Well, here we are again to experience a bitter, scalding end. With the release of the Extended Edition of the final chapter in Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, we have finally come to the last brick in the road. After this, there ain't no more Lord of the Rings movies to look forward to. So how does this concluding chapter fare? Well, in simple enough terms, it kicked my ass straight into next week, where it copied down a lot of stock information which I then exploited for my own selfish gains. Thanks, ass! Anyway, this film allayed any fears anyone may have had that the final installment in the trilogy wouldn't have the payoff we were all hoping for. And, perhaps even more than with the two previous films, the Extended Edition has improved on that achievement still further, bringing us one of the grandest pieces of drama ever filmed. Even if the first two films had been letdowns, which I most definitely found them not to be, it still would've been worth it for this final chapter. Assuming, of course, in blatant defiance of reason, that a guy who made two crappy films would then have made this film exactly as it ended up turning out. But you get what I'm saying, right? Surely I don't have to draw you a map; in fact, don't ask me to, because I suck with maps, and will get you lost somewhere in Mozambique or something.
After the breath-stealing bluster that accompanied the openings of the first two films, Return of the King begins with a seemingly innocuous scene of rustic tranquility which suddenly goes horribly awry, as the long-lost Ring is finally found and becomes the property of the character we will ultimately know as Gollum, who murders his friend Deagol in a terrible fit of madness after seeing his precious for the first time. From there the film moves into what are essentially the final bunch of chapters from The Two Towers, which simply hadn't fit at the end of the film version, depicting our cast of characters all heading towards their greatest challenges as the conflict moves into its final stages.
As with the two previous films, the Extended Edition really rounds out the action and is most assuredly the version to watch, even though you may have to plan ahead several days just to make sure you have enough time; at four hours and ten minutes, it's the longest film many people are ever likely to see on purpose. Still, it can hardly be argued that the added scenes give more depth and texture to the film overall, especially the much-anticipated scene at Isengard depicting Saruman and Gandalf's final confrontation. Never mind that it ends in a way rather dissimilar to the book; it provides much-needed closure to the Saruman plotline that formed the crux of the threat our heroes faced in the first two films. Its deletion from the theatrical cut is understandable, given its positioning at an awkwardly early point in the film, but this is a minor quibble that has far less import for the home release, where pacing of events in relation to the individual films is much less of an issue. The addition of the Houses of Healing sequence also helps to negate the somewhat jarring acceleration towards the end that occurred after the Pelennor Fields battle in the theatrical version, and gives some closure to the Eowyn and Faramir storylines that had been neglected before. The only additional material that might've been best left absent would be the extra sequences involving the dead soldiers summoned by Aragorn, as the unresolved confrontation seen in the shorter cut made for a greater dramatic revelation when the outcome is at last revealed.
Return of the King has the advantage of using mostly characters already well-established in the first two installments, and is relieved of the task of having to handle the vast numbers of introductions that films one and two had to struggle with. If that means that we don't get to see Prince Imrahil, the Dunedain rangers or Ghan-buri-ghan show up, it's an acceptable trade-off in that it's probably the closest to the written material of the three movies. The omission of the understandably problematic Scouring of the Shire sequence aside, the film hits all the important beats of the book and has probably (I haven't counted, because I'm not that much of a loser) the highest quantity of actual Tolkien dialogue, as well. The one major deviation from the book, Gollum's separation of Frodo and Sam, I find not only allowable but a serious dramatic improvement that gives added weight not only to Gollum as a threat, but ultimately to the strength of Sam's dedication. I would, admittedly, have liked to see a more multidimensional depiction of Denethor, though. Nothing he says or does in the film is actually wrong, i.e. different from what he does in the book, but we don't really get to see his keen-minded, cunning side. He ends up being a little too unsympathetic as a result.
Of course, the adherence to the book's details and dialogue wouldn't mean much if the film itself wasn't well-assembled and performed; after all, the Rankin-Bass animated version also used mostly actual Tolkien dialogue, as well, and yet was hardly the experience of reading the story, or, for that matter, watching a film that made a damn bit of sense. Any good film must ultimately stand on its own merits without having to count on a rabid fan-base to carry it through the box office and forgive its foibles over the prospect of seeing some hobbits and big-ass elephants. Return of the King succeeds because it never forgets that the character drama is the driving force of the narrative, and for all its impressive grandeur it remains a personal story of everyday people dealing with extraordinary adversity. If you somehow have missed seeing this one yet, I'd act quickly to correct that, buster, before all of your friends seriously out-cool you.
Oh, did I mention that the special effects kick ass? Good God, this film has some amazing scenes. From Shelob's lair to Gandalf's ride through Minas Tirith to damn near any shot from the Pelennor Fields battle, this film just keeps assaulting us with amazing sights that we thought, even in this modern age of filmmaking wizardry, that we'd never see. Sometimes it's state-of-the-art CG, sometimes it's simple sleight-of-hand tricks, but all of it serves to bring Tolkien's epic storyline to us in a completely convincing manner.
Yes, the denouement is rather long. It's wrapping up an eleven-and-a-half hour long story, dude. That takes some time. If you get to the end of this vast, rolling tale and just want to get up and go, you probably weren't that interested in the story to begin with. Oddly enough, many of the same people who complain about the length of the falling action are the same people who complain that the Scouring of the Shire should've been left in. I've long since given up trying to make sense of human behavior.
-review by Matt Murray