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.
Each of the previous 'Lord of the Rings' films were fairly lengthy in their own rights (both clocking in at just short of three hours apiece), but the three and a half hour runtime for 'The Return of the King' is quite an undertaking indeed...but, fortunately, this entry flies by amazingly fast (especially compared to the prior two). With over 200 minutes to wrap up the story, it's amazing that some of the more significant plots didn't get resolutions (for those, the extended cut gets the job done). I have been somewhat neutral on my feelings between the two different cuts of this film series, but this final chapter is where I cannot help but proclaim the lengthier cut superior, for one vital reason: Saruman. In this theatrical cut, the lead baddie is written off with a line or two of dialogue, and is somewhat left to rot, it infers. Hardly a resolution for such a feared, powerful villain, and hardly a way to handle a performer the likes of Christopher Lee. At least 'Revenge of the Sith' decapitated him in the opening act, rather than saying he blew up in some space battle left unseen.
With Saruman effectively out of the picture (literally), 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 sage 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 Disc: Vital Stats
Earlier this year, Warner Bros/New Line Cinema released 'The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy,' a nine disc box set (which later got trimmed to six discs) that sparked plenty of controversy, to be sure. The titles were not available individually, only in the hard-case packed trilogy, which did not give the films individual box art.
To the chagrin of many hardcore fans, it was the Theatrical Editions of the films that debuted on Blu-ray, with no release date for the Extended Editions in sight. Now, all three titles that comprise the trilogy of films are available for purchase as standalone releases, with their appropriate, film-specific cover art.
Each 'Lord of the Rings' standalone disc is the same as those found in the box set, even if the numbers on the ring of the disc are now different (much like many of the 'Harry Potter: Years 1-6 discs, despite being the same as their previous releases). The menus are the same, the set up options, the good, and the bad. Each film disc is a BD50 Dual Layer Disc that is Region A/B/C (confirmed on my B locked LG BH100).
There are a few differences between releases of the standalone editions, which are detailed in the supplements section of this review!
Fitting, really, this one is. The film considered the best in the series gets the disc that looks the best. It's not perfect, but it's an improvement over 'The Two Towers,' even if the scoring remains the same, even with the same technical details.
Clothing details are the richest they have been in any of the three 'Lord of the Rings' films, with great depth and clarity (and pop) not found so much in previous films. Facial details are the clearest of any of the films, with actual pores (pores!) visible quite often in faces, while skin tones remain very constant and natural. Colors are bold, artifacts are nary an issue, though noise is problematic off and on. Edge enhancement is still present, though it is the least of any of the films. For all the blacks in this film, shadow detail remained strong and visible, which did impress me.
DNR? Yes, it's still there, no matter how improved the picture looks, there is still the occasional smear and loss of detail. Motion can at times make it obvious, though close ups are often the most affected and notable victims. It became a game, really, watching hair and seeing if it gets smudged and blurred. And then, something occurred to me. Fans of the film can gather 'round this collection and have one hell of a drinking game: whenever someone notices DNR, take a shot. Alcohol poisoning is sure to ensue.
There's no two ways about it, 'The Return of the King' is a damn near pitch perfect sounding release.
What held me back on giving perfect marks to the previous films? An overall lack of true immersion, the feeling that one is watching a movie, rather than being right there with it, experiencing it, living the battles, experiencing the heartbreak and twists and turns. Neither 'The Fellowship of the Ring' or 'The Two Towers' have this important quality, nor do they have the overall consistency in activity that 'The Return of the King' has.
Dialogue remains sharp and clear, and for the most part front and center, but action finds itself spreading around the room like a pissed off army of orcs. Action flies left and right, with dragons swooping through the room, armies crowding one path or another, boulders being launched to and fro, and all these bits of movement through the room are without a hitch or rough spot. They're smooth like a DNR'ed face. As this film finds itself in much closer proximity to Mount Doom (and ever increasing, for that matter), volcanic eruptions and earthquakes become the norm, and as such, bass levels are constantly active. The main siege in the film has incredible bass, also, particularly due to the war-ready elephants clomping through the room (though at one point, their stomps are synchronized, which makes no bloody sense and doesn't match on screen movement whatsoever, but that's one mistake we'll forgive as it's in the sound design, not the fault of this mix). Range? Immense! There are some amazingly high pitched screams that can easily make one cover their ears from their piercing ferocity. Directionality is superb, atmospheres are lively and active when they're supposed to be, and damn if every sound isn't clear, natural, and beautiful. If there is one thing worth praising in this release, which often feels like a boondoggle, this audio track is it.
There is an interesting sidenote to the standalone editions of the 'Lord of the Rings' Blu-rays. There were two versions of the trilogy set, one with digital copies, and one without. The one without came in a slimmer box, with only one case inside, which made them stand out a bit, by comparison.
The standalones have two choices, as well, though this time, one is a store exclusive, and is available immediately. Standard editions will contain the bonus discs from the original DVDs and previous Blu-ray release, which have a small smattering of extras each. Just recycled discs, really. However, the Wal-Mart exclusive releases of the titles replace the extras disc with the widescreen edition DVD releases themselves, and are labeled as "Blu-ray + DVD combo packs" on the front, with a nice looking blue banner across the front and spine, and different artwork on the back art.
Some fans may not like this style of release, but I do personally prefer bonus DVD copies over old as hell supplements DVDs that contain advertisements for titles long out of print already. It helps me gauge the improvement of the title from last generation to now, and it gives me the ability to loan out the film without having to loan out my Blu-ray edition. Win-win. A shame they didn't have exclusive slipcovers. Now that would have made these titles look fantastic!
For those buying the non-Wal-Mart editions, the supplements disc contains:
'The Return of the King' is the best of the three. The best film. The best video presentation. The best audio, a reference track, to be sure. If all three films looked and sounded this good, there would have been far fewer complaints, but that was not meant to be. Still, I'm quite pleased with my copies, as a whole, even if the video is bumbled up, at times inexcusably. As we all wait for the longer editions of the film to arrive, probably to promote the theatrical or home video release of 'The Hobbit,' whenever that may be, this may be the only way to own a high definition copy of one of the most successful trilogies in film history. As if it weren't must own already!