Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) / Fantasy-Adventure

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for pervasive violence and some frightening images
Running Time: 201 min.

Cast: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Miranda Otto, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Bernard Hill, John Rhys-Davies, Karl Urban, Cate Blanchett 
Director: Peter Jackson

Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson
Review published December 18, 2003

The Return of the King is the final chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, ending the series by ratcheting up the action to a fever pitch, while also gearing up for a highly emotional summation.  Again, I will try not to go into comparisons of the movie to the book, as the adherence to Tolkien's story is quite tenuous at this point, making every scene a battle sequence and every character an action superhero.  Of course, why bother trying to adapt a book filled with beauty and poetry that would put most audiences to sleep, when they will clearly be mollified by watching nothing but carnage and violent confrontations for hours, with only the thinnest of plot strings to hold the story together?  Why pause for moments of reflection or depth when the sights and sounds of mumakils stampeding over armies is so clearly all it takes to make the crowd beam with smiles of admiration?

Not that that's an altogether a bad thing, as there is an inherently awe-inspiring quality to much of Peter Jackson's (The Frighteners, King Kong) vision that makes this series a great visual cinematic achievement, even if the storytelling elements leave much to be desired.  While the films do fall short of being great examples of narrative structure, they are still impressive purely on a visceral level.  You won't find another movie that comes remotely close in special effects, theater-shaking sound, majestic landscapes, and magnificently mounted battle sequences.  Yes, there is only one thought goal in Peter Jackson's mind in his crafting of the final Lord of the Rings epic chapter: to blow audiences away with sights and sounds unimaginable.

Here's the perfunctory plot summary: Frodo (Wood, All I Want) continues his trek to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, with Samwise (Astin, Bulworth) ever watchful of Gollum's (Serkis, 13 Going on 30) murderous intentions.  Meanwhile, a great battle for Middle Earth is raging onward, with Sauron's armies and Orcs threatening to overtake all others for complete domination and destruction.

Given that the first two films already dazzled audiences with their showy displays of special effects and scenes of emotional valor, the expectation is that the third has to exceed its predecessors in every department to satisfy.  Impress it does, as the aural and visual component is almost relentless, filling up the screen with amazingly realistic computer enhanced action while the theater reverberates with seat-shaking bass.  Return of the King is also easier to follow than the previous two films, breaking up much of the action into only two or three separate storylines, and keeping the new supporting characters to a minimum.

It's clear that Jackson wants this to be the experience of a lifetime for all fans of the series, pulling out all stops with heights unimagined.  For the most part, he succeeds, and with some scenes worthy of the price of admission to see alone.  However, like The Two Towers, there are those moments where Jackson's attempts to please the crowd with action or romance is overplayed, leading to some very silly, and sometimes embarrassing moments.  Things like Aragorn (Mortensen, 28 Days) and Arwen (Tyler, Dr. T and the Women) making out, Gandalf (McKellen, X-Men 2) throwing down some kung fu or riding a big bird, and a strangely homo-erotic scene which sees all of the main male characters piling into a bedroom for some questionable frolicking, makes an already estimable endeavor feel like cheap pandering for audience reaction. 

Jackson also seems to take his sweet time trying to wrap this up in a satisfactory manner.  Just when you feel satisfied with the story and are anxious to get up and get some much-needed blood circulating back into your long-numbed buttocks region, Jackson tosses in another 5 minute conclusion...then another, then another, until the syrupy sweetness gets to be too much to bear any longer.  Close the door once, Pete.  There's no need to re-open it and say goodbye again five more times.

Paradoxically, The Return of the King is, at the same time, both the best and the worst of the trilogy, dishing out some of the finest, most awesome battles and confrontations, while also injecting too much sticky sentimentality and moments of unabashed corniness.  Obviously, this is still must-see viewing of the highest order for fans of the series, and such a grand spectacle, it almost merits a watch for an imaginative, visceral experience unlike any other in cinematic history. 

It's been an exhausting trip, and while I'm mostly pleased with the results, I am very glad it's finally over.  In time, I'm sure I'll sit through it all over again, especially if I feel the need for a grandiose action epic.  When I feel like revisiting my old friends, however, I'll probably pick up Tolkien's original novels, with characters so rich and writing so beautiful, no amount of finely rendered pyrotechnics or booming surround sound will ever surpass.      

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo