Extended 'Return of the King': Bigger And Mostly Better, By Kurt Loder

Expanded editions stretch 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy to more than 11 hours.

Well, here it is: the spectacular conclusion of the great fantasy film epic of our time, presented at last in the form in which its director, Peter Jackson, originally envisioned it. The new extended edition of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," which goes on sale next Tuesday, contains 50 minutes of previously unseen footage, re-incorporated into the movie in the form of either added narrative detail or whole new scenes, some of them quite wonderful.

In this reconfiguration, the picture now runs four hours and 10 minutes long. Taken together with the previously released expanded versions of the first "Lord of the Rings" film, "The Fellowship of the Ring" (bulked up to nearly three and a half hours), and the second, "The Two Towers" (extended to about three hours and 45 minutes), the entire saga -- which was of course shot as one long movie anyway -- runs well over 11 hours. Geeks will be pleased. I know I was, anyway.

So what's been added? Well, you'll remember that at the end of "The Two Towers," the rumbling forest elder called Treebeard and his fellow leafy Ents -- along with the Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) -- stormed Isengard, the domain of the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), and unleashed a flood that wiped out his hideous Orc mines and trapped the traitorous sorcerer in his sky-high white tower.

But at the beginning of "The Return of the King," in the version that was released to theaters last year, when the good wizard Gandalf and his band of stalwarts rode onto this scene of watery devastation, there was no sign of Sauron; he was simply gone. You were primed for a two-wizard smackdown, but there was none. Director Jackson had filmed it, but then, keenly aware of the constricting imperatives of worldwide feature-film exhibition, had felt compelled to cut it.

Now, it's been restored, and Saruman reappears on a tower balustrade along with his odious lackey, the oily Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif). After failing to strike a let's-be-friends deal, Saruman informs Gandalf that "Something festers in Middle Earth -- something you have failed to see." To make the situation crystal clear, he adds, "You're all going to die." The payoff in this brief scene of inventive mayhem is most gratifying.

Also new is Gandalf's confrontation with the fearsome, metal-masked Witch King of the Nazgûl, mounted atop his shrieking battle serpent. ("Do you not know death when you see it, old man?") And there's an ale-drinking contest between the Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the Elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) in which the snockered Gimli defeats himself. (Raising a wobbly tankard, he blearily toasts "dwarfs who go swimmin' with hairy little women.") There's a thundering avalanche of skulls that greets Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in the mountain-bound City of the Dead, and a thoroughly hideous new creature called the Mouth of Sauron -- a leering faceful of rotten, dripping teeth -- who emerges from behind the imposing iron gates of Mordor bearing a terrible token for Gandalf and his Fellowship companions.

Among the smaller additions sprinkled in among various scenes is a battlefield encounter between the shield-maiden Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and a particularly repulsive, potato-faced Orc; and a later interlude that ties up a previously flyaway plot strand by showing us Eowyn falling in love with Faramir (David Wenham), the brave son of the Steward of Gondor. In addition, the amazing clash between Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the giant spider Shelob, now elaborated with extra footage, is even scarier than it was in the original version of the film, if you can imagine.

There is one non-fabulous new moment, a scene in which a disguised Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) are comically dragooned into a herd of marching Orcs; this is oddly extraneous, and probably wouldn't be missed if it were scissored right back out again. Most of the new material, however, serves to illuminate and enlarge the story. It makes the movie much longer, true; but it also makes it better, fuller, more ravishing in many ways.

Unfortunately, it also serves to highlight the only real flaw in "The Return of the King" -- its ending. After sitting through all this newly enriched imagery, Aragorn's little a cappella wedding song, with all those white blossoms fluttering down through the air, seems even sillier than before. And the radiant scene at the Grey Havens, with the Elves preparing to sail away from Middle Earth and the ancient Bilbo (Ian Holm) wobbling onboard to join them, is still spoiled by the four wimpering little Hobbits weepily embracing one another over and over again -- the sequence now seems more than ever to go on way too long, at a point when the picture cries out for a deft and concise wrap-up.

The movie should end, of course, with the elegiac shot of the Elven ship sailing out of the harbor and into the sunset. But then we still have to sit through the strikingly irrelevant scene of Sam and his adorable family scampering into their cottage, and then that jarringly anticlimactic conclusion: a closeup of their little round yellow front door. It would have been nice if Jackson and his editors, while they were reinstalling all the fine new footage now on view in this epochal masterpiece, had lopped that last bit off. Is it too late?