Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King remains a breathtaking, spectacular conclusion to his trilogy adaptation of Tolkien's classic books and a heartfelt finish to one of the greatest film franchises of all time. Journeying across the lands of Ultra HD Blu-ray, the second installment arrives with an exceptional 4K video presentation, a reference-quality Dolby Atmos track but lacking in special features. Nevertheless, the overall UHD package comes Highly Recommended while we wait for the eventual bonus-riddled special edition.
Picking up directly where The Two Towers left off, Peter Jackson escalates the tension and urgency in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the sensationally satisfying conclusion to the rousing fantasy-adventure saga that began in a small, idyllic town populated by Hobbits. Reminiscing back to when it originally premiered in cinemas, I still recall the near-unbearable anticipation and excitement for the third and final installment in the trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic books. Obviously, the Oscar-winning film did not disappoint in the least thanks to the impressive camerawork by Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, the performances of the entire cast and the breathtaking, swashbuckling visuals of combat. The several alterations to the original story also made for a surprisingly more compelling and poignant tale of heroism and hope.
In fact, this is one of my favorite aspects of Jackson's interpretation, which he co-wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. The bravery, courage and gallantry traditionally associated with heroism is not a purely masculine trait, but it's a quality found in any individual fighting to defend their home and loved ones. This is not only beautifully captured by the actions of Éowyn and Sam but also eloquently expressed by Merry's speech joining the war simply to help his friends rather than any expected loftier ideals. This theme in the third film is all the better when Aragon displays both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, a confident leader who is also humble and submissive, someone who is viewed as manly but unafraid to show emotion and fear. And it is this balance in his personality that ultimately makes him a great king, a ruler others willingly and gladly follow while audiences proudly cheer to prevail.
It is a well-earned, heartfelt conclusion to one of the greatest film franchises of all time, one that stood the test of time and continues to entertain a younger generation of moviegoers.
For a more in-depth take on the film, check out our review of the 2012 Blu-ray edition.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Warner Bros. Home Video brings The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy to Ultra HD as a nine-disc package with a Digital Copy code. When redeeming said code via wb.com/redeemmovie or MoviesAnywhere, users are granted access to the 4K digital version in Dolby Vision with Dolby Atmos audio. All nine UHD100 discs, three of which contain the theatrical cuts of each film while the extended editions are spread across a pair of UHDs, sit comfortably on either side of four center spindles. They are housed in a thicker than normal black keepcase with a side-sliding slipcover. At startup, each disc goes directly to the standard menu screen with full-motion clips and the usual selection of options along the bottom while the iconic music plays in the background.
2012 Extended Blu-ray Edition:
4K Ultra HD Disc:
Similar to the previous two entries in the trilogy, The Return of the King was also given the royal treatment with a reportedly new restoration of the original elements, which were later remastered for a fresh 4K digital intermediate. And like those two, the third installment falls short of perfection but nonetheless, showcases a remarkable upgrade over its Blu-ray counterpart and has never looked better on home video.
This HEVC H.265 encode also looks the best and most consistent out of the three films, boasting several reference-quality moments and razor-sharp definition in the fine stitching of the costumes and in the surrounding foliage. Again, the New Zealand landscapes are stunning and picturesque where we can every blade of grass, the unique pits and fissures in the rock formations, and the small cracks, tiny crevices and peculiar characteristics in the stone masonry of Minas Tirith are plainly visible. The individual hairs and whiskers of the entire cast are razor-sharp, and facial complexions are incredibly revealing with lifelike textures that expose every pore, wrinkle and negligible blemish, especially during close-ups.
Like the first two, the 2160p picture has its share of minor issues and concerns worth mentioning, starting with a few poorly resolved moments that look a tad blurrier than others. A few segments, here and there, show evidence of noise reduction lightly applied, perhaps to remove some dirt and debris. Thankfully, it's nothing terribly egregious, as the transfer still retains most of its natural grain throughout. Then, there are also instances of very mild ringing along the edges of a few objects in extreme wide shots, a tad of digital sharpening in some of the CG visuals and the finest, sharpest lines waver and shimmer a teensy-weensy bit. This is arguably most evident in scenes at Minas Tirith, especially those wide aerial shots of the White Tower and the Court of the Fountain.
Overlooking those, however, the 4K video is magnificent with improved contrast balance, displaying pitch-perfect whites in every scene, from Gandalf's immaculately clean hair to the marble-like walls of The Tower Hall. Interestingly, as in The Fellowship, peak luminosity is on the lower end of the spectrum and not quite as dramatic as we've seen from other releases. Nevertheless, specular highlights provide a narrower radiant glow in the brightest, hottest spots, such as the flowing flames swirling around the palantír or the way Shelob's web glistens the light of Frodo's crystal phial. While the clouds during daylight sequences have a lovely, true-to-life splendor to them, the armor and various weaponry come with a realistic polish and sheen that twinkles in the sunlight. Brightness levels are equally impressive with inky rich blacks in the clothing and dark, velvety shadows that never obscure the finer details but penetrate deep into the screen, providing the 2.40:1 image with an attractive cinematic appeal.
The Dolby Vision HDR presentation also showcases an appreciable improvement in the overall color palette although it's only a slightly better variation and vibrancy than its HD SDR counterpart. Using the Siege of Gondor as our primary example, a sumptuous array of primaries bring the action to life, from the lime-emerald glow of the ghostly Dead Men of Dunharrow to the small sprinkles of crimson and scarlet reds in the Haradrim's forces. The cerulean blues of the sky are vibrant while the navy and cobalt shades bathe the nighttime scenes. A majority of the teal-orange cinematography is dominated by fuller, varied earthy-browns, sandy-beige tans and vivid sepias, but the fiery-red orange glow in the fire of several areas stand out the most with incredible realism and sharp detailing within the flames. Skin tones are also notably improved, showing healthier, rosier complexions in the entire cast, making for a fantastic watch in 4K and a splendid finish to the trilogy. (Dolby Vision HDR Video Rating: 94/100)
2012 Extended Blu-ray Edition:
4K Ultra HD Disc:
The final fight for Middle-earth brings the trilogy to a close with a phenomenal, reference-quality Dolby Atmos soundtrack that dominates its DTS-HD predecessors and reigns supreme above the rest in the saga. As with the previous two movies, Howard Shore's iconic score benefits most, as the extra-breathing room affords the music with superb definition and warmth in the orchestration. The extraordinary separation and fidelity of each section is simply marvelous, particularly the string from the brass and percussion, as the various notes and refrains smoothly bleed into the surrounds and envelope the listener.
At the same time, a broad and spacious soundstage is continuously bustling with a variety of background activity flawlessly sweeping across the fronts and into the top heights for a terrifically engaging half-dome wall of sound. As mentioned in The Two Towers, the mid-range is splendidly dynamic and extensive, exhibiting amazing distinction and contrast during the loudest, action-packed segments. The noise of clanging metal is striking, the absolute chaos of battle is layered with separate screams and grunts, and the ear-piercing screeches of the fellbeasts reverberate everywhere with discrete clarity. In the middle of the bloody pandemonium, dialogue reproduction remains precise and intelligible with clear inflections in every dramatic performance, such as Éowyn's well-known line to the Witch-King.
Added to that, a powerfully robust low-end delivers an intimidating and pulsating stomp to the Oliphaunts. Boulders crash to the ground with a couch-shaking thump, and the fellbeasts flap their wings with palpable weight while the Orc army strikes a hefty impact to the walls of Minas Tirith, occasionally sending some wall-rattling shockwaves across the room. All the while, Shore's music also grains from the bass, as it feels a tad more energized with a compelling sense of presence.
The object-based mix also astounds with various subtle ambient effects bouncing and moving between all the channels with convincing effectiveness, creating an amazing 360° soundscape that lasts from start to finish. The wind faintly blows across the room, and we can practically feel a chill in the air when wandering the Dead Men's cavernous lair. During quieter moments, the heights are often employed with the distant chirping of birds and other wildlife, and water seems to drip from the ceiling when venturing through Shelob's nest while Gollum's taunts echo and fluidly move all around the listening area. Of course, the battle scenes offer the best demo-worthy moments as boulders and arrows fly from one side of the room to the other and debris scatters in every direction. The Nazgûl on their fellbeasts flawlessly pan overhead as every flap and screech is discretely heard, generating an immersive hemispheric soundfield that puts the viewer in the center of the chaos. One of the more impressive moments is hearing the ropes strapping the Oliphaunts tugged and pulled directly above the listener, making an immensely satisfying listen at home. (Dolby Atmos Audio Rating: 98/100)
2012 Extended Blu-ray Edition:
4K Ultra HD Disc:
The following year after The Two Towers, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the stunning, rousing conclusion to his trilogy adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic books. The Oscar-winning finale is a breathtaking spectacle with excellent performances by the entire cast and dazzling, sweeping camerawork that never overshadows the plot's central theme of heroism and hope, making it a superb, heartfelt finish to one of the greatest film franchises of all time. Journeying across the lands of 4K Ultra HD, the third and final installment in the trilogy arrives with an exceptional Dolby Vision HDR presentation and a demo-worthy Dolby Atmos soundtrack, providing a notable improvement and satisfying upgrade over its Blu-ray predecessors. Although lacking in special features, the overall UHD package makes for a highly recommended purchase to hold devoted fans over until the next bonus-riddled edition come along.