I remember seeing the trailer for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for the first time. Near the start of it, a short group of words appeared on screen: “On December 17, the journey ends.” When I saw that, I felt a strange sadness inside. This series, which I have enjoyed watching over the past few years, was coming to a close. I think that, in that moment, it struck me how absorbed I had become in this saga. Never having read JRR Tolkein’s books, the story and the characters were all new to me. There was an idea in my mind that the journey did not just belong to Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn, but to myself as well. When I sat in my theater seat for The Fellowship of the Ring back in December 2001, I knew that I was embarking on a movie-going journey that would ultimately take three years to complete.
And now that journey has reached its conclusion in grand, glorious style. The Return of the King is not just the final chapter in the saga, not just a sequel, not just another movie. It is a revelation. I very much enjoyed Fellowship and The Two Towers, but I never found them 100% fulfilling because, in and of themselves, they had no endings. Now that the ending has been presented, I am able to look back and realize just what an extraordinary filmmaking accomplishment Lord of the Rings has been.
A detailed plot description is probably not necessary. Odds are, you know it already. It is only worth saying that The Return of the King takes the battle for Middle Earth to its conclusion. The hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his friend Sam (Sean Astin) prepare to throw the ring into the volcano, presuming they are not misled by the duplicitous Gollum (Andy Sirkis). Meanwhile, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) lead the fight against evil forces that want to do away with mankind.
A number of thoughts ran through my mind as I watched the movie:
Director Peter Jackson has created a visual spectacle unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Of course, Tolkein created the world and the characters, but Jackson visualized them for the screen. When you look at the sheer size and scope of the series, it’s hard not to be amazed by the largeness of that task. There is so much going on here, all of it incredibly detailed. This is a big reason why the films work so well: they fully immerse you in another universe so that you feel like you are there. This is especially true of the battle sequences. One of them – involving a dual catapult attack – ranks among the most thrilling movie sequences I have ever seen. There is just nothing else like the visual brilliance that Jackson brings to the series. In past years, I have not fully supported the idea of Jackson winning the Academy Award for Best Director. This year, I think it would be criminal if it went to anyone else. Now that his final vision has been revealed, I can think of no other filmmaker more deserving of that honor this year.
These movies work on two levels, which is part of what makes them so popular among demographics. Some people come to this series with a love of the source material. They have deep understandings of the elaborate history that Tolkein created. They know things about the characters that maybe didn’t even make it into the movies, but which provide added depth by being alluded to. Those hardcore fans can appreciate Jackson’s basic loyalty in keeping as much of this intact as possible. On the other hand, there are people like me who were never exposed to the story before. We don’t necessarily understand every last little detail of Tolkein’s admittedly complex and intricate world. But it doesn’t matter if we don’t know the entire back-story of Aragorn’s sword, or of Treebeard’s origin, or the name of every town’s king. We are able to understand the basic premise and the most fundamental themes enough to appreciate the movies on their own terms. This quality also makes the pictures as accessible to kids as they are to adults.
This series works as both entertainment and art. In terms of action, the Lord of the Rings movies are top-notch. There is much to be dazzled by. But the films are also artistic achievements. New and innovative CGI techniques are used to create atmosphere as well as action. Just look at the magnificence of the “City of Kings” for proof. The technical elements - such as camerawork, sound mixing, and production design - all represent significant advancements in the field. The screenplay is literate (and how often can we say that about big budget Hollywood movies?). The acting is superb, which each performer creating a fully realized character, no matter how much or how little screen time they get. All in all, this is a very accomplished piece of work in every regard.
And last, but not least:
The series is even better than I thought it was. There are three schools of thought on the Lord of the Rings series. A few people just don’t get it, or choose to bash it because of its runaway popularity. Another group consists of die-hard fans and fanatics who view the series as practically the best movies ever made, and don’t you dare disagree with them. Then there’s the third group, which loves the films very much but never regarded them as “perfect” masterpieces. I fell into that third group.
I really loved The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and awarded them each 3 ½ stars. Why not four? Because, as I said earlier, their lack of endings kept them from being totally fulfilling. I realize now, though, that this series can’t be accurately judged until its finale. All the pieces have come together at last, and it becomes apparent just what a marvelous – and important – epic this has been. Things that were introduced in the first installment pay off in the grand finale. Characters who initially seemed vague now have very clear purposes. Elements that appeared incidental have been revealed to play crucial roles in advancing the story to its end point. I am now able to see how everything in parts one and two led to the emotionally rewarding conclusion. I still don’t believe the movies are perfect, but they sure are masterpieces.
In 2003, we saw two cinematic trilogies conclude. In the case of The Matrix, I can only feel regret that it all added up to nothing at the end of the day. The time, money, and effort that went into making them were a complete waste. Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, started off strongly and only got better. Peter Jackson, his cast and his crew have done it just right. They have delivered a landmark trio of films that deliver a rare form of movie-going magic: the kind that sweeps you away and engulfs you in a new world full of adventure and wonder. What a spectacular journey it has been.
( out of four)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images. The running time is 3 hours and 20 minutes.