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

by Harvey S. Karten (harveycritic AT cs DOT com)
December 29th, 2003

LORD OF THE RINGS: The Return of the King

Reviewed by: Harvey S. Karten
Grade: B+
New Line Cinema
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Cast: Sean Bean, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood Screened at: Loews E-Walk, NYC, 12/2/03

    Where did you spend your time away from home during the past few years? Visiting your in-laws in Ohio? Tough luck. Europe? Not bad. On safari in Kenya? Even better. There's one destination that could blow the others out of the water. New Zealand. Right. New Zealand, not its bigger, more famous brother one thousand miles away. If you were there at the same time as Peter Jackson, you could have watched elephants roaring down the plain, crushing armed fighters right, left and in front. You could have seen flying dragons swooping up brave warriors only to throw them over the cliff, at least until the cavalry of eagles was alerted to take them on. You might have seen people who not even their mothers could love, making elephant man and the phantom of the opera without his mask look like Mel Gibson in comparison. You'd have a new regard for the elderly, noting how a man with a long, flowing white beard charged ahead with his mount to disrupt the plans of those awful-looking fellas who were out to conquer the human race. "This is no place for a Hobbit to be," intones one of the warriors on the side of the good guys. The theater showing "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," however, is probably just the place you want to be. Think of the money you save, the mileage you avoid, by sitting in your easy chair, popcorn in the left hand and a Coke in the right, taking in the gorgeous New Zealand views without having to pay the fancy price of getting there.

    Then again, maybe you wouldn't have seen some of the
above, because given the modern miracle of CGI, or computer generated imagery, it just might be that the flying dragons, the off-putting Orcs (especially their lieutenant), even a spider so big and scary that Little Miss Muffet would scarcely hang around with her curds and whey to see if the multi-legged creature would sit quietly beside her, were all figments of the computer programmers' imaginations. Hard to tell given the realistic look of the entire project.

    We're in the hands of Peter Jackson now, watching the final in the trilogy known as "Lord of the Rings," this episode taken from J.R.R. Tolkien's, "Return of the King." The Hobbits once again take a back seat to the big guys as we become dismayed by the depression faced by the once king and cheer for the return of the future king, the latter played by Viggo Mortenson (Aragorn) who, along with Ian McKellen as Gandalf and hundreds, maybe thousands of spear-carriers, saves Middle Earth for people and allows the little Hobbits like Sam (Sean Astin) to return to his Shire and for the corruptible Hobbit Frodo to take leave of his best pal and head off to his own adventure far away.

    While Aragorn, Gandalf and their allies must save Middle Earth for human beings, their more earthbound task is to find and free Hobbits Frodo and Sam, who are incommunicado, lost and possibly dead, yet bearing the adrelanin that will help them overcome a huge spider named Shelob and the wily ways of the schizophrenic and hellish-looking Gollum (Andy Serkis in the trilogy's most inventive computer-simulated appearance). The film in effect takes on two stories woven together at the inevitably conclusion: the odyssey of Frodo and Sam, the former becoming increasingly corrupted by the ring he refuses to destroy, leading him to sever his friendship with the trusting Sam; and the series of battles between the forces under the king-elect Aragorn, whose men gain strength when hundreds of dead people elect to join; and the battalions of Orcs with their allies, the flying dragons.

    Some vocabulary is in order. According to the massive production notes (which lists the largest number of crew people I've seen by any movie), the main characters are: Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a Hobbit, intent on destroying the One Ring, but who falls under its evil influence to the regret of his best friend Sam; Gandalf, a wizard, is intent on defeating the Orcs, after which he is free to crown a new king to replace the effete monarch who has lost the spirit to fight; Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), is a human warrior who joins the Fellowship; Sam is an ordinary Hobbit, the most loyal of Frodo's pals; Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) is the red-headed, red-bearded dwarf
thrown into the story for comic relief, who fights with Aragorn because of his sense of justice; King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) has been awakened from wicked Saruman's Spell and is set to oppose Saruon's forces; Gollum, or Smeagol (Andy Serkis) is a Stoor, formerly a Hobbit-like creature, who has been changed into a grotesque being by proximity to the Ring.

    There is little question that this finale of the trilogy, the longest (but because of its commitment to action and variety of scenes appears to go by the fastest), will cop the academy awards for cinematography, effects and sound. Some members of critics' groups, leaving the theater at an advance screening, appear ready to vote "Return of the King" the year's best picture, which indeed the film may take within some such organizations but which cannot, in my view, compare in its narrative depth, with small-studio offerings such as my own favorites so far this year, "American Splendor," "Lost in Translation," "21 Grams" and a documentary featuring whose flights of fancy are even more dramatic than those in LOTR, "Winged Migration." "Return of the King" has been rated PG-13 for "intense epic battle sequences and frightening images." In my view, the
images the flying dragons, fights with the eagles, huge spider, ugly Orcs, the incredible Evil Eye and other envelope-pushing special effects take a back seat to the human human (or should we say Hobbit-like) adventure of Frodo and Sam. The sooner the batty Gollum got his comeuppance, the better, in my view, focusing attention more on the vagaries of an intense friendship gone awry. "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," is a fitting conclusion to the much anticipated series, its final scene of the peaceful and verdant Shire a welcome contrast to the dark, gray mise-en-scene of the picture's bellicose episodes.

Rated PG-13. 200 minutes.(c) 2003 by Harvey Karten at
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