The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King 4K Blu-ray Review
By the time the final installment in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy hit screens in 2003, it had become a bonafide cultural establishment. No longer could book lovers stake sole claim to the series; film lovers took to it with open arms, embracing the solid direction, became emotionally invested in the characters, and marveled at the (still amazing) visual effects. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose bitter antagonism towards fantasy films was well established, lauded it with 11 Oscars, including Best Picture - a feat only matched by James Cameron's Titanic.
Whilst Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Asin) continue their journey to the pit of Mt. Doom to destroy the One Ring, the eye of Sauron closes in summoning all manner of evil to thwart him, and their guide, the duplicitous Gollum (Andy Serkis) leads them on a trail to certain death. Meanwhile, the world of Men, led by Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), prepare for one last stand against the Orc army amassed to ensure their extinction, with success resting on the destruction of the Ring - which won't disappear without a fight.
A masterpiece for the ages, Return of the King is, and remains, a spectacular cinematic achievement which transcended the expectations of its genre to become a true contemporary classic. Buoyed by strong home video sales, there was no doubt that the longest film in the trilogy was going to get longer again, and for The Return of the King, Director Peter Jackson added 51 minutes of footage for the extended cut (not including the extended credits). While many, if not most Lord of the Rings fans prefer these extended cuts, it would be remiss to point out that Peter Jackson does indeed prefer the theatrical cuts for their more balanced approach, of which he had final cut.
In celebration of the series' 20th anniversary, Warner Bros and Weta Digital have re-released both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies as two Ultra HD Blu-ray packages which mirror previous DVD and Blu-ray releases in offering both the original theatrical cuts (on one 4K disc), as well as the extended cuts (spread across two 4K discs).
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, encoded with H.265 compression and finished with a Dolby Vision and HDR-10+ HDR pass, which also features a base HDR-10 layer.
As with its predecessors, the presentation of Return of the King isn't a full 4K restoration - instead, the pre-existing 2K digital intermediate has been upscaled to 4K. This is still rather standard for today's productions (especially CG-heavy blockbusters). However, the age of this digital intermediate, along with its antiquated production techniques, makes this a tough production to make shine.
While the remaster offers several upgrades, including the newly improved color timing, which takes full advantage of digital tools that didn't exist, or weren't mature enough when the film was first released, unfortunately, this is offset by some often egregious digital noise reduction, presumably employed to smooth out the image and reduce noise and grain. The side effect is the image often appears waxy, as well as introduces some digital artifacts. It appears that some noise reduction dates back to the original production techniques and is baked into the digital intermediate (again, this was produced right at the cutting edge of the technology of the rime), but it does appear that a little more noise reduction has been added on top of this.
Overall, this is a reasonable but not great effort that provides just enough of an upgrade for fans and aficionados. Still, it's hard not to form the opinion that a film series of such stature deserves more. Until Warner Bros undertakes a full restoration of the original negative, in effect rebuilding the digital intermediate and replacing non-visual effects shots with newly scanned footage and re-color timing (similar to what the studio did recently with the much shorter, much less CG intensive Matrix Trilogy) this is as good as it gets. Of course, that'd be a multi-million dollar restoration effort, and the likelihood of this happening any time soon is decidedly naught.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is presented with a newly remixed Dolby Atmos object-based audio track.
Again, faring better than the video transfer, the new Atmos track bests the still-impressive 6.1 mix from the previous Blu-ray release in a number of material ways, most notably in the addition of height surround channels which offer additional immersion and enhanced channel separation. Return of the King has always had a very aggressive and impressive audio track (and scored an Academy Award for Sound Mixing), but the new Atmos mix really takes that up a notch. Compared to the two previous films, Return of the King is much more action-oriented, and the mix responds appropriately, supporting the huge number of action sequences with aggression and firmness, but not to the point of fatiguing viewers.
Dolby Atmos owners will again hear the most improvement, with contemporary sound mixers taking a number of opportunities to provide some impressive height effects that only occasionally draw attention to their qualities.
While the previous DVD and Blu-ray releases of the Return of the King included hours and hours of bonus features such as documentaries, four audio commentaries, and marketing material archives, this 4K release has exactly zero bonus features. Not even the excellent commentaries have been retained. Naturally, diehard fans are going to want to hang onto those previous editions as well.
The Bottom Line
Return of the King remains a spectacular cinematic achievement, it's just a shame that this 4K release isn't quite up to the same standard.