Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2003Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortenson, Ian McKellen
t’s 2:45 in the morning. I’ve just returned from an all-day screening of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, including the new one, The Return of the King. I’m running on sugar, caffeine, and an excess of movie theater curly fries. Between going to this trilogy, finishing end-of-semester graduate school papers and final exams, obsessively scouring the Internet for offseason news on the Boston Red Sox, and writing and editing for Stylus, the outdoors has become a distant dream and a fond memory. My skin is becoming ever paler, my diet is breaking down completely, and my nerd quotient is shooting into the stratosphere.
But none of that matters, because The Return of the King just got finished blowing my mind.
I’m fully prepared to admit that ten hours of immersion in the world of Middle-Earth may have affected my critical judgement in some way. Hell, after spending a day doing what I just did I might as well learn Elvish, shove a twelve-sided die up my ass, and be done with it. But I still know a great movie when I see one, and The Return of the King is a great movie. More importantly, it’s a spectacular (and fitting) conclusion to a brilliant trilogy, a trilogy that looks impressive now but that I believe will only rise in esteem as time passes and we truly begin to appreciate what Peter Jackson has accomplished.
What has he accomplished? Well, to boil it down to a few salient points, he’s taken a series of utterly beloved books and turned them into great films without alienating either the hardcore fans or the curious newcomers. He’s created an action-fantasy epic with spectacular set pieces, brilliantly filmed battle sequences, and more bizarre monsters than you can shake a sword at, and yet never once let the audience forget that the stories he’s telling are all about the characters. The Return of the King has some of the greatest, most awe-inspiring battle scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. But what will stick in my mind the most is the spectacle of a jam-packed theater weeping its collective eyes out as Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, and the like complete their respective quests and learn about the Meaning of Friendship and Sacrifice.
Hokey, right? Well, yeah, but what do you expect? If you’re looking for post-modern irony in a three-hour epic about very small men fighting orcs and goblins and destroying evil magic rings by throwing then into volcanoes, then look elsewhere and good riddance to you. This is a cynicism-free film about fighting evil, discovering untapped reserves of bravery within oneself, and being true to your friends. The purity of Peter Jackson’s directorial vision allows him to pull this off without a whiff of condescension or manipulative heartstring-tugging. If you are not moved by The Return of the King by the time the “The End” credit goes up at around the three-hour mark, then you probably aren’t the type of person who should be seeing it in the first place. In fact, I’m sure you aren’t, you heartless ghoul.
Don’t let this endorsement trick you into thinking The Return of the King is all uplifting self-esteem massage therapy. The movie is stuffed full with so many superbly filmed action sequences that it might very well becoming the template for how to shoot a battle scene. A good way to evaluate a film like this one is the “Goose Bump Effect,” measuring the amount of times your arm or neck hair truly stands on end as a result of the movie in question. An unscientific method of measurement to be sure, but an instructive one when it comes to fantasy/sci-fi films in particular. I can’t give you an accurate sense of The Return of the King’s Goose Bump Effect, because I lost count about halfway through the movie. Suffice to say you get your money’s worth, and then some (one example: a giant elephant getting shot with a bunch of arrows and falling down ass-over-teakettle is, for me, worth the price of admission. You may feel differently).
But the amazing thing Jackson pulls off is filming all this spectacular, hair-raising blood and mayhem and somehow managing to keep it firmly rooted in the context of the larger story. This isn’t some Michael Bay-ish hack handed the reins to a big-budget sci-fi movie and seeing how many pointless special effects and lightning-quick jump cuts he can cram into three hours. This is an art film director being given an incredible story and a huge budget with which to film it and creating a fantasy trilogy that functions equally well as eye candy and character study, often at the same time.
I do have one small quibble, however. Jackson had about six opportunities to end The Return of the King on a more interesting note and squandered each of them. By the time the real ending came around, I had been shown so many false endings that I didn’t care quite as much as I should have. I suspect this has a lot to do with Peter Jackson being in love with his project and not wanting to end it until he had squeezed every last drop out of it. Like I said, not a big deal– passion is an easily forgivable sin in my movie-making book.
A final verdict on this last film is difficult to issue. I’ve come to think of the Lord of the Rings trilogy as one large entity, with each movie distinct to some degree but not especially different from one another. That being said, The Return of the King is a spectacular accomplishment, both as the conclusion to the trilogy and as a piece of film-making on its own merits. Peter Jackson, take a bow. The rest of you, get to your nearest theater, fast. But try to leave the elf ears at home.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2003-12-17