**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin
screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
directed by Peter Jackson
by Walter Chaw For the uninitiated few, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are diminutive hobbits making their way, with the treacherous Gollum (Andy Serkis) as their guide, through perilous lands on a quest to destroy the One Ring of power, forged by evil Sauron in a volcano called Mount Doom. Their story is set against a series of epic military manoeuvres and intimate Machiavellian machinations engaged in by elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the once and future human king, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen).
An inexplicable prologue doesn't work while reminding a little of Matthew Barney's Cremaster series (really, much of the dark grotesque of Jackson's Middle-Earth reminds of Barney's work), but a nifty phantom army resurrects on a grand scale the ghosts of Jackson's own The Frighteners. The best moments of The Return of the King are those where Jackson's mad imagination runs riot: an Uruk-hai captain that looks like Charles Laughton's hunchback; a battlefield amuck with war elephants ("mumaks" in the vernacular) that recalls the desperation of the Hoth sequence of The Empire Strikes Back (itself a landmark of special effects for its time); and a glimpse at some of the ornaments of spider Shelob's lair and various orcan armor that pings off Robert A. Burns's delirious set design for Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Meanwhile, Miranda Otto's Eowyn emerges as, if not the most memorable figure in the series, at least the hero of The Return of the King.
Interesting, too, is the inescapable idea that the only genuinely convincing relationships in the film are homosexual, and that the picture could be read with profit as an escalating evolution of father relationships from low to positively Christian (mad steward Denethor and son Faramir, Frodo and Gollum, Gandalf and the hobbits, Aragorn and mankind)--but part and parcel with the oft-fascinating subtext and beautiful images is a parade of useless cameos (please, enough Cate Blanchett), de rigueur expository flashbacks, and the squandering of opportunities to locate the genuine interest in unlikely epic heroes (women and, essentially, children), rather than just pay lip service to them.
The worst moments are ported complete from the Tolkien source material (and the theatrical version of The Two Towers): the convenience of a fortuitous in-battle as little Sam storms an enemy keep by himself, the deus ex machina of giant eagles arriving at moments of crisis (in fairness, it seems as though the scene establishing their summoning has been jettisoned), the curiously limp money shot of Aragorn's grasping of his legacy, and a general narrative choppiness that defeats pacing and deadens interest for all but the most invested. Worse, the appearances of the Southrons and Easterlings seem--and in accordance with Tolkien's descriptions--African and Asiatic respectively, arrayed mercenary against the Caucasian forces of the noble "Men of the West."
The Return of the King is closer to empty spectacle than any of the previous films--a fitting conclusion, perhaps, to a ten-hour film but a movie in and of itself that has trouble finding the weight and impetus to stand alone. It feels desperate to cover every imaginable base, nowhere more so than during a ridiculous curtain call that sees Frodo mouthing our heroes' names as they saunter half-time into a sun-kissed Serrault, the picture's romantic tableaux not nearly so affecting this time around as they have been in the past. A curious product of the modern media age, the shortcomings of The Return of the King lead one inevitably to wonder if the impending extended version of the film on DVD won't, like it did for The Two Towers: EE, fashion a melancholy completeness from this mélange of sometimes intoxicating, occasionally exhilarating parts.
by Bill Chambers The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King comes to DVD about three months earlier than anticipated (based on the theatrical-to-home video window of the previous films), in part to capitalize on the picture's Oscar glory, but also to sate those dedicated fans who will have to wait a little longer than usual for the de rigueur Extended Edition; last week it was announced that the final leg of the DVD saga had encountered a roadblock in the form of a certain giant ape. And sate it does, at least from a technical standpoint: The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer* is the finest for one of the film's theatrical cuts--a remarkable feat considering it's the longest instalment of the trilogy (and thus harder to squeeze onto a single-sided, dual-layered platter), though perhaps not so astonishing in light of two years having passed since The Fellowship of the Ring debuted on the format. (The equipment used to encode that first DVD has probably passed into obsolescence by now.) An even happier surprise, considering the letdown of the DD track for The Two Towers, is King's boisterous, nay, faultless DD 5.1 EX mix, which is a bona fide sleeves-flapper during the parting of Mordor's gates and the climactic Battle of Pelennor Fields.
On the second platter of this 2-disc set, find "The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision" (23 mins.) and "A Filmmaker's Journey: Making The Return of the King" (29 mins.), two featurettes markedly similar in content and approach despite being credited to separate directors (Dan Arden and Karina Friend Buck, respectively). Maybe it's because they share stentorian narration from Jonathan Cook that toes the studio line all the way, especially in the former. ("The magnitude of the films' success makes it easy to forget what a huge risk [the trilogy] was," Cook bellows onanistically.) "A Filmmaker's Journey" does gain the upper hand, however, by furnishing us with, in addition to the sight of Jackson as a younger, substantially thinner filmmaker, an overview of an aborted screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings that was to have starred The Beatles (John as Gollum!). As the original intent of both of these specials was to put a few extra bodies in seats, they're each promotional in nature and relatively spoiler-free.
All that said, the included NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC documentary "Beyond the Movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (46 mins.) is not a vastly preferable alternative to the abovementioned puff pieces. Though intelligently written ("overarching themes" such as "the wise counsellor" are delved into therein) and warmly narrated by series' player John Rhys-Davies, like most product from the magazine's TV arm, it's largely a repository for stock footage of Winston Churchill. Five of the six supplementary "lordoftherings.net" vignettes (approx. 5 mins. apiece) cater to the Tolkien diehards with ruminations on "Aragorn's destiny," "Minas Tirith: Capital of Gondor," "The Battle of Pelennor Fields," "Samwise the Brave," and "Éowyn: White Lady of Rohan," while the concluding segment covers F/X wizard Joe Letteri's eerie "Digital Horse Doubles." Rounding out the package: two trailers and 13 TV spots for The Return of the King; an insomnia-curing "supertrailer" for The Lord of the Rings proper (6 mins.); a 3-minute preview of EA's video games based on the films; and a wealth of ROM-enabled weblinks. Originally published: June 1, 2004.
*Also available in fullscreen.