With The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, director Peter Jackson is much like his Hobbit protagonist Frodo. Just as Frodo struggles with the burden and the weight of The One Ring on his quest to destroy it, so has Jackson with arguably the greatest amount of hype, anticipation and expectations ever to surround one film.
In this final cinematic chapter of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jackson delivers a soaring, searing film that consistently flies on the energy of everything that makes movies, and this particular story, wonderful. It’s an unflagging charge from first frame to last, powered by masterstrokes of heroism, courage, friendship, betrayal, love, resolve and anger.
Where Jackson could have fallen from his precipice, he instead delivers a career-defining film of greatness that is both his finest hour and one of cinema’s as well.
Perfectly paced throughout, the film chronicles the conclusion of the two battles at the story’s core. The first is of Frodo (Elijah Wood), friend Sam (Sean Astin) and the creature Gollum to make their way to Mount Doom. There, Frodo must destroy The One Ring, a powerful, coveted weapon desired by the evil Sauron.
The other is the massive-scale battle for Middle Earth, as Sauron sends his unending army of evil creatures to wipe out the world of men. As the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leads the battle, his main fighters are dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who will ultimately take his place as the titular king of the men of Middle Earth.
The Return of the King could have fallen prey to that ineffective conclusion jinx. But the film sets so many standards for filmmaking in its overwhelming epic wash that many similar attempts in the future will seem like pretenders to the throne.
And really, there already have been. Jackson’s craft here makes all the more laughable what George Lucas has turned Star Wars into. He has taken that stirring franchise and turned it into senatorial debates even C-SPAN wouldn’t broadcast and sub-Danielle Steel romance.
The difference here is that where Lucas has lost the love for his own story, there is here an obvious fondness for J.R.R. Tolkien’s source material. At times, Tolkien’s work is tinkered with or omitted outright, but appreciation of its message and scope has gone unchanged.
There certainly have been more expensive films, but few as lovely to look at as this. Every location, whether real or digitally enhanced, is a jaw-dropping dazzler. Every location, real or digitally enhanced, is a jaw-dropping dazzler.
With its endless spires and staircases, Minas Tirith resembles a fort drawn up by M.C. Escher. The kingdom of Gondor’s main fortress, it is where the battle for Middle Earth culminates and its immediate beauty makes us care for its survival.
By contrast, Minas Morgul, from which Sauron sends his troops, is like a demented Sydney Opera House lit by Kryptonite. As Sam, Frodo and Gollum climb up and away from it, it still remains menacing with its ominous green glow.
Perhaps the most inexplicably awe-inspiring shot is of the Middle Earth kingdoms lighting beacons ablaze as a call to war. It’s a simple combination of aerial photography and computer-generated fire, and it’s memorably beautiful.
So is the film’s acting, which keeps with the unified spirit of the fellowship of men, elves, dwarves and Hobbits at the film’s center without becoming a game of one-upsmanship. Certain players run to the forefront, but the 210-minute running time (which never, ever flags) allows great moments for each.
Most notably, Billy Boyd’s Pippin and Dominic Monaghan’s Merry grow most from curious, trouble-causing Hobbits to noble warriors who understand the virtue of their choices. More melodious, inspiring words of wisdom come from the stately McKellen, Bloom and Rhys-Davies have a brief, touching exchange on the battlefield, and Astin delivers a gale-force emotional performance.
Also, Andy Serkis’ work again demands an award be created for his creation. Not only the voice of Gollum, he acted with Astin and Wood so their interactions look completely real. (Serkis gets some bonus time here, in a disturbingly shot flashback prologue of how Gollum came to be.) It is Serkis’ movements and vocals, not a computer program, which makes Gollum so memorable.
The film’s centerpiece, the rousing defense of Minas Tirith, is all it’s billed to be — the battle to end all battles. Jackson’s camera and special effects team take us to the blades of grass on the battlefield with meticulous detail amid the chaos. We feel the swath cut by charging, woolly-mammoth-type beasts and the swift dive-bomb attacks of Sauron’s flying minions.
Jackson has expedited the ending of the film, eliminating some cherished moments from Tolkien’s text. But it still gets its thematic points across with ease (eliciting some of the trilogy’s most touching scenes) and is a nice cool-down for the pulse after the previously relentless 90 minutes.
The Return of the King isn’t simply the best film of this trilogy or even this year. It really is a sumptuous piece of moviemaking that will no doubt go down as one of the best ever made. Kudos to Peter Jackson — this is a perfect film.