The first two episodes of Season Three of the Lord of the Rings adaptation, The Return of the King, have arrived on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. They’re worth watching just to see Sir Ian McKellen’s appearance as Gandalf the Grey, almost 30 years after he received his first Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for this role. But it’s more than McKellen’s appearance in the five-part series that stands out: the sheer size of the place. The Hobbit is in awe-inspiring; the entire series is a reminder that this was one of the most gigantic chunks of fiction ever produced, a gigantic theater of wonder whose array of treasures are impossible to dismiss.
There is The Great Lakes, a mythic realm worthy of Universal’s King Kong. The Waterlands, filled with the colorful creatures found in The Shire. The Lonely Mountain, with its hidden treasure. There’s Rivendell, where Frodo and Sam begin their quest. And the Shire itself, a realm in which Tolkien invented an entire age of Uruk-hai brutes and fairies in the hopes of proving, once and for all, that we’re all an interactive herd of living Niflheim.
Is that as big a deal as the Dali Lama? No. Neither are Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and the Renaissance masterpiece The Birth of Venus, which combined for a $600 million worldwide gross, or even the most recently released entry in the famous sci-fi series, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. But Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was huge, and the finale of the massive trilogy of films makes more sense as a metaphor for Tolkien’s grand vision of a wondrous, multiverse. Because, you know, it is made up of a lot of completely atypical creatures, which is exactly what this universe demands.
The series kicks off with a setting more reminiscent of Return of the King’s opening sequence than Book Three, Book Two. Frodo, Sam, and the Shire are being detained in the home of warlord Denethor, with Gandalf summoned to the forested idyll to attempt an incantation to awaken the dead baby Elrond. Instead of the landscape being just big and at once vast, it’s, well, just big. And at first, we are treated to a sequence that feels like a world premiere of some upcoming blockbuster picture; the middle section takes place on the surface of a planet with a shoddy green screen effect that feels like a nascent late-’90s high-def studio feature. Unlike Return of the King, which has an obsessive attention to detail, the production designers of the post-apocalyptic interior are only sporadically imaginative, with that unique Middle Earth flavor replaced by just another sci-fi Armageddon movie.
But the second half of the series picks up in a real hurry, and throws us into The Necromancer, the key-master-turned-Lord of the Rings’ first antagonist:
The Return of the King has finally arrived. But an intermission is inevitable, and things take a seriously nasty turn in the third act, which I’m not allowed to spoil, so let’s just say that what transpires makes the finale of The Lord of the Rings truly disturbing.
The all-important third book is where the story got stalled, and it was, like the series itself, a failure. The first two books, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, are jam-packed with A-list talent, and while they might not match Return of the King as a narrative triumph, they’re emotional and heroic. What could have been a greatest hits album for fans ended up as one of the more disappointing installments of the LOTR saga, a multiple-spinoff franchise that might have been better positioned as an author’s epic in the vein of The Lord of the Rings Bible or The Great Gatsby. (With The Hobbit follow-ups underwhelming, Tolkien novels are about as likely to appear on feature films as recently deceased American radio personality Casey Kasem.)
One final, gratuitous note before I close: Each of the seven episodes of Return of the King has been filmed in 3D, and while this isn’t the hottest trend in Hollywood, it is in fact the only 3D film of this length ever to be released on the big screen, and I highly recommend getting a ticket. It is a good experience, but if I had to pick the perfect way to see this saga come to a close, it would be by giving the gimmick a deservedly wash.