"The board is set and the pieces are moving,"
Best. Epic. Ever.
It was with mixed emotion that I sat down to view Return of the King. Feelings of great anticipation and excitement were interrupted by feelings of sadness and loss: What will I have to look forward to next December? Is this the last good film that my longtime favorite director Peter Jackson is ever going to make? But the moment the title card appeared on screen I knew I was about to have the best movie experiences I've had in a long time. Unlike every other third film in an epic series I can think of, Return of the King lives up to the quality and intensity of its predecessors and delivers a satisfying conclusion to its epic story.
It is essential to have seen The Two Towers at some point in order to understand and enjoy Return of the King. The film picks up exactly where Two Towers left off and provides very little in the way of background or recap. Those who are familiar with the extended version of The Two Towers released on DVD will benefit from the extra knowledge about things such as Gollum's distaste for Elvin bread and Faramir's relationship with his father.
For the sake of brevity, I won't get in to too much detail about how Return of the King, the movie differs from Return of the King, the book. For discussions of this topic, I hope you will visit the DVDtalk.com forum specifically created for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Two Towers left off with Sam and Frodo being led by Gollum "to her." Gollum, feeling betrayed, hopes to kill Frodo and steal back the ring and the only thing standing in his way is the loyal Samwise Gamgee. Meanwhile, Aragorn et al race to meet up with Pippin and Merry at the ruins of Isengard. All in all, less than a day has passed between the end of Two Towers and the beginning of Return of the King.
As Gollum and Sam battle for Frodo's loyalty, the remainder of the Fellowship head to Rohan. When Saruman's palantir reveals that Sauron's next target will be the city of Minas Tirith, Gandalf and Pippin separate from the rest of the group to warn the city of the impending attack. When the steward of Minas Tirith, Denethor, proves to be wholly unprepared to fight 12,000 Orcs and Uruks, Gandalf and Pippin must summon all the legions of men to defend the city against the wishes of Denethor. The sequence in which the beacons of Gondor are lit is one of the coolest moments in any movie, ever. Starting with a fantastic use of perspective as Pippin climbs the tower through the series of beacons being lit one after another, it is a simple yet breathtaking work of cinema.
Before long, humans are being hacked down by Orcs and then horses trample the Orcs and giant elephants crush the horses and the Nazgul are flying around everywhere and the film just keeps ratcheting up and up and up. I wondered how Jackson could possibly sustain the energy of the film battle after battle, but he manages it by using the slower Frodo/Sam/Gollum story to give the audience resting periods.
All the scenes with the Riders of Rohan are fantastic. Besides the fact that it looks cool when they mow down the Orcs and Uruks, it is emotionally satisfying to see these characters rise from the ashes of their near-defeat at Helm's Deep. When King Theoden rides down the line of warriors and taps the head of every spear with his sword, the moment brings about a great emotional swell and sense of honor in the viewer; I can't remember the last time I was so moved while watching a film.
While the Riders of Rohan, Merry and Pippin have more to do in Return of the King than in The Two Towers, other characters, such as Saruman, are completely absent. Arwen and Galadriel also have significantly reduced roles. New to the story are the mysterious Mountain Men and fatalistic Denethor, the steward of Minas Tirith. We also get to see Smeagol obtain the ring of power and watch his transformation into the slimey, repellent creature Gollum.
The Gollum effects are about on par with those of Two Towers. Since we see a lot more of the character, there is greater opportunity for the CG illusion to be broken. For every two scenes where Gollum looks freakishly real, there is one in which he looks a little cartoonish. This ratio holds true for the rest of the film as well. In some scenes, Minas Tirith looks amazing, just like it was carved out of a mountainside. In others it looks like a better-than-average computer rendering. It hurts me to see Jackson stray from his roots of puppets and models, but out of the 60+ hours of CG movies I've seen this year, Return of the King blows them all away.
As for the flesh and blood elements of the film, Viggo Mortensen perfectly completes the evolution of Aragorn from outcast to king and Sean Astin's Sam really comes into his own in this final installment. Elijah Wood's Frodo, on the other hand becomes almost a two-dimensional character. This was especially evident when Frodo was feeling tormented by the ring. When the camera zoomed in on Frodo's eyes and the soundtrack filled with whispers, it felt like the film was going through the motions, just a little. Although, it is difficult to say if this was the actor's choice or something in the editing.
With a running time of roughly 200 minutes, Return of the King begs for an intermission that never comes. but, it was really only my boney backside and bladder that needed a break. The film was completely entertaining from start to finish and I never felt that too-much-action fatigue. By the time the film is winding down (it feels as though it's going to end at about five different points) a deep sense of satisfaction sets in. A sense of completion, a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of triumph that only comes at the end of a great journey.
-Megan A. Denny