The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Directed by Peter Jackson Cast: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Andy Serkis, Miranda Otto, John Rhys-Davies, Liv Tyler, Bernard Hill, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, John Noble, Marton Csokas, Thomas Robins. 2003 201 minutes Rated: (for violence and scary images).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 18, 2003.
In the two years since the release of 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," awareness and general fandom for the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy trilogy has grown to near-astronomical levels. At this point, to not be familiar with the story of Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the rest of the characters is to be living on a different planet than the rest of us. And thanks to director Peter Jackson's grandiosity in scope and imagination, passion for the source material, and skill at emotional adeptness, "The Lord of the Rings" has, for many people, ceased being a mere motion picture and become something more akin to a spiritual experience.
If "The Fellowship of the Ring" was a tightly executed, exciting opener that naturally lacked a conclusion, and 2002's "The Two Towers" was a disappointing, generally sloppy and dull follow-up that had no beginning or end, then the final installment, "The Return of the King," not only improves upon the latter, but also surpasses all expectations set up by the former. So majestic, so magical, so awe-inspiring, so behemoth in scale, and so extraordinarily brought to life is nearly every minute of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" that it not only breaks the curse of the lacking third feature in trilogies (i.e. "The Return of the Jedi," "The Matrix Revolutions"), but it makes its predecessors look positively quaint in comparison. To say that "The Return of the King" is this already-classic trilogy's paramount achievement is to understate things.
Once again, director Peter Jackson has made it imperative that viewers be more than a little familiar with the two previous films, wasting no time dropping us into the middle of the narrative. As hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continue to make their way to Mordor's Mount Doom to destroy the dangerously sacred One Ring, emaciated, muliple-personalitied guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) attempts to lead Frodo into the path of danger and turn him against best friend Sam in a secret attempt to steal the ring for himself. With the intoxicating allure of the ring taking its toll on the exhausted Frodo, Sam suddenly finds himself gaining the strength needed to see that they both complete their mission, or die trying.
Meanwhile, with Rohan's battle at Helm's Deep behind them, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) set out for the city of Minas Tirith to warn the citizens of an imminent invasion, while human warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), hobbit Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) go looking for other forces to fight beside them in the ultimate battle for Middle Earth.
As much of an awesome technical triumph as "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers" were, it is clear that director Jackson was saving all of his major goodies for last. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" not only raises the bar to even grander heights, but it may very well go down as one of the most astounding visual spectacles ever made, and with good reason. The enormity of this concluding chapter does not only cover its running time (at 201 minutes, it is over twenty minutes longer than the other pictures and at least three times as entertaining as "The Two Towers"), but also its flawless aesthetic artistry. Even if it doesn't seem possible going in, "The Return of the King" stands as a new watermark for the evolution of visual effects. So realistic are they, and so seamlessly are they woven into the sweeping exhilaration of Andrew Lesnie's cinematography, that one immediately stops thinking of the computer-generated images as effects and believes them to be nothing but genuine.
In retrospect, the choppy, underwhelming Battle at Helm's Deep featured in "The Two Towers" seems to have been a deceptive plea on Jackson's part for audiences to believe he was incapable of pulling off large-scale battle sequences. In "The Return of the King," he pulls the rug out from under the viewer in a joyous way, unleashing a two-part assault known as the Siege of Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennor Fields that has to be seen to be believes. Bringing together most of the characters and different breeds of creatures for the first time, this one-hour-plus action setpiece is one of the cinema's most rousing, riveting, mind-blowing stretches of eye and ear candy to ever be conceived. These battles are more than just a lot of noise and fire; they involve strategy, intelligence, narrative coherence, and a progression of the plot that proves to be fully satisfying.
"The Return of the King" is an immersive experience, never less than truly involving and wondrous. Because of this, its couple flaws do not weigh down on the film as a whole in any significant way like the more readily apparent problems with "The Two Towers" did. In adapting such an immense novel to film, rough edges are bound to be found, anyway, and the editing by Jamie Selkirk and Annie Collins is this go-round's biggest offender. The wide range of locations the film switches back and forth from in the opening hour can become challenging to sort out, and certain story threads disappear for what in the film's timeline is several days, but are picked up in the same spot where they were left off. These transitions are jarring, but not catastrophic in the long run.
The lovely performances from the recurring cast hold more poignant resonance and significance than they have in the past, because by this time a generous amount of time has been spent developing them and their plight. Andy Serkis, with the help of the photorealistic CGI used to mimic his movements, is once again an unforgettably haunting and oddly endearing presence as Gollum, and Ian McKellen (2003's "X2") reclaims the alternating warmth and regal command of Gandalf after being pushed to the wayside in "The Two Towers." Finally separated from each other and, thus, gaining an identity of their own are hobbit cousins Merry and Pippin, who before were basically interchangeable both physically and in their personalities. Billy Boyd (2003's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World") is particularly superb as the frightened Pippin, who is put under the watchful eye of the selfish Steward of Gondor, Denethor (John Noble), and in one incendiary scene is forced to sing as his comrades set off into battle.
The undoubted standouts of "The Return of the King," however, are Elijah Wood (1999's "Black and White") and Sean Astin, as Frodo and Sam. It is through their heartfelt bond that exposes the true center of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which is that of a love story, non-sexual in nature, between two best friends who come close to losing each other and must fight to prevail. Astin is simply heartbreaking and worthy of awards notices; his Sam started off in the trilogy as something of a sidekick, but has grown to be the film's real hero. The frustration and fear he feels in losing Frodo to the power of the ring is intimately felt, as is the strength he finds in himself to carry on.
The final twenty minutes of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" may seem extraneous to some viewers. Indeed, one highly emotional scene is followed by another highly emotional scene, each one gratifying and lovely. They consistently appear to be the actual ending until the movie proceeds further, tying up loose ends and pressing forward as much as four years into the future. However, save for the real last scene, which could have probably been discarded without any dire effect, this elongated epilogue is necessary. It exposes the trilogy to, first and foremost, be about the loss of innocence, and the difficulty in returning to one's old life after it is stripped of them. This is a heavy, thought-provoking theme, to be sure, and it proves that what director Peter Jackson has done with "The Lord of the Rings" encompasses anything ever attempted before in the fantasy genre.
No matter how monstrously big, fantastical, and special effects-heavy it becomes, then, what separates it from most other motion pictures of its type is that it never loses sight of its humanity. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is a triumph of cinematic craft, energy, and originality, and on more than a few occasions it borders on downright brilliant.