(director/writer: Peter Jackson; screenwriters: Philippa Boyens/Fran Walsh/book by J.R.R. Tolkien; cinematographer: Andrew Lesnie; editors: Annie Collins/Jamie Selkirk; music: Howard Shore; cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf the White), Sean Astin (Samwise ‘Sam’ Gamgee), Andy Serkis (Gollum/Sméagol), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), John-Rhys Davies (Voice of Gimli/Ent), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc ‘Merry’ Brandybuck), Billy Boyd (Peregrin ‘Pippin’ Took), Bernard Hill (Théoden, King of Rohan), Mirando Otto (Éowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Orlando Bloom (Legolas Greenleaf), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), John Noble (Denethor); Runtime: 201; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh; New Line Cinema; 2003-USA/New Zealand)
A sight for awe-struck eyes.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A colossus in technological filmmaking. A trilogy for the ages, where the whole is greater than its parts. I’m usually annoyed with films that can’t tell their story without a sequel, as the other LOTR films suffer because they are missing a conclusion. Nevertheless I understand that this particular film could not have been justifiably made without sequels and that would have been a shame, as the final episode puts everything in place and when all three films mesh as one it begins to seem special and stickout from the epic big-themed pack. The only other competition–Star Wars and Matrix–were either too simplistic or too pretentious to leave you much to think about, other than the special effects. Credit must go to New Zealander helmsmen Peter Jackson in keeping J.R.R. Tolkien’s visionary story intact and climbing the highest filmmaking mountain in making a mythological place like Middle Earth come to life with the marvels of computer imagery and digitally enhanced creatures. If you could stay with this lengthy work without tuning out the slow beginning parts that bring the audience up to speed on the characters and the story, then the smashing conclusion brings an amazing bit of filmmaking to a satisfying rest. It’s a sight for awe-struck eyes; an epic for modern times. This commercial vehicle made outside of Tinseltown outshines any Hollywood epic, something that I didn’t think could be done. But I wasn’t moved by the story and aside from marveling at Ian McKellen’s intelligent performance and Viggo Mortensen’s commanding screen presence and everything visually on the screen, I can’t honestly say I was totally immersed in it. I guess there are mainly two kinds of viewers: the fanatic all-loving followers and those who admire it but are not in love with it. I fall into the latter category.

The Return of the King was filled with complex mythological visions from Oedipal conflicts to loyalty among friends to love being more important than immortality, but these flurry of visions seemed too airtight to have the same maddening breath as those of such visionary filmmakers Ozu or Tarkovsky or Cisse. Despite all sorts of psychological and eternal dramas, I felt trapped in an unreal “movie” world and never felt any of the tension as real. It would take a tome to come to grips with all there was to be mined from Tolkien, and I am amazed at how well Jackson caught all that. I can’t imagine the Tolkien purists or the book readers being anything but pleased, even though Jackson did tinker with the book. But for me as rich as all these visions were presented, especially when compared to other Hollywood epics, I’m still a bit suspect of all the chaste chummy boy’s world scenes where sooner or later everyone is asked to chip in and fight for their freedom, no matter hobbit or woman. I didn’t see what the good fight was all about except in an emotional way, as Aragorn’s pep talk to his troops in the final battle to fight until death sounded like one any modern politician could have said about defending the homeland. They even tried that same patriotic posturing for the Vietnam War, but to a divided country. When I was a Tolkien believer in the 1960s, his idea of war seemed subversive and in conflict with the events of the day that drew him to my kind of a hippie audience. Much has changed in the world, including my take on fighting the so-called good war against evil. It seems even if the so-called good guys win evil still continues, and that Tolkien’s visions are more exclusive than they ought to be and keep too many outsiders out of his perfect world. That might be why his visions are perfect, but only in an artificial sense. They are sealed so no germs can get in, like they do in a lab, if you will. But even if this is so, it doesn’t take away from the grand accomplishment of Peter Jackson and his crew. The job they did was tops. When I read Tolkien, I never thought it could be filmed. The $300 million he was supposedly paid is enormous, but since money should no longer be a barrier for him in doing a film I’m interested in his future choices. I understand he’s set to do next a remake of King Kong–which he’s about as qualified as anyone to do.

The Return of the King leads to the great battle at Minas Tirith, known as the seven-tiered “city of kings.” It opens where The Two Towers ended, with the ailing hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his loyal best-friend hobbit Sam (Sean Astin), and the untrustworthy deformed hobbit creature Sméagol now called Gollum (Andy Serkis) approaching the ominous land of Mordor. Frodo is the ring bearer sent to destroy the ring at the fire of Mount Doom and thereby save Middle Earth from evil. The film cross-cuts to the white-haired Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellan), the regally handsome Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), and the fresh talking common-man fighter Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), who get together again with their hobbit friends Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) as the battle of Isengard begins.

The film cross-cuts between two stories. It follows Frodo’s troubled progress across unsafe mountain passes to Mount Doom as he suffers from having his mind poisoned by the schizophrenic Gollum and becomes overtaken with paranoia. Then Frodo is up against Shelob, a frightening giant spider who spins a mind-boggling web. Meanwhile Gandalf and Pippin head to the city of Minas Tirith to warn a deranged caretaker ruler, Denethor (John Noble), to get his troops ready to fight. Pippin is dispatched on a dangerous mission to climb a tower and set fire to a huge beacon as a signal to Aragorn at the fields of Edoras, the Rohan capital, that all will unite in the fight against the impending invasion from the forces of Sauron (an army consisting of hundreds of thousands of Orcs). Aragorn also announces himself as the rightful returned king of Gondor.

From hereon it leads to the startling storybook conclusion, where the Black Tower crumbles, the Black Land is in ruin, Mount Doom erupts and a Giant Flaming Eyeball is destroyed. These unforgettable images are countered by the flight of giant eagles hovering over the carnage as saviors and a few false endings until this very lengthy film reluctantly says that’s all folks, as it seems those on Middle Earth fell in love with their roles too much and had trouble saying adios. The Lord of the Rings took about seven years to come to fruition, with the art designs and computer imagery in the pre-filming stages, and the outcome was a flawless work. It’s one of those films one ought to see, but those who can’t get into the spirit of its peculiar world might find it somewhat boring despite all the splendors it offers and wonder what all those hobbit and elf loving human crazies are raving about.

Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, and Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

REVIEWED ON 12/19/2003 GRADE: B+