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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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#1 of 430 OFFLINE   Michael Elliott

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Posted May 11 2004 - 02:19 PM

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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Studio: New Line
Year: 2003
Rated: PG-13
Film Length: 200 minutes
Aspect Ratio: Anamorphic Widescreen (2.35:1)
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Retail Price: $29.95

While The Fellowship of the Rings set up the characters and The Two Towers prepared us for the conclusion, Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King ends the trilogy with the epic battle that started back in 2001 when fans first starting lining up hoping the director could bring their favorite books to the screen. I’m fairly certain everyone reading this will know the story so we’ll keep it to the basics. In this third film Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his buddy Sam (Sean Astin) take an even more harrowing journey into the darkness in hopes of getting the Ring to Mount Doom where it can melt into volcanic lava and Middle Earth can be saved.

As I’ve said before, I haven’t read any of the books nor was I a huge fan of the first two films so going into this third and final part of the trilogy I couldn’t help but revisit the first two films and look at the entire thing as one movie. After going through seven hours in the first two film I kept asking myself if all that time was well spent or would the conclusion let me down and regret spending all that time with this trilogy. I felt the first two films were highly entertaining yet very flawed films and I think the same thing could be said for this one. The Return of the King is visually brilliant but in the end I can’t help but think there’s way too much style and not enough story.

It would be pointless for me to try and talk down a film like this since it is considered by many to be amongst the greatest epics ever made. Perhaps that’s where I have a problem with the entire series and in some spots personal feelings towards films of today might stand in my way of being 100% honest in my opinions. I’ve been a huge fan of Peter Jackson since the early 90’s when I became aware of films like Bad Taste and Dead Alive and I’m rather amazed that the same man could make those films and then make this trilogy. On a technical level this is one of the most beautiful films ever made but at the same time that’s my biggest problem with the series.

I’m sure I’ll get some hate mail for this and I’m sure many will call me old fashioned but outside Minority Report I’ve yet to see any film, big or small, use its CGI effects to do anything except take me out of the story. I’m a firm believer that effects mean very little to a film unless there’s a story to follow and most importantly characters to cheer for. While this series offers a somewhat decent story and a few memorable characters I couldn’t help but think most of this was simply too much for its own good. I have a hard time following characters when they are fighting a CGI monster, which is so obviously fake it becomes obnoxious to watch. I have a hard time following a story when it’s clear the actors are acting in front of a blue screen. I have a hard time cheering for characters when it appears like I’m watching a video game instead of an actual film.

There’s no doubt that the stuff we’re looking out is incredibly well thought out and I’m sure many would say that there is no way a film like this could have been made without CGI. Perhaps but there are films from the silent era up to today that told the same epic story with some monumental locations that didn’t have a computer doing all of the action. Something like A Birth of a Nation to Ben-Hur and even Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York are all more believable because I know everything I’m seeing isn’t being done with a computer. Perhaps this is old fashioned thinking and perhaps I’m missing the entertainment values of today’s films but to me CGI isn’t anything to get excited about and in my opinion it’s hurt more films than it’s actually helped. Even in the most far fetched fantasy or the most outrageous horror film I need a dose of reality to keep me entertained and while the CGI effects are good eye candy they still can’t replace real action, a story or characters for that matter.

Even with all that being said The Return of the King is the best of the series and that ten hour journey of three films were worth being watched but I’m not one who is going to go back and revisit the thing. I’ll be honest and admit I’m being a bit harder on the film than I probably should be but its reputation has left mixed emotions for me. There’s no doubt this series will live in history but this dose of history in no way, shape or form can compare to the epics of yesterday. Even with its eleven Oscar wins I couldn’t help but notice that none of the actors were nominated and the acting is never really discussed when this film comes up. That there is where the fake looking CGI completely takes over the heart of a film, which lies with what’s real.

VIDEO---The film is shown widescreen (2.35:1) and is enhanced for 16x9 TVs. When the two previous films were released in their theatrical version the quality of the extended version was so much better that it appeared New Line saved the best quality for the bigger release but I honestly can’t see how the Extended version would look much better. The film runs over the three hour mark but to my eyes this didn’t hurt the image quality a bit so I’m rather curious why certain other studios break the film in two for its DVD release. From the opening to the final credits there isn’t a single flaw in the presentation and best of all is the lack of any edge enhancement, which was something that hampered the previous two films. I was paying close attention throughout for any signs of edge enhancement and these eyes never picked any up, which was another surprise. Having watched the first two films over the weekend I must say the transfer here makes the older transfers seem somewhat poor in comparison. The black levels here are solid as a rock without any hints of speckles or grain. The scenes at the end in the volcano deliver some of the most beautiful reds and ash I’ve seen in any transfer and the color is so detailed that it makes the images jump off the screen just like a 3-D film.

AUDIO---The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track might very well be one of the greatest ever made and like the video quality, I’m sure the Extended Edition will have a hard time topping what we get here. If you’ve ever sat in front of your home theater wondering what would be the perfect sound coming from your speakers then I think your dreams have been answered here. There’s no doubt the highlight of the track occurs during the battle scenes since there’s so much going on from screams to bodies flying through the air to all the sword play. It’s still rather astonishing how well all of this plays out through the speakers. Another highlight happens when the castle is being broken apart by the huge rocks being thrown at it. The detail in sound from the rocks being fired, flying through the air and eventually hitting the target is perhaps the perfect way to explain to your friends why you spent so much money in speakers. Even when the rocks crumble and hit the ground the dynamic range will have your body shaking. Even more impressive is all the quiet moments during the film, which sound just as well even though there’s less to show off.

EXTRAS---While I enjoyed most of the extras on the previous releases I must say what’s here is a bit disappointing but I’m sure all of this will be made up on the upcoming Extended Edition. While I wasn’t expecting much what we do get is rather boring and the three main documentaries pretty much repeat stuff so there’s very little here to actually enjoy. The first documentary, The Quest Fulfilled: A Director’s Vision runs around 22-minutes and focuses on the director and the style he brings to the film. Cast members are also interviewed and they kindly tell us what a great director Jackson is. A Filmmaker’s Journal: Making Return of the King runs just under 30-minutes and is a bit better but as I mentioned before a lot of what’s said here was talked about in the previous documentary. I doubt any die-hard fans are going to learn anything new here because the documentary pretty much talks about how Jackson got New Line to do three films back to back. National Geographic Special: The Return of the King I believe was previously released on its own so this here might be another disappointment to fans looking for something new. Rounding out the extras include a promo for the video game, two theatrical trailers (5.1, 16x9), thirteen TV spots and a “Super Trailer”, which contains clips from all three films edited together.

OVERALL---The film certainly needs no defending so my opinions on the CGI is probably worthless to most but the fans will certainly be very happy in the video and audio department. I have a very hard time believing the audio on the Extended Edition could be better but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. The extras are a bit disappointing but we all know what’s coming in November so these should tide fans over until then.

Release Date: May 25, 2004

#2 of 430 OFFLINE   Tim Hoover

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Posted May 11 2004 - 02:27 PM

The big question is: what color is the case? Posted Image

BTW, thx for the review. I'm jealous....
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#3 of 430 OFFLINE   HorstenG



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Posted May 11 2004 - 02:32 PM

This is a rather poor review in my opinion. Your thoughts on new-fangled-computers runing the "talkies" is not terribly relevant or informative. Something for a seperate, non-review thread perhaps? Why not view it again and give us more on the technical aspects of the transfer, presentation and extras?

#4 of 430 OFFLINE   Marcel_V


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Posted May 11 2004 - 02:36 PM

Nice review, I'll have to rent it to tide me over until November. I'm excited to hear the sound mix on my newly arrived SVS Posted Image

I can understand the complaint about CGI sometimes overwhelming the film. I am a big fan of the movies, but thats because I am an original book fan, and the movies are just a nice way for me to visually see the story when I don't want to reread.

I mentally fill in all of the missing character/plot details (of which there are a lot) while I watch the movie, and that makes it acceptable for me.

If I didn't read the books, I don't think I would enjoy the movies nearly as much, I'd be too unfulfilled.

#5 of 430 OFFLINE   Travis_S


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Posted May 11 2004 - 02:37 PM

I don't agree with it, but thanks for the review. I'm glad the video quality is good, I was worried with it being both nearly 3 and a half hours long and on one disc but it looks like I don't have to worry about it.

#6 of 430 OFFLINE   Kevin Grey

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Posted May 11 2004 - 03:24 PM

Although I feel some movies are much too reliant on CGI these days (Van Helsing to name a recent example), I can't really fathom any of the LOTR movies being on that list. When you go back and look at the Tolkein artwork created through the years its pretty clear that, short of an animated work, no movie could really do justice to that imagery without the tools on hand now. Jackson and Co did a remarkable job of bringing those paintings to life on the screen. Also, its pretty impressive how much of these movies is NOT done with CGI. They used extensive model work and other old fashioned techniqes like forced perspective throughout this series.

#7 of 430 OFFLINE   Dannie


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Posted May 11 2004 - 03:25 PM

the case is a very dark blue! and from the pamphlet in the case! one can tell the extended version will be dark blue also! but the gift set looks to be a black case

#8 of 430 OFFLINE   Ryan Wong

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Posted May 11 2004 - 03:44 PM

The CGI of ROTK is great. It puts Van Helsing in shame. Shame on ILM.
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#9 of 430 OFFLINE   Carlo Medina

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Posted May 11 2004 - 03:50 PM

Well we are (obviously) talking to different people about the acting in this film. In my group of friends (and no, they're not LoTR fanatics, many had never read the books) they thought the ensemble acting was very good, but with the lack of a true lead and so many supporting parts, that is why they weren't nominated. Of course you are entitled to your opinion as others who love this film are to theirs. I don't think you should be criticized for it, I mean we all know what we're getting here, right? I mean I doubt there will be many "blind buys" for this one (which is where a reviewer's comments on film quality can really have an effect)--I think most who purchase this film will have seen it and have their own opinions. As far as audio/video quality, if the first two releases weren't an indication of what is to come 5/25/04 (and the EE later this year for that matter) I don't know what is.

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#10 of 430 OFFLINE   Bill Thomann

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Posted May 11 2004 - 03:52 PM

Thanks for the good review. I'll be looking forward to wearing out this double disc until the EE comes out. Posted Image

#11 of 430 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted May 11 2004 - 04:21 PM

I still think Fellowship is the best of the three, because it is the most personal and character-oriented of the three. I also think Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh sometimes get a little giddy, over-the-top, and silly in certain moments.

That being said, they are sensational entertainments. As for CGI, speaking only for myself, it is like any other tool in cinema. It isn't the technology, it is how the technology is used. Minority Report is a good example, but then, so are the many, many films that use digital grading or sky-replacement or digital stunt doubles...films where you never even see the Computer Generated Imagery.

I see where you're coming from - I also think some of the praise for the film is a wee bit enthusiastic, but hey, let the people dance if they want to dance. I still find myself wondering how a film that features a giant spider won 11 Academy Awards ... Posted Image but hey, it's all good. If someone believes Return of the King is a greater film than Citizen Kane, more power to them. You can't tell someone what they should like, only what you like and why, and if you engage them on that basis, you'll win more hearts and minds.

That being said, I think this was uncalled for:

"Your thoughts on new-fangled-computers runing the "talkies" is not terribly relevant or informative."

When it comes to the LOTR films, CGI is incredibly relevant, and because a film review is a piece of opinion journalism (at least it SHOULD be - Lord, do I hate dry reviews - take a stand, dammit), his feelings on CGI form a large part of the basis for his opinion of the series as a whole. I don't see how anyone can write a comprehensive analysis of the LOTR films *without* bringing up CGI -- an entire character is created via computer.

No reason this thread has to turn into a Disney stockholder's meeting - it's only a movie.

#12 of 430 OFFLINE   nolesrule



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Posted May 11 2004 - 04:38 PM

Yes, but Michael's feelings on CGI in the review seem to come across as "since Balrog's don't exist in real life, making a CGI Balrog takes me out of the story." Please correct me if I'm wrong, but that's the way his CGI comments came across to me. In that light, the comment made by HorstenG makes perfect sense. LOTR is a story that until now had been considered unfilmable because it couldn't be done without advanced technology to do things such as the Balrog and other creatures that do not exist in real life. The comparison to "talkies" is a valid comparison. So, a viewer has a choice...get pulled out of the story because of "I can't get past CGI that portrays balrogs, dragons or other non-real world occurances" or invoke a suspension of disbelief. In LOTR, the story determines the CGI, not vice versa (except the Legolas takedown of the mumakil).

#13 of 430 OFFLINE   Alexander.M



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Posted May 11 2004 - 04:41 PM

Good technical review but I respectfully disagree with the CGI discussion. That rant should be directed towards other movies. (You all know which) The LOTR's movies used so many real suits of armor, real hordes of horses, huge sets were built on location all over the country , real miniature models were built for all of the city shots, hordes of extras, etc. I simply do not see the extensive blue screen work you describe in the review. I think very little was done with blue screen, only part I can think off of the top of my head is some of the Treebeard scenes in TTT when he's carrying the hobbits. How else are they supposed to make giant walking trees, flying dragon type things, gollum, 50 ft high elephants, 200,000 orcs, and an army of ghosts and a giant spider? "That there is where the fake looking CGI completely takes over the heart of a film, which lies with what’s real. " Middle Earth is not real. It is a work of fantasy. These things do not exist for the director to film. I think it is totally unfair to compair this to Ben Hur and Gangs of New York and say that these films are better because they have no CGI. These films are historical epics and feature HUMANS doing things that humans do. LOTR's is a fantasy epic, and is only filmable with the help of computers. I have the opposite reaction to you. Watching all three movies I get the chills sometimes because the movies are so well done that the locations LOOK REAL moreso than I could have imagined possible. The LOTR's films are the most beautiful visually imo. Im sure you could single out 10 or so spots in the trilogy where you say the CGI is distracting, but the film is 11 hours long. Finally, I agree that there is sometimes too much CGI in some movies today, but I had to reply to disagree with this part of the review because the LOTR movies are NOT in this category.

#14 of 430 OFFLINE   Dome Vongvises

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Posted May 11 2004 - 04:44 PM

Good review, in spite of the fact I disagree with it.

No offense Michael, but thank God I don't have your problems with CGi. Posted Image If I had those kinds of problems, I'd be in a lot of trouble. My film experience would go something like this:

"Fake blood, it's Karo syrup."

"Oh, that's a prosthetic."

"Squib there, squib here."

"That's obviously painted on."

"That penis is fake. That's obviously an extension."

"That's obviously an implant."

"That's a body double."

"That's not headlights, they're flash lights."

"That things made of rubber."

Of course, I can see your point that some things need to be grounded in reality. But of course, I'm hard pressed to think of a way to procure gigantic spiders, mountain cities, (no Rio De Janiero doesn't count) and other sorts of things. On the other hand, the kind of realism you get in something like... The French Connection can put people's lives in danger.

As far as effects work taking me out of a movie, there are two horrible offenders I can think of.
1. The Mummy Returns
2. The African Queen

#15 of 430 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted May 11 2004 - 04:52 PM

Maybe Michael just finished watching Van Helsing and was a bit CGI-ed out. Posted Image

#16 of 430 OFFLINE   Craig S

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Posted May 11 2004 - 05:02 PM

Funny, the only time I was really "taken out" of the LotR films was by the good old-fashioned technique of body doubling. There were a few scenes throughout the trilogy where it was obvious that the "little people" were standing in for the principal hobbit actors.
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#17 of 430 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted May 11 2004 - 05:15 PM

Yeah - I wish I hadn't watched all the "making of" docs on the extended sets before seeing ROTK.

#18 of 430 OFFLINE   Mark Walker

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Posted May 11 2004 - 05:28 PM

While I disagree with Michael's position on the use of CGI in LoTR, I have to say all this mention of Minority Report as the best use of CGI seems to completely be missing that the best stand alone film of the year had CGI that I didn't know was even there: Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. Comparatively Minority Report looked very CGI-esque, particularly those things that tried to remove Cruise's eye bandages.

Paramount, please release DRAGONSLAYER on Blu-ray




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#19 of 430 OFFLINE   Ernest Rister

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Posted May 11 2004 - 05:36 PM

Good post, Mark - that's what I meant when I said that there are many instances of CGI that we never even see, hence the problem isn't with the technology per se. It sounds like Mr. Elliott had a hard time suspending his disbelief, but I don't want to put words in his mouth.

#20 of 430 OFFLINE   Dan Hitchman

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Posted May 11 2004 - 07:03 PM

I would say that the most glaringly bad use of CGI was the Legolas fighting the Olephant (sp?) scene during the end battle. That was pretty bad IMHO and drew me completely out of the fight (which was 90% CGI to begin with!). Digital doubles do not look good at all yet. You just can't fake a real person. Master and Commander should have won for best SFX this year. It was very, very well done and not overly obvious that you were looking at separate ocean and land plates (both real and computer designed), CGI, and models most of the time. That's when SFX should be used the most... when there's no other way and when they can be done without drawing attention to themselves. An American Werewolf In London and The Howling are two great examples of how practical stage and makeup effects can still hold up to today's CGI any day of the week (and many times best it), and they're both from the early 1980's!! I'll hold off and buy the extended cut just as before. Dan

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