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

by Shannon Patrick Sullivan (shannon AT morgan DOT ucs DOT mun DOT ca)
December 22nd, 2003

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003) / ****

Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, based on the novel by JRR Tolkien. Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen. Running time: 201 minutes. Rated AA for violent scenes by the MFCB. Reviewed on December 21st, 2003.

By SHANNON PATRICK SULLIVAN

Synopsis: Exhausted and haunted, Hobbits Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) traverse the monster-infested land of Mordor with the treacherous creature Gollum (Andy Serkis). Their destination is the volcanic Mount Doom, the one place in Middle-Earth where the evil One Ring can be destroyed.
Meanwhile, the wizard Gandalf (McKellen) and the Hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) travel to the citadel of Minas Tirith, hoping to form an alliance with its ruler Denethor (John Noble), father of the noble Faramir (David Wenham). But Gandalf is unaware that Denethor is falling to madness as the shadow of the evil Sauron falls across his land.

And, leaving Pippin's friend Merry (Dominic Monaghan) with Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and the armies of Rohan, Aragorn (Mortensen), Elven archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Dwarven warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) undertake a dangerous quest to secure the aid they need to confront Sauron's forces.
Review: Although it's been necessitated by the annual release pattern of the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy, it's really a mistake to review these as three separate movies. Not only were they made at the same time, they do not even form three distinct narratives -- unlike, say, the last two films in the "Back To The Future" franchise, which were also produced simultaneously but each stand as an individual story. And this is only to be expected, given the source material: JRR Tolkien never intended "The Lord Of The Rings" to be a trilogy of novels, but rather had that format imposed upon him by his publishers.

As a result, many of the platitudes heaped upon "The Fellowship Of The Ring" and "The Two Towers" -- design, effects, musical score and so forth -- apply equally well to "The Return Of The King", and so I hope that the reader will forgive me if I do not repeat them. The performance of several of the leads, similarly, is essentially uniform throughout the three movies. Bloom once again finds the right balance of solemnity and intensity as Legolas; Rhys-Davies is amusing as Gimli, although I'm glad to see the character's portrayal somewhat better-rounded here than in "Towers", where he did little more than provide comic relief. While Mortensen's Aragorn is here called upon to throw off his loner demeanour to become a leader of men, the actor does not lose sight of the ranger's basic aspect of grizzled heroism. And McKellen, too, basically offers the same mix of mischief and ages-old wisdom as in past films.

The characters who see the most development this time around are the four Hobbits (a welcome development, as they had been somewhat sidelined in "Towers"). This is most true of Wood: far from being the cheerful, innocent Hobbit whom we first saw gamboling across the fields to meet Gandalf in the opening minutes of "Fellowship", Frodo Baggins is now a haunted figure. The weight of his responsibilities, and the insidious evil of the One Ring, have had a dramatic effect on him, leaving him a paranoid shadow of his happier self. Wood does an excellent job of capturing Frodo's degeneration while still maintaining a tragic valour: enough of Frodo's former spirit still shines through to remind us of how far he's fallen in his quest.

In response to these developments, Astin also enjoys a meaty role this time around, as Sam's stubborn loyalty to Frodo proves to be an emotional lodestone for the movie. And the other Hobbits -- Boyd and Monaghan as Pippin and Merry -- also shine. Like Gimli, they are no longer relegated to the ranks of comic relief, and come to serve as the audience's vantage point on the movie's fantastical events.

The extensive supporting cast also deliver fine performances, most notably Otto as the courageous Eowyn. But it is Serkis who will -- quite justifiably -- receive the lion's share of the accolades, as he continues to make Gollum one of the most engaging cinematic creations in recent memory. "The Return Of The King" starts off with a brilliantly-realised flashback to Gollum's origins, adding even more layers to a character who easily transcends his computer-generated origins. Even those less than enamored with the fantasy genre must surely appreciate the extraordinary accomplishment engineered by Serkis, director Peter Jackson, and the team of animators behind Gollum.

Speaking of Jackson, his direction here is as accomplished as in the first two "Rings" movies. This time around, I particularly appreciated the way he was able to so effortlessly meld large-scale action sequences with far more personal scenes -- be it Frodo's attempts to reach Mount Doom or Denethor's mad attempts to kill Faramir (even if this particular subplot seems oddly forgotten once it has played out).

As well, having already spotlighted one tremendous battle in "The Two Towers", Jackson wisely approaches a similarly mammoth combat in "Return" in a very different manner. Whereas "Tower"'s Battle of Helm's Deep was spectacular due to the sheer numbers of men, Elves, Orcs and Uruk-Hai involved, on this occasion Jackson brings into play more fantastical creatures and inventions. The lumbering stride of massive tusked Oliphants and the crushing devastation of Troll-powered catapults help to make this no less memorable a creation.

Still, it would be a mistake to think that "The Return Of The King" is perfect. Most notably, the movie outstays its welcome with a half-hour-long epilogue (and even Tolkien purists will likely find themselves secretly relieved that Jackson elected to excise another lengthy episode set in the Hobbits' Shire). And the abrupt disappearance of evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) -- his "Return" material having been cut by Jackson at the last minute -- seems rather awkward.

But "The Return Of The King" nonetheless stands as a monumentally satisfying climax to the "Rings" saga, packed with all the excitement, humour, breathtaking vistas, and extraordinary fantasy imaginings as could be hoped. And moreover, Jackson's "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy as a whole stands as something even greater than the sum of its parts. This is undoubtedly one of the cinematic milestones of our time.

Copyright 2003 Shannon Patrick Sullivan.
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