Saturday, November 6, 2010

Epic Redux Vol. 3 - The Return Of The King Reworks Perfection In Its Extended Edition!

The Good: Great acting, directing, characters, plot, special effects, Wonderful DVD bonus features, Truly a Best Picture!
The Bad: One additional scene is shaky.
The Basics: Fleshed out to be an even more complete and truly epic film, the extended edition of The Return Of The King is the only one worth owning!

Coming in to the home stretch of the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, director Peter Jackson had to be feeling pretty wonderful. The extended editions of both The Fellowship Of The Ring (click here for that review!) and The Two Towers (click here for that review!) had revolutionized the way that films could be made and marketed and sold the American public on the idea of knowingly releasing a superior DVD version of a film than the theatrical release. In the case of the final installment, The Return Of The King, this seemed like it might be the greatest challenge of Peter Jackson's career. And yet, with the release of the four-disc collection The Return Of The King - The Special Extended Edition on DVD, Jackson proves he is up to the challenge wonderfully!

Because of the way he had arranged the previous installment in the cinematic trilogy, co-writer and director Peter Jackson had a lot of ground to make up to finish off the volumes written by J.R.R. Tolkien (the novel of The Return Of The King is reviewed here!). As a result, Jackson takes certain liberties, like only have four or five endings as opposed to the ten or more endings the book has. With the Special Extended Edition DVD of this Best Picture winner, Jackson takes his 201 minute masterpiece and restructures it into a 251 minute juggernaut that fleshes out the conclusion to the trilogy in a way that leaves the viewer with a very definite sense of Middle Earth and its history.

Following a brief extension of the story of how the riverfolk came to find the lost, fabled One Ring of Sauron and how it twisted the kindly Smeagol into the wretched Gollum, Frodo and Sam awaken on the ruined fields leading into the blasted realm of Mordor on their quest to destroy the One Ring. Guided by Gollum, the pair is plagued by the weight of the Ring and the hopelessness it evokes. Gollum, sensing his opportunity, drives a wedge between the two hobbits and leads Frodo toward a trap that may well kill him and destroy Middle Earth.

As Frodo and Sam journey closer to the heart of evil, Aragorn and Gandalf work to muster the forces of men to keep the forces of Sauron occupied and diverted from finding the hobbits. With Sauron's armies besieging the last true outpost of men - Gondor and its citadel of Minas Tirith - Gandalf and Merry ride to aid the city while Theodin calls upon all of Rohan (except the women) to fight Sauron's forces. And Aragorn, accompanied by Legolas and Gimli, rides to fulfill his destiny and calls upon the last hidden allies on Middle Earth that might change the tide of the war.

Like its predecessors in the extended cuts, The Return Of The King - The Special Extended Edition DVD has numerous scenes that were created special for the DVD release or were reintegrated into the film. These scenes tend to add a much richer sense of setting for the film and include a scene that finally ties up the Saruman story arc with the wizard actually featured! Notably absent from the theatrical release, the resolution to the story of Saruman and the Ent's taking control of Isengard is much more satisfying than the originally shown resolution to that story thread, even if it does mean yet another character in the film plummets to their death (this movie has quite a lot of people falling!). Similarly, near the battle climax of the film, there is a wonderful added scene involving the disgusting Mouth Of Sauron, who seeks to dishearten the heroes of Middle Earth. This adds some menace - despite the speed with which it is dispatched - by implying that Sauron is much closer to achieving a corporeal form to embody evil than ever before. This raises the stakes of the film well.

As well, the film plays on scenes that were extended in the previous films by revisiting the gifts from Galadriel, fleshing out the relationship between Boromir, Faramir and Denethor, and playing more on the strengths and weaknesses of Theodin. So, for example, while in the theatrical release of The Return Of The King there is a somewhat senseless resistance on the part of Theodin to commit troops to protecting Gondor, here Saruman's goading and insights into his weaknesses make that somewhat more believable.

All told, there are fourteen additional scenes reintegrated into The Return Of The King and twenty-three other scenes have additional footage returned to them. Fans of the original version who might have objected to the length of the release will be heartened to know that after a certain point, there is no additional footage and the end parts are not lengthened. This actually makes the end sequences seem less cumbersome than in the original cut. Unlike some form of prototype or test screening, the extended cut features fully mastered shots integrated seamlessly into the film. The addition of new material is so precise that it could easily go unnoticed because of the scope of the film and is so professionally done that it includes an entirely redone soundtrack to adapt the score to the longer scenes. The integration is brilliant and makes for a far more complete film!

In fact, there is only one - very minor - bit of extended footage that I did not enjoy and that is a whole mess of skulls collapsing the chambers of the dead when Aragorn and his team are on their mission. The sequence seemed silly and somewhat overdone, but in the scope of the entire film, those thirty seconds are not enough to make me think it is less than a perfect cinematic endeavor.

The Extended Edition cut of The Return Of The King becomes THE version to recommend because it is a rich, complex film that is not afraid to take its time in developing a nuanced setting and additional character depth.

Of course, the characters ought to be the centerpiece for the film and this episode succeeds with both developing the established characters and establishing new characters who are worthy of attention. The noteworthy characters of The Return Of The King are:

Frodo Baggins - A hobbit charged with saving the world by destroying the powerful One Ring of Sauron. He is even more exhausted by the power of the Ring, which has begun to drain him and even limit his movement and ability to reason. Manipulated by Gollum, his mind becomes troubled and somewhat addled, threatening his ability to complete his mission,

Gollum - Formerly a riverfolk, now a twisted minion of evil who suffers from a split personality disorder, his generous nature is once again dominated by the power of the One Ring and his nastier nature. Conniving and deft, Gollum manipulates Frodo and encourages the hobbit to push Sam away so he may lead Frodo to his death, all for his own desire for the Ring,

Denethor - Steward of Gondor, griefstricken by the loss of his son Boromir to the point of impotent madness. With the arrival of Gandalf and Pippin, shortly before the armies of Sauron, he is content to allow Men to fall as a result of his overwhelming sense of loss. It is with little sense that he guides his people, forcing Gandalf to consider deposing him,

Aragorn - A man whose destiny is to overcome the limitations of his lineage and restore nobility to the race of Men. When Elrond gives him the means to achieve victory, Aragorn makes the decision to call in all oaths made to him and his people to attempt to turn the tides of battle to give Frodo and Sam the only real chance of completing their mission. It is in preparing to confront Sauron and his forces directly that Aragorn finally becomes the king he was meant to be,

Sam - Frodo's hobbit companion, it is his strength that may well keep Frodo alive and here he becomes more than he thought he could be,

The Witch-King - The leader of the Ringwraiths, it is one of the main forces of Sauron leading the assault on Minas Tirith. It is the power of this warlord that threatens all, including Gandalf,

Eowyn - Theodin's niece, she objects to being treated as less than a man. Sneaking into the Rohan army with Merry, she vows to protect her people by fighting as she sees fit, with sword and shield. She becomes an unlikely hero, battling both for her people and her uncle's love,

and Sauron - Appearing as the ethereal Eye and Voice and the more corporeal Mouth, his essence is tied to the One Ring and as it moves deeper toward its source, the form of evil seems to gain in strength.

The Return Of The King is populated by wonderful characters and the performances of the actors - even those of the lesser-featured characters - was enough to launch the careers of many. The actors are pretty exceptional and while most of them deserve mentioning, the bulk of the film falls upon the shoulders of two actors to carry: Viggo Mortensen and Elijah Wood. While John Noble's portrayal of Denethor is impressive with his ability to evoke the broken man, this seems far more the functioning of great casting. He's legitimately wonderful - and having met him at conventions, his acting truly is great acting - but his performance does not make the movie.

Viggo Mortensen, on the other hand, truly excels in The Return Of The King! Here the actor dominates every scene he is in and achieves a level of bearing he has not shown the viewer before now. He is kingly. Mortensen is confident and plays Aragorn with a resolve that is steely and precise. But it's easy to see his greatness and ability here as his character is given far more to do this time around than in the previous films and the Extended Edition truly expands his journey into becoming a real king.. As well, Mortensen balances his performance with a deep humanity and compassion.

Also giving a great performance is Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. Frodo is a reluctant hero, like a kid who would rather sit home and goof off with his friends when he suddenly discovers he has a destiny, and here Wood brings a sense of physical exhaustion to the role that instantly gives the viewer the sense that his character is transforming as we watch. As well, he is playing off actor Andy Serkis (Gollum) through most of the film, yet we never have the sense that Wood is seeing anything but the digital recreation the viewer sees. That takes talent! In The Return Of The King, Wood gives an overwhelmingly physical performance and there is not a single scene he is in that he does not appear absolutely exhausted and drained by the power of the ring he carries around his neck. It's a labor to watch Frodo, so wonderful is Wood's performance!

Truly, this is a pretty classic tale of good versus evil, even if evil is mostly disembodied. And thus it comes down to how the story is told and in what setting. Middle Earth, as created by Peter Jackson and the team at Weta Workshops is a beautiful and well-defined world that has some obvious appeal to it.

On DVD, this extended edition sets standards for both the source material and the bonus features. The feature film spans two discs and there is no option to play the theatrical version on this DVD. The reason is simple; that would require a SIXTH soundtrack! There is the primary soundtrack for the Extended Edition and FOUR different commentary tracks on both of the first two discs! There is a commentary track featuring cast members, one featuring Peter Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, one featuring production staff and another featuring effects artists and the like! It's a pretty extensive series of commentaries (well, the cast one is just plain fun but not nearly as informative, save listening to some of the cast joke with one another about the project) and it is rich and fleshes out a great deal of the thought processes behind acting choices, writing decisions, and production elements.

Discs three and four are a treasure trove of additional information on the production, the world of Middle Earth, the genesis of the film project, the labors of love that went into making the extended cut, virtually everything one might ever want to know about the film, how it was made and all the elements that went into making it. There is some (at least a tenth) overlap between the information presented in the commentary and the extensive information presented in the bonus featurettes. The especially decent aspect of the two bonus discs is that the featurettes can be played as one or three very long featurettes on the making of The Return Of The King and The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy without stopping every few minutes to reload based on the chapter subject ending. It's worth it to simply hit the "Play All" button whenever given the option!

In all seriousness, the bonus features are extensive and basically catalogue every thought that went from translating the book to a script and from the script into a film. There is also one easter egg: a prank that was pulled on Elijah Wood during an overseas interview. It's amusing, but not as indispensable as the previous Easter Eggs.

The extended cut of The Return Of The King is the essential edition for anyone looking to get into the film series and add the movie to their permanent collection. The theatrical release DVD is available for archivists and anyone who doesn't truly love fantasy films. But for those who want a movie that will stand the tests of time and will continue to entertain and inform an audience that wants to gain an appreciation of how films are made, this is the only version worth recommending!

[As the winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is a comprehensive listing of my evaluations of all Best Picture winners. Please check that out by clicking here!]

For other science fiction and fantasy movies with an epic quality, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight
Blade: Trinity


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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