There are almost no words to describe the power of The Lord of the Rings films. The series has taken movie making to a whole other level, and with the conclusion of the trilogy, The Return of the King, they've saved the best for last.
The movie opens with a flashback hundreds of years to Sméagol and his friend Deagol as they are fishing. Deagol finds the One Ring and both are so overcome by the power of the ring they fight for it, leading to the death of Deagol. From there we see the transformation of Sméagol and his decent into hell, forgetting his own name and becoming Gollum. Picking up where The Two Towers left off, we find Pippin and Merry still celebrating their destruction of Isengard with the help of the Ents. There, the majority of the fellowship join them as Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf find the two Hobbits still smoking and drinking. Sauron, while defeated as Helms Deep and Isengard, still has a large number of warriors ready to do battle for him, and his armies are ready to go after Gondor, and rid the world of humans. The battle at the castle of kings is a massive fight where not everyone survives. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are still being led by Gollum through a treacherous path to Mordor. Gollum and his split personality have finally come to an agreement to kill the Hobbits and take back the precious for himself. The path he takes them on is a dangerous one, and the ring is taking its toll on Frodo, leading him to decide whether to believe Gollum, or stick with his old friend Sam. All of this leads to a huge finale that will leave you on the edge of your seat.
I remember a long time ago, oh about two years ago, when The Fellowship of the Ring came out. Hot on the heels of another film dealing with fantasy worlds, I wondered if the movie would be any good. And much to my surprise, not only was it good, it was easily the best film I had seen in years. The anticipation for The Two Towers was immense, but that was only the bridge between the beginning and the end, so the anticipation for The Return of the King was through the roof. I went out and saw the extended versions of the first two films to prepare myself for the last one and it was worth it. Midnight screening on opening night in New York means a pumped up, die hard crowd that cheered when the Loews insignia came on the screen, meaning the movie was about to start. Through the entire film there must have been at least 15-20 times when the audience applauded, and at least 5 times when a group of young ladies shrieked for Orlando Bloom. It was, to say the least, the best way to see the movie.
The reason I liked this chapter the best out of the three, was that all the major characters had a big role to play. Obviously Frodo and Sam, along with Gollum, had the ring, and while for almost the entire film they never saw the other members of the fellowship, their story was a lot better than in the last two films, because they had the hardest road left to take. Dealing with a large, creepy spider and other things that may or may not be alive, having to deal with Gollum, and dealing with the power of the ring, meant that they had the most obstacles to climb. Surprisingly, it was Sean Astin who stole the show this time around, showing off his acting chops while always sticking by his best friends side, no matter what he did or said. Sam's character really stepped forward in this film and gave the movie its central heart. Elijah Wood did a great job as he continued his slide into hell, trying to cope with the massive undertaking, and having the ring around his neck all the time. And giving Gollum a back story allowed you to feel a little more pity for the creature, even if all he wanted was to hold the ring, one last time.
The rest of the fellowship had their own plans. Pippin found the crystal ball that connected Sauraman (who surprisingly did not show up in the film at all, but Peter Jackson assures us he'll be in the DVD), and looked into the future and saw Sauron's plans. But Sauron also saw him, and believes that he carries the ring. So he and Gandalf set out to Minas Tirith, the place Pippin saw in his mind as being under siege, to warn them of what will happen. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli stay with Théoden, the King of Rohan and Éowyn, awaiting word from Gandalf that Gondor is asking for their help. But Aragorn hears word from Elrond that Sauron's numbers are too great, and that unless they can find more help, not only will they lose but that Arwen will die. The only soldiers left, Aragorn is told, are dead ones, bound to help the King of Gondor. And with that, Elrond gives Aragorn the sword that defeated Sauron those centuries ago and Aragorn finally accepts his rightful place as King. So everyone had something to do, even the two Hobbits that did little more than ride in trees in the last film. It was nice seeing them split up and riding off with powerful people; Pippin with Gandalf and Merry with the future Queen, Éowyn, whose own role in the final battle is as important as anyone else's, and probably even more so, as she goes face to face with the right hand man of Sauron, the Witch-king of Angmar.
The special effects were again amazing. The massive battle sequences went off without a hitch, and I am continually amazed at how they were able to keep the size difference between the Hobbits and the rest of the cast intact throughout. Whether it was using doubles or a blue screen, there was never a time when it didn't work out. The new creature in the film, the giant spider, was far scarier than the one used in that other fantasy adventure, and probably elicited the greatest gasp from the audience. The cheesiest, and still somehow coolest spot in the film involved the dead soldiers as they stormed everything in sight, literally swallowing up an elephant and then overtaking the castle. Their use in the film was a bit contrived, but it worked out nicely and allowed one of many goosebump moments when they realized who Aragorn was.
Speaking of goosebump moments, I can't say I've ever seen a film with more of them. Just about every time Viggo Mortensen spoke, it was a revelation that gave me goosebumps. When he received the sword, when he spoke to the dead soldiers, when he spoke to the troops before battle. Knowing that he was the future king and all that was left was his coronation made everything he said stand out. Add that to the fact that the crown would erupt in applause any time a character did something cool; Orlando Bloom's solo effort against an elephant being a big one; made the movie even that much better. The best part was towards the end, when there was a theater-like curtain call of the remaining characters. One by one they would enter the screen and the crowd would go nuts. I thought it was a nice touch, almost as if Peter Jackson knew how the crowd would react to all of them. There was also a lot more humor in this film than in the original cuts of the previous two. The extended versions added in a lot of funny scenes, but this film had a perfect mix of action, suspense and light moments.
I have always thought that the highlight of all the films have been the visuals. Between Jackson and the D.P. Andrew Lesnie, they created a stunning look at Middle Earth. In the case of The Return of the King, production designer Grant Major out did himself with the creation of Minas Tirith. But to me, the best looking part has always been the Shire. From the opening shot of the first film, to the final shot of the last film, the Shire is easily the most beautiful looking piece of movie making I have ever seen. From the sets to the colors, everything is picture perfect. If there was ever a place in a movie that felt like a place you wanted to visit and call home, the Shire was it.
The cast and crew have to be commended at this tremendous undertaking. Three massive films, all shot at the same time, was a big, big risk and it paid off in ways no one could imagine. After the inevitable climax, the movie continued on for about another twenty minutes. For most films, it was have been overkill and made the audience yawn and antsy to leave. But here, I think the movie could have gone on for another hour just showing the postscript on all the characters, and not one person would have gotten up to leave (even at 3:30 in the morning). Peter Jackson and his awesome cast managed to create characters that everyone loved, and no one wanted to see go away. Knowing that this was the end of a 2+ year love affair between filmmakers and audiences, there was a profound sadness when it came to an end, but at the same time, it left a smile on everyone's faces because unlike the ending of a lot of movie trilogies, you felt satisfied at how it all concluded.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So overall, The Return of the King was a tremendous ending to what I consider to be the greatest movie trilogy of all time. It not only kept pace with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, it raised the bar even higher. I wonder if there will ever be another series that has touched the heart of so many people around the world.
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