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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson from the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, directed by Peter Jackson, 2003, 200 min.

The Return of the King fulfilled all of the hopes of its creators and fans; in the box office department, it made big bucks like the two previous films, and in the awards night lottery, it won the biggest prize of all, Oscar glory in a sweep of eleven Academy Awards including Best Picture. The movie has what are likely the best special effects committed to screen as of yet, and its 3 hour and 20 minute running time in its theatrical release was augmented by yet another 50 minutes in the Extended Edition DVD... something for everyone, right? A fantastic ensemble cast, production design by two smart Tolkien enthusiasts (John Howe and Alan Lee), a worthy score, and some lovely and grotesque monsters to enliven the proceedings.

All the same, I found myself strangely lacking in enthusiasm for this movie. I saw it at least twice in the theatres, but I didn't pick up the theatrical release DVD as I did for the previous two movies (see more DVD information at the end of this review) and sitting down for the Extended Edition felt more like a chore than anything else. I recognize the great contributions by the creative team behind the movie, but somehow the movie never gelled for me in the way that The Fellowship of the Ring did. I had the same feeling of discontent in the case of The Two Towers; in my review of that movie I pointed out its problems, particularly in its use of cross-cutting between the busy storylines. The Return of the King suffers the same problem, as it somehow loses a necessary consistency when it over-edits and over-cuts the narrative.

A brief setup for those who don't know the story. When we left off in The Two Towers, our heroes had defeated Saruman, one of the key subordinates of the ultimate evil, Sauron. This time around, the forces of good have to confront Sauron himself. This is mostly done by proxy -- no hand to hand combat (even though they did consider it, of all nonsensical ideas). Sauron has put most of the essence of his evilness in the ring of the trilogy's title, and two insignificant hobbits are on their way to the heart of Sauron's realm to destroy the ring in the only place it can be destroyed, Mount Doom. In the meantime, Sauron's armies are attacking Gondor, one of the last bastions of goodness left in this world of Middle Earth. Sauron's armies are vast, and Gondor has its own problems. The ruler, Denethor the Steward, is already convinced that Sauron will win, and he doesn't trust his own surviving son, Faramir. The wizard Gandalf and another hobbit named Pippin come to Gondor to try to help the defence of the city, while everyone else remains in Rohan (where the events of the previous movie took place) to try to rally some Rohirrim troops to Gondor's aid as well.

But Rohan won't come to Gondor's help unless Gondor asks, and Denethor is too insane by this point to do so. In the one scene that everyone seems to mention about the movie, Pippin sneaks up to the beacon and lights it; the camera follows the lighting of the beacons across a vast mountain range. It's a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, and set to some stirring music. A definite high point.

Peter Jackson, the director of the movie, clearly likes his battle scenes, and he tries to up the ante past the point of anyone topping his work. The Battle of the Fields of Pelennor is a highlight from the book by Tolkien; it's the showdown between the main army of Sauron and the people trying to defend the capital city of Gondor, Minas Tirith. It's a spectacular showpiece, with some unforgettable moments. The city is besieged, and Gandalf has a nice moment at the gates when he exhorts the troops to stand their ground; even he is surprised by the horrific nature of the troops that break through. I also liked the charge of the Rohirrim, which is a full-fledged cavalry charge that shows just how devastating this kind of onslaught could be to the enemy. This is topped by the answer: the bad guys have the Mumakil, battle elephants that are eight or ten stories high. Crazy stuff. What follows is the one scene I was looking forward to the most: Eowyn has tagged along with the Rohan army, and she defends her king with great courage, with an assist from Merry. Jackson and his team get this moment just right. The scene with the beacons was a surprise, so I had no expectations for it. Eowyn's fight was the opposite, and the movie's version lived up to the version in my head.

The two hobbits who are bringing the ring to Mount Doom are Frodo and Sam. They are the best of friends, but something comes between them: Gollum. Gollum is a tortured soul who once had the ring himself but it twisted and consumed him. The parallel to addiction is not very subtle but it works wonders, giving us an insight into why this ring is such a big deal. Gollum makes Frodo think Sam wants the ring for himself; there's also a great scene later when Gollum finds out that Frodo is planning to destroy the ring.

As I've been describing the story, I've mentioned several scenes that are worthy or memorable in some way. And yes, the movie has a great many of these. But it still stands a collection of sequences rather than a coherent whole. This feeling is exacerbated by the multiple endings controversy. A significant portion of the running time, on the order of thirty minutes or so, is taken up by various goodbyes and partings. I didn't see it in the vein of multiple endings as much as a continuing problem with the movie. Each particular segment is fine on its own, but they don't flow into one another in a way that brings the audience along. Just the like the rest of the movie, there's some masterful material here, but a step back in perspective would have solved this problem, or at least illuminated it for the writers and director.

DVD Note: The Return of the King is available in two editions: the 2-DVD set that has the theatrical release and the 4-DVD set that has the Extended Edition. The theatrical release is just that, what was released in theatres. The accompanying disc has all of the pre-release documentaries and fluff pieces that don't ruin any of the surprises of the film.

For more detailed material, a fan should buy the Extended Edition. This is the deluxe model! It matches the previous two boxes in a pleasing way, and it even included a coupon for a free container that holds all three boxes (this coupon ran out pretty quickly, but at least people don't need to feel ripped off for not waiting for a complete trilogy release). The Extended Edition is 50 minutes longer, and has four commentary tracks: writers and director, design team, post-production team, and cast. All are informative.

Of the extra footage in the Extended Edition of The Return of the King, nothing is more hyped and more unnecessary than the death of Saruman. This was a scene that pushed from the second movie to the third, then left out of the theatrical release of the third as well. It provides some closure, but the dialogue in the scene doesn't flow. It's a collection of non-sequiturs, awkward and uncompelling.

The other footage tries to covers gaps that happened in the theatrical release, such as the relationship that develops between Faramir and Eowyn. The extended cut gives them some time to get to know one another. Aragorn's side story in the Paths of the Dead is given a bit more time, with the disastrously lame addition of a flood of skulls that comes out of a wall. Skulls equals bad, I guess. A scene with the Mouth of Sauron is restored, even though everything that the creative team says about the scene in the background material shows that they knew it didn't work.

A more compelling case for the movie is made by all of the extras on the third and fourth DVDs. The various features cover the different elements of the making-of in great detail, and some of the design choices make more sense or can be appreciated more fully when the rationale behind is explained explicitly. Disc 3 covers pre-production and design, while Disc 4 is mostly about post-production, all the awards the movie won, and saying goodbye. Still, the sense I had was that this huge crew was beavering away at their own piece of the project, all with enormous talent, while the big picture was spiralling out of control (partly due to time constraints; as the extras show, the movie was finished less than a week before its world premiere). As this was the final film of the trilogy, the people involved spend a lot of time saying goodbye. Some of this got a bit saccharine, but it was also quite clearly a unique project coming to a close.


Last modified: March 6, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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