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review added: 12/7/04



The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King

4-Disc Special Extended DVD Edition - 2003 (2004) - New Line

Part One - Film & Presentation Quality

Skip to Part Two

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEncoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (4-Disc Special Extended DVD Edition) Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): A/A

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A+

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film - Extended Edition, Part I
Part I - 128 mins (approx 263 mins total - includes 12 min fan club credit roll on Disc Two), PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), custom slipcase with fold-out Digipack packaging (featuring production sketches and artwork), all commentaries feature on-screen text to identify speaker, audio commentary (with director Peter Jackson and writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), audio commentary (with design team members Grant Major, Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, John Howe, Dan Hennah, Chris Hennah and Tania Rodger), audio commentary (with production and post-production team members Barrie Osborne, Mark Ordesky, Jamie Selkirk, Annie Collins, Rick Porras, Howard Shore, Jim Rygiel, Ethan Van der Ryn, Mike Hopkins, Randy Cook, Christian Rivers, Brian Van't Hull, Alex Funke and Joe Letteri), audio commentary (with cast members Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis, Lawrence Makoare, Smeagol and Gollum), liner notes booklet with foldout appendices map, Easter egg, animated film-themed menus with sound and music, scene access (36 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1 ES & DD 2.0 Surround), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Disc Two: The Film - Extended Edition, Part II
Part II - 135 mins (approx 263 mins total - includes 12 min fan club credit roll on Disc Two), PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 57:31, in chapter 23), all commentaries feature on-screen text to identify speaker, audio commentary (with director Peter Jackson and writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), audio commentary (with design team members Grant Major, Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, John Howe, Dan Hennah, Chris Hennah and Tania Rodger), audio commentary (with production and post-production team members Barrie Osborne, Mark Ordesky, Jamie Selkirk, Annie Collins, Rick Porras, Howard Shore, Jim Rygiel, Ethan Van der Ryn, Mike Hopkins, Randy Cook, Christian Rivers, Brian Van't Hull, Alex Funke and Joe Letteri), audio commentary (with cast members Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, John Noble, Andy Serkis, Lawrence Makoare, Smeagol and Gollum), Easter egg, animated film-themed menus with sound and music, scene access (42 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1 ES & DD 2.0 Surround), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

Discs Three & Four (See Part Two)


"We come to it at last... the great battle of our time."

The world of Men has risen to meet Sauron's challenge. The surviving members of the Fellowship, with the help of the Elves, have successfully defended the kingdom of Rohan at Helm's Deep, even as Gollum leads Frodo and Sam ever closer to Mordor. The Dark Lord, however, will not relent in his campaign to annihilate Mankind, and is marching an even larger army of Evil, led by the mysterious Witch King, toward the nearly defenseless city of Minas Tirith. If the city falls, so too will the kingdom of Gondor, and all hope for Mankind will be lost.

In a twist of good fortune, however, Gandalf learns of Sauron's plan. He races to Minas Tirith with Pippin to sound the alarm, while Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Merry attempt to convince a reluctant King Théoden to ride to the city's defense. With the fate of Middle-earth about to be decided in a last, massive battle on the fields of Pelennor, Aragorn must finally accept his destiny, while Frodo and Sam face the ultimate test of friendship, and their very lives, in their quest to destroy The One Ring.

For three years now, legions of moviegoers have gathered in theaters around the world to marvel at director Peter Jackson's epic, big screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic literary tale. And every year, we've held our collective breaths. Could Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring finally prove that it was possible for Tolkien's elaborate world to be done justice on film? It did, against all odds. Could Jackson's take on The Two Towers top the first film in action, emotion and excitement? It did, raising the stakes even higher. And then, the biggest question of all: could The Return of the King meet all of our impossibly high expectations and take its place as the crown jewel of the trilogy. Not only did it meet those expectations, it blew them all away, sweeping the 76th Annual Academy Awards and becoming the first fantasy film ever to win the coveted Oscar for Best Picture of the Year.

What makes The Return of the King work so well is the way Jackson and company are able to weave the small, personal character moments against some of the most epic battle scenes ever captured on film. Despite what some (like Clint Eastwood) would have you believe, Return of the King is not about special effects, though you've certainly never seen grander, thanks to the talented staff at WETA Digital. On the contrary, this is very much a story about heroes, hope... and heart. Every actor rises to the challenge in this film, and some (like Sean Astin as Sam) significantly raise their game, in service of a script that perfectly captures the essence of Tolkien's story. Every visual is perfectly rendered here, every emotional note perfectly struck. All of the logistical effort, all of the creative passion, all of the attention to detail so carefully layered into these films... it all pays off beautifully. Simply put, with The Return of the King, Peter Jackson takes his rightful place among the greatest filmmakers of all time, and his trilogy becomes one for the ages. You simply have to see it to believe it.

For this new extended cut DVD release, Jackson has added some 50 minutes of new scenes and scene extensions back into the film. That's significantly more footage than was added back into the previous extended editions of either The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. As with those previous editions, most of the scenes are character moments not critical to the plot, but which fans may remember and appreciate from the books. Unlike those previous editions, not all of this footage really contributes fully to the film. I certainly enjoyed seeing it, but there are cases where the new footage slows down the building momentum - more critical here for this being the final act of the trilogy (and already the longest entry of the three). There are also one or two cases where the new footage actually detracts from the film as it was. [BEGIN SPOILERS] For example, a new scene of Aragorn and the Army of the Dead attacking the Corsair ships has the exact same sort of "reveal" of the army that happens later, when Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas arrive in the ships at Minas Tirith. Having seen it once lessens the impact of the later reveal. Also, there's a new scene near the end of the film with the Mouth of Sauron, which ends with Aragorn beheading the creature. The problem is, in the next shot, when the Black Gates open to reveal Sauron's gathered army... the body of the Mouth of Sauron, and the horse it was sitting on for that matter, are nowhere to be seen. It's not a big deal, but it was an obvious thing that called attention to itself and pulled me out of the film for a moment.

That said, there are many good moments that have been added back, and two that I think are absolutely fantastic. The first is the much-discussed fate of Saruman. Not only does it reveal the character's ultimate demise, but it's also important because Saruman taunts Gandalf about the fate of Frodo and Sam. It pays off when the characters return to Edoras - we see Gandalf starting to doubt that Frodo and Sam are still alive, and it's Aragorn who encourages him to hold out hope. Saruman also instills doubt in Théoden which pays off later in the film. The other great addition takes place during the siege on Minas Tirith. One of my favorite moments in this trilogy is the arrival of the Rohirrim on the fields of Pelennor, and their subsequent charge into battle. I would never have guessed that this sequence could be made better, but this new version blew me away. In the theatrical edition, you hear Gandalf shouting "Fight! Fight to the last man!" even as the battle is looking hopeless... and then you suddenly hear the horns heralding the arrival of Théoden's army. In the new cut, after you hear that line, Pippin runs up to tell Gandalf that Denethor is about to burn Faramir alive and they ride off to save him. They're quickly intercepted by the Witch King, who destroys Gandalf's staff and knocks him to the ground. As he's about to deliver a death blow with his flaming sword, the Witch King growls, "The world of men will fall!"... and it's THEN that the horns of Théoden's army ring out, distracting the Witch King and saving Gandalf and Pippin just in time. It's an absolutely badass, wonderfully cinematic moment.

Other gems among the new footage include a nice scene at Minas Tirith in which we learn that Pippin's new armor belonged to Faramir as a boy, a moment when we see a single flower blooming on the White Tree of Gondor even as Denethor has already given up hope, and Aragorn confronting Sauron via the Palantir to draw his armies out of Mordor and thus give Frodo and Sam a chance to reach Mount Doom. [END SPOILERS] There's MUCH more new material than what I've mentioned here - some 350 new effects shots, more intense battle sequences, etc. I'll let you enjoy the pleasure of discovering it all on your own. My feeling is that while some of it is truly great and adds depth to the film, some of it feels a bit too much like padding and adds little of real value to the story. The cumulative result is pretty much a wash. The Return of the King was a spectacular film before... and it's still a spectacular film here. It's just longer.

Thankfully, this DVD release finally gives The Return of the King the chance to truly shine, both visually and sonically, by splitting the film over two discs. This allows the maximum amout of disc space to be devoted to the video data. The result is a richly detailed, lushly colored anamorphic widescreen presentation that pleases in every respect. The image is crisp and clean, without looking digital or artificially enhanced to cover defects in the print or the transfer. There's an unbelievable amount of detail visible, even in the darker areas of the image (trust me on this - I watched this film on a 106-inch projection screen and not once did the image quality come up wanting). Colors are much more vivid looking than they were on the 2-disc version, shadows are deeper. There's virtually no compression artifacting visible, and not a single print defect that I could see anywhere. Simply put, this is a gorgeous presentation - a visual feast for the eyes.

It's sonically impressive as well, with multichannel surround audio available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS 6.1 ES options. The EX track is highly immersive, with astonishing dynamic range. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is, as you'd expect, a sonic tour de force, with smooth panning and tons of directional play. The mix is also highly atmospheric, even in quieter passages. The soundstage is wide, with tight imaging and thunderous low frequency. If you've got a high-quality sub in your system, when the orc army takes their battering rams to the gates of Minas Tirith, you'll feel every impact in the seat of your pants. My wife, Sarah, complained more than once that the floor of her upstairs office was shaking as I screened this film. Need any better recommendation that that? The DTS 6.1 ES option improves on the audio experience further still, adding an even greater measure of clarity and subtlety to the mix. Imaging is more precise and the overall experience has a slightly more natural quality that I found very pleasing.

As with the previous 4-disc set, you can choose to watch this film with its own soundtrack, or with four separate, full-length audio commentary tracks. There's one with Peter Jackson and writers, one with the artistic team, another with members of the production and post-production crew, and a final track with much of the cast from the film (most of the major players in fact). When you select a particular commentary in the options menu, you're shown a list of everyone who participated in that track. If you then select one and start watching (and listening), subtitle text will appear at the top of the screen when different participants speak, identifying not only the speaker, but also their role in the production (or their character in the case of the actors).

Once again, the actors' track is arguably the most engaging of the four commentaries, and it features a fun gimmick - Andy Serkis participates as himself, and occasionally as Gollum and as Smeagol as well. You can immediately tell how engaged these people are in both their work in this film, and in their relationships with one another. Viggo Mortensen is once again absent (he apparently doesn't like to do commentaries), but as was the case with the previous extended editions, he's in full evidence in the documentaries on Discs Three and Four. As someone who is hugely interested in the story and the ideas behind the film - how they develop in the writing process into what you finally see on screen - my favorite of the commentaries belongs to Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. There are fascinating insights to be found here, and much discussion relating to the challenges of this being the culminating entry in the trilogy.

The menus are again designed so that the selections appear to have been written in pages of a book. The book itself was designed and shot as real props on a real set, by the same folks that worked on the film. It gives the DVD interface the sense of belonging in the world of the film. When you're look at the scene selection menu page, the chapter stop listings indicate which scenes are new and which are extended - a very fan-friendly touch if you're excited to see the new footage right away.

Disc One ends right after a brief new scene in which the orcs storming Minas Tirith bring forward the "Grond" (the wolf headed battering ram) to smash down the city gates. The screen cuts to black and text fades in telling you that "The Story Continues on Disc Two". When you start Disc Two, a black screen comes up with the following text selections: "Continue Film," "Continue Commentaries," "Set-up and Options".

This set's packaging mirrors the two previous 4-disc releases, with the exception that the color is blue, and the artwork on the Digipack reflects the various scenes from this specific film. The Digipack is housed in another gorgeous slipcase that's designed to look like a book. It has a simulated leathery texture and the title of the film is stamped in gold foil on the front and spine. An insert booklet inside contains chapter information and a fold-out map of the contents of all four discs, again with artwork from the film.

You should also know that there are a pair of Easter eggs on these first two discs (one on each disc). The first features Dominic Monaghan posing as a German journalist to interview Elijah Wood via satellite. The other was the intro to the MTV Movie Awards last year, in which actors Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn pitch a Rings trilogy sequel to Peter Jackson. The Monaghan/Wood bit is funny, the MTV piece is not so much. But it's still cool to have them both if you're a fan.

In the second part of this review, we'll take a closer look at the contents of Discs Three and Four of this set, once again known as The Appendices. These contain the lion's share of the supplemental material on this release - more even that was included on the previous extended editions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com

On to Part Two


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - 4-Disc Special Extended DVD Edition
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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Collector's DVD Gift Set
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Easter egg Instructions

Disc One

To access the Gag Interview clip of Dominic Monaghan posing as a German journalist to interview Elijah Wood via satellite (9 mins, 4x3, DD 2.0), go to the last page of the scene selections menu area and select 'The Siege of Gondor'. Then navigate "down" to reveal a hidden Ring symbol. Press "Enter".

Disc Two

To access the MTV Movie Awards clip featuring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn pitching a Rings trilogy sequel to Peter Jackson (6 mins, 4x3, DD 2.0), go to the last page of the scene selections menu area and select 'Fan Club Credits'. Then navigate "down" to reveal the hidden Ring symbol. Press "Enter".
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