Lord of the Rings, The: The Return of the King (New Zealand/United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Lord of the Rings, The: The Return of the King Poster

According to the calendar, Christmas is December 25. According to the movie release schedule, it's December 17. There can be no greater gift for a movie lover than the one bestowed upon audiences by Peter Jackson, whose The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is not only the best movie of 2003, but the crowning cinematic achievement of the past several years. In fact, labeling this as a "movie" is almost an injustice. This is an experience of epic scope and grandeur, amazing emotional power, and relentless momentum.

One could be forgiven for initially approaching The Return of the King with a little trepidation. As good as the first two films, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, are (in either their theatrical or extended DVD versions), movie history is littered with occasions when trilogy conclusions have crashed and burned. Return of the Jedi. Godfather III. The Matrix Revolutions. And so on? Yet, with The Return of the King, Jackson has done more than just bucked the trend. Not only is this motion picture an entirely worthy conclusion to the landmark trilogy, but it's better than its predecessors. Somehow, Jackson has managed to synthesize what worked in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, while siphoning off the less successful elements. The result is amazing. Taken as a whole, there is nothing out there today that can come close to comparing to The Lord of the Rings.

As with The Two Towers, some form of previous knowledge of The Lord of the Rings is necessary. However, with the earlier chapters readily available on DVD, anyone with the desire can be prepared. The Return of the King opens where The Two Towers ended, with hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), and the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) approaching the dark land of Mordor. Meanwhile, the company of Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellan), Aragorn the ranger (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), reunite with their hobbit friends Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) in the wake of the battle of Isengard. From there, the film follows two branches. The first tracks Frodo's progress as the increasingly haunted and weary ringbearer attempts to make his way to Mount Doom. Along the way, he is burdened by betrayal and paranoia, and must face a deadly giant spider called Shelob. Meanwhile, Gandalf and Pippin head to the city of Minas Tirith to warn them against a coming invasion, while Aragorn prepares to announce himself as Isildur's heir, the returned king of Gondor.

The slowest portions of The Return of the King occur early in the proceedings, as Jackson re-establishes the characters. From there, it's a slow, steady buildup to a rousing climax. The experience is so immersive that I found myself in the middle of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields along with the heroes, rooting for them - even though I knew how things were going to turn out! Along the way, there are moments of genuine pathos that draw a tear from the eye; times of triumph that cause the heart to soar; instances of overwhelming tension that cause the adrenaline to surge; and images of spectacle that make the jaw drop. The pace is unflagging - once Jackson has us, he doesn't let go. When the movie was over, I couldn't believe that 3 1/4 hours had passed.

Although it's unfair to characterize the film as a collection of great moments - the character arcs and overall narrative are too strong for that - it is nevertheless impossible to deny the power of many individual scenes. One of Jackson's most notable contributions is that he directs the film with the intention that certain instances will raise nape hairs. It's the "wow" factor, and it is frequently repeated. Gene Siskel once argued that a great film needs three memorable scenes to go along with no bad ones. The Return of the King exceeds that criteria by a considerable amount.

I can think of three key reasons why this film is stronger than the earlier chapters. The first is that this is the conclusion - the resolution we have eagerly awaited for what seems like more than two years. The second is that Jackson, like Tolkien, saved the best for last. As impressive as the Battle of Helms Deep was, it is dwarfed by the Siege of Minas Tirith and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. And Frodo's struggles have become magnified. Jackson views elements of the hobbit's travails as operatic (witness the choral aspects of Howard Shore's score). Finally, there's the simple fact that we have gotten to know the characters. By now, they have been with us for two years and six hours of screen time (over seven if you count the DVD special editions).

For those who despise truncated endings, Jackson has a treat in store. The Return of the King ends with a 20 minute epilogue that chronicles events after the War of the Ring, going as much as four years into the future and tying up nearly every possible loose end. The film concludes on exactly the same note as the book (in fact, with the same line), and, while the final chapter of the trilogy is as satisfying as it could possibly be, there's still a vague sense of melancholy when "The End" appears on the screen, because it means that these adventures are over.

Tolkien purists will be as disgruntled with The Return of the King as they were with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but this isn't made for them. This is Tolkien's saga as filtered through Jackson's fertile imagination, not some dry, slavishly faithful adaptation (although it is probably as true to the books in both spirit and narrative as any movie version could be). If you want rigorous adherence to the text, wait for the next Harry Potter movie. It's hard to fault the director for many of his choices. There are some omissions in The Return of the King. A couple - Saruman's death at the hands of Wormtongue and the Houses of Healing - were cut due to time constraints, but will appear on the DVD. Another, The Scouring of the Shire, was not filmed. While that may be a viable way to end the book, it is too anticlimactic for a movie, and, as such, is better excised.

The acting shines through more in The Return of the King than in the other films. Elijah Wood is excellent as Frodo, a shell of the cheerful hobbit he once was. Sean Astin transforms Sam into a fierce knight protector, defending his master against the treacherous Gollum, the terrifying Shelob, and the forces of Mordor. Viggo Mortensen gives Aragorn his fullest opportunity to be seen as a three-dimensional hero. Newcomer John Noble, as Denethor, the Protector of Gondor, displays madness laced with cunning. Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies have less to do, but provide us with a little comedic banter as well as some more serious moments. Miranda Otto's Eowen is as sharp and fierce as any man, and far better looking. Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan are given a chance to flesh out Pippin and Merry. Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, and Ian Holm all make brief appearances.

But the two I must single out are Ian McKellan and Andy Serkis. For the first time, Gandalf is on screen for a significant portion of time (rather than somewhere in the distance fighting a balrog, trapped by Saruman, or rounding up the Riders of Rohan). McKellan presents the wizard as a man of great wisdom, little patience, and incomparable battle skill. Using a sword and staff instead of magic, Gandalf proceeds to kick butt big-time. In fantasy mythology, Gandalf is second only to Merlin when it comes to famous sorcerers. On screen, McKellen's wizard is second to none.

For most of the film, Serkis is heard but only partially seen - Gollum is a computer generated creature that gets its cues from Serkis' body movements. (Although there is one flashback in which Serkis plays the pre-corrupted Smeagol.) The subtlety of Gollum's movements and expressions is so astonishing that it's difficult to believe this isn't a real creature. Serkis deserves a lion's share of the credit, since Gollum is as much his creation as it is that of the animators. Although a long shot, Serkis is deserving of some sort of awards credit.

Expectedly, the special effects set a new standard. The CGI participants of the major battles look more like real combatants than cartoonish computer creations. The locations, set design, and costumes are without flaw. By building many of the elaborate locales, Jackson achieves a sense of verisimilitude that he might not have attained by relying more heavily on computers. And composer Howard Shore's score is perfectly wed to the visuals, being alternately bombastic and delicate, as circumstances dictate.

Leaving Middle Earth, Jackson is now headed for Skull Island and a remake of King Kong that already has me excited. He has not ruled out a return to this fantasy world - he would like to make The Hobbit with some of the same actors, if the complicated rights issues surrounding the prequel can be straightened out. In the meantime, he has given us a trilogy of films to savor and remember. The Lord of the Rings will go down in cinematic lore as a milestone. It has legitimatized fantasy like no other production and has shown that it is possible for studio executives to realize huge gains when taking huge risks. (Had The Lord of the Rings failed, New Line Cinema would have gone down with it.) History will show the importance of The Lord of the Rings. The present illustrates its broad appeal and undeniable critical and commercial success. For many, the release of The Return of the King is the event of the year. And this is one time when the product is good enough to weather the storm of hype. This ring is golden.

Lord of the Rings, The: The Return of the King (New Zealand/United States, 2003)

Ranked #1 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2003
Ranked #20 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 3:21
U.S. Release Date: 2003-12-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1