Return of the Special Features
Although I prefer The Fellowship of the Ring for sheer movie-making brilliance, images from (and the overall effect of) The Return of the King have stuck with me more than any film of the last several years. What will the Extended DVD bring later this year? 

Analysis by Greg Wright


THE RETURN OF THE KING
MONTHLY FEATURE: MAY 2004

Return of the Special Features  

This page was created on May 22, 2004
This page was last updated on December 17, 2004

Return of the Special Features
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New Line Cinema has set a high standard of expectations for fans of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Each DVD release has brought with it a new level of behind-the-scenes hoopla which, to be completely honest, has not only been fascinating but has left fans starving for more. Into the breach steps the two-disc DVD release of The Return of the King, once again complete with three "In-Depth Programs," six "Featurettes" and other miscellaneous bonus material. Given that Return garnered eleven Academy Awards this year, appetite for the bonus features is likely to be at an all-time high. How do New Line's offerings stack up this time around?
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The "In-Depth Programs"

This time out, the flagship special feature is "The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision." Peter Jackson is the cinematic Man of the Year, yet this tribute manages to add surprisingly little to our knowledge of the man other than the observation that The Lord of the Rings has taken him from "Peter Who?" obscurity to a "household name." The big question with this feature may be, given that cinematographer Andrew Lesnie observes that he stopped counting at five million feet of film exposed, why its makers could find so little of a unique nature to stuff into its twenty-odd minutes. Granted, the program has the luxury of telling Jackson's story from the standpoint of its ending. But we've known all along where this story has been heading, and this rendition (even the DVD packaging) is missing the tale of the Oscars. Where's Jackson's happy ending? The feature closes with the familiar refrain that Jackson is now done with his job, and the film belongs to the audience—but there's still the extended version of Return, isn't there? Based on Jackson's past history, we can be pretty much assured that he'll be tinkering with the editing and scoring of that one right up until the publishing deadline. I feel somewhat guilty making these observations, though, given Miranda Otto's observation in the final sequence that we are living in a cynical age, and that Jackson's movie has risen above that cynicism. I can only say, "Well, The Return of the King may have; this little program has not."

In a theoretically more predictable (if still potentially delectable) vein is "A Filmmaker's Journey: Making The Return of the King." The usual facts are all here—in fact, a good ten to fifteen minutes of the first "special" feature is duplicated, nearly frame by frame, in this half-hour program. The upside to this duplication is that the best bits of the first feature are included, like the tale of Peter Jackson's pitch to New Line, and interviews with representatives of Tolkien's current publisher. It's well, though, the the scope of this feature is a bit broader, since added gems like bits of Annie Lennox's recording of "Into the West" make the program stand out from its leaner nearly-cloned half-twin. We also get brief glimpses of a very young Peter Jackson, and even more snippets of emotional farewells as the various actors film their last scenes. I have to confess that I literally got chills up my spine as this program came to a close.

The third program is National Geographic's previously released special on The Return of the King—it first aired on December 19 of last year and is nothing new, but you'd pay up to $24.95 if you bought it separately. In fact, it's tempting to call this program sheer fabrication, or wishful thinking. National Geographic's idea of analysis, apparently, is to take the weakest parts of Jackson's adaptation, use them as the lens through which to "understand" Tolkien, and then illuminate Tolkien's supposed intent not through an analysis of the literature and traditions upon which Tolkien drew but through Reader's Digest-style speculative thumbnail sketches of historical figures. As a consequence, this rather empty-headed fifty-minute program spends well over half of its running time reminding us of High School history lessons about Teddy Roosevelt, Lewis and Clark, Winston Churchill, Robert Peary, Benjamin Franklin and, yes, William Wallace (among half a dozen others). I was mostly left scratching my head, but grateful for a handful of not-seen-elsewhere snippets, such as parts of a drinking contest between Legolas and Gimli—a scene which has not yet found its way onto an extended DVD.

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The "Featurettes"

This section includes six short features originally produced specifically for lordoftherings.net. (Where they are hosted on the website, I have no idea. Presumably they are indeed available, but I could not find them. The site appears to be woefully out-of-date, with the latest "news" having been posted on March 1.) Of these short features, which range from three to six minutes in length, "Minas Tirith" and "Digital Horse Doubles" were rather nice since they explained aspects of the production that had not been touched on in previous DVD releases. As a whole, these segments are not particularly noteworthy, however. If you're like me, though, and you can't track them down online, this is the only place you'll find them.

The bonus disc also includes the original trailers for the film, plus a new "Supertrailer" for the entire filmic trilogy (available previously at lordoftherings.net). If you're willing to drop your internet security shields (firewall and privacy settings) you may also get access to "exclusive" internet content. I say "may" advisedly: I made the attempt, in spite of my reluctance to disable my double firewall, and was still unable to "unlock" this special content. Perhaps it does not actually become enabled until May 25... At any rate, accessing the exclusive content may be more trouble than it's worth; I can't say, since I was never able to.

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But What About the Movie?

All in all, the special features left me not wanting more, but mostly wanting something different. At the end of the day, though, we're still left with Jackson's flawed yet brilliant tour de force. The Return of the King certainly deserved the bulk of its Oscars, and should have been in the running for the male acting awards, at the least, if not for Miranda Otto's performance as Éowyn. Although I prefer The Fellowship of the Ring for sheer movie-making brilliance, images from (and the overall effect of) The Return of the King have stuck with me more than any film of the last several years.

What will the Extended DVD bring later this year? A new commentary track from Jackson and his crew, no doubt, and those precious deleted scenes which should take the total running time to over four hours. It should smooth over some of the logical gaps in the theatrical release, and provide answers to questions like, "So, what really happened to Saruman?" and "What happened to the palantír?"

Finally, though, it will be about the same things: the thrill of deliverance and the agony of the aftermath. And it may still leave us asking, like Frodo, "Isn't there more to look forward to in this life than brokenness and pain?" I certainly think so.

LOTR Coverage Index here

E-mail Greg Wright here

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