Return of the King is not the best film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy because of action, scale, or visual effects. It works because it is satisfying, answers any questions, and finally makes everything from the previous films connect.
Boromir’s seemingly pointless existence in Fellowship finally takes on the scale it should, creating deep tension during the battle of Minas Tirith. His father Denethor (John Noble), going against his own child, refuses to fight. The troops defending the city seem crushed, leading to Gandalf’s (Ian McKellen) turn as a leader. It builds his character, and creates purpose for others.
The Hobbits have their own conflict, Gollum now in full control over Frodo (Elijah Wood) as they near Mount Doom. Gollum’s manipulation is handled incredibly well, turning Sam (Sean Astin) against his longtime friend. Everything comes full circle, and is completely filled in.
Director Peter Jackson’s effort is stronger, crafting a fine sequence as Frodo is trapped in a giant spider’s webbing. Gollum sings slightly in the distance, adding a creepy air as the creature begins to move in for the kill. After Frodo escapes, he stands out in the open, the massive arachnid making quick dashes to try and paralyze Frodo in spectacular, eerie fashion.
RotK is absurdly violent, all the more so when you consider the PG-13 rating. Orcs send the heads of fallen soldiers over the walls of Minas Tirith via catapult, and the camera hardly shies away from the severed faces. Orcs are crushed by the hundreds, horses are slaughtered relentlessly, and countless people are stomped by massive Olyphants are they charge the battlefield. It is all there in vicious computer-generated detail, a body count of over 800 people/creatures. The MPAA standards sure have changed.
Everything in Rotk is purposeful and rich. Nothing seems wasted. What appeared almost pointless in a previous film now serves its purpose here. Despite being the longest of the three films, it feels the shortest, the richer and developed characters now more interesting and their reason for being fully defined. It all falls into place, making those jaw-droppingly awesome battle scenes worth the time and effort. There is little that can compare to the scale on display here, and that will ensure the film lasts and carries the same appeal for future generations.
There are moments of worry in Return of the King’s VC-1 encode, and rightfully so considering how poorly the previous two films fared in their Blu-ray debut. A long shot of a makeshift bedroom at 19:50 carries that familiar, awful DNR look, and not an ounce of grain can be seen. Pippin’s face exhibits some digital noise at 20:18, and the conversation at 23:50 carries notable smearing along with some softness.
Thankfully, that dreaded look is all but absent for the rest of the film, save for a single shot of Viggo Mortensen at 1:29:19, although this may have more to do with the visual effects surrounding him than anything else. Generally, detail is truly remarkable, everything the previous films should have been, yet were not. The level of facial detail on display here is staggering. Watch at 56:00 as all of the actors present fully resolved high fidelity detail. Look at the armor as soldiers walk around, every piece of metal and every flaw perfectly visible. The long shots of thousands of Orcs marching on Minas Tirith are amazing. The wood texture of their catapults staggering, and the detail visible on the make-up even more impressive. Inside Mount Doom, the sweat, dirt, and cuts on the Hobbit faces is nothing short of flawless.
The grain structure is fully intact, save for those few scenes above. Sights from the prior two films ruined by excessive noise reduction, such as Bilbo’s house at 3:01:20, finally look as they should. Shots of Hobbiton, especially at 2:58:50, fully resolve the grass on the sides of the frame, and as Sam returns home for the final shot of the trilogy, the house and foliage is meticulously defined.
Color is wonderful, from the lava flow outside Mount Doom to the heavily saturated grass of Hobbiton. Depth is outstanding, perfect black levels lending a tremendous level of dimensionality to the image. Contrast is bright, occasionally blown out for effect, but generally well calibrated. Some slight noise (inside the caves at 1:38:43) is perfectly acceptable given the visual prowess on display here, and stands as a remarkable upgrade from the disasters that were other films in this Trilogy. It is a mystery as to how those went so wrong.
The oliphant assault, which begins just past the two hour mark, could be the most engaging piece of audio currently available on Blu-ray. It does it all, from the deep, thundering footsteps that annihilate the subwoofer, to the screams of hapless victims picked up and tossed off camera. Their heads swerve from side to side, splitting the front channels aggressively, and they pass over the camera into the extra surround in this DTS-HD 6.1 affair with remarkable effectiveness.
Even before the giant elephant-like creatures get into the mix, the power of drums used by the trolls at 1:27:00 is spectacular, the clarity and depth of the bass a stunner. A battering ram at 1:47:00 delivers quite the jolt, and the chaos that ensues after it breaks through is impossible to track while watching, yet delivers a perfectly believable soundfield as swords and armor clash. As the Witch King assaults Eowyn, he uses a mace which swings around the speakers with a convincing grace. The motion is flawless, as is the case as the Nazgul swoop down to snag retreating troops around 53-minutes in.
The powerful, rich Howard Shore score is yet again maintained with awesome power and clarity. Nothing is lost as the action takes on its tremendous scale, the music bleeding into the surrounds as effectively as anything else. There is one moment where the dialogue is worrisome, and this occurs as Gandalf speaks at 33:43. His voice is suddenly hollow, faded, and oddly strained, a problem that instantly corrects itself one edit later. It is the only issue of any note in this otherwise perfect, reference level audio mix.
Meager extras, as with the other films, means some trailers for the movies and video games, and generic BD-Live access.