
Supplements
5 Stars
High-Def Extras
0.5 Stars
Bottom Line
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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Extended Edition

Street Date:
August 28th, 2012
Reviewed by:
Review Date: 1
August 29th, 2012
Movie Release Year:
2003
Studio:
New Line Cinema
Length:
250 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

Editor's Notes

Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of ''The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy' as well as 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy - Extended Editions'

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

The battle has been won, but what about the war?!

With 'The Two Towers' bringing the first real full-scale battle into the film series, the ante was raised significantly, and with two films worth of build up, the pay off had to be beyond huge. Anything less than a spectacular end cap would have been a massive disaster. Who would have thought 'The Return of the King' would have been this good, though? It's rare to see a film series get better with every entry (the opposite seems the norm)!

Picking up where 'The Two Towers' left off, our heroes have escaped annihilation at Helm's Deep, but a greater battle remains, as the orc army regathers, to attack again at Minas Tirith, aka the City of Kings, which is located incredibly close to the gates of Mordor. A greater battle will ensue, with Legloas, Gimli, and Aragorn having to rally beyond humankind to save humanity. Sam, Frodo, and Gollum's tumultuous relationship is getting rockier, literally, as they pass into Mordor, where looms greater threats than they've ever faced before. Mankind has little time left to assemble and rally to survive, their fate lying on one hobbit, who may not be capable of completing his mission.

With Saruman effectively out of the picture, and no real figurehead to the evil forces besides the anti-Jesus, the omnipresent evil eye of Sauron, yet the film doesn't suffer. Far from it. In fact, the villains in the story become their fear, in a sense, their inability to control their actions and/or minds. Frodo has the One Ring influencing his body, heart, and mind, obviously, as he has a rift with his closest friend, that only comes back to haunt him, as the power of the Ring affects him to the point where he hardly can even function anymore. With Gandalf and the rest of the Fellowship, their struggle is to survive, to continue fighting against immeasurable odds, facing death with every battle head on, and accepting fate, rather than fearing it. Gollum's treachery, often alluded to but rarely seen, comes to fruition, but after his grand, orchestrated betrayal (who would have thought such a lowly creature could plan such a magnificent attack, even with his two personalities?!), his presence hardly matters, as he is (virtually) written off. But despite that, Smeagol/Gollum has to be the most interesting character in this final chapter. The opening of this film focuses on the fateful day he discovers the ring, its deadly repercussions, and his fall from grace, into sheer insanity, and it's hard to not feel for the character for what he once was, just as Frodo does.

'The Return of the King' succeeds in escalating the tension and urgency created in the earlier entries, a hard task indeed considering that the Helm's Deep battle has to be one of the best battles depicted in cinema period, regardless of genre or series, but that doesn't mean this film is without flaw. Minas Tirith is an obvious opposite of Helm's Deep, with the beautiful white walls, textured gates, and sheer beauty mixed in with practicality and regality, and while the end result is the same, the damage caused to the city hardly draws any emotions. Gandalf the infallible (sorry, Gray) once again acts as a guiding light, a messiah of sorts, to rally around, along with his heroic compatriots, but the character has no charm this third time around. Most frustratingly, the greatest flaw in the previous film (which is due to the original works, of course) reappears in this final entry, as again and again, losing battles are saved by surprise appearances and reinforcements. The moment any situation looks dire, never fear, another army will appear to lessen the load and spread out the enemies. This happens twice in a twenty minute span, so it's hard not to notice. Another nitpick: the less said about Eowyn's slaying of the Witch King, the better. The fact that the ringwraith had a contract, and this woman warrior found an effective loophole in it is ridiculous, while her banter is beyond comic book cheese.

Elijah Wood is spectacular, again, as the pint-sized bling bearer, as his descent into madness and paranoia is very believable, as is his sheer exhaustion. Despite being the lead role in the series, it is so easy to overlook how very powerful this young actor's portrayal is. Beyond Wood, there are some solid performances, particularly from David Wenham, and the underrated John Noble (recognizable most these days from his great character in 'Fringe').

The saga of 'The Lord of the Rings' is timeless, with analogy and parable mixed in beautifully with action, adventure, and a slight hint of romance. There are selfless heroes, sacrificing life and limb, solely for their love of life as they know it, and villains with no regard for life, replaced by the unrelenting thirst for power. Characters and their plights are relatable, the story incredibly multi-faceted and robust, with near infinite replay value. The cast is so deep with talent that the likes of Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, and Cate Blanchett don't even get mentions in the review up until this point. Fans worldwide have flocked to this series ever since its release for a reason. While the animated 'Lord of the Rings' may hold a sentimental place in the hearts of many, as the only real adaptation of the books until this definitive trilogy, neither it, nor few other films, can compare to the lasting appeal and power of this masterwork from Peter Jackson.

The Extended Edition

On DVD, these editions were released after the Theatrical Edition DVD release of each respective film, timed to coincide with the next film to bow in theaters (while the final Extended Edition release was then released in the same time period as it would have if there were a fourth film). 'Return of the King' now runs an epic 263 minutes, with an intermission of sorts caused by the need to change discs after the appearance of the wolf's head battering ram.

Detailed comparisons and explanations of the changes between cuts can be found at this website, which hosts a library of comparisons (and may contain NSFW content on titles that add in nudity on alternate/unedited cuts).


'The Return of the King' was always long...now, it's just really, really long. From the start, we see an extension of the Smeagol/Deagol scene, making the choking death scene much more graphic and intense. But the biggest change in tone and mood is to come. Sauroman is given a proper sendoff, rather than just disappearing, out of sight, out of mind. Wormtongue also gets his comeuppance here. It was blasphemy that a world class actor like Lee was ever cut from an entire film, so seeing his fate is worth the five minutes it takes. The film starts much colder, wrapping up loose ends, showing things are about to get rough.

There's added comic relief with the Gimli/Legolas drinking game, our first look at what the orcs have done to the relics of man with the decapitated statue, and Faramir's failures at Osgiliath are more pronounced, leading to an additional scene where Denethor, his father, further shows how much more he loved his son Sean Bean/Boromir. The cave of the dead gets fleshed out, to add some real creep factor to it, that was seriously lacking before, and Peter Jackson makes a fun little cameo. The final change of note is one removed from the film due to the changes in how the stories intertwine between Frodo and Aragorn's quests, as the change affects how audiences perceive the scene with the Mouth of Sauron, making it somewhat anticlimactic.

The changes to 'The Return of the King' may be cool, but at times, they lessen the payoff, as numerous scenes are spoiled, confrontations extended to the point they have gone on too long, and the pace of the film unnecessarily stalled. The great benefits to fleshing out the first part of the film do not work the same wonders here, as the film becomes a bit redundant.


The Disc: Vital Stats

As Nate promised last year, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has finally released the 'Lord of the Rings -- Extended Editions' as individual films. This 5-disc set includes 2 BD50s (parts one and two of the movie) and 3 DVDs (two Appendices discs from the original DVD release of the Extended Editions as well as one DVD featuring the Costa Botes documentary). All five discs are housed in a 5-disc blue case (the trilogy set was a black case) with cover art from the 2006 2-disc DVD release of 'Return of the King' (though unlike that release, this version does not include an option to watch the theatrical cut of the film). An information booklet is no longer included. A matching slipcover completes the package, though a garish Ultraviolet sticker ruins its overall appearance.

Speaking of Ultraviolet, each film in the trilogy now contains an Ultraviolet copy rather than last year's Digital Copy release. Instructions and a redemption code are included; it requires that you have accounts with, at least, Flixster and Ultraviolet, and that you then link both accounts. After spending 20 minutes trying to link everything, I then noticed you can, as an alternative, login directly to your Vudu account and redeem your code. It's much faster and doesn't involve typing in a long url. Sadly, this Ultraviolet copy is only available in SD. As someone who uses computers all day long, the Ultraviolet process remains a clunky and frustrating hassle.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

The trilogy end cap does not feature a new transfer, but it may be the best looking overall disc in the trilogy, even if the sheer detail levels aren't as amazing as 'Fellowship' and its new appearance. What's on display here is the most film-like appearance of the trilogy, even if it has a few minor troubles.

Close ups are absolutely superb, and picture depth is no slouch this time around, with amazing clarity on tap readily and constantly. Little pores on fingers from midrange? You got it. Wear and tear? Nonstop. Edges are absolutely splendid the third time around, even if some other tampering exists. The clarity of the picture is so good that special effects start to look poor, with the flooded Isengard being the most obvious special effect failure of the series, with water that looks, well, nothing like water. Artifacting and banding are nowhere to be found in this nearly five hour cut, and skin tones are constantly pitch perfect. The varying color schemes, from the greens of nature to the grays and whites of cityscapes, as well as the browns and blacks near Mordor, all come through brilliantly, vividly, and make the aesthetic changes obvious and wonderful to stare at. Best of all, this time around, the mists that are green were actually supposed to be green. How awesome is that?!

'The Return of the King' isn't perfect, as there are some very minor traces of DNR from time to time still, while noise pops up on more than a few occasions (interestingly enough, most prominently behind Gimli in each of its appearances!). But taking into account the optimization of the disc, with commentary tracks replacing dubs and subtitle tracks, and the video portion of these two particular discs benefit greatly from the wide open space to breathe. If all three films in this set looked like this, you wouldn't hear any complaints from any reviewer.


The Audio: Rating the Sound

I said it once, and I'll say it again:

"Three films, three DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 mixes, one reason why this release may rule them all."

The adage concerning not fixing what isn't broken applies to the audio New Line provided 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy. In fact, I'm much more impressed with the sound this time around than I was back then, even if nothing has changed in terms of what type of mix has been provided. The entire trilogy sounds quite literally flawless, for its entire runtime. Not once in the entire viewing marathon did I have a moment where I wished some element was heftier, or some speaker had more activity. This was perhaps one of the most pleasant, accurate to the action on screen mixes I've encountered in some time.

All three tracks are nothing short of splendid, with pitch perfect dynamics, wonderful directionality, constant and appropriate localization effects, superb clarity, impeccable prioritization, wonderful volume spikes, and plenty of down and dirty bass to keep the entire experience engaging, no matter how thoroughly worn out you are by the length of the material. The soundstage is constantly filled, putting you in the middle of the experience throughout the entire affair, be it in a not-so-crowded hall or a battle littered with combatants from all angles. There's never an inappropriate moment or sound, not a single hair out of place. Range is brilliantly unchecked, and the echoes found in this trilogy, there may not be any better example on this format! I loved how regularly the bass had a different kind of roar, with frequencies and potencies changing, creating a fun new experience each time there was the need for extreme power, and I loved even more the fact that not once in the entire runtime did I need to adjust the volume settings on my receiver. The sharp clangs of sword on sword, the cold thumps of bodies hitting the ground, the whizz of arrows swooping across the room at any given angle, the thunder beneath a massive creature's footstep, the haunting melodies, the sharp spikes of victorious yells and screams, the screeching of the undead, the rumble of a volcano...all part of a perfect audio experience. The Extended Editions of 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy all earn perfect marks, with no regret or nitpicks. The most thunderous element after these three tracks played was the sound of my applause for a job more than well done.


The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

The original Blu-ray release of 'The Lord of the Rings' had a minimal amount of extras available (or none at all if you bought the Wal-Mart exclusive versions), mirroring the already heavily aged original DVD releases by stealing their supplement discs and repackaging them. This Extended Edition set does the same thing, in essence, by taking two discs from each DVD version of the first releases of the book packed Extended cuts, as well as the documentary found on each of the second release versions of the Extended Editions (which also came with the Theatrical Cuts, the only editions so far to do so), packing three discs per film with the two discs for each film (which contain four commentaries each!), to create a monolithic supplement package that definitely rules them all.

Discs 1 and 2: Commentaries

  • Four tracks, again with writing/directing (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens), designing (Grant Major, Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, John Howe, Dan Hennah, Chris Hennah, and Tania Rodger), production and post (Barrie M. Osborne, Mark Ordesky, Jamie Selkirk, Annie Collins, Rick Porras, Howard Shore, Jim Rygiel, Ethan Van der Ryn, Mike Hopkins, Christian Rivers, Alex Funke, Joe Letteri, Randy Cook, and Brian Van't Hul), and cast (Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis, Lawrence Makoare, Smeagol and Gollum). The Jackson commentary flows perfectly, with the director dominating the track, with his compatriots giving him slight breaks, egging him on to make other comments. It's informative, especially in providing context to the other films, the books, or the actual experience in filming. The design team commentary isn't as interesting, as it feels very "matter of fact," focusing on the minutia rather than the big picture, harping on minor details that are somewhat insignificant. This track gives more of a technical look at the film, from costumes to effects work, with some short, random anecdotes, but nothing significant in terms of story or plotting. The design commentaries may not be the best listens unless you work in craft or have a severe obsession with creation. Production fares a bit better, with cuts discussed and explained, compositing moments revealed, themes analyzed, and tricks of the trade, goofs included, hinted at. The coverage is solid on this third track, the flow is easy, and the comments are worth listening to, not jarring random thoughts like the design track. The fourth and final track for 'Return' is the cast, and it includes Andy Serkis along with his two alter egos in the film. Sadly, there isn't too much from the fictional characters, mostly just the cast discussing what's on screen, with some random anecdotes, a few attempted gags, and a fast pace. This could have been more. If anything, this could have been all Andy Serkis. It probably should have been!

Discs 3: The Appendices, Part 5 (SD)

  • "The War of the Ring" (SD) -- Tolkien's desired name for the third book -- is the first Appendix for 'Return of the King,' with the standard intro, and six categories: J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-Earth (29 min), From Book to Script (30 min), Designing and Building Middle-Earth (119 min), Home of the Horse Lords (30 min), Middle-Earth Atlas, and New Zealand as Middle-Earth (16 min). Yep, same categories, again, for the most part. As always, the Tolkien feature is a must watch, focusing on the linguistics, the structure and creation of the novels. The scripting has two features, with storyboards of Aragorn facing off against Sauron and a different ending for the one ring, as well as the feature discussing the changes, rearranging portions of the books, some of which for the better, some for the worse. The designing features are plentiful, with three featurettes and two galleries. We start with the creation of the sets and settings, moving on to miniature work, separated into sections about each setting that utilized non-CG elements. Weta is up next, and the third time around doesn't feel all that much different than the first two times we focussed on the craftsmen who design the fantasy elements of the flicks, before ending up at costume designing and design galleries. I said it before, I'll say it again: the costuming is a definite must watch, to truly understand how big an undertaking this big. The Horse Lords feature is a great look at the animal use in the films, an often understated, underappreciated challenge in the series. The Atlas feature is the same as before, with the four paths you can follow to trace the Fellowship's journeys. Wrapping up this disc is the New Zealand feature, where real life locations are shown as their Middle-Earth doubles.

Disc 4: The Appendices, Part 6 (SD)

  • "The Passing of an Age" is an apt title for the final Appendix disc, as I feel as though I've been viewing these features for weeks instead of days! Aside from the final intro, we have five more categories: Filming 'Return of the King' (73 min), Visual Effects (43 min), Post-Production: Journey's End (85 min), The Passing of an Age (25 min), and Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for Into the West (15 min). The filming portion has a camera feature as well as a photo gallery, where we see the difficulties, the twists and turns in production, the varying choices and unexpected good and bad fortunes. With VFX, there's another Weta feature (digital), as well as a demonstration. Really, halfway into the Weta feature, I had enough, as this is the sixth Weta feature, and it all started to blend into being the same damn thing over and over, but the demonstration of course is great, with an optional commentary track where six screens are combined into one final scene. In post, we get four extras, with the editing taking the first turn, where Jackson's longtime editor comes back for the final 'LOTR' flick, while the music focus, Shore's third bow in the extras, yet again shows us the recordings, the planning of material and themes. The soundscape once again shows us how many sounds were recorded in the silliest of practical manners. The final portion of post shows how much was happening at once, which must have been a real difficult few months for Jackson and company. The Passing of an Age covers the final premiere for the film, in New Zealand, a splendid event indeed. The Cameron Duncan features are really not related to 'The Lord of the Rings' all that much, just a couple bits of footage that are too big to be trailers, and are too boring to be watchable.

Disc 5: Costa Botes documentary (SD, 112mins)

  • Witness why Jackson was a tad overweight as he loads plates full of bacon! Meet the caterers, the assistant directors, the makeup people, the various crew members who make the film work, as you're delved deep into the creation of the film, with each and every element given a peek, putting you on the set, in a way. It's so fun seeing cars on the set where everyone is in costume alongside their horses, it's neat watching the monitors while Jackson shouts instructions, and it's even more fun watching the orcs dance on their barges, goofing off between takes in their full regalia. With Jackson getting a cameo in this third film, we see him in the chair briefly, before quickly cutting away to the construction of a city, of sorts. Move forward with Frodo in the cave, tangled in spider webs being assaulted by prosthetic spider legs, and then onto the various orc encounters in Mordor. When it's all said and done, we see Jackson address his crew one more time. No expense is spared, no miniscule portion of production ignored; the Costa Botes documentaries are a fan's dream come true, putting you on the set, to witness the randomness, the light spirits and the tricks behind the magic. Also, you get to see Gollum on the can, briefly. I'm sure that wouldn't fit into the time period of the film.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

There are technically two new features found on each disc 1 of the trilogy, but they earn no points, whatsoever on this release. The sheer amount of data and information found in this release that was previously released is more than enough to keep a fan preoccupied for a long, long time. The only reason there's any high-def exclusive points for this review is because of a single piece of paper.

  • The Lord of the Rings: War in the North Trailer - The Untold Story (HD, 1 min) - What's that? A video game based on 'The Lord of the Ring' is coming? Quick, advertise it on each and every disc one of the set! This one looks pretty damned generic and no different from all the other 'LOTR' games that have come out in the last ten years.
  • BD-Live - A generic portal that does nothing, and takes up menu and disc space! That's exactly what I was looking for in this release, yes! Can I also have a lengthy load time only to discover that big whopping nothing? I can?! Hip hip, hooray!!!
  • Ultraviolet Copy - Instructions along with a URL code are included. The redemption code works at Flixster as well as Vudu. The expiration date is August 28, 2014. Also, it is not in HD.

Easter Eggs

On the 'The Return of the King' disc one, there is a nine minute SD interview between Monaghan and Wood, played off as a hoax of sorts on Wood. Monaghan doesn't do a bad German, but the joke here is on us, not Wood, as it isn't all that funny.

On the Appendices DVD discs, there is a symbol at the bottom of each page that is a not-so hidden link to the DVD credits.

Thanks go to reader/forum member Tiny Angel for spotting this extra. On disc two of 'The Return of the King' Blu-ray, at the black screen, select to view the main menu. From there you get a traditional menu, and another not-so-well-hidden ring in the supplements tab. This six minute MTV feature has Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Peter Jackson sitting down as the two actors faux-interview Jackson about making a sequel to the 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy. It's not bad, by any means, and gets better as the runtime rolls on. Still, MTV means it panders quite a bit.

Final Thoughts

'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Extended Edition' 5-Disc Set is exactly the same as the release included with the Extended Edition of the trilogy, except it features different cover art, an SD Ultraviolet copy of the film, and no paper booklet describing the contents of its packaging. 'Return of the King' features reference audio and very strong video with hours and hours of special features (from previous releases). If you own the trilogy boxed set already, there is no reason to buy this or the other two individual releases. If you held off on buying the trilogy as a whole, the trilogy set is still probably a better deal in terms of pricing. If you like only one or two of the films from this trilogy, or you like the look of the green, red, and blue cover art more, then you could consider these individual releases.

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