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Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Review written by: Alex Sandell
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Return of the Jedi. Back to the Future III. Jaws 3-D. Alien³. Matrix Revolutions. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King doesn't belong anywhere near that list of films. For decades fans have spent hours standing in line for the second sequel to their favorite film, and have left disappointed. Their parades rained on. Their dreams dissolved. Their hopes smashed by a bitter cinematic reality. From Ewoks to ZZ Top — Hollywood has always found the perfect way to mess up a perfectly good trilogy. Masochistic Tolkien devotees craving that wretched feeling of disappointment, which comes along with watching your favorite series go sour, will have to wait for the inevitable Hobbit adaptation, because Return of the King delivers.
The Return of the King is epic. Naturally, with as much movie as there is here, not everything is going to be perfect. I initially divided this review into three sections, the "good," the "bad" and the "ugly." Then I realized that there wasn't anything that I'd consider "bad" or "ugly" (with one notable exception). So I revised my three definitions of the film to, the "great," the "good" and the "sort of crappy." I'll start with what I considered to be great, and work my way down.
Note: Due to the numerous spoilers contained in the paragraphs below, I suggest that you bookmark this review, and read it after you watch the film.
The substantive character arcs for each of the four Hobbits. This movie belongs to Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd), Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). As much as I missed Treebeard (my favorite character of the trilogy), it was rewarding to have Pippin and Merry doing a bit more than sitting around on a walking tree, half the movie. The oftentimes carefree and/or reckless Pippin must finally learn to take responsibility for his actions. Merry suits up and goes into battle. The courage displayed by the little Hobbit, as he tries to make an oversized uniform fit, is emboldening. Sam and Frodo temporarily go their own way in the movie, but only due to Frodo's allegiances changing from Sam to Gollum. Sam proves that he is the definitive best friend when he saves Frodo, after being shunned by him. The fictional character of Sam Gamgee may be just the thing to remind a few of us real life friends that true friends are forever.
The sympathy Sméagol managed to gain in The Two Towers is lost by the end of The Return of the King. This isn't so much "great," as it is tragic. In a way, it's another reminder to people to drop their petty grudges. Sméagol was kicked and beat by Faramir's (David Wenham) men in Towers. He felt that Frodo deceived him. Rather than straightening out the mess, bitterness and ongoing resentment kicked in. Sméagol felt betrayed, and was unable to get over it. Sam was betrayed, but remembered that everyone makes mistakes, and the reasons behind them are oftentimes not as black and white as they appear. Are you a Gollum or a Sam Gamgee? Better check that complexion — you're looking a little peaked.
On a less analogous level, Gollum, now that he's become the dominant personality, makes for one wonderfully rotten bastard. He's sick, he's manipulative and he's absolutely evil. You'll miss him when he's gone, but this time it will be because you loved so much to hate him. And still, a part of you will wish he could have been saved. Just keep telling yourself, "he was only CG, he was only CG."
A strong female character with more than a cameo role. Eowyn (Miranda Otto) is back from The Two Towers, and plays a far bigger part in The Return of the King. I loved her every moment on screen. I loved how she picked the disappointed Merry up, after Théoden (Bernard Hill) told him that he was too small to fight. By trusting that brave Hobbit's courage and fighting abilities, she showed that not all women think that size matters. And the line she uses before stabbing that alpha male Witch King in the head. Beautiful.
The Witch-king of Angmar. This guy sort of takes over for Saruman, as the "Darth Vader" character in The Return of the King. He, along with the 8 other Nazgûl under his command, are a constant presence during the film's battles. Mounted on those dragon thingies they were shown flying on in The Two Towers, they strike from above and are a real pain in the ass for the good guys, down below. The way they indiscriminatingly peg off our heroes adds even more adrenaline and intensity to the film's epic confrontations.
Gandalf blinding the Nazgûl with his staff. Nice touch.
Sean Astin's performance as Sam Gamgee. Sean deserves to be separated from the rest of the pack, for his wonderful acting in this film. None of the actors are phoning in their lines, and most do a fine job, but Astin's work deserves an Oscar. He is forced through such a huge gamut of emotion in the film, and he's believable, throughout. This movie is as much Sam's, as it is Frodo's. As a matter of fact, I would say that Sam is the star of The Return of the King, in the way that I thought Gollum was the star of The Two Towers and Frodo that of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Sam picking up a collapsed Frodo and saying something along the lines of, "I can't carry the ring for you, but I can carry you, Master Frodo." It may sound cheesy on paper, but it's a major "lump-in-the-throat" moment. In a trilogy full of heroic deeds, this one will always hold a special memory for me.
Like in the first two, The Return of the King shows that males — yes males — can cry, hug, be sensitive and close to one-another. Usually sensitivity in an action movie is reserved for females or, um, well, er... females. Thanks to everyone involved with The Return of the King, for giving homophobes another thing to bitch about. It's good to keep them busy.
Legolas' (Orlando Bloom) fight on top of the Oliphaunt. This, along with Gimli's (John Rhys-Davies) comment about it still only counting as one kill, got the biggest cheer from the audience. It does look a little cheesy when he slides down the Oliphaunt's trunk, but what would a battle scene be, without Legolas sliding down something in a cheesy manner (surfing down the staircase on a shield in The Two Towers, for example)? Maybe a little bit less cheesy. Oh well, it can be forgiven — it did happen to cap off one of the most exhilarating action scenes in film history.
The Oliphaunts in battle. I almost wish they would have cut out the brief scene featuring the 'phaunts in The Two Towers, so they could have made their debut in King. These are horrific creatures, when in the wrong hands. The way they throw dozens of warriors to their deaths, with their spiked trunks is scary. Somehow I think Sam's enthusiasm over first seeing one in Towers would be tapered, if he knew what horrible killing machines they could be in war. Then again, nothing dampens Sam's spirits. Except rain clouds. Stupid rain clouds. D'oh!
The nod toward the Imperial Walker scene in The Empire Strikes Back. Keep an eye out for it.
Gimli telling Legolas how odd it was going to be to die next to an elf. Legolas saying something like, "how about dying next to a friend?" Gimli saying he could do that. Your eyes are going to well up. It was nice that Gimli, who was turned into comic relief for these films, is as dignified as the rest of the Fellowship, by the end of The Return of the King.
The dazzling look of Minas Tirith. Or the Guarded City. Just that whole general area. I thought that, for whatever reason, The Return of the King was lacking, in comparison to the first two films, in miniatures and nifty sets. The towers and walls of Minas Tirith will be remembered as the last great miniatures of the series. At least I think it was done with miniatures.
The scene where Faramir and his men ride into certain death, as Pippin sings Denethor (John Noble) a song. The song is haunting. The scene is chilling. The way Denethor can smile as his son rides off to his demise is crushing. This is one of those times where Peter Jackson's excessive use of slow-motion actually works.
Denethor trying to burn his own son (Faramir) alive. Pippin coming to Faramir's rescue. Gandalf whacking the nutty Denethor back into the fire.
Famamir's men's decapitated heads being catapulted over the walls of Minas Tirith. Hey, I was a horror fan long before I was a fan of Lord of the Rings. "I likes my gore." That's something I have in common with The Return of the King director, Peter Jackson. As a matter of fact, it was my love of horror that first introduced me to Jackson's work, way back in 1987 or '88, when Bad Taste was being written up in Fangoria. I rented Bad Taste as soon as it was released on video (I don't remember the year). I drove four hours to see the 1992 Minnesota premiere of Dead/Alive (Braindead). I made it a point not to miss Heavenly Creatures or The Frighteners, when they hit the theaters. I (wrongly) considered Heavenly Creatures to be the best directed movie ever made. Even though, it still remains one of my favorite films. I counted the days until The Fellowship of the Ring hit the theaters, thanks to Jackson directing it.
The violence. This is the most violent of the three films. If Jackson excels at anything, it's at directing ugly stuff.
King Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) telling the four Hobbits that they are all his friends, and should never bow down to anyone. Then the King bows down to the four Hobbits. All of his subjects follow, leaving the Hobbits standing head and shoulders above everyone else. This is the moment that brought me closest to tears. It's also the moment where the film should have closed (more on that in "the sorta crappy" section).
The lighting of the Beacons of Gondor. This should be in "the great" section, but I somehow thought the fire on the beacons looked fake. As did some of the beacons, themselves. I particularly liked the change made in the movie, which allows Pippin to be the one to instigate the beacon lighting. It works far better than it would have, had the beacons already been lit, when Pippin and Gandalf are riding to Gondor, as they were in the novel.
Shelob, the big ugly spider. The spider was interesting, but after the two hour build-up to her, which began at the end of The Two Towers, I think my expectations were too high. The scene where she reemerges, above Frodo, is done extremely well, and had even the adults in the audience squirming.
Denethor, the whacky father of Borimor (Sean Bean) and Faramir. John Noble does a really good job with this character. It's too bad that it's never really explained in the film why, exactly, he's so friggin' nuts.
Gandalf kicking ass in battle. 'Nuff said.
The eagles taking on the winged riders. It was great fun, although those eagles are teetering on the "just-too-geeky" side of things for me. Ironic, being that my favorite character in all three films happens to be a talking tree.
The four Hobbits back at The Green Dragon trying to drink a beer and readjust to life back in the Shire. It's a sad moment, and it successfully gives you the bittersweet feeling that the adventure's over. The only reason it isn't in "great" is because it's one in a string of too many endings, and would have felt better on the extended edition DVD. Especially when you consider that it ties into a scene featured only in the extended edition of The Fellowship of the Ring.
Bernard Hill's performance as Théoden. Hill has been so good as Théoden, that when the king dies, during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, it's a genuinely sad moment.
Gollum's reappearance on Mount Doom. It's a bit Friday the 13th-ish, the way he keeps popping up, after you think he's dead, but it's fun, nonetheless.
The light. After The Two Towers, which is perpetually shrouded in a blanket of darkness, it's nice to see some sun. The Return of the King is a dark movie, but it isn't always a dark movie, if that makes any sense.
When Aragorn yells, "for Frodo," before wildly charging into an army of Orcs. This is another point in the film where Jackson's excessive use of slow-motion actually works.
Aragorn's reforged sword. Talk about "sword-envy." That's gotta be the single longest sword ever put on film.
The new and varied look of the Orcs. One of them looks quite a bit like the alien in Jackson's Bad Taste. It brought something fresh to the film, to have the monsters look different, this time around.
The Sorta Crappy
Not letting the audience know why Denethor is such a basket case. His character never seemed fully developed. A lot of key scenes, featuring the crazed wanna-be king, were obviously edited.
The obvious edits. This felt like the choppiest of all three films. So much seemed to be missing. Then again, after watching the DVD Extended Editions of Fellowship and Towers so many times, I no longer even remember their theatrical versions. Maybe they were just as choppy.
Every scene with Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving). The moments with the two elves felt rushed. They also felt almost as though they were placed in the film, just to make sure both actors were featured. Peter Jackson wouldn't want to *cough* Saruman *cough* just completely forget about anyone, would he?
The multiple false endings. When will directors and editors learn? When the screen goes dark, the audience gets ready to leave. Almost no one likes it when the screen lights up again. Films don't need to come back on stage for an encore. Nobody's going to throw the projectionist a bouquet of roses. Spielberg's gotten into the habit of doing this (filming false endings, not throwing projectionist's bouquets of roses). It destroyed A.I.'s box-office, and had quite an impact on Minority Report's. As much as I loved it the first time, I can't even watch the second half of Minority Report, anymore. Now Jackson one ups Spielberg. There are at least 7 or 8 endings attached to The Return of the King. That's at least 6 or 7 reasons why this film probably won't do the same, or better, box office than The Two Towers. A lot of the scenes are good, but most could have been saved for the Extended Edition DVD. We're in a movie theater, our asses hurt, the film doesn't come with a pause button, and isn't spread out over two DVDs. And, maybe Jackson is forgetting this — people only come equipped with one bladder, and it doesn't hold as much soda as one would hope. The film goes on 30-40 minutes past the actual resolution and final action scenes. A few people actually left the theater (especially those with kids). Almost every single person I overheard, on the way out, said the same thing, "it was good, but the ending got to be a little long." The other two Lord of the Rings' films didn't even have endings. They just ended. Jackson is way overcompensating for that fact. I think these false endings do a lot of damage to an otherwise nicely paced movie. They may do more than hurt it at the box office; they may hurt it with the Academy. Without the lengthy epilogue, I would have been convinced that The Return of the King would win Best Picture (I still think it has a good chance).
Peter Jackson's excessive use of slow-motion. Above, I brought up the times where this works, but he's starting to use it as a crutch. Give me one good reason why we need to see Frodo waking up, during one of the numerous false endings, in slow-motion? There are tons of moments in the film where we just didn't need slo-mo.
A bunch of Orcs holding Frodo captive getting into a fight, killing each other, and allowing Sam access to his captured friend? How convenient. And lazy. But even more convenient, and lazier yet is...
The Eye of Sauron forgetting all about Frodo, whom he spots, because he's distracted by a battle being waged in his peripheral vision. All this eye's been after is the ring. What does he care about some little tiff going on outside his walls? This writing was lazy to the degree of the second Death Star having a vulnerability much like the first Death Star.
The Eye of Sauron looks like a fucking lighthouse. We waited three movies for this? Somehow, some way, I just know Jackson could have found a way to make the eye more menacing, and less corny lookin'.
Too much CG. The first two films had just the right amount of CG effects, miniatures, sets and models. Due to much of The Return of the King being set in wide open spaces, during the day, rather than in caves and/or nighttime settings, the computer effects are much more obvious. And there are much more computer generated effects. I'd guess that there is at least three times the CG that we saw in the other movies. While the battles are amazing — Computer Generated Effects, and all — I couldn't help getting that Attack of the Clones feeling. I think Jackson may have overloaded the film with FX, this time. Still, the folks at Weta did the best that they could with all that they had to do (and they had to do a lot). So, this really shouldn't be in "the sorta crappy," but it didn't fit in "the good" or "the great."
The CG army of the dead is too green, and looks too similar to the skeletons in The Pirates of the Caribbean. I also thought they moved in a ridiculous fashion, and were gone all too quickly.
The Return of the King title pops up arbitrarily, for no good reason. In the other two films, the title came up at just the right time. In this one, Jackson just sort of throws it in, when it's convenient.
The opening with Sméagol turning into Gollum. It wasn't a bad scene, but it was absolutely unnecessary. I loved the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring novel, but, by this point, we don't need it. The audience knows what Gollum is capable of. They know he used to be more like a Hobbit than the fishy ugly thing he is now. It's odd Jackson said he didn't want to start with the Saruman scene, because it felt like we were back at the ending of The Two Towers. Then, what does he do, instead? Starts with a scene that sets us back to The Fellowship. This brings me to...
Okay, The Return of the King does have its moment of ugliness. Christopher Lee has been edited from the film. Any and all scenes with the evil wizard Saruman are gone. I don't care what Jackson uses as an excuse (he says it would make people feel like they're watching the ending of The Two Towers, rather than the beginning of The Return of the King) — this must be some sort of vendetta. Either that, or Jackson's foolishly thinking about the cash he can make with all the extra Extended Edition DVDs he'll sell, due to the added scene/scenes featuring Saruman.
The way it's handled is embarrassing. Basically, Treebeard is told to stand guard in front of Saruman's tower. That's it. The scene totally sucks, and it takes us back to the battle of Isengard, anyway. From the flooding to the pipeweed to the Ents. Everything's back, with exception made for the one thing that needed to be: Saruman.
Don't believe anyone that tells you Jackson made "the right decision." He didn't. Supposedly Saruman's key scene is less than 7 minutes long. It would not have been hard to edit 7 minutes out of the picture, for the nasty wizard. Did Jackson worry about people feeling like they were back at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, when they saw Gandalf with the Balrog at the start of The Two Towers? His argument doesn't hold water nearly as well as Isengard does. I hope George Lucas treats Christopher Lee with a little more respect when Star Wars: Episode III is released in 2005.
And so it ends
And so it ends. In some ways, it feels like I took the journey with these Hobbits. I feel as though I've ran the same gamut of emotions as Sam Gamgee.
This all began with my having mixed feelings regarding the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring. That led to such a gargantuan amount of horrible hate mail (up to and occasionally surpassing 100 emails a day) from the more misguided, cultish fans of Lord of the Rings, that it was hard not to start hating anything having to do with rings, wizards and big huge evil eyes.
My adventures as a critic continued, when I wrote a complete mess of a critique for The Two Towers theatrical release. I genuinely disliked the film at the theater. Now I realize that my dislike of the movie probably stemmed from my growing disdain for Rings fans that left me death threats and told me how happy they were that my dog died. Irony of all ironies that The Two Towers Extended Edition is, and probably will remain, my favorite of the three films.
Then, just before I retired to a cave with a stack of nasty letters and turned into Gollum, a very kind-hearted LOTR fan mailed me The Special Extended DVD Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring. It was just the proverbial wake-up call that I needed. I gave the film an 8 (rather than the 5 I gave the theatrical version), and nearly sprinted down the path toward becoming a full-blown Lord of the Rings fan. Before I knew it, I had watched every single bonus feature, listened to all the commentaries, and actually wrote a full-length review for the DVD. I found myself waiting, rather impatiently, for The Two Towers Special Extended Edition.
It was worth the wait.
I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The film was three times as good as the original. Treebeard became one of my favorite characters in cinematic history. I reread The Two Towers book, and quickly moved onto The Return of the King. I had to have something to tide me over until I could finally see the last film in the trilogy.
And that brings us almost right up to date. The Return of the King, despite the "sorta crappy" things I pointed out, is a damn good movie. Without seeing them all back to back, this is hard to say, but, if memory serves, it's the best of the theatrical versions of the films. It did inspire me to write the longest review ever written in the history of reviews (at least in the history of reviews that I've written). If you've read this far, you just completed your 3,950th word.
Although I think The Return of the King will benefit even more than the first two films did, by having an extended edition, I'm not sure it will ever be my favorite. I already like it better than The Fellowship of the Ring, but The Two Towers will be hard to beat. I really missed the environmental message given to us in The Two Towers. Then again, The Return of the King is the most emotionally involving of the three. It's also the biggest and most multi-layered film in a big and multi-layered series.
Is this the end?
Who knows? I certainly hope that they leave well enough alone, and don't go on to make The Hobbit. This trilogy is too good to tarnish. But I do plan on writing a review for the Extended DVD Edition of The Return of the King, approximately ten months from now. Could it end up becoming my favorite? Will I finally give a Lord of the Rings film a perfect 10 rating? The only way to know is to wait.
So, it isn't over. But the bulk of it is. And I already miss it.
Rings fans, those of you still reading this (and you guys have never minded a lengthy read), email me! Let's try to accomplish something amazing. Let's see if we can get as much positive email into this email box, as we did negative email that entered the same box, over the last two years. I've provided plenty to talk about, in the review up above. And Tolkien and Jackson provided plenty more.
I'm especially interested in hearing from those of you who have been following my "Progression of the Rings" since I put my initial Fellowship review online. But, I'd also like to hear from newcomers to this page. What if we can do it? What if we can prove that Rings fans are as open-minded as a lot of you claimed that they were, in 2001? Are we a group of Gollums, or Sam Gamgees? Only time will tell.
No, this isn't the end. I don't know if there will ever be an end to the reading and debating and loving and hating of Middle-earth. And that's the beauty of the world J.R.R. Tolkien created.
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Text ©(Copyright) 2003 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].