Hope is Kindled
Lord of Rings depicts beheaded orcs, soldiers shot with arrows, war elephants downed, and monsters cut in two. Yet, it’s hero kills nothing.
Frodo holds a sword, an important one. No one dies by his hand. No thing either. If anything must perish to protect Frodo’s journey, someone else wields the blade.
Sword and sorcery epics base their heroes in violence and action. Not Lord of the Rings, and even at his most desperate times in Return of the King, Frodo trusts in others until absolute end.
Return of the King masterfully pulls this story together. Partly, that’s the extensive combat, at an unimaginable scale, easily toppling the already sizable clashes in Fellowship and Two Towers. Even when dated, the visual effects capably convey these battles, winning in showmanship, and more so in character. Lord of the Rings’ heroes always endure danger. Or, they run to and/or through it. Their decisions define them, adding consequence – not just spectacle – to sword swinging.
It’s all Frodo though. Gollum’s temptations and divisiveness turn Frodo away from his friend Sam. Their disagreements never turn to real fighting, just anger and disappointment. Same when facing Gollum; Frodo doesn’t fight the creature, so much as wrestle for a ring that calls to them both. It’s just as likely Frodo is saving Gollum from an addiction to power as Frodo is infatuated himself.
The longest film of the trilogy, Return of the King wastes nothing, resolving dangling threads, bridging events back to Fellowship, and still producing new places and people. It’s stuffed, but considered, a show of writing force to sustain these numerous narratives. Granted, that’s Tolkien’s mastery, but film changes things. The planning involved in reaching Return of the King deserves recognition, hence the Oscar wins.
Thematically, Return of the King thrives too, building on loyalty, friendship, and those bonds. Like Frodo and Sam, no one will leave each other’s side. The reluctant, like Gimli who questions entering an obviously dangerous cave, still follows because those who fought alongside him went first. The villain(s) exist as expendable, offing one another in a fight if it means a greater chance at success, all seduced by power. In the perfect good/evil fable, Return of the King lets no one die alone.
While not spared from all issues, Return of the King looks best of the three. There’s no one particular point, just an overall crispness and consistent definition. Things like facial texture stick out, sharply defined, along with costumes/sets. Resolution makes a difference, and excusing some suspiciously frozen grain – only in brief spots – Warner’s disc encode bears no responsibility for those lapses.
Like the others, the low resolution digital effects remain an eye sore, not for their dated animation or compositing, rather the messy processing used in an attempt to soften their appearance. Smudgy noise reduction and ringing only worsen things, not better them. Consider the amount of digital work and the extent is clear. Unfortunate, and also unavoidable without great expense.
Mercifully KO’ing the garish green tint from precious releases, teal is used more sparingly. Color flourishes, frequently warm too. Primaries saturate, and flesh tones masterfully vary, but never losing a natural hand. Deep color makes an impact, bettering everything, especially the green as the Witch King first appears.
On top of that, stout Dolby Vision, letting Return of the King glow where needed, whether flame or magic. It’s not a presentation pushing extreme nits, instead applying a delicate hand. Impressive work in the shadows loses nothing, even among orcs, draped in black, and at night. The subtle gradients bring dimensionality, all the way to pure black.
No surprise, Warner produces another Atmos masterpiece to finish this set. New mastering extends an already tremendous soundstage, effortless in reproducing battle scenes. Screams and yells make notable their presence in the rears. Clanging metal pierces each speaker. Horses sweep between channels. Overheads pick up work from arrows, flying creatures, and even ambiance in forests. It’s a complete and total envelopment in the action.
Ludicrously good low-end brings wonderful variance, thumping as armies rush toward battles, punishing as Nazgul wraiths flap their wings, and killer as Oliphaunts stomp about. Explosions and destruction test limits. Range isn’t only great, it’s some of the best on this format. Others like to push constant power – and that’s great – but Return of the King varies to match the needed scale, applying caution to save the greatest might when needed most. Sensational stuff.
Theatrical and extended cuts, on separate discs (extended on two discs), but no other extras. Warner plans to issue a beefy box set in 2021.
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Return of the King
Frodo’s heroism succeeds among Return of the King’s endless fighting – and yet he never kills anything himself, a true pacifist’s fable.
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The following six screen shots serve as samples for our subscription-exclusive set of 88 full resolution uncompressed 4K screen shots grabbed directly from the UHD: