The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review

by Laura Clifford (laura AT reelingreviews DOT com)
December 10th, 2003


As Frodo (Eliah Wood) begins the arduous journey into Mordor with a battling Sam and Gollum, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) begins to ready the Gondor capital, Minas Tirith, for battle with Sauron's armies while Théoden (Bernard Hill, "Gothika") gathers Rohan's forces awaiting Gandalf's call. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), accompanied by the ever-faithful Legolas (Orlando Bloom, "The Pirates of the Caribbean") and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), needs to heed his own calling and gather his own army for "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King."

The long awaited capper to Peter Jackson's trilogy is expected to be a knockout, the film the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is waiting to bedeck with Oscars, but while the film is certainly an honorable ending to a series justifiably considered a towering achievement, repetition and an inability to let the film end seriously mar its impact. "Return of the Kings" is blessed with many, many moments of cinematic splendor, but all too often I was wishing Jackson would just get on with it. When all is said and done, Frodo has become an almost annoying character and Aragorn never fully emerges. "The Lord of the Rings's" true heroes are Gandalf and Sam, and McKellan and Astin are the two actors whose lifeblood pumps through this saga.

"Return of the King" begins by going back, revealing the transformation of the Hobbit Smegal (Andy Serkis) into the emaciated Gollum after his murderous acquisition of the ring. Perhaps the trilogy's only ineffective special effect comes within the first three minutes of the third film, an unconvincing shot of a hobbit being pulled along underwater by a fishing line. This is made up for with a poetic look at the ring's retrieval from the pond bottom, the golden band encased in slime. As time passes and the Gollum is formed ('We forgot the taste of bread, the sound of trees') we can see that his giant, watery blue eyes are cousin to Frodo's own.
Back in the present, Pippin (Billy Boyd, "Master and Commander") cannot resist the pull of the Palantir at Isengard, Sauron's crystal ball which Gandalf had hidden away. The gaze into it is a physically horrific experience for the Hobbit, but when Gandalf learns he has seen Minas Tirith under siege, he gallops off with to the grand white city (production designer Grant Major has outdone himself with the spiral mountain clinger, constructed at New Zealand's Dry Creek Quarry). There they find Lord Denethor (John Noble), gone mad over the death of his son Boromir (Sean Bean), about to make a sacrifice of his unappreciated Faramir (David Wenham, "The Bank").

Arwen (Liv Tyler) sees her human future and turns back towards a life of mortality and so her father, elf king Elrond (Hugo Weaving, "The Matrix Revolutions") reforges the Sword of Kings for her lover Aragorn. Aragorn takes his leave from Éowyn (Miranda Otto) to call up a cursed army while she disguises herself and takes Pippin's friend Merry (Dominic Monaghan) into Pelennor Fields with her father to battle the Witch-king of Angmar and Sauron's armies. In the end, of course, it is not the trinity of Gandalf, Aragorn and Théoden who can save the kingdom. What they must do is distract the Eye of Sauron long enough for Frodo to destroy the Ring.
Pairings and repairings mark "The Return of the King," with Pippin and Merry split between two different armies yet partnered with a wizard and future queen, Sam and the Judas Gollum struggling for Frodo's allegiance, and Aragorn's heart moving from human to Elf. Former unlikely alliances are made with Rohan and Gondor and the Elf Legolas standing with the Dwarf Gimli.

Jackson achieves some great moments of humanistic drama, such as when he intercuts Pippin's plaintive singing during Denizor's supper with Faramir leading troops to certain slaughter or when Frodo forsakes Sam over Gollum's stolen bread. There are also scenes of soaring majesty, such as Gandalf blinding flying Fell Beasts with light reflected from his staff, or anytime Gandalf rides Shadowfax for that matter. Once again, John Rhys-Davies is relied on for the film's humor, proclaiming 'That still only counts as one!' after Legolas single handedly takes out one of the elephant-like Mûmakil (visually reminiscent of the Imperial Walkers) during ferocious combat. And yet, the film often goes limp for extended periods. When Frodo is lured into Shelob's Lair, it is "The Return of the King's" misfortune that the giant spider only recalls last year's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and the final stages of his mission are agonizingly drawn out. Jackson may be trying to stay true to his source material, but cinematically, four endings are three two many. If only some of that screen time had been given over to Aragorn's love life, which is too abruptly dealt with.

With "The Lord of the Rings," Jackson can take his place as the literary George Lucas of his time. Yet after his next big outing, "King Kong," one hopes for a return of the Jackson who gave us "Heavenly Creatures" as well.

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