There was a mix-up in the mailroom at my building (grrr) and I only received this DVD Monday evening like many of you on-line shoppers...so in an effort to get this review out quickly I'm breaking it up into two sections. Part one will be my review of the film and A/V quality and part two (coming later) will be my review of the special feature content...
No effort to bring Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings tale to film could possibly please everyone. A purely faithful on-screen account would be impossibly long to produce, and be too arduous for all but the most dedicated of fans to enjoy. A contemporary "Hollywood" action film interpretation, with requisite formulaic characterization and spiritually void storytelling, would have made sure hit at the box-office and pay-per-view while bastardizing Tolkien's vision and offending followers of the books. For years most fans considered their dream to see this story brought to the screen to be a technical and marketing impossibility. Peter Jackson has proved them wrong. And while his presentation of The Lord of The Rings may not be perfect, the "impossible" goal to bring Tolkein's fantasy to life has been achieved.
Jackson has produced the film epic for our generation that defines a new film-genre. Much like the Star Wars films from the late 1970's, Jackson's vision cannot be funneled through any existing category of film and judged accordingly. It establishes something new, and sets forth its own rules, language, and in essence, defines a new genre altogether. Jackson's trilogy moves boldly, yet is finely-feathered in subtle meaning and detail which adds depth to his presentation and soul to his characters. Jackson's The Lord of The Rings trilogy is a film saturated with a virtue seldom associated with big-budget/special-effect-laden films today: integrity.
It's got some faults. For one, I think that the comic-relief use of Gimli is a bit overdone and weakens some dramatic moments of the movie (This is Middle Earth, let's leave the tension alone and not feel the need to lighten-the-mood during battle scenes with Dwarf humor shall we?). There are also times when Jackson seems to make alterations to Tolkien's story that neither improve the movie's flow, story's impact, or seem to make practical sense. Some of the digital special effects look...well...digital. And despite the inordinate length of the films, the viewer sometimes feels a little hurried along as Jackson doesn't seem generous with letting the camera hang on a scene long enough to let the onlooker "take his fill".
It's also got some outstanding strengths. Characters look and feel authentic. Acting is superlative. And the whole ensemble-- screen play, acting, costumes, sets, effects, music and imagery all work together to create a moving painting...a work of art...which embodies this story a manner so integral, so expressive, that no clear division can be drawn between the visual, sound, and story elements. And while you heard me mention that some of the digital special effects betray their binary origin, let me also state that Jackson does a very effective job at minimizing the discrepancy between real and simulated visuals by casting the whole image into a stylized glaze that alters hue, obscures impressions, and imparts an other-worldly, mythical atmosphere to the look of the film.
The Return of The King is arguably the most powerful of the three The Lord of The Rings installments. On the surface, all of the conflicts and wandering storylines tie together amidst the tumult of epic battles manifesting the ultimate struggle between good and evil. But what makes this film so moving, so beautiful, is the depth-of-character that it conveys. The struggle isn't merely "war", and it isn't merely religious; it's a battle fought in the very hearts and souls of men and women within themselves, struggling to keep faith, do right, and stay true to the noble duties set before them; the struggle is spiritual. The resolution and love between these friends is truly beautiful, and the actors lose their own identity and become these characters for us in this final film and we feel their emotions, groan with their struggles, revel in their joy, and vicariously partake of the bonds of fellowship that they share. I often cry in movies, but I don't think I've ever cried such bitter-sweet tears for so sustained a time as I cry at the end of this film; from the moment when Frodo awakens from his rescue by the Eagle's talons, the tears start. And they don't stop until after the credits have rolled.
|Presentation & Packaging...|
Extended Edition (spoilers so beware): With over 50 minutes of footage incorporated ("added" is not the proper descriptor) into the former theatrical cut, The Return of The King Extended Edition emerges on DVD as a very changed film. Like the Extended Editions of its two predecessors, the new footage integrates seamlessly in look and feel of the original and the depth of characterization is much improved over the theatrical cuts. Many scenes beloved by fans of Tolkien's story that were bemoaned to be missing in the theatrical cut (Saruman's demise, Houses of Healing) are restored here to the satisfaction of most. Other reviews have explicated the details of every added or altered scene and, not being the expert of Tolkien's work, I do not wish to go into such detail here. Having seen this film exactly once during its theatrical run, I can tell you that my impressions of the extended cut is that it is a much more effective film on counts of story and characterization though it flows a bit more slowly, and undoubtedly some will experience this as a more clumsy or wandering storyline and perhaps look on this extended cut with disfavor because if it.
But let me restate my assessment early on that Jackson's effort "establishes something new, and sets forth its own rules, language, and in essence, defines a new genre." I'll put forth that we're conditioned by movie norms to expect a certain flow, a kind of pacing, and if something gets in the way of that the reaction is to call it an "obstacle" and question its merit. But where do these rules come by which we "read" the art of film? Would you judge a musical with the same rules by which you judge a suspense film? Would you try to interpret a science-fiction film with the same vocabulary you use to understand a romance-comedy? While this convention might apply easily to most "ordinary" films, I'd suggest that you set aside your rule-book for "how to experience movies" for The Return of The King and let it take you on its own journey and reveal to you its own language, it's own vocabulary, it's own way of being understood and experienced. The journey this film conveys is one of diligence, struggle to resist discouragement despite the repeated agony of staying true to one's mission, and its a painful and difficult task. This extended cut of The Return of The King expresses this struggle much more clearly...the trail of Frodo and Sam to the tower feels much longer, more difficult, and more weary than before. Battles feel longer and more painful. Political interests feel more threatening and relationships of friendship and love more precious (Aragorn and the Palantir). I think that if you let-go and allow yourself to experience the extended cut of The Return of The King you'll find it to be a more powerful and affecting story which in many ways is served by the slower, more gradual film-pacing and complex story development.
There were a few scenes I found distracting (felt a few moments could have been trimmed from the Dead Armies-negotiation scene) but I don't find that they hurt the film in any real way though some may find discomfort with the manner in which they alter a few impressions with which they've grown Familiar. I'm glad I saw the theatrical cut to have both experiences to remember, but now having watched the Extended Edition of The Return of The King it will be my default choice when I want to enjoy the fullest experience of this magnificent film or introduce it to others.
Packaging: The Extended Edition of The Return of The King comes to you in the same fashion as the extended cuts of the first two films: There is a lovely cardboard outer-sleeve with a spine designed to look like an aged leather-bound book that houses a fold-out cardboard holder that houses the four discs with a sleeve holding a booklet. The booklet is minimal but very effective and does just what it should: it provides a clear scene-listing for the feature film (with clear denoting of which scenes are added or extended from the theatrical presentation) and reveals a "map" of bonus material to make navigation a simple task. The feature movie is spread across two dual-layer DVDs to ease compression, with two DVDs dedicated to nothing but bonus material. Layer changes were swift and I hardly noticed them passing, and the disk-change break is not disruptive and reasonably placed.
For those of you who have purchased each extended cut individually and now feel a sense of loss as you see all three extended cuts bundled in a handsome slip-case on the store shelves...never fear. If you go to www.lotrdvdbox.com you can order an empty slip-case to house your set for only a $3.00 shipping fee (pay via credit card on the site and no proof-of-purchase or receipt is required), providing you with everything you would have obtained had you purchased the "bundle" in its shrink-wrapped form. Who could ask for more...
Not having purchased the theatrical cut of The Return of The King on DVD, I'll be comparing the quality of this disc to the DVDs of the extended cuts of the previous two films...which I think makes the most sense anyway as most fans will view their key "Trilogy" to be a collection of these three extended cuts. I hope this meets with your satisfaction. And let me clarify for any first-time readers of my reviews that I view my DVDs on a calibrated BenQ 8700+ projector being fed via DVI a 1280 x 720P image (the native resolution of my projector) from my Momitsu DVD player (scales DVDs to HD resolution at either 720P or 1080I for high-resolution displays). My viewing distance is approximately 1.6 screen-widths back from my 106" diagonal 16x9 screen (Dalite HiPower). This is one of the finest-looking images available for under $5K and it reveals an astonishing level of detail from the DVD medium...exposing artifacts when present but also rendering an astonishingly film-like image from well-mastered DVD material. If you'd like to read more about my "reviewing philosophy" please see my Mary Poppins review.
So what's it look like?
This Extended Edition of The Return of The King is the finest-looking DVD from the "extended" trilogy. The extended cut of the first Fellowship improved upon the theatrical DVD version, then the extended cut of the second film improved upon the extended cut of the first, and now this latest disc has continued New Line's improvement-trend.
Of the two previous Extended Editions, The Return of The King Extended Edition looks most like Two Towers, but with some subtle, but impactful improvements. Detail, much like the Two Towers, is impressive, and seems to be slightly improved. Images that were filmed soft-focus still maintain their character, but detail-loaded shots explode with clarity and subtle image definition. Don't sell out too quickly...there's still room for improvement and any future high-definition medium will blow these DVDs away. But as it stands The Return of The King Extended Edition puts out a rich and satisfying image that will make most videophiles sigh. Wide-angle viewers (those viewing less than two screen-widths away) will be impressed with the film-like quality of the image. The The Return of The King paints an astonishing natural looking image...natural in the sense that the DVD is imparting very little "signature" into the picture so the film-source material shines through with ease.
The image is surprisingly 3-dimensional, and in this regard it starts to look decidedly superior to its Two Towers predecessor. My suspicion is that the improved sense of image depth is a result of another improvement I couldn't help but notice...the increased contrast and richer, more solid black-level. In terms of black-level and contrast, the image reminds me of the recent (excellent) Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back DVDs from Fox. Blacks are inky and stable with no hint of digital/compression noise. I did notice some noise in some dark scenes but it was film-grain related and not a cause for concern. The dynamic range of the image...from dark to light...seems more intense than Two Towers and the image "comes alive" in a more powerful way. Grayscale and shadow detail are superb and all the dim and somber tones and muted colors are expressed with excellence.
Let me state right now that if I read another review of the one of these The Lord of The Rings movies that talks about the "natural flesh-tones" I'm going to throw-up. That is a clear sign-that the reviewer has a miscalibrated monitor, doesn't know how to judge color, or both. The flesh-tones, and all colors for that matter, on all three The Lord of The Rings movies have been intentionally and artfully altered to portray a world that feels surreal and mythical. Flesh tones therefore tend to look very unnatural which is exactly as they should. Tones are muted, often tend to orange and green, like an old faded manuscript or painting. Color is also used to evoke a context or sense of "place" in the story just like the musical score. See how color shifts take place to depict image from Rivendell, and how different colors look there in comparison to the Shire (where they appear most life-like), Rohan, or Mordor. The effect is subtle which is also to its credit, Jackson doesn't want his color-shifting to draw attention to itself and become a source of distraction. But he's carefully governed just how color will be skewed in each scene to evoke an impression, a sensation, and combined with the other elements of the glorious cinematography, the effect is beautiful. More than any other The Lord of The Rings DVD come before, The Return of The King Extended Edition presents the marvelous subtlety of color-shifting, tinting, and hue of these films in faithful manner.
I saw one or two instances of color-banding (the opening scene where we meet Smeagol and companion as the image fades in from black) but I'm aware that the DVI connection that I use is most unforgiving of such artifacts and so I don't want to raise too much cause for alarm. Mosquito noise and other conventional MPEG compression artifacting is nill from any sane viewing distance and is likely a result of the generous bit-rate afforded the video portion of this disc spread over two RSDL DVD discs. Colors are intense when intended and somber otherwise, and the "look" of the tones corresponds perfectly to the color that I saw in the projected theatrical cut.
The image isn't perfect though, and just like the previous Two Towers Extended Edition there is the slightest touch of HF boosting/edge-enhancement in the vertical domain. This affects hard-edge transitions of horizontal lines...so the caps of mountain-ranges and rooftops often have a halo-ghost ringing that I find bothersome as I can occasionally see it even from my seating distance. And before folks tell me I'm watching too closely let me assure that I'm not...the viewing angle I'm seeing is what most folks get in the back 1/3 of their local cinema...hardly "too close" and well mastered DVDs look lovely projected and viewed from this width/distance ratio (DVDs don't have the resolution to get as close as you would in the first or middle row of a theater without suffering from visible digital artifacts and softness...which is why most current front-projection home-theaters utilize a 1.5-1.75 screen-width viewing distance). Still, don't be too alarmed...even though I can see the ringing it is minimal and not intrusive...and much to my surprise it doesn't seem to mar the image with an electronic signature like I see on so many Miramax DVDs. However, in comparison to "perfect" DVDs like the Empire Strikes Back that are both relatively unfiltered and completely free from any artificial electronic boosting like edge-enhancement, The Return of The King Extended Edition cannot score a perfect "5".
After disheartening many of you with my critique of the edge-enhancement, let me assure you that the overall look of this DVD is a beauty to behold. It's rare that a DVD comes across looking as natural (non-digital) in its presentation as this, and the velvety-film-like character of the image remains in tact despite the very minimal HF boost. Gorgeous to be sure, and this is one to show of the projector with pride when guests come over and want to know "what's all the fuss about with that home theater stuff". The Return of The King Extended Edition will teach'em right!
Picture Quality: 4.75 / 5
In the past I think I've been too ambiguous with my scoring or at least haven't applied it consistently from title to title, so I've endeavored to define my rating system more clearly to help make the scoring more meaningful (for all titles reviewed December 2004 and later):
|1-2||An absolute abomination. Hurts to watch. Think "Outland" (scan-line aliasing, chroma noise, dotcrawl)-- truly horrid.|
|2-3||Has some serious problems, but one can at least watch it without getting a headache despite all the problems though you might try to talk your guests into picking a different movie to watch if you have a large projection screen. Think Cold Mountain.|
|3-4||Good or at least "acceptable" on a big-screen, but not winning any awards and definitely room for improvement if you view the image wide-angle (though smaller-screen viewers may be quite content). Think the first extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring...decent picture but still some HF filtering and some edge-halos.|
|4-5||A reference picture that really makes the most of the DVD medium and shows extraordinary transparency to the film-source elements. Non-videophile observers can't help but remark "WOW". Think The Empire Strikes Back or the Fifth Element Superbit (sans EE for a flat-out "5").|
Sound is such an important and integral part of this film (as in all installments in Jackson's The Lord of The Rings trilogy) and the disc producers have seen fit to provide the home-theater enthusiast with two discrete multi-channel mixes: A 5.1 Dolby Digital EX mix and a 6.1 DTS EX mix. Both of these can be played back effectively in a 6.1 fashion, but there is a key difference with the way in which the sixth center-rear channel is derived. In the Dolby Digital EX format, the center-rear channel is matrixed into the L/R rear channels and extracted by taking the sum of their in-phase information...the way Prologic decoders decode the information for your front-center channel from a 2.0 mix. This has some inherent compromises and limits the way sound can be "steered" across the rear three channels. However, it is a reasonable compromise given the 5.1 encoding format that Dolby Digital utilizes on our DVD medium. 6.1 DTS ES, improves on things slightly as explained by HTF member Jeremy Anderson:
|In-phase data in DTS-ES Discrete is also incapable of being reproduced in all three rear channels at once, just as it is in DD-EX. To maintain backwards compatibility with DTS 5.1 or 6.1 matrixed DTS-ES systems, the sounds from the sixth discrete channel are also matrixed into the left and right surrounds. During DTS-ES Discrete decoding, the sound from the sixth discrete channel is comparatively SUBTRACTED from the left and right surrounds during decoding. So if the decoder sees that the sound in the sixth discrete channel is also in both the left and right surround channels at equal levels, it subtracts it from those channels. That way, they can still steer the sound precisely between speakers by using varying levels of that sound in the left and right surrounds (which would then not be subtracted by the decoder and would blend with the sixth discrete channel so that the sound images between your rear speakers). Much like DD-EX, this is a compromise to maintain compatibility inside their given format. The biggest difference is that DTS-ES Discrete gives more precise control over the placement of sounds across the rear soundstage.|