Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King Theatrical Blu-ray Review

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

At last, we sadly come to the end.  Third acts in movie franchises have historically been weaker than the movies that preceded them.  There are rare exceptions to that but if you think about movies like The Godfather Part III or even Return of the Jedi (which I love), they just aren’t as good as the movies before them.  The Return of the King is just as good as the previous two and in some ways even better.

With expectations at a fever pitch for the resolution of the trilogy, Peter Jackson had his work cut out for him.  He needed to resolve the plot threads that had been carried over from The Two Towers, including the fate of Saruman and the sequence with Shelob.  Despite the multitude of plot threads and the scale of the movie, for Jackson this was the easiest movie to make out of the three because it had a set climax which didn’t need to be worked out like it had for the previous entries.  There wasn’t another movie following this one to push story-lines to so it all needed to be wrapped up in this one (although there were some scenes carried over to the Extended Editions).

We  finally get to see Baromir’s white city of Minas Tirith in detail and his  father Denethor (John Noble) who is the Regent of the City charged with its defense in place of Aragorn (who had previously chosen exile over the throne because of his fear of failure).  Minas Tirith is a beautiful set that in actuality was built in the same quarry as Helm’s Deep and even incorporated that stronghold as part of the city.  The gate at Helm’s Deep was used as Minas Tirith’s second gate and the exterior battlements were re-used for the Extended Edition scene where Gandalf confronts the Witch-King.

In a similar fashion, the Caverns of Isengard were re-purposed as Shelob’s lair with some modifications.  Other new additions to the series include the Dead Men of Dunharrow who were cursed by Aragorn’s ancestor Isildor and the evil Haradrim who ride war-like elephants known as mûmakil.  A new super orc named Gothmog was also added to lead the attack on Osgiliath and Minas Tirith after Jackson decided that something new was needed after the first two film’s threat of the fearsome Uruk-hai.

This movie diverged from the book more than it’s predecessors especially during the Battle at Pelennor Fields where events play out quite differently.  In fact, one of the biggest changes was whether or not the physical manifestation of Sauron would fight Aragorn which was actually filmed.  Jackson later decided against that and Sauron was replaced in that footage with a Cave Troll instead.  A lot of scenes that were filmed but removed from the theatrical edition were later inserted into the Extended Edition which helped clarify the resolution of a lot of characters.

As a unrelated bit of trivia for those of you curious about Sauron; he was originally an immortal (angelic) spirit created by a supreme Creator called Eru and wasn’t originally evil.  He was one of the stronger angelic spirits of the  beings known as the Maiar that had entered the physical world.  Even stronger than the Maiar were the Valar who were patrons of sorts to the lesser Maiar.  Not all of the Maiar were as strong as Sauron but five of them were later sent by the Valar to Middle-earth as Wizards, the most prominent among them being Gandalf and Saruman.

Sauron decided to follow one of the Valar named Melkor (also known as Morgath), because he desired the control and order he felt Melkor represented.  Sauron had a lot to offer Melkor as he was a master shape-shifter and craftsman which were skills he put to good use centuries later.  His descent into evil was slow but sure and as Melkor’s lieutenant, he continually fought the elves.  Eventually, Melkor was defeated and Sauron took off on his own to follow his own plan for world domination.  He had some interesting allies under his command that don’t appear in the movies, including vampires and he was even known as the Lord of the Werewolves.

Later, Sauron appeared to the elves in disguise and helped them make the Rings of Power but once he created his own One Ring that controlled the others, the elves removed their rings except for the three they secretly made without Sauron’s help two of which were worn by Gil- Gilad and more importantly, Galadriel which is why she remained unaffected by Sauron’s influence.  Sauron was also responsible for the destruction of the Númenor race from which Aragorn is descended, and their entire city was swallowed by the sea, erasing their existence with the exception of a few monuments left behind like the Seat of Seeing (the ruins where the final battle in The Fellowship of the Ring took place).  I hope that cleared things up for the three of you that actually care!

The Return of the King was a blockbuster in every sense of the word.  It made $1.1 billion world-wide and it’s currently ranked as the third biggest movie of all time world-wide.  In addition, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is currently the world-wide highest-grossing motion picture trilogy of all time.  The total gross income for the trilogy so far would be around $6 billion, with a profit margin of 1408% (which doesn’t include the money the upcoming Extended Edition Blu-rays will bring in) from the $300 million ($426 million if you include  marketing costs) investment from New Line Cinema.

The Return of the King also has the distinction of having the highest perfect win ratio at the Academy Awards, with its eleven wins out of eleven nominations.  Those wins also mean that the Lord of the Rings franchise has won every category it was nominated for except one (Best Supporting Actor).  It’s also the second time in history (after Godfather Part III) that the third movie in a trilogy was nominated for Best Picture, by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and the only time that a third movie in a series has won the Best Picture Oscar.  It’s also been honored by a 98% fresh rating from professional critics on Rotten Tomatoes.  That’s quite a finish for a franchise although there is still a chance that we may get to see The Hobbit someday.  Even if we don’t, Jackson and the cast and crew have still pulled off one of the most audacious gambles in film history and had it turn out better than anyone could have ever dreamed.

Film  (5 out of 5 stars)

The film opens with a flashback to Gollum’s days as Smeagol one of the river-folk who is out fishing with his cousin Deagol when Deagol accidentally finds the Ring of Power.  Right away, the ring begins to work its influence on the cousins and Smeagol ends up killing his cousin for the ring and we see a disturbing montage of the degeneration of Smeagol into Gollum because of the ring’s ill effects which portends Frodo’s fate if he keeps the ring.  The scene shifts to current events as Frodo and Sam continue to follow Gollum into a secret way into Mordor unaware that it’s a trap planned by Gollum in a bid to reacquire the ring.

Back in Isengard, most of the Fellowship is reunited now that Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli have finally caught up to Merry and Pippen who are busy celebrating the Ents victory over Saruman’s forces.  (If you want to see Saruman’s fate you need to get the Extended Edition or read his original fate in the book).  Gandalf decides that Saruman is no longer a threat and Pippen finds the Palantir (the seeing stone that Saruman used to talk to Sauron) which is promptly confiscated by Gandalf.

They then return to the Rohan city of Edoras where a celebration is held for the victory of Helm’s Deep.  Overcome with curiosity, Pippen sneaks a look at the Palantir and inadvertently communicates with Sauron who now knows that Aragorn is a threat to his plans but also lets slip his own plans to attack Minas Tirith.  Armed with this new information, Gandalf and Aragorn try to convince King Theodan to help the people of Gondor but are met with resistance as Theodan still isn’t happy that Rohan never received help from Gondor in their time of need.

So Gandalf takes off to Minas Tirith to warn them of the impending attack and to convince them to ask for Rohan’s aid.  He is met by Denethor, the father of Baromir and Faramir, who is very aware of his son’s fate and the recent events at Helm’s Deep.  As revealed by the Extended Editions, Denethor has been looking into his own Palantir and has succumbed to a despair so deep that he has had a mental breakdown.  That coupled with the loss of his favorite son has completely unhinged him and he has made no preparations to defend his city, forcing Gandalf and Pippen to find a way to save the city.

Meanwhile, Gollum is doing all he can to cause distrust between the hobbits as he knows that Sam suspects his motives and is watching his every move.  Gollum knows that for him to have any chance of recovering the ring that he will need to remove Sam first.  Frodo is already struggling to continue on as the ring continues to affect him physically, emotionally, and intellectually.  The burden is almost too much to bear at this point and Sam has begun to realize that there’s nothing he can do to help his friend.  Neither of them are aware that they are headed into a deadly trap for they are about to enter the lair of the monstrous spider Shelob.

As the Rohirrim prepare for war, Aragorn is visited by Elrond at Arwen’s request.  He arrives bearing the sword Narsil that once belonged to Elendil and was used cut the ring off of Sauron’s hand during the last war. It has been reforged and has a new name of Andúril (Sindarin for “Flame of the West”).  The sword has benefited by the talents of the three great races that had fought Sauron -  Dwarves, Elves, and Men which perhaps explains it’s value and symbolic significance.  Aragorn has to decide once and for all if he wants to lead the free people of Middle-earth or remain a Ranger.  Taking some advice from Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli venture into the Paths of the Dead where the Army of the Dead awaits them.  The Dead of Dunharrow will only respond to the true King of Gondor as they were cursed by Isildur for their treachery but they are still bound to any Heir of Isildur.

Of course, the entire trilogy comes to a close with the massive Battle at Pelennor Fields and the attack on Minas Tirith by the forces of Sauron.  The Witch-King of Angmar personally leads the fight against the white city on top of his dragon-like Fell Beast.  This final confrontation between the forces of good vs. evil will decide the outcome of the war and whether or not it will buy enough time for Frodo and Sam to destroy the Ring of Power in the fires of Mt. Doom.

The Return of the King without a doubt packs the most emotional whallop of the three movies.  There are several scenes that just give me chills every time I watch this movie and many more that are so heartbreaking that it just kills you emotionally.  That’s not to say that there aren’t funny scenes too because there are a lot of those too, but the stakes are raised so high at this point and because you have so much invested in the success of the Fellowship, that you feel sucker-punched many times during the movie.  These characters that we’ve grown to love and cheer for have to endure a lot in this movie especially Frodo and Sam who are on the proverbial mission to hell with little chance of a return trip.

All of the choices that each of the Fellowship has made will all come into play here at the end.  This is truly an epic film and I doubt that we will see another like it for a long long time.  For as much money as Avatar made, it didn’t have half the heart this movie does.  These characters suffer and yet they persevere under the most terrible conditions with the help of each other.  Some lessons are learned the hard way or in the case of Denethor, far too late.

Evil is shown in this movie with all of its drawbacks such as the constant infighting between Sauron’s forces, and the lack of camaraderie and concern for each other.  On the other hand, those opposed to Sauron are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and despite being outnumbered, that inner conviction is worth far more than an army made up of selfish individuals concerned only for their own welfare.  I think there are some definite lessons being offered in these movies and the example of friendship and sacrifice in the face of an implacable foe is a powerful one.

I’ve heard many people say that these movies (especially The Fellowship of the Ring) were not only successful but also therapeutic to an audience that was still numb from the 9/11 attacks.   While I don’t think that is the sole reason for the success of these movies, I can understand that point of view when there is comforting dialogue such as the following from the first movie:

Frodo:  I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf:  So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

It’s a rare experience to see a movie affect men and women like this one did as there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater when it was over.  I know some people have complained about the multiple endings of the movie where most of the characters got a resolution, but I suspect that those complaining were upset because those scenes followed such an emotionally draining conclusion that they felt totally wrung out already.  I hadn’t watched the Lord of the Rings movies for a long time as I wanted it to be as fresh as possible for this high definition release, and this movie affected me just like it did in the theater years ago.

I can only remember a few movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial that had a similar effect on an audience.  This movie is a perfect example of why going to the movies is such a desired communal experience.  Nowadays, people seem to put as much distance between each other as possible, but for some reason they still desire that shared experience in a darkened theater.  I suspect that the reason for that is that the movie theater is one of the last places left that people  are willing to let their guards down.  Once the movie is over, the defenses come back up and life returns to normal, but for two hours or so, we all share the same hopes, thrills, laughs, and fears.  That is the magic of the movies and this movie is a prime example of that thanks to the craftsmanship of Peter Jackson.  Jackson has done something remarkable – he has made an epic franchise that not only has all of the requisite action that is expected of blockbuster movies, but he also made sure that it had the heart and integrity of an art-house film.  His cast and crew matched his dedication and passion with equal amounts of their own and together they have made three films that will stand the test of time.

Video  (5 out of 5 stars)

The best 1080p/VC-1 transfer of the trilogy with sharp colors and increased detail throughout the disc.  Flesh tones are also improved for this movie and the pores of the actors can actually be seen.  There is a lot more contrast in this movie than the previous two and this transfer does a fantastic job with that.  Once again, the blacks are deep and well defined especially in scenes with the Army of Dead and Mt. Doom.  Being the last movie released has definitely given The Return of the King an edge over it’s predecessors as far as picture quality goes.

Audio  (5 out of 5 stars)

Much like the video quality, this DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track is the best of the bunch.  I really can’t do justice to how good it is in words.  From the sounds of the Battle on Palennor Fields with the catapults, trebuchets, men, orcs, war elephants,  and cave trolls are all around you in this immersive mix.  The Rohirrim army descending down into battle sent chills down my spine.  Not to mention the Army of the Dead or the eruptions of Mt. Doom.  Howard Shore’s wonderful soundtrack is well served here and it is balanced perfectly with the the rest of the sound design.  I plan to really crank the volume up on the final battle as soon as I have the house to myself! Once again, I think you all should buy this disc just for the sound quality!  A demo disc if I ever heard one!

Special Features  (2 out of 5 stars)

I wish I could give this category a five so it would have a perfect score all around but I can’t do that in good conscience. Again, I am happy that the studio made an effort not to duplicate extras from previous sets, but these aren’t the Expanded Editions so it feels like a let down for those of us that have been anxiously waiting for these high definition releases.  I’m sure once those Extended Editions do come out, I will be passing out perfect scores all around.  Once again, everything is in Standard Definition except for the trailers.  Here is what is on this release:
On the DVD:
  • The Quest Fulfilled: A Director’s Vision – This feature focuses on the efforts of Peter Jackson and while slight was interesting.   Nowhere near as good as the Extended Edition lengthly coverage.
  • A Filmmaker’s Journey: Making ‘The Return of the King’ – This one talks about the history of the project and on the themes in the film, and production stories about casting the movie among other things.  Pretty basic.
  • National Geographic Special – ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ – A feature that focuses on real life allegories between the book and real life people and events.  It was interesting but in some cases I think it went overboard trying to find examples.
  • Featurettes – Six webisodes that focus on the production of ‘The Return of the King’ which last between three and five minutes each.
  • TV Spots - Thirteen tv trailers.
  • Special Extended DVD Edition Preview – Another reminder of a far better version that will hopefully come late this year on Blu-ray or for sure next year.
On the Blu-ray:
  • Theatrical Trailers – Three excellent trailers for each of the movies.
  • Trilogy “Super Trailer” – A six and half minute long trailer for all three movies. Highly enjoyable!
  • Game Trailers – Trailers for two games based on the movies, Aragorn’s Quest and War in the North.

Final Thoughts  (5 out of 5 stars)

Writing these reviews has been difficult because I didn’t want to spoil anything major in the movies for the people that haven’t seen them yet, but at the same time I really wanted to discuss the details of what made this trilogy so incredible.  Hopefully I’ve achieved the right balance between the two.  There are many reasons why I love this trilogy but one of them is the attention to detail and the little character touches like Aragorn wearing Baromir’s wrist guards to honor him.  Knowing Aragorn’s resistance to led his people, the simple fact of him doing that and later wearing the full armor of his people makes me happy.

I also loved the progression of the character’s relationships and it adds quite a bit emotional depth to the end of the movie.  Whether it’s Legolas and Gimli’s goodbyes to each other in the face of certain defeat, or Sam carrying Frodo  up the volcano after Frodo cannot go any further, or Gandalf trying to ease Pippen’s fears about dying,  all of them were performed masterfully by the cast and made even more touching by the history we’ve had with the characters.  My only complaint about the movie is that I thought the Army of the Dead was far too powerful.  I didn’t like the ease that they dispatched the Morgol army because by extension, it overshadowed and lessened the efforts of the Fellowship and the men of Gondor and Rohan who were bravely fighting and didn’t have the invulnerability of the undead.  I read that Peter Jackson really didn’t want to include the Army of the Dead in the movie but felt he had too to remain true to the book as it was a big part of the resolution.

While these releases may not be our cherished Extended Editions, they are still worthy of your collection until those come out.  The audio/video quality steadily improved over the course of the series and the audio in particular is reason enough for you to buy this box set.  On the small chance that one of the cast or crew actually reads this manifesto, I would like thank you for these movies and for all of the hard work you all put into them.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy is not only epic, but it’s also the best fantasy movies every made and in my opinion much better than the book they are based on. I look forward to your emails and comments Tolkien fans.

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