With additional scenes handpicked by Jackson to make their first appearance in this special edition, a great movie simply became even better. Of the three Extended Editions that were part of this magnificent collection, THE RETURN OF THE KING is the one that has gained the most between it's theatrical release and this version. With eighteen additional scenes and a bunch of extended scenes, the film clicks in at an epic 260 minutes, each and everyone of which is worth its weight in gold. One of the parts of watching these extended versions that has been the most pleasurable has been the total lack of throwaway scenes too often tossed in to shill off another DVD edition. There's no doubt that most people would not have been able to bare with a movie this long in theatres but in the comfort of your own couch, on your own home theater, believe me when I tell you you'll be a tad sorry when it's over and you realize that a classic trilogy has come to an end.
Enough raving though and let's get down to what made this version so great. First off, it closes a few of the loops that were left open by the theatrical cut as far as the film's relation to the book goes. The fate of Saruman is finally sealed and while you'll get a definite answer early on as to whether he reappears to haunt the Hobbits in the Shire, it does a much better job of tying up this loose end that the rather iffy declaration of harmlessness initially made by Gandalf. The timeline of the movie is also tightened up a bit, putting the events within closer reach of each other. Far and away though, the best thing the added footage does is simply give us more of what we want. The epic Battle of Pelennor Fields is extended and improved if that was even thought to be possible, the set-up toward the more emotional moments of the movie, such as the doomed desire of Faramir (David Wenham) to please his mad father Denethor (John Noble) is made even more involving and we get to see more of some of the cooler characters in the films such as my favorite, the Witch King of Angmar, leader of the Ring Wraiths and quite possibly the most intimidating on-screen character since Darth Vader donned his black helmet.. The big question though revolves around one single scene. Most inquiries I've received up to now have related to the possible inclusion of one of Tolkien's most interesting characters who happened to be omitted in the theatrical cut. I don't want to spoil this for anyone but those who have been waiting for him will know who I'm talking about and those who don't will have a chance to discover a character who created such an impact in just a few pages of reading that his few minutes of screen time are were well worth the wait.
It's important to rest assured that this edition is not intended simply to dry the pants of some impatient fan boys who've been licking at the chops for the past five years. Like I mentioned above, Jackson didn't simply add a bunch of baloney to say he did it. The result is a genuinely good film for long time fans and for those who've only discovered the story through the movies. Take it from me, I only read the books after seeing THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and only read them once. I haven't lived the past 20 years of my life hoping someone would make a film out of this but I'm damn happy someone did and I'm glad it was someone like Peter Jackson with obvious respect for the source material. My approach to these films was not as a fan of The Lord of the Rings, it was as a fan of good movies and all three of these were just that. Awesome story, awesome movies and awesome extended versions of the latter. You can't go wrong with this.
Discs 1 & 2: Special Extended Edition of the Film
Full Length Audio Commentary by Director Peter Jackson and Writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens: This track is sort of tame but does dispel a fair amount of information including many of the editorial decisions which were taken in order to adapt the book to film. I'm not sure anyone would be able to take four hours plus of any type of commentary though.
Full Length Audio Commentary by the Design Team: Several people show up here to discuss everything from sets to special effects, from costumes to make-up and much more. It's definitely of interest for anyone interested in behind-the-scenes movie work.
Full Length Audio Commentary by the Production / Post-Production Teams: Like the previous track, this is reserved for those who like to know what goes on behind the camera. This gets pretty technical at times but its well narrated and relatively interesting.
Full Length Audio Commentary by the Cast: Who shows up? How about Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Sir Ian McKellen, the stunning Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, the lovely Miranda Otto, David Wenham, John Noble and of course, Andy Serkis. If that doesn't crumble your cookie then you should see a doctor. A few of them are assembled together and others are edited in but as for all four commentary tracks, they write on screen who is speaking so you can actually keep track. My vote for the most insightful commentary? Liv Tyler who is much, much more than just a pretty face.... Where Viggo at?
Disc 3: The Appendices Part Five - The War of the Ring
JRR Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth (30 mins): A continuation of Tolkien's history and of the events and desires which eventually led to the creation of his masterpiece. It also goes quite in depth about the creative thoughts he had or might have had which adds a lot to one's understanding of the history of Middle-earth. Some experts also analyze the characters, focusing on the ones that were introduced in The Return of the King.
From Book to Script - Forging the Final Chapter (25 mins): This is quite self-explanatory and details, via Peter Jackson and some others, the way the chapters of the book were realigned to adapt the story to the big screen. Those who were shocked not to see Shelob at the end of The Two Towers will understand a bit more why they had to wait. It also explains a few of the other "inaccuracies" in the film.
From Book to Script - Abandoned Concept: Aragorn Battles Sauron (5 mins): There's a short vignette of what could have been a rather unfortunate alternate ending to the film and one which would have sent the purists running for the hills. Using storyboards, rough animation and concept art, we see a clip of Aragorn confronting Sauron in a final duel while Frodo and Gollum battle for the ring in the crack of Mount Doom.
Designing and Building Middle-earth - Designing Middle-earth (40 mins): This is your basic how-to recipe in case you're planning on building an alternate world for yourself in your backyard or basement. It's about as complete and detailed as any production design featurette you'll ever see and does its part in intensifying the massive feel of this movie by highlighting the incredible amount of detail contained on such a giant scale production.
Designing and Building Middle-earth - Weta Workshop (47 mins): the workshop which has now become synonymous with The Lord of the Rings goes into a very long explanation of the sources of inspiration they used to reconcile the necessities of filmmaking with Jackson's vision of Middle-earth. Again, there's a focus on the characters and items used in The Return of the King but the feature is quite similar to the ones bearing the same title in the precious Extended Editions.
Designing and Building Middle-earth - Big-atures (20 mins): This was my favorite feature in the two previous sets and once again, I had a blast with it. It's a compilation of the huge "miniature" sets used in the movies for sets. The ones described are the Tower of Cirith Ungol, the City of the Dead, the Grey Havens, Grond the Hammer of the Underworld, Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith, probably the single most impressive set in the entire trilogy.
Designing and Building Middle-earth - Costume Design (12 mins): This is a home movie of my last ski trip, when I ordered poutine but the guy screwed it up! Oh no, I was thinking of something else. This is a featurette on costume design in which you'll be able to realize all the work that went into these. I have to admit though, I think they went a bit too far by putting Warg fur on the inside of the With King's underpants!
Designing and Building Middle-earth - Design Galleries: A huge collection of stills with conceptual art for pretty much every single character, land and set in the film. There are literally hundreds of pictures in here and all are well categorized. Some of them even come with optional commentary revealing a bit more about the creative process.
Home of the Horse Lords (30 mins): A documentary on the horse work used in all three films of the trilogy. It's one of those things you don't really think about while watching the movie... At any given time, a horse could freak out at the sound of a squib and print a horseshoe on Viggo's forehead.
Middle-earth Atlas (60 mins): You've got about an hour of entertainment here where you'll be shown a map of Middle-earth from which you can track the itineraries of the different groups of characters during the movie. By clicking on each mark on their journey, you can see a clip of the movie from the events that took place in that spot.
New Zealand as Middle-earth (16 mins): One of the coolest features found on all three DVDs, this allows you to click on some great sets from the movie and then get transported to the place in New Zealand where it was filmed. The ones available are East Ithilien, Dunharrow, the Paths of the Dead, Pelennor Field, the Black Gate and Mordor.
Disc 4: The Appendices Part Six - The Passing of an Age
Filming "The Return of the King" - Cameras in Middle-earth (73 mins): A massive documentary about just what it basically took to get this film done. Everyone shows up to talk about their experiences on set. The making of The Lord of the Rings is probably one (if not the) most ambitious project in movie history in terms of time, money, techniques and sheer enormity. All this begs the question "what if the first film had tanked?" That can only make one think of the number of people who put their heads on the line for this to happen.
Filming "The Return of the King" - Production Photos: A set of stills taken on set.
Visual Effects - Weta Digital (40 mins): Weta Digital had to do almost 1,500 effects shot for this movie whereas a regular blockbuster has about 200. The staff describes the experience of doing all this under pressure from Peter Jackson who seemed to have very, very specific ideas about how he wanted each frame to look. Lots of work but watching people talk about computer animation just ain't my bag.
Visual Effects - Demonstration: The Mūmakil Battle (20 mins): The Mūmakil are these massive elephant-like creatures who make a brief appearance in the Two Towers but who play a pivotal role in the Battle of Pelennor Field. This feature lets you see a digital scene from that battle using seven different stages of scene completion. It's available with optional commentary and all seven angles can be views simultaneously or individually.
Post Production: Journey's End - Editorial: Completing the Trilogy (22 mins): A featurette in which we're told about the editing process of the movie and some of the decisions that are made as far as the cutting room floor goes. Standard.
Post Production: Journey's End - Music for Middle-earth (22 mins): We can accompany composer Howard Shore as he puts together the mesmerizing score for The Return of the King.
Post Production: Journey's End - The Soundscapes of Middle-earth (22 mins): The sound effect guys show up and give us their two bits about working on a movie of this scale where hundreds of sounds can be heard simultaneously in a single scene.
Post Production: Journey's End - The End of all Things (22 mins): Now that we've seen how everything is done, we get to hear a bit about how it all comes together in the end. At some point in "final assembly", peter Jackson was working on the music in London while the rest of the crew was finishing up in New Zealand. That's just nuts!
The Passing of an Age (25 mins): For fans, the end of the trilogy might bring mixed feelings. While we're all happy to see the story come to its completion, there's nothing to look forward to as far as this universe goes which has gripped us for the past four years. You can only imagine then what it must be like for those who've been working on this for almost 10 years now. The Passing of an Age tells of their experience and eventual separation at the end of filming and post production. It's strangely touching.
Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for "Into the West" - Cameron Duncan Documentary (32 mins): Cameron Duncan was a 16-year old filmmaker from New Zealand who was befriended by Peter Jackson during the filming of The Lord of the Rings. Sadly, Cameron passed away of cancer shortly after but remained an inspiration to those who had met him which eventually led to the writing of "Into the West", the song performed during the end credits by Annie Lennox. Two of his short films, "DFK6498" and "Strike Zone", which deal with his disease are included in this feature and also available separately. It's a classy move by Peter Jackson to included this on the DVD but it's not undeserved. This kid really deserved to get his work seen by others.