The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was an exercise in how to do justice to a fan-worshipped series of books. It was more than anybody could have ever really expected or hoped for providing us with an ass-numbing 3+ hours per movie in the cinemas, and then taking the term 'extended cut' to the next level, with the longer home cinema editions pushing the trilogy up to the brink of the 12 hour mark in total. All of this for less than what it cost to make Avatar.
It was far from quantity over quality as well, each epic entry masterfully crafted to practically transport you to the fantastical world of Middle Earth, with a multitude of diverse characters to guide you on your journey, as well as some amazing fights, and breathtaking battle sequences. Wizards and warriors, armies of orcs, 15ft cave trolls, for its time - and even now - Lord of the Rings is probably one of the most expansive fantasy universes ever created for audiences.
Even the initially sceptical were probably persuaded by the overwhelming steam-roller effect of this production, the movies exponentially gaining popularity over the years that they were released. The trilogy must have made a phenomenal amount over money over the last decade, and even if fans get quite a lot for their money, they also have to fork out more than they may have realised over the years. Between the initial cinema trips and eventual extended editions, the Studios really milked this one. Still, at the end of it all, you would have had a beast of a 12-disc box set, which nobody would have ever expected to be capable of being superseded.
Then came Blu-ray. After the success of DVD double-dipping, it was no wonder that many Studios went straight for the jugular when introducing us to the new format, giving us lots of titles in spanking new 1080p, but totally devoid of extras. Sure, they were an upgrade, but only in terms of picture and video, most of them did include the extras already available on DVD, leaving the way open for a new, super, deluxe, ultimate, limited edition later down the line. Fortunately this did not happen across the board, and as the format matured, we found previously unreleased 'popular classic' titles finally getting the treatment they deserved straight out of the box. The Sapphire Series (including Braveheart, Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan) was an example of giving us the best without resorting to double-dipping (technical issues aside) and, of course, the Criterion Collection is still the go-to point for showing movies the respect they deserve. It's only right, of course, since anybody who has a halfway decent Blu-ray collection has probably spent the last decade doing exactly the same for DVD, so, whilst you may not be Blu-ray double-dipping by buying Gladiator for the first time, you would more than likely have picked up the DVD edition before - so they still managed to sting you twice in the end.
Most of us tolerate this, which actually has a self-perpetuating result. Honestly, it's our fault studios do this, because if we didn't buy vanilla releases, the studios wouldn't bother releasing them. Unfortunately, there is also the fear that if we don't buy said titles in the first place, the studios may never release a better version later down the line, so it is something of a conundrum. Personally, I don't mind the occasional double-dip. For your favourite movies, you really are going to splash out to get that best edition, the one with the longer cut, or the deleted scenes, or the Commentary that you may not ever even listen to. It's just what fans do. But the Studios can go too far at milking that damn cow, and The Lord of the Rings is just about the worst example of it. Avatar, I hear you all cry out. Well, yes, Avatar is bad - but it's your own damn faults. You know that the 4-disc edition is coming in November, so you could easily wait. Choosing not to is just a matter of impatience (even if the film does make for a blasting demo disc).
Lord of the Rings is worse because, not only have we had it all before on DVD (including extended editions) but we have no idea when the superior box-set is going to be released on Blu-ray. So fans, who probably haven't touched the theatrical cut versions of the movies ever since they picked up the longer cuts, will have to settle for downgrading to these shorter variations if they want to taste Middle Earth in glorious 1080p before they grow old. It just doesn't make any sense. The theatrical cuts surely became pretty redundant as soon as the Extended Editions came out, and would have only served any kind of purpose if included (like for the Alien box set) in the collection for completeness. Honestly, this is a real slap to the face, and I almost wish that Blu-ray buyers would take a stand and not buy these lesser editions, in the hopes that the Studios stop mistreating audiences.
Some say that it's better than nothing, but it probably isn't. It would probably be better if fans engaged themselves with all the quality editions of movies that are out there and waited another year or two until they could spend their hard-earned cash on a decent version of this trilogy. It's going to happen with Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the impending Alien box-set, so why not with the Lord of the Rings?
I'm not sure of the likelihood that you would have got through the last decade of the Lord of the Rings furore without knowing anything about the films. And if, somehow, you have, I'm not sure that you will ever get started with them. But if you've made it this far without them, and have somehow picked up a Blu-ray player and want to get started with them, then this isn't your only choice. You would be best advised to spend less than half the cost of the Blu-ray box-set and pick up a cheap copy of the Extended DVDs. They are better movies. So the only people left reading should really be those who have seen all the variations, bought some of them, and now want to experience 1080p Lord of the Rings no matter what cut version they are getting.
With all that in mind, my summary of the movies is going to encompass just the bare necessities. It all starts with The Fellowship of the Ring, which introduces you to a bunch of characters - good and evil - who will, for the most part, stay with you on your journey right through until the end. The focus is on a bunch of rings, that were given to the various tribes of the world to help them rule, and a master ring that was forged by a Dark Lord named Sauron, who wanted to be 'Lord of the Rings'. Somehow, thousands of years after Sauron was defeated, the ring was discovered by a harmless wandering Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (the central character in the upcoming 'The Hobbit' movies - based on the book - that Peter Jackson has taken an eternity to make) and passed onto his nephew Frodo. We follow Frodo's exploits as he initially tries to protect the Ring from the dark forces that seek to possess it. Eventually, the Fellowship is formed, which includes the brave and mysyerious man Aragorn, the archer elf Legolas and the feisty, axe-wielding dwarf Gimli.
Along the way, the Fellowship is divided and they each go on their separate missions, going through their own individual story arcs. Two Towers sees Frodo and his best friend Sam on their quest to destroy the Ring, (knowing that it is the only way to destroy its maker, Sauron), now accompanied by the Ring's previous owner, the mischievous, tortured Gollum. Meanwhile we witness the fall and rise of the Kingdom of Rohan, and the three warriors, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, go on to stave off 10,000 Uruk-hai (super-orcs) at the monumental battle of Helm's Deep. All the while, the wise wizard Gandalf, who has been helping them throughout, has to contend with Sauron's most powerful lieutenant, the dark wizard Saruman. Return of the King concludes things by seeing Aragon, now revealed to be the long heir to the throne, return to be the King. It sees the uniting of the free peoples of Middle-Earth for one last battle, where they eventually come together to fight to the bitter end as the last step is taken to destroy the Ring once and for all.
The noteworthy highlights will always be the battle sequences, which were increasingly epic across the movies, with Fellowship of the Ring memorably showing us for the first time Aragorn's abilities as a warrior, and Balin's Tomb giving us that towering Cave Troll and some series Fellowship teamwork. Although it kicked off at the end of Fellowship, the tremendous confrontation between Gandalf and the demon Balrog really hit it stride in Two Towers, with the aforementioned Battle of Helm's Deep (remember those insane ladders that were propped up as the siege progressed?) providing the epic confrontation at the end. Return of the King took things to another level yet again, with the epic riding of the Rohan's cavalry to the rescue of Gondor just one highlight in the many 'against all odds' moments that this monumental conclusion gave us. Best Director and Best Picture-winning, it was a thoroughly fitting conclusion to the trilogy.
That's not to say that the movies were without fault. Fellowship was easily the weakest and least polished of the three, but this was largely forgiven due to it very much being an introduction to the characters, and a heady taste of what was to come. Two Towers provided more action (arguably Helm's deep is the most memorable battle sequence across the trilogy, even if it is not the largest) but suffered marginally from basically having nobody in real peril. Sure, there were threats, but you knew everybody would be ok in the end, often with the cavalry riding in to the rescue (a situation replicated a stupid number of times during the third act of Return of the King) leaving the film feeling very much like just a stepping stone to the final instalment rather than a solid 'Empire Strikes Back' entry. I never much liked what they did with the inadequate tree-creatures (Ents), the CG failing miserably and their size and actions varying inexplicably, and that became something of a silly point in the movies.
And Saruman's random disappearance from the trilogy was also massively annoying on the Big Screen, as you had to wait for the extended cuts to find out exactly what happened to this, the best of the villains (one of the many problems which now plagues this theatrical cut Blu-ray release, as he just does not make an appearance in Return of the King). Most of the family-fun goofing done by the Hobbits also irritated me, (Mary - how you pronounce it - and Pippin acting as the bumbling droids of the trilogy) although this does not get significantly intrusive until after a few hours have elapsed. The Rings' answer to Harry Potter himself, the child-like Elijah Wood (who made for a disturbingly convincing cannibal serial killer in Sin City) simply frustrates as Frodo, whose own exploits seem utterly random when you consider the epic battles going on just down the road from him. And don't even get me started on Orlando Bloom's one-note Legolas, the androgynous elf who perpetually gazes into the distance.
But there is just so much to love about it all that you will likely forgive any shortcomings. Any facets that you might have personally wanted changed/omitted are simply pale in comparison to the thespian powerhouse wizardry of Ian McKellen's Gandalf versus Christopher Lee's dark Saruman (Lee, at the peak of the twilight of his career, with this and his performance as Count Dooku in the Star Wars trilogy giving us two of his most memorably villains), and the macho heroics of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn (a performance that massively reinvigorated his previously dying career), whose romance with Liv Tyler's picture-perfect Elf Princess Arwen is timelessly captured. Andy Serkis' motion-controlled CG-gollum (surely, from an effects point-of-view, a direct precursor to the Na'vi in Avatar?) is given the most harrowing, pitiful story arc, as only Serkis could accomplish. And who can forget Sean Bean's courageous exit in the first movie?
Tremendously powerful, magically enthralling, utterly compelling and totally exhilarating, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is arguably the best trilogy ever conceived (a lesson for Lucas should he bring any more Star Wars films to the Big Screen) and also arguably the best cinematic interpretation of a series of books (topping Harry Potter for consistency, although personally I can't stand the geeky child wizard, even if the world he inhabits is mildly engaging). It really is a collection that is worth your time and money, and is worth getting into, having an unimaginable amount of rewatch value and creating a whole new fantasy world (and a much deeper one than in Avatar) for you to get lost in. This edition, however, is certainly not the definitive one to pick up, it's just a shame that it is probably all that fans will be able to console themselves with for the next year or two. An amazing trilogy not done justice by its debut Blu-ray release.
(It should be noted that I am scoring the Theatrical Cuts here, and not the Extended Editions, which would have received a higher overall average)