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

by Jerry Saravia (faust668 AT aol DOT com)
January 12th, 2004

Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
Viewed on January 2nd, 2004
RATING: Four stars

It is now at a close. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" has brought the long-awaited trilogy to a grand finish, as epic as one could ever imagine. "The Return of the King" is easily the film that all of us have been waiting for - a sweeping tale of true heroism and chivalry unlike anything I have ever seen before. To say that it blows away the two previous films is only icing on the cake - it confirms that we have witnessed one of the most emotionally overpowering fantasies ever made.

"Return of the King" begins with a flashback to Smeagol (Andy Serkis), a hobbit who discovers his fellow hobbit friend has found the all-powerful ring. Smeagol relishes the ring so much that he fights for it and kills his friend. Slowly, through the years. he is so consumed by its power that he transforms into the ugly, skeletal creature we all know as Gollum. Thus, we are left with other fellow hobbits, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his best friend, Sam (Sean Astin), as they make their way to Mordor to destroy the ring, the very same ring that Gollum craves. Considering Gollum is along for this journey, he tries to turn Frodo against Sam, claiming Sam wants the ring for himself.

Meanwhile, we return to the heroes of the former battle at Helm's Deep and Isengard from "The Two Towers," which include the powerful wizard Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen), the Ranger and soon-to-be King Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas, the elf archer (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli, the feisty, boisterous dwarf (John Rhys-Davies). All four are rejoined with the hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan)and Pippin (Billy Boyd), last seen in battle fighting along with the Ents in Isengard. There is to be one or two more battles to fight, mainly to distract the fiery Eye of Sauron so that Frodo can complete his dangerous quest. After all, the Eye sees all.

It is highly recommended that one be knowledgeable of the first two "Rings" films (if not the book) or else you'll be confounded by what transpires on screen. For those of us who have been wowed by the first two epic films, "Return of the King" delivers everything you can possibly want from a fantasy film. Middle-Earth is as amazing as ever to look at, particularly the sights of rolling hills and flat lands where a tower can be seen in the distance (all of this was, of course, shot in New Zealand). For once, director Peter Jackson doesn't overdo the sweeping panoramic shots of people on horses headed for a single destination. He lets the shots breathe on their own without forcing the camera to do so. One of the more amazingly detailed shots that breathlessly combines CGI with real landscapes is a scene set at Minas Tirith, the home of a depressed and menacing ruler named Denethor (John Noble), who is in mourning over the death of one of his sons. Denethor seems content to sit at his table and eat without ever resorting to the raging war that threatens his home. Gandalf and Pippin try to convince Denethor to get reinforcements for the extensive number of Orcs headed their way. What follows is Pippin climbing to the top of tower and setting fire to a beacon as a signal to Aragorn. So we see one fiery signal sent from one mountainous peak to another until it's finally seen by Aragorn. From close-up to wide shot, sometimes in the same shot, Jackson accomplishes something rare - he shows that Middle-Earth is a real place that seems lived-in and occupied. There is size, shape and scope in these images that lends it an intimacy few other fantasies can match.

To say the battle scenes are not extraordinary is to deny Jackson's own genius at staging such scenes. The Siege of Minas Tirith and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields are the most exciting, nail-biting and nerve-frying battle scenes I have ever seen. We see huge solid rock formations thrown across fields of Orcs ready for battle, enormous elephant-like animals stampeding in record numbers, phantom armies (sent by Aragorn from the Cursed Mountains) that whip their way across the enemy in flashes of green color, arrows flung that fly across the sky twenty sometimes thirtyfold, cave trolls pounding their fists againts large entry doors, and so on. Outside of the battle scenes, we have Frodo facing a huge tarantula called Shelob, who traps our hero with web and almost mummifies him. There are also the lava lakes of Mordor as Frodo, tired and hungry, mostly from carrying the ring, struggles to make it to the dangerous fires where the ring must be destroyed, once and for all. I doubt even George Lucas can muster a tenth of the brilliance and innovation of such battles in the next "Star Wars" flick as Jackson has.

If it was not for the characters and their humanity, their fears and their desires, nothing that happens in "Return of the King" or, for that matter, the entire trilogy would matter. As fascinating as Ralph Bakshi's animated and truncated "Lord of the Rings" version was, Peter Jackson's is the standard by which all fantasy films will be measured. At this point, we care for Frodo and Sam, and see how crucial their relationship is and how much they need each other to survive this epic war. Some may find that Sean Astin as Sam is too willful with his tears but I found that it was necessary - so much has happened in their adventures that I felt for Sam when Frodo leaves him behind, ever so briefly. But the one character that I'll never forget is Gollum (Andy Serkis), the former hobbit who is the most affected by the ring. He turns out to be quite the mischievous, greedy, sneaky little murderer, characteristics which were only hinted at in the "Two Towers." This physically wrecked, schizophrenic abomination is clearly intent on possessing that ring through all the treachery and greed he can muster. Gollum is clearly the most memorable character of the trilogy.

Gandalf the White has a bigger role in this film, facing more forces of evil and using his blinding white staff to defeat any and everything in his path. Aragorn is merely our trustworthy hero, knowing he has a future as King of Gondor, and he is as persuasive as Robin Hood in rallying the troops to fight for what they all believe in. Legolas and Gimli merely show up to fight but Legolas proves as adept in firing his arrows with precision as ever before. Gimli has a lot more colorful dialogue this time out. Likewise, Merry and Pippin, two formerly child-like hobbits who only desired food, have become as affected and changed by this journey as anyone else.

Of course, there are many other characters in "Return of the King," particularly the return of Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her father, King Theoden (Bernard Hill), not to mention the Witch-King, the Ents, Bilbo Baggins, and much more. If I have one gripe, it is that there are too many endings and fade-outs towards the end - it runs on for almost twenty minutes. Though I've noticed the book ends the same way, I miss the character of Saruman (Christopher Lee) and his own fate when meeting with Gandalf - a deleted scene that will be included in the extended DVD edition next November. Still, there is the marriage of Aragorn and former elf, Arwen (Liv Tyler), the latter of which I would loved to seen included in an extra scene or two, in a beautiful and rhapsodic sequence to behold. And Sam's own return to the Shire with a wife and children shows there is hope for all. What is most noticeable is that Jackson injects the feeling that everyone and everything has changed, despite the fact normalcy has returned. Too much darkness has come to pass for the hobbits and others to forget their own personal tragedies.

Most notably, director Peter Jackson has accomplished something few ever hoped to achieve - he has made Middle-Earth as real a place as any with characters as real as anyone could have hoped for. Tolkien fans should rejoice: the King has finally ruled with a cinematic iron fist.

Footnote: a possible movie connection occurs in "Return of the King." One of the Orc Lieutenants, unnamed as I recall, has a melted, monstrous face that instantly reminded me of the Sloth creature in "The Goonies." Maybe the homage is not intentional but both films do star Sean Astin. Hmmm.

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