Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Extended Edition)

The extended editions of both the Two Towers and Fellowship of the Ring have firmly replaced the much shorter, theatrically released versions of both films as the definitive way to view the first two Lord of the Rings movies. With crucial moments like the demise of Saruman and the Mouth of Sauron rightfully returned to Return of the King for its extended edition, measuring up to the previous EE’s would seem to be a slam dunk. It isn’t… not exactly. Already the longest of the three films in its theatrical release, Return of the King is also the most awarded of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rightfully so. It is the culmination of the most massive, lovingly constructed, movie masterpiece of all time. Collectively, the three Lord of the Rings films without a doubt represent not only the best of their genre, but perhaps the best filmmaking of all time. In fact, with the last movie in its final, extended incarnation seen, I’m finally going to come right out and say it: Lord of the Rings is the best movie ever made. Much like the book, it really is one film. One film that happens to have been split up into three parts. Each part is a perfect work of art. When the pieces are fit together you have an unequalled cinematic experience. Star Wars, Godfather, Citizen Kane, take a seat. Peter Jackson’s epic opus is the new king.

The theatrical version of Return of the King won the Oscar as 2003’s best film and was of course, my favorite movie of the year. The extended edition takes that celebrated theatrical release and adds in a full 50 more minutes of footage, most of which was removed due to time constraints, or narrative reasons. The amount of new material is massive in an already massive movie. With the new footage, Return of the King now adds up to a sum total of 250 minutes of run time. We’re talking about a movie approaching four and a half hours at this point. Therein lies the problem.

The Return of the King Extended Edition is quite simply too long. I’m not just talking about the gradual numbing of my ass either. There’s so much material in here now and so much happening all at once in one single sitting, that the film is an incredibly daunting undertaking. The previous extended editions already pushed the boundaries of reason when it came to lengthiness, but the ROTK: EE smashes through them into a realm of extreme over-stimulation. By hour three I was in sore need of a break, though the film provides no clear opportunity to engage in one. Even when flipping between discs (since the EE is too large to fit on only one DVD), it seemed like a bad time to stop and pick up again with it tomorrow, leaving Frodo and Sam stranded and Aragorn yet to complete grappling with the subservient undead. I was compelled to keep going by Jackson’s gripping narrative, as much as I was beaten down by the increasing need to get up, open the windows and take some sort of extended break. There’s too much here to watch all in one sitting, yet it is impossible to watch the Return of the King Extended Edition in any other way. For me, this lessoned my not only my enjoyment, but the emotional impact of it, no matter how wonderful the new footage returned to the film is.

The additions are wonderful by the way. Of particular note is the renewed presence of Saruman (Christopher Lee), who got the short shrift in the theatrical, getting not even so much as a cameo. The theatrical left us hanging as to the fate of the traitor wizard, while the EE answers that question with a sequence that is an agreeable compromise between Tolkien’s original writing and Peter Jackson’s always pressing need to condense various events in his story. Lee is as always gripping, and the dynamic between he, Gandalf, and Theoden is a real capper not only on Saruman’s story, but as an important step in Theoden’s path to redemption as well. It’s my favorite new addition and the only one I wouldn’t sacrifice in the interests of saving time. It shouldn’t be an EE addition; it should have been in the theatrically released film.

Other additions cover things like an allusion to romance between Faramir and Eowyn, an explanation of where Aragorn got those cool ships he arrives in with the Dead and time spent at the Black Gates with Sauron’s spokesman, conveniently dubbed as his “Mouth”. The size of his mouth, in a wonderfully subtle and creepy effect, fits his name. Missing is any real further development into the character of Denethor, who remains every bit the crazed lunatic he was in the film’s first version. Tolkien’s novels attempt to explain his mental decay, and portray him more as a tragic figure caught up in forces beyond his control. I had hoped the Extended Edition of the film might delve into that, but nowhere in the 50 minutes added is this addressed.

The Return of the King Extended Edition does a great job of filling in a few oddities from the original film. You don’t have to wonder now where Aragorn got those boats or how the Palantir just happened to be lying in the water at Pippin’s feet. It also clears up the mystery of Saruman on the spiked wheel that’s been plaguing LOTR fans for well over three years now. The new footage is great, and all perfectly integrated. Howard Shore has even added new score to move it along and make this Extended Edition every bit as seamless as the previous two. In that sense it is a success, but I don’t know if I’ll end up regarding this as the definitive version of this film the way I have the other two Extended Editions. The length is extremely prohibitive, and on future viewings of the movie I’m more likely to pop in the much more friendly theatrical version of Jackson’s masterwork. Rather than turn out as the definitive version, the ROTK: EE is more of a morbidly long, yet delightfully fun, fan curiosity, and is probably best viewed from that perspective. The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions continue to set the standard as the pinnacle of DVD releases. The previous two remain unmatched in the DVD industry, and this third is every bit their equal. It’s not just extras, though the quantity and quality of extras on these DVDs is absolutely unmatched. It’s love for the project, love for the material, and a love of what these people are doing that works its way into the presentation. This isn’t a static presentation of extra factoids and geeky knowledge, this extended edition, as much if not even more than the others, is a labor of absolute love for Lord of the Rings.

The first two discs contain the movie. When you run out of movie on disc one, you simply pop in disc two and it starts when you’re ready. These discs also contain the commentary tracks, and boy are there a lot of them... which perhaps in part explains why there’s no way the movie could fit on one disc. They’re conveniently categorized… and because the movie is long, they are also EXTREMELY long. They also tend to be a bit repetitious, at least if you watch the discs other extra features first (which you should).

The first commentary option is a Director and Writers commentary with Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and the rarely seen, elusive and wonderful Fran Walsh. They talk in detail about the filming process… and what’s really interesting is that Fran and Phillipa were a lot more than just writers on the film, though that’s all their credited with. Fran even directed a few scenes, most notably the opening shot of Return of the King in which we flashback to the time when Smeagol first found the One Ring.

The second and third commentary options are tracks with the Design and the Production/Post-Production teams. . This one is a bit daunting. It’s a huge group of people contributing to the commentary, and they aren’t all necessarily in the same room doing it. They each contribute different comments, it sounds like it was carefully edited to have each chiming in at the proper time. Absolutely necessary with so many on the track. It’s worth a listen though, if only to hear more greatness from Alan Lee and John Howe, but not nearly as light, humorous, and accessible as the other tracks. This one is all about the details.

The fourth commentary option is of course the Cast track. Yeah, it’s nearly the entire cast so like the second and third tracks it’s loaded with people. But they break them up into groups nicely, with different members of the cast commenting on different parts of the movie in groups. It’s not as detailed as the other tracks, but it is the easiest to listen to and also the most fun. Filled with anecdotes, gentle jabs from the actors, and even a Gollum cameo or two, it’s as it has been on the other two DVDs, a treat. If it wasn’t so long it’d be the one commentary track you don’t even have to be a mega-fan to listen to, but because of the length, unless you’re a raging LOTR nerd like me you’ll probably want to break it up a bit.

That may sound like a lot of content, but that’s only the first two discs, both of which are devoted mainly to just watching the extended version of the movie. The last two discs are the Return of the King Appendices. When I think of an Appendix I think of an extensively boring volume of information tacked on at the end of a book. I think of something that I’ll probably never read, unless I’m stuck on the toilet and don’t have a magazine handy. That’s not what this is.

These Appendices represent parts five and six of a set of Appendices started with the Fellowship of the Ring release, and they are the meat of that labor of love I was talking about earlier. For each movie, each set of Appendices has had its own distinct tone. The Fellowship Appendix serving as a hearty introduction to both the movies and the world of Tolkien, the Two Towers focusing more on the film itself and what it’s like to be in the midst of making such a huge endeavor. Thus it is appropriate that the Return of the King Appendices serve as an extended goodbye, a wrap-up of not just this film but the Trilogy. As a result, in addition to info on the film itself, you’ll find footage of cast wrap parties, on set goodbye speeches, and red carpet celebrations of the Lord of the Ring’s success.

Otherwise, if you’ve watched the other two extended editions (And if you haven’t why are you reading this? Get out and buy them!) you have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. Of the making of features included, the most touching for me was “Home of the Horse Lords” a documentary dedicated exclusively to the hundreds of horses used during the making of The Lord of the Rings and the relationships developed with their riders. The thing almost had me in tears, eve when I watched it a second time.

The biggest anomaly in the Return of the King Appendices is a section dedicated to someone named “Cameron Duncan”, tacked on at the end of disc four. It has nothing to do with Lord of the Rings per say, instead it’s a tribute dedicated to a talented young New Zealand filmmaker taken by cancer before his time. In addition to a few words from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh about him, they’ve included footage of his visits to the set, as well as the two film shorts he completed before his death. At least they didn’t ask me for any money. No “donate to the Cameron Duncan fund”. Watch it guilt free.

With 250 minutes of movie footage and over three hours of appendix material (each introduced by a key member of the Lord of the Rings cast and crew), the Return of the King Extended Edition) is by far the most expansive and complete DVD set in what is already a watermark for quality DVD releases. Other Home Entertainment purveyors are rushing to come up, and you may have already noticed other films trying to copy what Peter Jackson has done with the Lord of the Rings DVDs. What the copycats are missing is the sheer amount of passion thrown in to these releases. No one can duplicate that.