Blu-ray Review: The Lord Of The Rings – The Return Of The King: Extended Edition

The Lord Of The Rings – The Return Of The King: Extended Edition
Directed by Peter Jackson
Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, and Sean Astin
New Line Home Video
Release Date: August 28, 2012

You can read Dr. Geek, Ph.D’s review of The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy Extended Edition from July 2011 here.

“The battle of Helm’s Deep is over; the battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin.”

In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot le Fou the late filmmaking giant Samuel Fuller, a legendary purveyor of uncompromising dramas and adventures that were not afraid of journeying into the darkest realms of the human soul, said, “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. In one word…emotion.” Though he was making a cameo in a movie instead of granting an interview that brief speech perfectly summed up Fuller’s philosophy of cinema, a philosophy that is alive and well in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third and final installment in one of the most thrilling epic trilogies in motion picture history.

The dark forces of Mordor and Isengard have suffered a severe defeat at the hands of a powerful alliance of the free races of Middle-Earth. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin)’s journey to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom is nearing its destination, but their treacherous guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) is more determined than ever to kill both hobbits and take the ring (his “precious”) as a prize. With the dark wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) defeated Rohan’s king Théoden (Bernard Hill), Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are left to contemplate Sauron’s next move. The Dark Lord comes to believe that the sweet but foolish hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) is in possession of the ring and in the process mistakenly reveals his intentions to attack and destroy the kingdom of Gondor, the great kingdom of men whose throne Aragorn is destined to assume. But Gondor’s current steward of the throne Denethor (John Noble) isn’t about to surrender his power so easily. Gandalf decides to take Pippin to Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, in order to lure out Sauron’s forces and keep them occupied.

As Theoden’s forces prepare to meet the army of Mordor in battle one last time Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is convinced by his daughter Arwen (Liv Tyler) to have the sword of the King reforged and present it to Aragorn. Now ready to become the king of Gondor Aragorn, accompanied by Legolas and Gimli, must journey into the heart of a dark mountain to find an army of ghost warriors who will prove useful in battle. Meanwhile as Frodo, Sam, and Gollum move closer to Mordor Frodo finds himself further slipping into darkness by the power of the ring and the devious machinations of Gollum. Unbeknownst to Frodo he is being led into a trap where he will be forced to confront the monstrous Shelob. The forces of Gondor and Rohan must unite against Sauron’s massive army of orcs and Uruk-Hai and the destinies of every character will be finally be realized.  

Seeing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King on the big screen on opening night – December 17, 2003 – was one of the greatest experiences I have ever had at the theater. That night marked the end of a grand achievement in epic genre cinema that was once thought impossible and it completed my three-year journey from Rings skeptic to full-fledged devotee of the unique vision first set forth in the words of author J.R.R. Tolkien and later made into extraordinary cinema by the one and only Peter Jackson. Jackson, the spirited New Zealander who began his journey into cinema legend as the director of low-budget comedy splatter flicks like Bad Taste and Braindead before moving on to higher-profile directing assignments as Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, was one of a core group of devotees of the original Lord of the Rings books who truly believed that the trilogy could survive the translation to film with great success.

Weeks before the opening of Return I knew well to secure my ticket for a first day screening in advance because by then I had become convinced that I would certainly not be alone in the theater that night – even if it was a theater that had fallen into saddening disrepair over the years due to its inability to compete with the gaudy multiplex mall complexes that were springing up in every patch of beautiful wooded area in town. The theater was packed practically to the roof that night and the crowd was in the kind of spontaneously jubilant mood normally reserved for outdoor rock festivals. Throughout the screening there were cheers and laughs galore, and one obnoxious moviegoer who just had to Scrooge up the joint by castigating those who dared to express joy in the rudest tone imaginable. The rest of us cared little for that particular audience member’s consternation because by then the film had us completely enraptured. No amount of negative vibes could break that spell.

I had only seen Fellowship of the Ring on home video almost a year after it made its debut in cinemas around the world, but after my initial viewing I was a convert preaching Tolkien’s gospel to any who would listen. Two Towers I managed to catch on the big screen a few weeks into its theatrical run. By the time Return of the King was prepping for release I felt like a Rings fanatic, and the third film of the trilogy was a mighty grand reward for making Jackson’s cinematic trilogy such a resounding success. It is three-and-a-half hours (nearly four in the extended version) of pure, unadulterated payoff, a truly inspiring and visionary epic achievement that delivers on each and every one of the promises made to its fan base since the lights dimmed on the first showing of Fellowship in December 2001. Many liberties were taken with the original Tolkien novel – including moving an integral sequence from the close of Two Towers to Return for the sake of upping the stakes considerably – but as I’m hardly a purist when it comes to the classic Lord of the Rings books the narrative streamlining was very effective.

The cast is once again all aces, with nary a weak link in Jackson’s sizable ensemble. I won’t waste any more time praising performances that I have heaped admiration on in my reviews of the first two films in the trilogy, but I will single out a few names for special recognition. First, there’s Sean Astin. He really comes into his own in Return and just about walks away with the whole damn flick in the process. Astin owns the character of Samwise Gamgee for the rest of time as far as I’m concerned. By turns heroic and heartbreaking, his performance as the noble “fat hobbit” is a model of moral fortitude and a testament to the undying power of a strong friendship in the chemistry he shares with Elijah Wood. Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan also give full-blooded performances this time around as their characters Pippin and Merry finally achieve their respective destinies in the story and might bring you to tears by the end. Viggo Mortensen embodies every quality – good and bad – of the stoic warrior Aragorn as he comes to accept his true heritage as the king of Gondor, while Ian McKellen gets to be both the wise wizard and a take-charge commander in battle when Sauron’s legions come calling at Minas Tirith. Briefly seen in the extended cut of The Two Towers, John Noble impresses mightily as Denethor, the greedy and self-righteous steward of Gondor and father to Faramir (David Wenham) and the fallen Boromir (Sean Bean), and his performance is further strengthened by footage added to this Extended Edition. Miranda Otto‘s fetching Eowyn takes up arms in the big battle and proves her worth as a warrior and as a compassionate human being. The rest of the cast all does fine work with their limited screen time.

The digital wonders conjured by Weta this time run the gamut from the slimy horror of the monstrous spider Shelob (in a sequence that was initially intended for The Two Towers, as it was in the books, but ultimately moved to Return with greater dramatic purpose) to the majestic battles where steel clashes with fire and the armies of men and man-made demons meet for the final time in combat. The work done to bring the loathsome but hauntingly sympathetic Gollum to life is once again remarkable, aided immeasurably by Andy Serkis’ vocal and physical performances. Sometimes the excessive CGI is, to put it gently, far from perfect, but you might be able to forgive these imperfections if you concentrate on the sheer amount of ambition and imagination it took to create them in the first place.

The technical crew all perform far beyond expectations (as expected): the gauzy cinematography by Andrew Lesnie achieves that perfect visual balance necessary for an earthy epic fable with an infusion of swooning magical realism; Howard Shore brings nearly every theme composed for the first two films to the forefront and gives them all equal time on the soundtrack with brand new compositions that heighten the melodrama and intensify the action set pieces; it is to the credit of editor Jamie Selkirk that Return of the King manages to remain relentlessly entertaining and structurally coherent given that the running time had to be reduced by nearly an hour for the theatrical release (more on that below); and finally, production designer Grant Major deserves special credit for helping to realize the worlds of Middle-Earth in magnificent style and keep them plausible most of the time but visually spectacular when it best suited the story.

I will end this portion of my review by addressing one of the top criticisms that has been leveled against Return of the King since it first hit the big screen, and that is the infamous “multiple endings”. Sure, Jackson could have ended the final movie in his astounding cinematic trilogy about fifteen minutes earlier before it actually did, but that would have deprived us the emotional pleasure of seeing the hobbits return home to the Shire and carry on with their lives. It was important for us to see how the quarter, especially Frodo and Sam, were forever impacted by the great quest they undertook of their own free will and the amazing adventures they had as they traveled forth towards their destination. Being a lifelong voracious lover of the written word it appalled me that moviegoers couldn’t warm to the idea of an epilogue and decided instead to take issue with Jackson’s decision to forgo a traditional wrap-up for something truer to the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien, his literary accomplishments, and their combined legacy with readers young and old around the world. Personally, I couldn’t get enough, and though it was hard for me to accept at first that the journey had finally come to an end it brought a joyous smile to my face to hear one of fiction’s greatest closing lines being visualized exactly as it has long deserved: “Well, I’m back.”

About the Extended Edition:

Originally released with a running time of three hours and twenty-one minutes including credits, fifty minutes of previously excised footage were restored to The Return of the King for the first release of this Extended Edition in December 2004. The revised running time, excluding the lengthened end credits, now exceeds four hours by a thread.

Of all of the films in the Rings trilogy, Return benefits the most from receiving the extended edition treatment. In its theatrical release form the film ran close to three-and-a-half hours, but it still felt truncated in spots. Restored to its full intended length, Return is now an epic like no other. Many fan-pleasing scenes have been returned to their rightful place in the film and the minor characters are granted more time to realize their modest arcs, the best of which is the scene near the beginning that provided a more meaningful exit from the trilogy for the evil Saruman.


The extended edition has been remastered in 1080p high-definition and is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.40:1, which is not the ratio the movie was filmed and exhibited in. No matter, the transfer looks simply stunning for the most part. The lush storybook quality of Lesnie’s cinematography is enriched by the video upgrade and the picture bursts at the seams with immaculately preserved detail and texture. Daytime scenes are much stronger visually than night scenes, the latter containing a greater deal more grain that is actually noticeable at times. This works well in the film’s favor as the CGI effects are better able to blend with the practical effects. English, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are included.


Our only audio options are English and Portuguese 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. Both tracks are spectacular and make ideal home theater demo discs, depending on your language preference. Creating the immersive soundscapes of the Rings trilogy was a heroic task that paid off beautifully when the sound department received multiple Oscar nominations and wins. The music, dialogue, and sound effects mixes never overwhelm each other and work in tandem to replicate the glorious experience of seeing the movie on the big screen.

Special Features

The bulk of the extra features are split across the two Blu-ray discs that contain the main feature as well as three standard-definition DVDs and were all ported over from previous incarnations of the Return of the King Extended Edition. Each initial Extended Edition release of the Rings trilogy contained the same bonus materials, but when they were re-released in 2006 most of those great supplements were left out in favor of new feature-length, fly-on-the-wall documentaries about the production of the movies shot by New Zealand filmmaker Costa Botes, who had previously collaborated with Peter Jackson on the 1995 film Forgotten Silver. What is not presented here are the bonus materials from the theatrical cut DVD and Blu-ray releases, which are mostly promotional documentaries and theatrical trailers. Athough their presence here would have made this a complete set the absence of those features is fortunately negligible.

On the first two discs the main feature is accompanied by four audio commentary from the majority of the principal cast and crew. The first brings together Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens – recorded at the same time most of the participants on the other tracks – for an enlightening, straightforward talk about the massive undertaking of adapting the Rings books into feature films and then bringing those scripts to the screen. It’s a very comfortable and conversational track with these three longtime collaborators enjoying the pleasures of each other’s company and discussing topics that hold a special place in their hearts.

The second features four members of the design team: production designer Grant Major, costume designer Richard Taylor, and conceptual artists John Howe and Alan Lee. The third unites members of the production and post-production crew including Lesnie, Shore, and several of the producers. The final commentary has seventeen members of the cast, including Serkis appearing – I kid you not – in character as both Smeagol and Gollum. Most of the commentators were recorded separately and there are many of them to found here, but fortunately there is a on-screen text that identifies each one when they are speaking as to avoid confusion. You’ll find a veritable wealth of stories and production insights from all involved. Breaking down each participant’s contribution to the commentaries is a tiring and thankless task. Rest assured, each track aids immeasurably to the viewing experience and will further enhance your appreciation of the movies and the great skill and devotion that went into making them.

The only other extras on the first two discs are a two-minute trailer for the Lord of the Rings: War in the North video game and a pair of hidden Easter Eggs held over from the first DVD release: a hilarious nine minute clip where Dominic Monaghan, impersonating a German reporter, interviewed an initially clueless Elijah Wood, and a skit from the 2004 MTV Movie Awards where Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn (Remember when those guys were funny?) pitch Peter Jackson an idea for a fourth Rings movie – an idea that no longer seems far-fetched given that Jackson was somehow able to turn The Hobbit into a trilogy.

Now onto the Appendices discs. Following a ninety second introduction by Jackson, disc three – part five of the Appendices entitled “War of the Ring” – kicks off with another trilogy capper, the third and final documentary devoted to the writings and lasting legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien called “The Legacy of Middle-Earth” (30 minutes). Under “From Book to Script” you’ll find the documentary “From Book to Script: Forging the Next Chapter” (25 minutes) and a storyboard/animatic for the abandoned “Aragorn Battles Sauron” concept (5 minutes).

“Designing and Building Middle-Earth” houses four documentaries – “Designing Middle-Earth” (40 minutes), “Big-Atures” (20 minutes), “WETA Workshop” (47 minutes), and “Costume Design” (12 minutes) – and three design galleries with optional commentaries on select images: “The Peoples of Middle-Earth,” “The Realms of Middle-Earth,” and “Miniatures.” “Home of the Horse Lords” (30 minutes) is devoted to the training of the horses and horseback riders in the film. Another “Middle-Earth Atlas” that charts four different paths, another “New Zealand as Middle-Earth” interactive map with six featurettes about the filming at select locations illustrated with interviews and location scouting footage, and DVD credits close out the extras on disc three.

The fourth disc is the sixth and final part of the Appendices, titled “Passing of an Age,” and kicks off with an introduction by Wood, Boyd, and Monaghan. Under “Filming The Return of the King” we have the documentary “Cameras in Middle-Earth” (73 minutes) and a gallery of production photos. “Visual Effects” houses the documentary “WETA Digital” (42 minutes) and a multi-angle “Visual Effects Demonstration” for the Mumakil Battle sequence. “Post-Production: Journey’s End” features four documentaries: “Editorial: Completing the Trilogy” (22 minutes), “Music for Middle-Earth” (22 minutes), “The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth” (22 minutes), and “The End of All Things” (21 minutes), the latter focusing on the desperate race to complete the final edit.

“The Passing of an Age” (25 minutes) is the longest of the Extended Edition trilogy sets’ closing documentaries. It covers the movie’s spectacular premiere in Wellington, New Zealand, its clean sweep at the 2004 Academy Awards, Jackson shooting additional footage for the Extended Edition of Return just mere days after its multiple Oscar victories, and final (and this time they mean it) thoughts from the principal cast and crew members.

Closing out the disc is “Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for ‘Into the West'” (32 minutes), a surprisingly moving documentary about a New Zealand filmmaker who made a movie at the age of 16 despite having recently been diagnosed with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy as he worked tirelessly to completely it. Duncan ultimately died from the disease but got his chance to meet Peter Jackson over the filming of an advertising campaign for organ donations and posthumously served as the inspiration for Annie Lennox‘s closing credits song. Duncan’s short films “DFK6498” (5 minutes) and “Strike Zone” (11 minutes) are also included. Lastly we have some more pages of DVD credits.

The fifth and final disc houses Botes’ documentary “Return of the King: Behind the Scenes”, which runs a hearty 112 minutes and features tons more candid interviews and behind-the-scenes footage than you’ll find on the Appendices documentaries and featurettes.

Last Words

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King brings a classic trilogy of rousing, adventurous widescreen entertainment to a bold and brassy close. Much like the other two movies in Peter Jackson’s impossible-to-top adaptation of Tolkien’s works, this film is worth owning on a high quality Blu-ray. You simply must own this.

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