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THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
Special Extended Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis
Director:  Peter Jackson
Audio:  Dolby Digital EX 5.1, DTS ES 6.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  250 Minutes
Release Date:  December 14, 2004

“My friends…you bow to NO ONE.”

Film ****

About once every ten years, I’ll actually agree with the Academy’s choice for Best Picture of the Year.  The last time was 1993 when my pick was Schindler’s List, so I was about due for Oscar and I to settle on the same choice…which we did, when the PRECIOUSSSS!!!!…er, golden statuette landed at the feet of The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King.

But Best Picture was only the capper on a historic and record setting night for the film.  With a total of 11 wins, it joined Ben-Hur and Titanic as the biggest Oscar winners ever, but even more significant was the fact that it scored 11 wins for 11 nominations, giving ROTK the biggest sweep ever.  It was more than deserved…in fact, I’ve actually grumbled that the movie got shafted a little bit…I believe it could have gone 12 for 12, but surprisingly, though it had far and away the best photography of the year in my opinion, it got no nod for cinematography.

No matter…co-writer, co-producer and director Peter Jackson had crafted a fantasy epic of mind boggling breadth and scope, while never letting the size of his vision dwarf the strength of his characters.  Like in the original J. R. R. Tolkien novels, these films were not meant to be sequels, but rather legitimate continuations of a fully developed story.  The Fellowship of the Ring was great.  The Two Towers was even better.  But with The Return of the King, Jackson and his cast and crew had indeed created one film to rule them all.

Following the adventures of the populace of Middle Earth for three years felt like we had somehow taken part in the epic journey.  We knew these characters like they were old friends.  We shared in their failures and triumphs.  We feared for them, laughed with them, cried with them, and most of all, believed in them.  As a towering final chapter, ROTK did not disappoint.  It brought together all the story threads into one perfect resolution.  As a stand alone film, it’s marvelous entertainment.  But looking back over the development of the full Lord of the Rings story, it becomes brilliant almost beyond description.

Which has led some of the stuffier critics to complain that the movie’s Oscar night stampede was unfair, claiming the Academy was really awarding the entire franchise instead of just the final film.  I confess, it is hard not to reach the end of ROTK and not think back on the full story…after all, if this movie didn’t inspire us to bring the entire experience together in our minds, I think it would have failed a bit as a final installment.  But then, ROTK achieved so much in terms of spectacle, drama, development and resolution just within its own running time that it’s just about impossible to argue that this movie alone didn’t deserve the recognition it got.

I realize I’ve written five paragraphs so far and haven’t touched on the story…but oddly enough, I don’t feel compelled to.  Fans who loved and embraced the first two films won’t need a plot description to steer them in the direction of this one.  Those who haven’t experienced the trilogy up to now should really go back and catch up with New Line’s terrific 4 disc collector’s sets for each.

So I’ll avoid the usual rehashing of who did what, who fought whom, and who lived happily ever after.  I’ll instead conclude as I began:  this is indeed far and away the best film of 2003.  ROTK will stand for a long time as a milestone of how far motion pictures have come.  I do believe that someday there will be a film that will surpass this one in terms of epic storytelling, unbridled imagination, amazing technical advancement and rich, rewarding characters.  But I also believe it won’t happen for a long, long, LONG time.  If I live long enough to see such a film, I’ll consider myself blessed indeed.

Video ****

New Line almost always equals quality, and once again, they’ve delivered a superior anamorphic presentation of a Lord of the Rings movie.  This picture is filled from top to bottom and corner to corner with rich, vivid detail and color, and nothing gets lost in the mix.  Even the many darker sequences render with maximum integrity and clarity.  The brighter scenes are absolutely gorgeous.  Reference quality all the way.

Audio ****

The original 5.1 EX Dolby Digital mix was superb; the new DTS ES mix surpasses it.  The Oscar winning sound will engross and envelop you from start to finish, with massive dynamic range coming from the battle scenes, clear dialogue, and beautiful music by Howard Shore.   

Features ****

These four disc sets from New Line continue to impress beyond belief, packaging just about everything a Rings fan could want into a handsome, classic looking case.

The first two discs, in addition to the new extended-by-50-minutes version of the movie, contain four commentary tracks:  one with Peter Jackson and his writers, one with the cast, one with the production team and one with the design team.  Subtitles appear above the screen for each track so you'll know who's speaking.  Interestingly enough, on the cast track, not only does actor Andy Serkis speak as himself, but he occasionally chimes in as Gollum and Smeagol!

Disc 3 has SIX original documentaries on adapting the book, designing Middle Earth, the Weta Workshop, costume design, Tolkien himself, and the horse work of the movie, plus two interactive maps and extensive art galleries with some  optional audio commentaries by the artists.

Not to be outdone, Disc 4 has SEVEN documentaries on the filming of the movie, covering the visual effects, editing, music and sound, and the cast's fond farewell to their epic filmmaking journey through Middle Earth, plus a production photo gallery.  Most striking is a piece on the extraordinary young man Cameron Duncan, who became the inspiration for the Oscar winning song "Into the West".

Topping off are some animated menus with sound, that feature original production sketches, and an Easter egg that's in the same place as the ones on the previous extended edition discs.  All in all, a terrific package very worthy of last year's most honored movie!

Summary:

In conclusion, the best I can say is that I’m sad to see it end.  The holiday movie season seems kind of empty without another installment of these movies to look forward to.  The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King is a movie going experience so unique and so enthralling that it’s worth it to break your normal rule (if you have it) about not buying a second edition of a title after already buying a first one.  We may never see another 11 for 11 Oscar night sweep again, but we’ll probably never see a more deserving picture than this, either.

Hey...how about Lord of the Rings IV:  A Hard Hobbit to Break?  No?  Oh, well...

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