As the third movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King had a lot going for it. It was the film where the Academy finally caught on to the breadth of the project, giving everyone involved with the production the notice that comes with eleven Oscars. I think for many people—including director Peter Jackson himself—The Return of the King is the favorite film in the trilogy. I’m not quite on the same page. While I appreciate The Return of the King for its magnificent vision and scope, I kind of wish Jackson had found a way to cut down on the time a little bit.
The Return of the King is extremely long. Not quite Lawrence of Arabia or Gone with the Wind long in its theatrical form, but the extended edition is a different story. The theatrical film clocks in at right around 200 minutes and the extended version is even longer, taking up four hours and 24 minutes of the audience’s day. It’s arduous, and just when you think you’ve gotten through the whole movie, there are multiple scenes that all feel like the end of the film, but are just lead-ins to the actual end.
Complaints aside, The Return of the King was achieved through a lot of hard work and determination. Elements from The Two Towers story and even from filming the second movie were intermixed into the third story beautifully, and with plenty of care. It’s not just the weight of the story that impresses, but the CGI and picture look fantastic, as well, supplemented in this set by the transfer to Blu-ray. On the big screen, when Legolas (Orlando Bloom) took down a furious killer elephant all by his lonesome, the moment was grandiose, and with the Blu-ray picture, the clarity of the scene still makes it seem epic on a much smaller screen.
The Return of the King is the end of the journey for Frodo (Elijah Wood) and company, and in many ways it’s a bittersweet end. Many a journey has been had in film, and when that journey is accomplished, it leaves our heroes with very little to do. Despite having too many endings (in my opinion), The Return of the King never leaves our heroes hanging, and in doing so, it never leaves its audience wanting more. It’s nearly impossible to take a book series as intricate as Tolkien’s and bring a film to fruition, but Jackson does the best he can with The Lord of the Rings series, and the trilogy stands on its own, while nodding constantly to the great literary work that preceded it.
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The picture in the Return of the King has always looked pretty good, but if you haven’t had a chance to watch the extended edition of the film or catch it on Blu-ray, you should probably do so, now. If you’ve already shelled out for the extended edition in the past, however, it may not be worth it to throw out so much money to simply trade up. The menu page is streamlined, and the remastered audio, in particular, sounds far better than I remember. There’s even a BD Live connection, but there aren’t a ton of brand new extras to justify purchasing the set all over again—unless you are a freak for picture or sound.
The extras on the disc, like the movie itself, are just a bit more extensive than the other Blu-ray Extended Edition 5-Disc singles in the trilogy. When compared to The Two Towers Blu-ray, the commentaries seem a little more detailed, there are a few extra documentaries, there are over 500 extra gallery images, and there are more extra-long looks at the premieres and filming.
Disc 3 features a bunch of segments exploring the making of the film. A “From Book To Script” section has two segments, “Forging the Final Chapter” and an abandoned concept. The segment about creating the script actually talks about how it was easy to transfer some of the lengthy and epic material from The Two Towers and put it into the Return of the King, while still maintaining the integrity of the Middle-earth timeline as a whole.
Next on the disc, “Home of the Horse Lords” discusses the numerous horses onscreen and how the horse work was achieved. While it’s cool the prestigious horses worked via voice commands, this segment is one of the less exciting in the set. Rounding out the disc is an interactive atlas with multiple paths (fun to trace, but kind of finicky) and spotlights on the areas where different scenes were filmed in New Zealand to produce the look of Middle-earth.
Disc 4 is the big one in the Return of the King set. It features seven documentaries, and each is more emotional than the last. This is the big farewell to The Lord of the Rings series. On the other Extended Edition film bonus features, everyone involved in the film is still looking forward to the upcoming work that must be done. This time around, the commentaries are more relaxed and the documentaries are retrospective, and occasionally a little emotional. On Disc 4, a lot of the segments have names like “The Passing of an Age,” or “Post Production: Journey’s End.” They probably won’t make you tear up, but 9 years after the final film hit theaters, they will probably still make you feel as if you are at the end of an era.
Disc 4 features some of the best moments from the post-production of the last film, including Jackson cornering New Line Cinema to force them to do the world premiere of the film in Wellington, New Zealand. Fun facts from some of these segments include there were almost 2 million feet of film shot for this movie and Jackson never saw the final cut of The Return of the King before the world premiere. To make things even more surreal, awards season came right after the premieres, and fantasy got a unique nod for the first time.
If fans felt like The Lord of the Rings was an epic journey, those involved with the production were invested even more deeply. Countless relationships were jeopardized, people were tired, and work was never-ending, but everyone on set became very close and it is clear filming the trilogy was the experience of a lifetime. If you have the time to get through the set, even if you are a casual fan, it’s well worth it. I’ve never felt so close to a film, or so invested in its production prior to this set, and I doubt I will again…at least until The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey gets a Blu-ray release.