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

by Richard A. Zwelling (razwee AT yahoo DOT com)
December 19th, 2003

**** (out of ****)
a film review by
Richard A. Zwelling

At the beginning of this year, I had a pretty good idea that Peter Jackson's final film adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy would be a given for my year-end top-ten list. Still, I was not making any rash decisions and would not give The Return of the King praise if it was undeserved.

To say that my initial instincts were dead-on would be a monumental understatement. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is hands-down the best film I have seen this year. No other film on my current list comes close. Despite the enormous strengths of the previous two films, it is in this masterful conclusion that the emotional intensity, plot developments, and character arcs come pouring off the screen in a marvelous inundation.

The vision which Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie cast upon the besieged kingdoms of men and the growing plight of Frodo, the ringbearer, is uncompromisingly bleak. The lighting of The Fellowship of the Ring was lushly colorful and richly variegated, and despite the perils, the tone was not at all grave. With The Two Towers, the colors became increasingly desaturated, eliciting a much more grim and foreboding air.

In this film, the vibrancy has returned, only this time, there is heavy use of bright neutrals (whites and grays) and almost fluorescent greens. This vibrancy is not at all inviting, but instead invokes feelings of isolation, barrenness, and worst of all, hopelessness. As strange as it may sound, there is an agonizing darkness to these bright hues.

In talking with a friend, shortly after we had both seen the film, we concurred that The Return of the King is also the most Peter Jackson of the three films. Several of his previous outings (Meet the Feebles, The Frighteners, and Heavenly Creatures) had a penchant for the surreally gory, grotesque, and downright ugly, and it is in this Lord of the Rings movie (much more than the first two) that the phantasmagoria and horror-saturated imagery is at its most

In terms of story, things start out slowly, but only because things are being set up for an explosive, relentless climax. And oh my, what a climax! Some have called the Battle at Helm's Deep (from The Two Towers) one of the greatest battles ever put on film. In actor John Rhys-Davies' own words, "You ain't seen nothin' yet".

Maybe a little comparison might help. Helm's Deep was attacked by 10,000 evil Uruk-Hai soldiers and defended by a few hundred men and elves. In this film, the attack on the human city of Minas Tirith and the Battle of Pelennor Fields combine to pit the many combined forces of good against 200,000 Uruks, orcs, trolls, and corrupted men. The cinematic result is heartstopping, jawdropping, and completely engulfing. And once again, the creators have taken measures to ensure that CGI work acts as an enhancement, not as a sole force.

This is certainly the most violent and disturbing of the three films, and several horrifying images in the battles push the PG-13 rating as far as it can go. Honestly, I thought the film strayed into R-rated territory several times. This is not the fun-filled, innocent, child-friendly, family film the promoters might want you to believe it is. The emotional pitches that Jackson hits deserve comparison with the most brutal moments in dehumanizing war films. As an example, I can tell you that the fun-loving, bumbling hobbit, Pippin (played by Billy Boyd), goes through especially painful changes and has a vocal solo that made me gasp and hold my breath.

The acting for this film is by far the most difficult, and the cast of The Return of the King gives a collective performance that is simply incredible as an ensemble piece. Not often does a collection of performances result in something greater than the sum its parts, but such is unquestionably the case in this film.

There are several individual performances of note, however. As the white wizard Gandalf, Ian McKellan displays more authority and strength than the previous two films, and he has some moments during battle that will have you ready to leap from your seat (although not as much as Orlando Bloom's shining moment when his Legolas performs a maneuver that makes his surfboard move in The Two Towers look pathetic).

Legolas and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are still relegated mainly to their smile-inducing comic relief roles, but in context, this provides a perfect complement to (and sometimes, a welcome relief from) the ensuing chaos and devastation.

In the role of the heir to the throne of Gondor, kingdom of men, Viggo Mortensen must display more acceptance of Aragorn's fate as king, and the Aragorn we see in The Return of the King is a far cry from the reluctant ranger we first met in The Fellowship. His performance easily communicates the growing, steadfast self-confidence Aragorn develops.

As Merry and Pippin, two hobbits who have journeyed far from home and have since lost the innocence and care-free nature of hobbits, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd move beyond the comic-relief and supporting nature of their parts in the other two films and turn in wonderfully effective performances that require them to step forward and be leads for a short time.

The primary newcomer to this film (if you don't count his appearance in the extended edition of The Two Towers) is John Noble, who plays Denethor, steward of Gondor. His performance is menacing and reveals a man who may have good intentions, but is nonetheless clouded by an obsession with his family's claim to power and a broken psyche that has been perverted by the strife his people have had to endure. The scenes in which Denethor is at his most unbalanced are some of the most powerful in the film.

My favorite of the performances, however, belongs to the trio en route to Mordor. As the morally ambiguous Gollum, Andy Serkis gives a fantastic performance that is even darker and more frightening than his work in The Two Towers. As the hobbits Frodo and Sam, Elijah Wood and Sean Astin have some scenes that tear at the heart. (By the way, some of these scenes generated sniffles from several people around me). Frodo's degraded emotional and physical state is captured perfectly by Wood's contorted facial expressions and awkward movements. Meanwhile, Sam's unwavering loyalty to Frodo is tested, and Astin's work is amazingly poignant.

Like the other two films, The Return of the King has three hours of central story, but there is also a twenty-minute epilogue that chronicles events following the War of the Ring. This epilogue constitutes seventy pages (about one-third) of Tolkien's book, and therefore twenty minutes is actually quite short. So if you hear from critics (and you will) that the film "does not want to end" and goes on for too long, just know that you are listening to someone who has not read the books and is throwing shortsighted criticism at Jackson for a characteristic of Tolkien's work (which, by the way, I have no problems with).

The epilogue of the film, just like with the book, allows for celebration and rejoicing, but also a lingering sense of mourning, irony, and pain. Jackson gets the tone of the final five minutes absolutely right, and I doubt that anyone who has grown to love these characters will be able to keep a dry eye.

This is an astounding film, and without a doubt, a landmark in film history. Taken together, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King represent one of the greatest collective works of cinema ever made. Yes, you heard me right. No, I am not exaggerating. The Lord of the Rings easily represents the greatest cinematic fantasy work of all-time, but it also embodies much more than that.

Jackson's endlessly fertile imagination has shown that the "impossible" can be done and that sometimes, it is worth taking risks (Thank you, New Line). I don't think there will ever be a time again when a work of film extends beyond the nine-hour mark (ten, if you count extended editions), and yet manages not only to keep its audiences engrossed, but also successfully create compelling characters that people will be reluctant to say goodbye to.

After only one viewing, I consider The Return of the King the best film of 2003, and still, I feel I have not even begun to grasp how truly superior the work is. Bring lots of tissues, and be ready to hold your breath and gape your eyes in awe. This is one for the ages.
Richard A. Zwelling, 2003

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