Saturday, December 18, 2004

Jonathan V. Last: Return of the Return of the King

[I don't agree with everything in this piece but Mr. Last does make some valid points]

Return of Return of the King
The Extended Edition DVD of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is bigger, but is it better?
by Jonathan V. Last
12/17/2004 12:00:00 AM

A YEAR AGO TO THE DAY, I stood, alone, on the banks of the Brandywine River, and raised quiet voice of criticism against The Return of the King. Suspecting that it would win critical praise overdue from The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers--as well as the Oscars those movies deserved--I predicted that down the road Return of the King would be the least loved installment of the series.

Love is difficult to measure, but dollars are not. Look, for example, at the box office returns for the trilogy. Fellowship began by earning $315 million in the United States. The Two Towers saw a modest increase to $342 million, which is what sequels are supposed to do. Return of the King saw only a similar increase, to $377 million. Make no mistake, $377 million is a healthy number.

Most movies would cry to do such numbers. But with $342 million as a baseline and two years of pent-up expectation, it probably should have done better. Particularly considering Oscar: Traditionally, winning big at the Academy Awards has been thought to add anywhere from $10 million to $50 million to a movie's box office gross. (Last year a group of professors at Colby College analyzed data for Academy Award nominees and winners prior to 1987 and found that the true benefit of a Best Picture win was an average bump of $16 million. As movie inflation has skyrocketed, box-office take has been front-loaded, and the Academy Awards have become a more omnipresent event, it is likely that the average boost for a Best Picture winner today is significantly greater.)

DVD sales of Return of the King have been more promising. The trilogy's distributor, New Line, declined to release sales figures for the various DVD editions, but the trade magazine DVD Exclusive reports that Fellowship sold 11.7 million copies (it's Extended Edition sold another 4.3 million) and Two Towers sold 10.8 million copies (plus 4.2 million Extended Edition copies). By contrast, Return of the King has sold 12.5 million copies. Good numbers, but not what you would expect for the most heralded edition of the franchise. You may have talked yourself into loving Return of the King when it first came out, but for most people, grubby reality has finally set in.

The grubby reality is that Return of the King was a deeply flawed enterprise. It was, by leagues, the weakest of the three movies. The pacing was poor, the timeline condensed. There were plot holes and characters who suddenly became passive. There were dramatic deformities aplenty.

And yet there is good news: This week the extended version of Return of the King comes to DVD. The four-disc set is loaded with features and commentaries and, most important, 50 extra minutes of footage which has been woven into the film. This extra footage addresses, I'm happy to say, nearly every defect which I reported on a year ago.

THE FULL EXTENDED EDITION of Return of the King now runs a staggering 250 minutes. Yet, if anything, it moves more briskly than the theatrical release. The new footage is sprinkled in fairly evenly throughout, with large clumps gathering here and there. In the first large-scale addition, we get the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman at Isengard. Peter Jackson strays from the text in order to avoid another coda from the book. This deviation is not entirely unwelcome.

What is unwelcome is a new scene in Rohan, where, following their victory at Helm's Deep, Legolas and Gimli compete by chugging beers. The comedy is broad and unimaginative. As a rule, you shouldn't film a drinking contest if you can't top Marion Ravenwood's epic victory. The scene ends with Legolas quipping, "Game over." Tolkein should never be made to resemble Spy Kids.

(Nonetheless, this scene and the one following, where we see Legolas standing looking at the stars while the rest of the castle sleeps, are not meant for the Spy Kids camp. No, the catnip is intended for the gentle souls who spend their evenings debating elvish metaphysics and want to see The Silmarillion put on film.)

There are other, less indulgent, inclusions, three of which strengthen the narrative arc of the story considerably. The story of the palantír is fattened and given context. The siege of Gondor is padded, giving the battle greater scope and resonance, because now the passage of time is clear: We see day turn into night and into day again. Instead of looking like a videogame scrum, the fight's momentum now changes by turn. These shifts give the siege dramatic weight to anchor it's visual spectacle.

Perhaps most important, Jackson has added considerable meat to Aragorn's summoning of the armies of the dead. In the theatrical release, Aragorn called for the dead, they laughed at him, and the next thing we knew, ghosts were streaming off of ships in the middle of the Anduin River. In the Extended Edition, this gaping plot hole is filled and we see how the army of the dead captures the corsairs.

There are other rewarding nuggets, too. Included are scenes from the Houses of Healing, which steady the structure by providing a capstone to the siege of Gondor, and a pause before the story hurtles forward. (These scenes also lay the groundwork for the romance of Faramir and Eowyn, instead of simply lumping them together, as the theatrical release did.)

But the most beloved addition might just be the introduction of the Mouth of Sauron at the gates of Mordor. Jackson and his Weta artists have perfectly realized this minor, but fascinating character. To see him onscreen is a disgusting delight. And as an added bonus, the confrontation between Aragorn and Sauron's Mouth gives some strength and decisiveness to an otherwise listlessly written king.

THE FINAL VERDICT on Return of the King: Extended Edition can only be positive. This chapter is still the weakest of the trilogy, but it is a weakling now worthy of celebration in its own right.

The belated triumph makes it easier to appreciate the full scope of Jackson's achievement. He successfully adapted a trio of books totalling more than 1,000 pages and managed to nearly always honor the spirit, if not the letter, of the original. He avoided Hollywoodization. He created lived-in worlds.

Where Tolkein paid as much attention to sound and smell as he did to visuals, Jackson did everything he could to convey that sensibility on a moving picture. Take, for example, the voice work of the principal men in Lord of the Rings: Bernard Hill, Ian McKellen, John Noble, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving. They comprise the finest group of voices ever assembled on film, and they give The Lord of the Rings texture no CGI could ever conjure.

And last, but not least, let us give credit to Peter Jackson for ending his masterwork not with Frodo or Gandalf or Aragorn, but with humble Samwise Gamgee.

The Extended Edition of Return of the King restores order and honor to Middle Earth. Just in time for Christmas.

Jonathan V. Last is the film critic for The Daily Standard. He also runs the blog Galley Slaves.

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