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Peter Jackson is a talent we have seen go from relative unknown to international celebrity and all in the space of three years. He is a man who has made fantasy into reality and a man who is the hottest thing in filmmaking since the golden days of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the last epic in the phenomenally successful trilogy, ends with both style and a personal touch that will never be forgotten.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Movie
Be it Howard Shore’s memorable score, the excellent ensemble acting or the sweeping action scenes, The Lord of the Rings trilogy reeks of timeless quality. Is it a once in a generation event? Absolutely. Peter Jackson and his army of writers, actors, producers, makeup artists, production designers and special effects wizards managed to do what purists claimed to be impossible. Suffice to say Jackson and co. proved everybody wrong, including most long-time readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels.

It all began back in 2001 with the highly anticipated but perturbed release of The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien purists feared the worst, while avid cinemagoers bit their top lips with an almost rabid expectation. New Line’s sneak peak trailers had everyone talking.

December 2001, New Line’s film released to worldwide cinemas to rave reviews and applause from fans. It wasn’t long after that that the Academy Awards bestowed a remarkable thirteen nominations upon Peter Jackson’s shoulders, an Oscar leader for that year. The Fellowship of the Ring went on to earn more than eight hundred million dollars worldwide; it won dozens of major awards and acclaim and found itself labeled as one of the best motion pictures ever filmed. It was only a matter of time after that when people began to feel anxious for the second installment’s December 2002 release.

I think we all know the rest of the story; The Two Towers came upon us a year later with exactly the same reception and success. The very same thing happened just this last year with Return of the King, only with one slight difference; the Oscar sweep. The Return of the King literally did the impossible. It took home the one Oscar nod that no fantasy or science fiction movie in cinema history has been able to claim, the Oscar for Best Picture.  It also became the second film in history to cross the one billion dollar worldwide threshold; something that only James Cameron’s Titanic has been able to achieve so far.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Now here we are, at the end of the journey. All three movies have come and gone and the only thing we have to look forward to now is the release of the DVDs. This double disc set is only the penultimate teaser to the big disc that will hit us this fall. When the Special Extended version arrives, this set may well be cast to the wind, but for what its worth it does contain the original version of this classic film.

For Lord of the Rings newbie’s and those wanting to invest in this DVD, you might well be wondering if you need to have seen the predecessors in order to enjoy this film. I would have to say ‘yes’ to be perfectly honest. Now the trilogy has concluded it’s easy to see that each movie pieces together like a rather large three-part jigsaw. In saying this, however, I know many who enjoyed it to some degree having never seen the previous two movies. Regardless, if you want the fullest satisfaction then I would say it’s advisable to start where it all began and check out the first two.

Return of the King opens where The Two Towers left us hanging; right after the Ents invade Isengard. However, the film doesn’t open on this cue; Jackson takes us all the way back to the beginnings of Sméagol and shows us how Gollum came to be. The opening sets the stage for what comes later on in the film and casts some much needed light on the nature of the pesky once-Hobbit. It even manages to change how you come to look at him in this film as opposed to The Two Towers. Gollum, pretty much like the whole of The Return of the King, is darker and a slight bit more dangerous to behold.

Without giving away any major spoilers or delving too deeply into the story, I have to confess that Return of the King is my personal favourite in the series. I see the first film as a grand adventure of sorts, the second as a cold and relentless war movie and this movie as the ultimate showdown between good and evil. Many wondered and feared whether Return would wind up being similarly themed to the conclusion that Mr. Lucas gave to us with another fantasy trilogy some twenty years ago. After all, when tens of millions of people have suffered stiff backs and aching muscles for twelve hours you expect some kind of spectacular end. Peter Jackson delivered. By the end he tied everything up in a neat bow and sent the story out with what is arguably one of the best finales in cinema history.

Everything in this film shines. The acting in this series has always been stellar, but in The Return of the King one silhouette came into the light; Samwise Gamgee. It is described in the book that “His will was set and only death would break it”. Jackson seems to have held this text very close to his heart while shooting scenes with Sean Astin. We see Frodo slowly becoming more twisted as he falls into darkness and this is where the empathy for Sam strengthens to the point of tears. The final scene at Mt. Doom captures this so perfectly that one cannot help but be overcome with raging emotion during the last act.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Every other talent working under Jackson’s direction also gave career topping performances, none more so than Ian McKellan as the seasoned Gandalf the White. To be frank, everybody here is simply perfect and so well cast that no quibbles can be found anywhere. Looking back at the trilogy, it’s easy to see how important the casting was. Almost every new face that spawned from this series has gone on to gain overwhelming Hollywood identifies (Orlando Bloom being the most necessitated between them) and the older ones have been reprised.

The density and complexity of the special effects throughout this trilogy has always been overwhelming but Weta Digital needed to top themselves for this movie, and they did. The Pelennor Field battle is quite possibly the best CGI orgy ever seen onscreen thanks to a tight control over the action. Unlike George Lucas with his latest Star Wars films, Jackson knows exactly how and when to induce visual chemistry. He somehow manages to balance the pixels from the flesh with an utter craftsmanship not seen onscreen for over a decade. All the visuals have a timeless charm to them, mixing traditional and modern techniques to achieve the most artistic look and feel.

Of course, the visuals wouldn’t look so aesthetic if it wasn’t for cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s imagery. Working very close to Jackson, Lesnie manages to craft photographical art in even the most brutal and fast paced of scenes making this trilogy more precious than one might credit. It’s rare that a big budget movie has cinematography so strong. It is even rarer still when it is recognised at the Oscars, as Lesnie was in 2002. All this leads to yet another achievement, that of the production design. Many locales literally jump right out of the book; Minas Tirith, the Gray Havens and Cirith Ungol to name but a few, all represented with invigorating authenticity.

The most controversial omission from this theatrical edition is naturally the demise of Saruman. Unfortunately, you will have to wait until the Extended Edition arrives to see this scene, but I feel Jackson and his team made the right decision to chop what was unnecessary to the pace of this film. As it is, Return of the King flows from one scene to the other with a near perfect rhythm. As such there are certain logic holes dotted around such as Frodo’s voiceover line to Sam during the very last scene. Not to mention the whereabouts of Gandalf’s staff during the height of the battle (something that will be expanded upon in the Extended Edition). These minor quibbles don’t spoil the momentum but for all you purists out there, the Extended Edition will smooth over the majority of these all the same.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Jackson’s screenplay, co-written by Francis Walsh and Philippa Boyens, courses with near endless perfectionism. The dialogue (some taken directly from Tolkien’s writings) slips the actor’s tongues with such authenticity that one cannot help but be drawn into the folklore. The writers simply captured the story in all its glory. There isn’t too much focus on the action and there is a brilliantly paced amount of character bridging. Following Frodo’s quest to Mt. Doom accompanied by Sam, Jackson fleshes out the demons lurking beneath the surface.

Gollum’s treacherous antics only worsen in this film as tensions mount to exploding point. To see Sam break down in tears at Cirith Ungol was both painful to watch and subtly affecting on an emotional level. It then becomes apparent just how much you care for these small otherworldly creatures more so than as previously seen. The same can be said for Aragorn, Gandalf, Merry and Pippin’s travels. Every scene is endlessly wonderful to watch and to see mature into this breathtaking conclusion. There was so much to cover in this finale, and nothing was left on the cutting room floor. There were no nagging questions, no dangling threads, just pure satisfaction.

It’s a strange way of things but Jackson, unlike many filmmakers who develop long stories, trilogies or shoot back to back features, never lost any creativity over his three year window. He held everything together with a frightening yet polite gesture that has probably never before been matched. He didn’t just merely stroll in and point the camera, he engraved everything you see, hear and feel. This is his movie, a movie he has created for the fans and a work that will probably outlive even the youngest actors who star.

By the film’s end you will have experienced one of cinemas finest. I realized this the moment Frodo looks back at Sam, Merry and Pippin while at the Gray Havens. The smile that fills his face and the wind blowing his hair ever so gently is a timeless moment to cherish. It shows completion, resolution and the truly amazing way everything came full circle. I hope that as time goes by this trilogy ages only as a fine bottle of wine would. I hope that generation after generation of film lovers experience this story and share it with family and friends. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is simply breathtaking; its place in cinema history is well and truly etched into the modern pastime.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Video
Squeezing a three hour, twelve minute film onto one disc must have been a tough job, but to retain a standard-setting transfer at the same time is pure technical magic. Picture wise this transfer is utterly superb in every respect. Presented in a gorgeous 2.35:1 frame every scene drips with endless clarity. It never lets up, never shows signs of failure and always manages to make ones mouth drop.

From the opening scene with its luscious greenery and blue water to the dark and foreboding realms of Mordor, everything here is presented in breathtaking detail. When Jackson’s camera sweeps over the battle at the Pelennor Fields you can account for every Orc in sight, see every particle of dust and every glimmer of a sword in the distance.

The sinister red molten lava at Mt. Doom contrasts so impeccably well with the dark rocks that Frodo and Sam sit on that it looks like moving art at times. Colour definition is simply superb on this transfer. Even the age-old and dusty look the sky has during the Rohirrim is something you have to see to believe. There really isn’t any complaint I could bestow on this image. It simply is perfection and the best a non-digital movie is ever likely to appear.

I really don’t know how New Line and Peter Jackson’s associates at Wingnut can possibly make this movie look any better. Of course come this fall when the Extended Edition arrives it’s inevitable that they will somehow improve upon this image; just as they have done for two years. Of all the DVD sets released in 2004, this is by far the most technically impressive. New Line, take a bow, you’ve earned it. Again.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Audio
With the previous two disc sets being thunderous, you can only imagine how this soundtrack performs. The awesome Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track is something to be reckoned with. Bass can often be ear-splitting, yet nicely subtle and always tightly focused all the same.

Dialogue comes through perfectly clear, it doesn’t sound too soft or too harsh. The best scene for me in the vocal environment was the final sequence at the Gray Havens. You can hear a gently rippling of water, and when spoken dialogue utters, it’s pleasantly comforting.

Directional effects are very strong, especially during the enormous battle scenes. Arrows fly across the screen and through your speakers in the most immersive fashion. Yet even in the quietest of scenes you can hear rustling grass, animals and the soft murmur of people talking. The sound-field is extraordinarily balanced, never sounding too dominant and never wavering. One of the most impressive sounds is naturally Howard Shore’s momentous soundtrack. Whether sonorous or tranquil, every channel erupts with grandeur and accent.

To put it simply, this is a sound experience that has to be heard. The every eruption of sound is magnificently catalogued by the Dolby track; it is clear, loud and exquisite to behold. If ever there was a better example of sound perfection, this is it. Crank up the sub, sit back and enjoy one of the very best Dolby tracks ever mixed.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Extras
Saving the best for Last, New Line has restricted the real quality and presentation for this fall’s extended release. Still, what we do have here is an impressive host of features and excellent animated menu screens to keep us happy for the time being.

The packaging follows the previous two disc releases with the exception of the Oscar printings on the cover art. It’s no obstruction or haphazard move from New Line; after all they have the very right so show off their successes. On the front cover they have placed a small to medium sized silvery banner which states, and I quote “ Winner of 11 Academy Awards, Including Best Picture, 2003”. There’s also the golden Oscar statuette next to this banner.

Personally speaking, I actually think the cover looks quite classy with this new addition. Regarding the actual cover art itself, it’s glorious. It’s my favourite of all the three posters. Some said (when the poster was released) that it was too cluttered. I disagree; it’s a wondrous work of fantasy art that looks marvellous on the front of this DVD case. The DVD also comes boxed with the pullout booklet that details the chapters as well as sporting a few quotes from the media.

The animated menu’s (all accompanied by selections of Howard Shore’s music) are beautifully presented in widescreen format. Just like the previous editions, the menus are slick, easy to navigate and soaked in Tolkien mythology.

The main material on this second disc is really just promotional substance, most of it previously been aired on television prior to the film’s general release. As such, most of the footage is rough-cut and some CGI elements incomplete. Generally speaking, you only really see and learn what the producers wanted you to see and learn before the film came out. In this instance they often feel restrained and mostly lacking in any real quality. You can expect this kind of trait throughout the majority of features on the disc, not least; ‘ The Quest Fulfilled a Directors Vision’, ‘ A Filmmakers Journey Making The Return of The King’ and the ‘ National Geographic Special’.

The many featurettes on the disc (as previously seen at lordoftherings.net) are fairly short and play as lengthy singular trailers. They’re nothing major but still quite fun to watch though to seeing how it was all woven together.

Finally, the actual promotional material on the disc is somewhat spiced this time with the inclusion of the amazing (and long) Lord of the Rings Trilogy Supertrailer. It runs for a good six minutes and breaks footage from all three movies into one huge and elaborate trailer. The editing can sometimes be a bit choppy, but it’s probably the finest promotional feat on the disc and something you will want to watch many times. Finally, there are a series theatrical and television trailers and videogame previews for the Electronic Arts brand.  

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
Overall
The big question is whether you will buy this set or wait it out for the Extended Edition. If you’re a fan then this set is compulsory, it contains the original theatrical version of the film. That alone should win you over, if not, then the host of features should do. While mostly promotional in nature, they still offer you the chance to see the early rough-cut look to the movie and the developing stages they were taking.

The DVD package is without doubt the finest released so far this year. If this is only the barebones release for the Extended Cut, then that alone should send a shudder down your spine. What you get here is a pristine and eye-catching image transfer that is as higher calibre as you could expect. The Dolby EX soundtrack is equally as powerful and impressive.

All in all it isn’t hard to recommend this as an essential purchase. Be it the casual fan or the hardcore collector. It’s a must for all DVD owners and Lord of the Rings fans alike.


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