Thursday, December 13, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Movie Review

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy must pack so much into those novels that it’s a minor miracle they were ever made into successful films. I’ve never read the books, of course, but you get a sense by the third installment of director Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of adaptations that the final book is replete with an abundance of minor and secondary characters all requiring a closing to their arcs. The effect is a film that is bloated and overblown, but at the same time a visual wallop and a great piece of entertainment filmmaking.


Because the three films were all made at the same time, it seems strange to consider them as separate pieces of acting and filmmaking. How do you consider Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Aragorn in The Return of the King as different from that in The Fellowship of the Ring? Likewise for Ian McKellen as Gandalf; Orlando Bloom as Legolas; Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, and Billy Boyd as the Hobbits. This third film got a lot of fan buzz for Astin to get awards nominations for supporting actor – he literally carries the lead on his back to achieve their goal. Why did that buzz not exist in the first two films? It’s not Astin’s performance that was any better this time. That’s simply not possible because the stories were not even filmed in sequence. The explanation must be the changes in his character, how he goes from being shy and reserved, a true follower, to a bold leader and the one who is ultimately responsible for the ring’s destruction. The same is true for Aragorn, who fulfills his destiny by becoming king at the end (if you consider that a spoiler, then you didn’t check the film’s title carefully).

While all the principles from the first two films continue their story arcs: Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas continue to forge their unlikely friendship; Arwen (Liv Tyler) returns to Middle Earth to be with Aragorn; King Theoden (Bernard Hill) leads his people into battle and then lays down so Aragorn will have no impediment to his ascendancy; even Bilbo (Ian Holm) turns up briefly at the end to close his story. The additions and expansions include Faramir (David Wenham) whose character is more fully illuminated by the presence of his father, Lord Denethor (John Noble), who exists in the extended version of The TwoTowers, but not the original theatrical release. We learn so much more about Faramir and especially his fallen brother, Boromir, from the relationship they had with their father.

Most of the characters are fairly well divided between morally good and morally corrupt. There is little grey area with the big exception being Gollum (Andy Serkis, in a truly remarkable motion capture performance), whose back story is presented early in the film. His character is the one that is likely to cause the most arguments and consternation among viewers. Is he sympathetic or without moral compunction? Is he a victim of the ring’s power and thus worthy of pity? Gandalf certainly believed so as he told Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring. My take is somewhat different than most people, I suppose. I see the ring as having a conquering power over everyone who possesses it long enough. Even the pure Frodo become corrupted in the end and can’t cast it into the fire. The character test comes in the initial opportunity to take the ring. In the first film Galadriel is tempted and refuses Frodo’s offer of the ring. Gandalf likewise once refused to carry it. And Aragorn, faced with Frodo’s mistrust, tells him, “I would have followed you to the end,” after Boromir tries to take the ring. It’s not that Aragorn feels no temptation, it’s what he does with it that is the measure of his moral stature. Gollum was immediately taken in by the ring’s power and wasted no time in killing for it. This one act has defined his long and tortured existence. You can look at that and see a pitiable creature who didn’t know what he was getting into when he came across the ring, or you can see a man of such morally weak character that he is only an impediment to Frodo and Sam’s progress who meets a fitting end in the fires of Mount Doom.

The screen adaptation by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens feels no different than the other two films. The visual palette is identical and the visual effects are still breathtaking. The battle scenes are more epic, with more at stake, and so they contain more drama. But they are just as exciting and impressively filmed and rendered. The only real differences among the films in terms of technical artistry put into them was the effects of the first two films’ box office on the editing process for the third film. Money and film had already been committed to all three stories before The Fellowship of the Ring earned a single dollar. So it was inevitable that all three would be released to theaters. But since the first two films earned huge amounts of money worldwide between box office, DVD, and merchandising, Jackson had just about all the freedom in the world to edit the final film how he pleased.

This was always my biggest complaint about The Return of the King, even from the first time I saw it the cinema in December 2003. It is so overlong and drawn out, and self-important that it loses much of its impact. Don’t get me started on the DVD extended version, which adds another 40 minutes to an already bloated 3 ½ hour plus running time. It does this mainly by having about three, or maybe four endings, depending on how you count them, that added about fifteen additional and unnecessary minutes to the original film. I remember sitting there in the cinema and feeling that the movie had just ended after Aragorn’s coronation. This is a moment that still has the power to move me as Aragorn makes his way through the crowd to find the four Hobbits, who bow to him. He responds, “You bow to no one” as he leads the crowd of thousands in a bow and salute to their immense bravery to save Middle Earth. The camera moves slowly toward the Hobbits and regards them as they are overtaken by the support from the masses. Their humility would not have expected that moment in a million years. That moment still gets me and I still feel that is the film’s perfect ending.

But it continues by wrapping up the Hobbits’ stories. The fans of the book have a fair argument, I suppose, in saying that the Hobbits are the focus and Frodo’s journey needs to conclude with his eventual leaving Middle Earth for the Grey Havens. But as someone who hasn’t read the books and is only concerned with the film being an effective and concise entertainment, all the stuff after Aragorn’s coronation is wasteful and indulgent. And it keeps going and going and going until, when it finally ends, you breathe a sigh of relief and shout, “Thank God!”

I honestly think The Return of the King is just fantastic, but I have real trouble eliminating the sour taste from the business involving Sam and Frodo back in The Shire, Sam getting married and raising a family and Frodo finishing his book, etc, etc, blah, blah. I will admit there is one other moment that really rang true for me when I first saw it. The four Hobbits are home in The Shire after their tremendous adventure. They sit to enjoy an ale together at their tavern. They silently salute one another while everyone around is still laughing the way they used to. Their friends and family will never understand what they went through. No amount of explanation will ever suffice. It’s a quietly reflective moment that I understood one hundred percent at that time. Still, I could have lived without it and whenever I watch The Return of the King, I want to turn the DVD off before it gets to those ‘extra’ endings, but I never do. And without fail I’m disappointed.

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