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The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2003 - PG-13 - 201 Mins.
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Peter Jackson
Written By: J.R.R. Tolkien, Frances Walsh
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sam Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies
Review by: Greg Ursic
   
Scoring a blockbuster is clearly no easy feat and following one up with a successful sequel is doubly difficult. Surely then, the odds of taking the theatrical triple crown are truly daunting: if you disagree, rent The Godfather III or the abomination that was Aliens3 for a quick refresher course in cinematic cataclysms. Peter Jackson however refused to be cowed by the curse of the trilogy, common sense be damned. Lucky for us...

Having reached the base of Mount Doom Sam and Frodo’s quest to destroy the One ring draws closer, yet is at it most perilous – they must not only fend off the minions of the Dark Tower, but also be constantly weary of Gollum’s machinations to reclaim his Precious. Meanwhile Aragorn, Gandalf and the remainder of the Fellowship prepare to make a stand a Minas Tirith against the hordes vomited forth from the Black Gate. The fate of each rests on the success of the other, and Middle Earth hangs on the outcome.

As I post this, thousands of people have just finished sitting through The marathon film session of all time: the extended versions of the first two installments of LOTR and a sneak screening of ROTK. That’s roughly 12 straight hours in theatre seats – a long time for anyone, but even more trying when you’re stuck in cloaks and hobbit feet (and you know who you are). Unfortunately (or thankfully depending on the way you look at it) I waited an hour too long to go online, by which time (this is weeks before the screening by the way) they were sold out. Thankfully I begged to the right people to get into the press screening.

Elijah Wood once again takes it to the hoop, or more appropriately, the cracks (of Mount Doom that is) as the little Hobbit that could. Wood embodies desperation as the conflicted wild-eyed Frodo battles both physical and mental fatigue while struggling to avoid the allure of the ring, Wood’s portrayal has been so consistently solid that, much to his detriment, it will undoubtedly take both movie viewers and studios a long time to accept him as anything else.

While he has less screen time and fewer lines in ROTK, Ian Mckellen’s Gandalf is still a solid fixture: his hard bitten cynicism is tempered by the occasional optimistic streak, a wry sense of humor and he has become a leader in every sense of the word. The surprise performance comes from Sean Astin: Sam, the hobbit behind the ringbearer, is the key to the quest, without whom the journey can’t succeed. As Frodo declines, Sam must by necessity carry them both (literally and figuratively), which leads to conflict and several powerful emotional scenes in which Astin displays a depth of character heretofore unseen. But let us not forget the title.

This chapter focuses on the king, which, yay for the audience, means more of Viggo Mortenson. While he has been acting for many years, he wasn’t a household name before the LOTR trilogy. This has in turn proven to be a bonus: unencumbered by the “star persona” i.e. acting by association, Mortenson has had considerable leeway to mould Aragorn and create a truly memorable character. The subtle transformation from scruffy stoic to regal leader has been smooth and believable. Mortenson caps off the evolution with several Braveheartesque rousing speeches in ROTK - one of which inspires the dead to action – that gave me goosebumps. Once again the flesh and blood characters share the screen with a special cast.

The opening sequence features Smeagol (Andy Sirkis sans blue suit) pre-ring ownership, followed by the risks of said possession. Gollum looks even better than he did in The Two Towers – he’s not quite as luminescent, and his movements have taken on a more spider like quality (fitting, given his newfound ally, but more on that in a bit). Gollum is more devious than he was in the book, and thankfully we don’t have to endure too many Smeagol/Gollum debating sessions (that was one of the few things that really annoyed me about TT). His partner in crime is a special breed unto herself.

Shelob is the kind of character that filmmakers and filmgoers alike love: a big, scary, nasty, netherworldly monster that you never want to meet in real life (sort of like Roseanne Barr on a bender except with more legs) and everyone will be talking about later. Shelob represents evil in it’s purest form – corpulent and instinctual, her only concern is her next meal, but there is a discernible malice. Thanks to skillful artistry and exacting detail you would be hard pressed to prove that she’s not real But lets not forget the cast of thousands.

The mass battle sequence in TT was a marvel of CGI that showcased new technology that allowed computer warriors to respond to the environment around them. This technology has been taken to the next step with the Battle of Pelenor fields, which makes Helms Deep look like a playground skirmish. The campaign, for lack of a better word, captures the scope and ferocity described in the book, with more and bigger baddies. At times it is overwhelming, and you feel off kilter, which is what I believe Jackson was hoping to achieve. The locations are also impressive.

I am continually impressed by the ability of the graphics artists to seamlessly blend the Tolkien landscape with real-life locales: it is hard to tell where Minas Tirith stop and the countryside begins. I’m still trying to figure out where they filmed the city shots and the castle interiors – they looked real to me, but I don’t remember any medieval cities when I visited. The film also showcases some wonderful exteriors thanks to skilled cinematographers and New Zealand’s sweeping vistas and varied scenery (I’m sure the tourist bureau must be ready to crown Jackson).

Shelob’s Lair on the other hand is one of those places you never want to visit: decidedly dank, dark and creepy, you can practically smell it - it’s like a rat’s maze except covered in webs, an assortment of mummified corpses and you don’t want the surprise at the end. Mount Doom, while it may top out your not-to-do list - what with the lava, gas, and constant eruptions, is both gorgeous and terrifying. Also, from what I remember from my volcanoe experiences (a few errants tourist adventures...) it looked very real as well. But there are a few missteps along the way.

As everyone knows, neither Saruman, the evil wizard of renown nor his slimy henchman, Grima Wormtongue, are back for the final act (which also means that the scouring of the Shire shown in FOTR has also been left out). For those of you who can’t live without these, we’ve been assured that they will make an appearance for the DVD. However, with a 201 minute run time, I can think of several sequences where Jackson could have done some trimming: the opening sequence, the Arwen aside, the gratuitous slow motion sequences and the good-byes. But then again, I haven’t helmed a series of films that have grossed nearly $2 billion, so it’s easy for me to do arm chair editing.

I did notice a continuity problem with the lighting before and during the big battle: while it was largely dark and gloomy, several times it suddenly became sunny when the “good guys” were talking. I was also annoyed by the fast motion resolution of the Battle of Pelenor Fields (you’ll have to see it to understand it). I also expected a bit more spectacular ending when one of the featured villains was dispatched - it was too Wizard of Oz for me and generally anti-climactic. Finally, Legolas' scaling technique borders on the cartoonish.

It is hard to rank ROTK against the other films in the trilogy because they are such different movies. Jackson has however, consistently exceeded everyone’s expectations (note to Tolkien purists: it is an adaptation that is based on the books, let it go…) and this outing is no exception. ROTK is both a grand epic and enjoyable entertainment that can readily stand on its own, represents cinema at its best. Just remember to bring a comfy cushion and stay away from super-sized anythings.

 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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