This is it.
December 2004 is the last in a string of four holiday seasons which have been highlighted for me, and tens of thousands of other faithful geeks, by the release of a Lord of the Rings film. This year the film is not in the theaters (the last of those joyous occasions happened in December 2003), but on DVD. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: Extended Edition was released on December 14. I snagged it early that morning, and that evening settled down with my lovely wife and my good friend Jeanette, and watched what will likely be the last new LOTR movie I'll ever see (save perhaps the Hobbit, in which Jackson has expressed interest, but which is not in any development stage of which I am aware).
I say "new" LOTR movie because, with the addition of 50 minutes of footage to the already marathon 3+ hours the Return of the King played in theaters last December, the Extended Edition is a very different film from the standard release. While I loved the original version, these extra minutes, mostly spent on character and story development, replacing some important moments that die-hard fans thought lost in translation between book and film, lend a sort of gravity and despair to the story of the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth that was missing in the original. From the very outset (after the Smeagol and Deagol vignette), this Extended Edition takes a different path when, instead of ignoring Saruman, the Fellowship confronts him in his tower. When Saruman taunts the party, claiming that through his great power he has seen the time of their demise, only to be killed by the toady Grima Wormtoungue before he can be coerced into giving more information, a sort of nervous despair settles on the proceedings, lending every mistake, from Pippin's episode with the Palantir to Denethor's refusal to summon the help of Rohan to Frodo's dismissal of Samwise, that much more gravity. Gandalf's failed confrontation with the WitchKing, Aragorn's thwarted attempt at bullying Sauron (via the Palantir) and the addition of the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gates keep this desperate mood moving throughout the film.
Other additions (the touching beginnings of a relationship between Eowyn and Faramir, a further elaboration of Aragorn's quest to enlist the Oathbreakers, etc.) are equally welcome and enrich the story greatly. While four hours is a darn long time to sit and watch a movie, moreso than the extended editions of Fellowship or Two Towers, the extra stuff here is universally welcome. While the bits I would have cut or tightened-up from the original (the campy stone gargoyle, the "jumping on bed" Rivendell clone, etc.) remain, and Jackson remains a filmmaker as occasionally prone to cheese (slow motion and glycerin tears) as he is filled with heart and a warm humanity, the film itself does not feel unnaturally stretched (like butter spread over too much toast), but rather more full and complete.
As I tentatively predicted four years ago, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings has done the impossible, and has replaced Star Wars in my heart as the greatest geek trilogy ever made. This new DVD release extends the full story to over eleven hours and, despite a childhood devoted to Luke and his buddies, for me LOTR eclipses those beloved films on almost every front, especially in the purity of its storytelling, and the care with which its characters and relationships are crafted. As I said at the start, this is it. It's sad to have to make an end to this cinematic journey but, if you've gotta say goodbye, the Return of the King: Extended Edition is a helluva way to go.