Directed by: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Andy Serkis, and a cast of thousands.
Rated: Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images.
Parental Notes: Teens and preteens who enjoyed the previous films will definitely want to see this final installment. Many children may find the battle sequences too intense, for while they aren’t particularly gory they are visually and audibly overwhelming at times.
With “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” Peter Jackson has finally given us the ending we’ve been pining for since he brought out “Fellowship of the Ring” two years ago. Sure, those of us who have read the books know what happens, but it’s such a pleasure to watch Jackson’s adaptations that the wait has seemed awfully long.
The wait has been worth it.
“Return of the King” is a grand, epic fantasy packed with emotion, gigantic battle sequences, and glorious visual effects. Purist fans of the books will find plenty to complain about, with some significant tweaks to both the story and the timeline, but visually and emotionally, Jackson is almost entirely spot-on.
The plot is complex, filled with interpersonal relationships, interwoven political alliances and enmities, and huge battles. Fans of the books may find themselves irate about some of the changes he’s made, but for the most part this installment sticks closer to the text than the previous one did, enabling Jackson to go out with a bang, even for the purists.
There are two major stories going on in this film: Frodo’s quest to destroy the malevolent One Ring, aided by his friend Sam and the nasty creature Gollum, and the increasingly hopeless battles between Men and Sauron’s monstrous orcs.
Frodo (Elijah Wood) has changed a great deal since we first met him. The once joyous Hobbit now looks like a drug addict, all pale skin and huge black circled eyes. The Ring corrupts all those who bear it, and Frodo’s having a hard time dealing with it. It’s easy to see why he feels pity for Gollum. Gollum owned the ring for hundreds of years, until he lost it and Frodo’s uncle found it. Gollum is a wizened, horrifying creature now, and the CGI wizards at WETA should be proud of the job they did converting actor Andy Serkis’ physical performance into a digital one. Frodo sees himself becoming more like Gollum every day, and it’s hard to be cruel to someone you sympathize with.
Frodo’s friend Sam (Sean Astin), however, has no problem hating Gollum. Sam is sweet, optimistic, and has all the loyal determination of a bloodhound. He can see how Gollum is twisting Frodo, and fears that Gollum is leading them into a trap. After all, Gollum wants the ring back for himself, why would he genuinely help Frodo destroy it? The interplay between Frodo, Gollum, and Sam has all the distressing qualities of an impending train wreck: we know what’s going to happen, but we can’t look away any more than we can stop hoping Sam will somehow find a way to avert it.
Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the throne of Gondor, and Gandalf (Ian McKellan), the immensely powerful wizard, are doing their best to rally mankind for a last stand against Sauron, the evil entity who made the ring originally and now wants it back. Sauron’s army of orcs is gigantic, while the number of fighting men has been drastically reduced by the battles seen in the earlier films. (Rumor has it that the artificial intelligence program for the huge battle effects originally had the army of Men flee from the Orcs rather than fight them, the numbers were so overwhelming. Apparently the programmers had to dumb it down for it to let the men be brave and fight.)
The battle scenes are epic, and manage to top the incredible battle at Helm’s Deep from the previous film. These include not only the orcs we’ve grown to know and loathe over the course of the films, but mercenaries on gigantic Oliphaunts (think an elephant, but bigger, meaner, and with more tusks) and an army of ghostly warriors. The Men are terrified but stand and fight, first for the city of Minas Tirith and then for the hope that Frodo will succeed in his mission.
These are battles which should be hopeless, and it’s uplifting to watch the soldiers fight in spite of their fear. Even the Hobbits Merry and Pippin (Billy Boyd and Dom Monaghan), who mostly provided comic relief in the earlier films, can be seen holding their own on the field.
Less uplifting, however, are the improbable scores of women running screaming through the city while it’s being attacked. Minas Tirith was a city designed with war in mind, there were safe places for noncombatants. Jackson, however, seems determined to have screaming and wailing women around just about every major battle (remember Helm’s Deep in the previous film?).
The climactic sequence is incredibly intense, and Jackson’s decision to have a long denouement is a good one. He left out a major sequence from the books but there’s still a long way to go after the Ring has been destroyed. It’s a pleasure that he kept the poignantly happy final ending of the books – Frodo may have saved the world, but the toll on him is high and nothing will ever be the same. People may argue that the film glorifies war, but it doesn’t flinch from the price war demands on the hearts and minds of combatants.
Overall, this is an excellent conclusion to the movie trilogy. Fans of the books and newcomers alike will doubtless find themselves affected by it – thrilled by the battle scenes and touched by the emotion that runs deeply through it. It’s rare to find an action movie in which just about every central character cries on screen at some point. While the immature may snicker, others will find the deep feeling of this movie refreshing. Jackson handles it well, and while it is occasionally obvious that he’s not all that experienced a filmmaker, he clearly loves the story and the characters and that love shines through the film.