The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King

directed by Peter Jackson
(New Line, 2003)

The only disappointment is that it's over.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King concludes Peter Jackson's epic trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's landmark fantasy tale. Breaking the usual rules about substandard sequels wide open, the movie meets and exceeds all expectations.

It begins with a flashback from long ago, the discovery of the lost Ring by Deagol and his murder by pal Smeagol, who transformed over the next few millenia from flesh-and-blood actor Andy Serkis to the wasted, computer-generated Gollum. Then it's back to the present, and Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are trudging with Gollum, their captive guide, to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring before Sauron's forces of darkness can overwhelm Middle Earth.

The film begins slowly, compared to the cinematic grandeur and high-impact action that ended The Two Towers, as the pieces are placed at various points of their respective stories. Besides Frodo's quest through Gondor and Mordor, the film takes us from the ruin of Isengard to the restored splendor of Rohan and the awesome spectacle of Minas Tirith, the beseiged city that stands between the last bastion of good and the massed armies of Sauron.

Jackson's interpretation focuses on the small, personal details, such as the growing conflict between Frodo and Sam, as well as grander events such as the doomed charge of a company of Gondor's finest men under the leadership of sad Faramir (David Wenham) and the mighty arrowhead assault of the Rohan cavalry under Theoden (Bernard Hill) and Eomer (Karl Urban). There is a real sense of horror, too, conveyed through the dread screams of the WitchKing and brought to life through the great spider Shelob -- could she have been any more realistically horrible? -- and the dessicated faces of the foresworn dead. Impressive, too, is the film's incredible sense of scale, from the lofty towers and sprawling cities to the mighty oliphaunts, the massive armies and the lives, good and evil alike, spent in uncountable numbers. Visually, the film remains believable through various elements of cinematic trickery, from the unique faces of orcs and trolls to the crushing impact of huge, catapulted rocks on the walls of Minas Tirith.

The fragmented remains of the Fellowship remain at the heart of every battle: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are valiant as always. Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan) both prove their worth in the service of two great cities, growing at last from comic figures into useful members of the party, while Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is a whirlwind of energy, leadership and hope, and whose transition from grey wizard to white has earned him tidier hair. Meanwhile, Denethor (John Noble), the steward of Gondor and father of slain Boromir, surrenders to despair, while Eowyn (Mirando Otto) matures into heroism in the trilogy's strongest female role.

But epic battles aside, the major focus is always on conflicted Frodo and steadfast Sam; the latter in many ways is the truest hero of the story. Although the movie does sacrifice some sense of time -- events seem to happen much more quickly than they unfolded in the book -- there is no denying their hardships and dedication along the way.

While this movie provides a good argument for the reintroduction of intermissions to the theater, the multiple endings provide good wind-down time after the explosive events at the Black Gate and the cataclysm at Mount Doom. Besides, it's hard to see the credits roll after so magnificent a film and know it's really over; I hope Jackson makes good on his plan to make The Hobbit, too.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 17 January 2004

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