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Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (PG-13) (2003)

New Line Cinema

Official Site

Director: Peter Jackson

Producer: Peter Jackson

Screenwriter: Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sir Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys Davies, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, John Noble, David Wenham, Sean Bean

Rating: Bogucki


The Return Of The King is the third and final installment in the Lord Of The Rings series, and it is also the best of the three. Even though director Peter Jackson does make some attempt to reach out to the uninitiated or forgetful via flashbacks to Fellowship Of The Ring, the viewer had best come prepared with at least a partial understanding of the Tolkien universe.

The geo-politics of Middle Earth get even more confusing with the introduction of another land of men—the oft-spoken-of, never-before-seen nation of Gondor. With the news of the death of his favored son, Boromir (Bean), Denethor (Noble) the steward who reigns over Gondor until the return of the king, has lost his grip on reality. In his madness Denethor fails to recognize the threat of Mordor or to acknowledge the achievements of his loyal second son Faramir (Wenham). (These father-son dynamics are more fully explained in The Two Towers Extended DVD). The newly arrived Gandalf (McKellan) and Pippin (Boyd) must hold the city until Theodin (Hill) of Rohan and a few unexpected allies under command of Aragorn (Mortensen) can try to break the siege. All the while Frodo (Wood), Sam (Astin), and the creature Gollum (Serkis plus CGI) make their way toward Mount Doom to destroy the ring.

Return Of The King follows its multiple plot threads evenly and they are all equally engaging so there is never a dull moment. The movie moves along fast enough but, even at its 3:20 running time, certain segments have an abridged feel; some conflicts are resolved almost as soon as they are introduced. This actually helps to up the intensity because the audience is reminded that the characters must overcome one trial after another for there to be any hope of victory. Director Peter Jackson deserves credit for being able to cram so many disparate plot points into one cohesive and entertaining movie. The last 20 minutes amount to one long epilogue, but considering that nine hours have been spent following the plight of the protagonists the journey would not feel complete without knowing their final destination.

What a journey it is at that. Return Of The King features some of the most breathtaking visual moments in the series, all set to a rousing score suitable for the climactic battle between good and evil. The mailed fist of 6000 silver-helmed knights charging into the center of the orc horde easily dwarfs the battle of Helms Deep and it is only one of many action set pieces. The city of Minas Tirith is created using models, CGI, and (gasp) real sets, which stand as a reminder that currently computer effects are best used as complements for good set design not as substitutes. When the film is forced to rely on computer creations they interact well with the live action and convince the audience of the protagonists’ mortal peril. Most importantly the special effects serve to advance the plot and never the other way around.

Despite the fact the movie is plot- and not character-driven it still finds time for drama filling the slower scenes with psychological tension. Denethor’s dysfunctional relationship with his son Faramir is something new and Frodo, Sam, and Gollum’s classic love triangle is as compelling as ever. Gollum is better looking and more devious than before as he takes advantage of Frodo’s weakened state while in thrall to the power of the ring. The movie is aided tremendously by Gandalf, who lends a certain gravity to the proceedings helping to prevent them from degenerating into a three-hour hack-and-slash fest.

All of the series’ seemingly superfluous characters have a chance to rise to the occasion. Lady Eowyn (Otto) finally comes to grips with the enemy; Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin grow beyond their roles as mere comic relief; and Sam proves that physical stature is no substitute for courage and compassion. The added focus on the hobbits is time well spent because they are the trilogy’s moral center and stand-ins for the audience. Indeed a time does come when hobbits shape the fortunes of all. Even Gollum has some part to play.

Return Of The King is one of those rare films where the expectations are impossibly high and yet it manages to exceed those expectations on every level. This doesn’t have any super cute ewoks or meta-physical ramblings to bring down the movie, just pure 24-carat film gold. Hats off to Peter Jackson and company for doing the impossible and saving the best for last in the conclusion to this groundbreaking series, a series that will without a doubt become precious to many more generations of movie watchers everywhere.

—Woodrow Bogucki

Very seldom does a sequel live up to the movies that come before it and almost always, the third movie is one of the worst. However, three movies are almost never filmed at the same time, and this rare occurrence has resulted in a series of movies that have become better as the series progressed.

It is hard to review Return Of The King as a stand-alone movie. It’s clearly the ending of an epic series and very few people will go and watch a three hour and ten minute movie without having first watched the first two installments of the series. Even taking the movie by itself, it’s very impressive. Character development, story, CGI, music, and acting are all of the highest caliber. The battle sequences are easily the best fantasy battle scenes ever filmed. Taken as a single movie, it spends far too much time on the denouement, lessening the dramatic impact of the battles. It seems a fitting conclusion, however, if you consider the last hour of Return Of The King as the last hour of an eight-hour, three-film epic.

Readers of the books will notice several things that are missing or done differently. Most fans should be happy, but if you were disappointed with the prior movies for taking liberties, Return Of The King will give you more to argue about. It does fix some events from the first two movies, but the way it’s done will probably just aggravate purists even more.

Sean Astin (Sam) and Andy Serkis (Gollum/Smeagol) give two of the best performances. Their interactions with each other and with Frodo (Wood) show a wide range of emotions and prevent the film from stalling when the action turns to the ring bearer. The pretty boy elfin fan club will get to see Legolas (Bloom) do more superhuman tricks in battle, while Gimli (Rhys-Davies) snidely cheers him on in competition. There is not a flat performance in the movie, and with more than 20 important speaking roles that’s a huge tribute to the direction of Peter Jackson.

Jackson had almost unlimited resources in finishing the third installment. The first two films had already grossed more than a billion dollars between them and the budget on the post-production work is evident. The computer effects are all state of the art. Gollum is the most realistic computer-generated character brought to the screen. The hoards of fantasy creatures and troops in the battle scenes are breathtaking. The modeled city of Minas Tirith and the computer-rendered Paths of the Dead are done expertly. In a movie filled with effects shots, there were only two places I noticed that could have been better.

Composer Howard Shore’s score improves on the work he did for the first two films. The score’s martial atmosphere and depth add greatly to the overall feel and draw the viewer even deeper into the story. Shore could follow up his Oscar win for Fellowship Of The Ring with another Academy Award.

Who should see this movie? Anyone who likes an epic adventure. There are amazing battles, heroic actions, dark villainy, romantic love, and even a bit of philosophy. There’s something for almost everyone, but that does lead to the film’s main drawback—the running time. At three hours plus, it’s a long sit-down in one place. If you stay to the end of the credits, the length is closer to three hours and thirty minutes. Since there’s no pause button or good place to miss a couple minutes, avoid those large drinks. Readers of the books will love the time spent on the aftermath of the battle for Middle Earth, but fans who have only seen the screen version might get fidgety during the last third of the film. Shifting some of that material into the inevitable special edition DVD might have made for a better theatrical release, but I was very pleased to see it on screen.

Return Of The King is the culmination of a series that has already won six Oscars and been nominated for 19. The battles are grander, the characters even more heroic, and there is a fulfilling sense of completion. It is a wonderful end to a superb trilogy and deserves to be watched on the big screen.

—Glen Bucher

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