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   LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003) 

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CAST
Elijah Wood
Sean Astin
Ian McKellen
Viggo Mortensen
Orlando Bloom
John Rhys-Davies
Billy Boyd
Dominic Monaghan
Bernard Hill
Miranda Otto
David Wenham
Andy Serkis
Sean Bean

DIRECTED BY
Peter Jackson

PURCHASE


DVD



Novel




Time: 201 mins.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama/Action/Fantasy

Won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Costume Design, Director, Film Editing, Makeup, Score, Song, Sound, Visual Effects, Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.


RETURN OF THE KING is an awe-inspiring, enchanting, suspenseful conclusion that left me overwhelmed, yet slightly disappointed. While Jackson and company employ their now obvious and vast talents to bringing Middle Earth to vibrant life, there is almost nothing new about the emotions this seemingly unending quest draws forth. I thoroughly believed before I sat down that I was in for quite the roller coaster ride (I have never read the novels), but what unraveled before me was an inevitable conclusion, that though satisfying, lacked the weight and power I expected from such an immense tale. Without Christopher Lee's black-hearted Sarumon, the film's menacing sense of evil was illusive and passive, despite the thousands-strong Orc army and ever watchful eye of Sauron. The odds against our heroes appeared, yet again, to be overwhelming and yet they all manage to escape from the fray mostly unharmed. Clearly Tolkien could not stomach losing any more friends to the ravages of war. This is perhaps the most unbelievable thing about this epic and in a world where trees walk and talk, that's saying something. Of course like "Sophie's Choice," I'd find it hard to choose who should stay and who should go.

In an effort to make the "grandest spectacle of all time," Jackson floods the screen with more lengthy battle scenes (though with new monstrous creatures); the same old arguments (Gollum vs. Sam for control of Frodo's soul); and new characters we don't have the time nor the inclination to care about. None of which would have been at all noticeable if the film were at least a half an hour shorter. How many times can we watch Gandalf shore up frightened soldiers before they're crushed into the afterlife? How much Orc blood needs to be shed for us to get the picture that this is the battle for all time? While it's pure cinematic joy to be back with these old friends again, I merely wished the final journey didn't feel like it occurred in real time. A little editing would have made this film into a masterpiece of size, scope and heart that finishes with a crescendo of suspense and excitement. Instead, every scene seems to go on just a minute too long, leaving the mind time to ponder the familiarity of the unfolding events. It can't have been easy wrapping up such a diverse story, but since everyone's path is clear from the moment the film begins, wading through 90 minutes of filler to get to the meat of the tale sort of takes the wind out of the experience.

What saves the story is the engrossing internal struggle of Frodo to resist the siren call of the ring. He's expected to have enough honor and innocence to counteract the evil pressing down upon him, but it's painfully apparent by the toll this burden is taking that even if Frodo reaches Mount Doom the war could still be lost. It's his journey that turns this grandiose tale into a personal one you won't soon forget. The hobbits are the only ones who really undergo any sort of character development. Astin practically steals the show as the ever-devoted Sam whose honesty and faithfulness to Frodo comes under attack by the desperate Gollum. His steadfastness and unwillingness to abandon their duty, despite Frodo's heartbreaking betrayal gives the film hope and fortitude in its' darkest hours.


"Certain death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?"

The rendering of Gollum is even more seamless this time around with Serkis and the CGI team bringing his decaying, determined and despicable brand of evil to life once more. Gollum, more than Sauron, is the force to be reckoned with here, his insatiable need to possess his "precious" one more time the potential undoing of the world. His maneuvering of Frodo into Shelob's lair the best chance he has of recapturing the ring. Never before and hopefully never again will we see an insect rendered so realistically on film. Just thinking about the enormous spider bearing down on Frodo and Sam is enough to make my skin crawl. They should win every special effects award available for this sequence alone.

While Frodo struggles to survive both the long journey and Gollum's treachery, the rest of the fellowship moves to the breathtaking city of Minas Tirith for mankind's final stand. Gandalf and Aragorn have little hope they can save this beautiful city, but gather the forces of Rohan and Gondor in an effort to give Frodo the time he needs to reach his destination. Just when you think things can't get any worse for them, they do, but their resolve never wavers and though the Orcs take a heavy toll, the army of men stands tall at the end...thanks to a little help from the underworld. The creatures brought to life in this battle are jaw-dropping in their realization. The fighting – though a little reminiscent of the battle on the ice fields of Hoth in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – is so emotionally exciting and visually stunning you'll find yourself on the edge of your seat. One is left wondering where Aragorn and his stalwart pals are for so long that, once they finally do arrive with their legion of the dead, their appearance is a bit of a letdown. However, they make up for that at the showdown with Sauron at the Black Gates. Aragorn is called to prove what kings are made of and he doesn't disappoint. I wished Gimli and Legolas had more to do than accompany Aragorn and kill orcs, but this isn't their story and they make the most of their miniscule screen time adding humor and flair to the proceedings.

Personally, and I think I'm in the minority with this view, I prefer the dark, complicated, unfinished nature of THE TWO TOWERS, which left me wanting more and hopeful in the wake of an uncertain future. Since I had no idea how the story was going to end, it sent my mind reeling with possibilities. The only obvious outcome I could count on was Aragorn's being crowned as king. Now that the tale is complete, I'm left stunned and saddened by the travails of our intrepid heroes and the fact that the journey is at an end. Partly because I hate to see them go, but mostly, because it's too pat and no one really suffers any serious damage for all their troubles. I guess, like Tolkien and Jackson, I should put aside my disbelief and embrace the undeniable spirit of men to conquer evil on this Earth. Being a pessimist, I'd feel a whole lot better about the experience if the members of the fellowship had taken a more drastic hit. It's kind of sick to wish for, but I think it would have given the story more emotional weight and resonance for those of us living in the real world.

Regardless of these issues, Peter Jackson (much like George Lucas with the first STAR WARS films) has truly created a cinematic masterpiece with this trilogy the likes of which we have never seen before and will probably never witness again (mostly due to time and money restraints). Though the CGI feats will surely be surpassed in the next few years, the one thing computers can't generate is soul. The detail, scope, acting, art direction and story are as amazing as it gets, creating a world like no other that overwhelms the imagination and makes you believe what you've witnessed is fact and not fiction. Despite the unlikely survival of our heroes, these films never succumb to the potentially sentimental and schmaltzy parts of their nature. Lucas should take note. Sure this film has more false endings than a bad horror movie, but I didn't care. Parting is such sweet sorrow when you have to leave wonders like this. While Tolkien and Jackson may meander, they don't pander, which makes these films one's you want to watch over and over again. It doesn't get better than this, a cinema experience that will assuredly inspire and enthrall audiences for decades to come.

P.S. Am I the only one to notice the uncanny resemblance between the lead ork and the character Sloth from Sean Astin's youthful adventure THE GOONIES? Quite a coincidence.



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