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THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING

2003, dir. Peter Jackson
201 min. Rated PG-13.
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin.

Review by Noel Wood

Generally, just after I see a film for the first time, I have no problem opening up Notepad (yes, I still use Notepad for everything, so bite me) and starting a review. I don't set up an outline, I don't usually make notes, I rarely even read other reviews before I begin. I'm a pretty stream-of-consciousness sort of guy. What you read is basically a long-winded rant coming straight from my brain and onto your screen. There's barely a middleman.

Yet, somehow, I can't figure out how to write about RETURN OF THE KING. Last year, I managed to work out my review of THE TWO TOWERS in short order, and I even went back to see what I wrote to give myself a starting point. It didn't help. I figured I'd put it off until I got some grand inspiration, but I recently got this in an email:

Gnoll, are you taking off for the holidays? No LOTR review? - Ryan Jones

I guess my adoring audience of one counts for something, so I'll do what I can here.

Now, I'm not a huge LOTR fan by any means. I have loved all three of Peter Jackson's adaptations to this point, but I wasn't a big fan of the franchise before that. I never read the trilogy, although I did read The Hobbit a few times as a kid. I had a general idea of some of the basics of the story, the characters and whatnot. I guess I thought it was cool, but I wasn't as fascinated by it as I was stuff like STAR WARS and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I saw people who took it a little too seriously at conventions and the like, but it wasn't any more obsessive a trait as the Star Trek geeks or the anime dorks.

And I'm not going to lie and say that I'm utterly fascinated by the series as a whole after seeing the trilogy, despite the fact that I love these movies. I don't have any desire to go back and read the books or collect the action figures or dress up as Gandalf at the next Dragon*Con. In fact, as much as I love the films, I really don't have an urge to see them again any time soon.

Now, I realize that I seem to be going on more about the trilogy here than the single film I'm reviewing, but there's not really any way to focus on the one film once you've reviewed any of the others. The reason for this is that the LORD OF THE RINGS films are actually one big movie that's merely split in to three parts. Normally, I stand by the ideal that a film should be able to stand alone, without the rest of the series to explain it to me. I used this argument while talking about the MATRIX sequels. I get irrirated at the STAR WARS apologists that try to claim that the stupidity that occurred in THE PHANTOM MENACE will all one day make sense when Lucas fills in the plotholes he dug with a revisionist shovel. But in these films, there is an exception to that rule. They were filmed at one time, as one movie, with the entire story laid out far in advance. Sure, Peter Jackson had to take some liberties in converting these mammoth texts into movies that are brief enough to keep the average moviegoer entertained, but it's all for the most part preexisting material. So in this case, it's really hard to say anything great about RETURN OF THE KING that wasn't already said about THE TWO TOWERS.

There are some things that are to be noted about this particular installment, of course. First, and most notable to me, is the focus on the Hobbits. The first film saw them treated as lessers to pretty much every other race that inhabits Middle Earth. In the second film, the action focused more on other characters such as Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, and Theodin, as the Hobbits were split up. But here, every one of the four Hobbits is crucial to the story. Of course, Frodo is the halfling entrusted to return the ring, but Merry and Pippin get to see action in battle and prove to the naysayers that they are equals. But the most amazing job here is done by Sean Astin as Samwise, who steps up as the big action star for a good portion of the film and is rewarded by receiving more face time after the climax than any other character in the film.

On top of that, this portion of the trilogy tends to move a little bit faster than the others. A good portion of the film is spent in battle, or at least preparing for battle. As the story ascends to its climax, you can feel tension in all of the seperate story arcs: from Frodo's quest to return the ring, to Aragorn's desperation to find allies, to Arwen's desire to be with Aragorn, to Gollum's descent into evil. It all leads up to a marvelous climax, and in a move that can only be fitting to what is basically a single ten-hour film, has a very long denouement that does its best to cover all of the trilogy's major characters.

Now, I've been given looks like one might expect to receive from a dog who's just been told a knock-knock joke for saying it, but I didn't necessarily find this film to be the best of the trilogy. However, don't get me wrong: I still think this is an amazing piece of cinema, so don't go stabbing my eyeballs out just yet. Perhaps it was because I saw it late and had my expectations set too high, but I seem to recall enjoying THE TWO TOWERS much better. Even the big battle scene, which was definitely huge in this film, just didn't do it for me like the one in TWO TOWERS. Maybe it was the "been there" aspect of it, maybe it was the anticlimactic ending to it, maybe it was the pacing of it all, but I was just a little more impressed last year. Overall, I thought the way that THE TWO TOWERS was laid out flowed a lot better, with the "STAR WARS pacing" I mentioned in my review of that film. With the action focusing on fewer groups, this one was done a little differently.

The crowd I saw it with also may have had an impact on that preference, too. I saw THE TWO TOWERS on its first full day in theaters, and the auditorium was full of enthusiastic people. While I saw this one in a sold-out setting, it was a little later in the release, so the casual watchers were trickling in more than the hardcore fans. I seem to recall a lot more cheering and clapping when I saw the last one, but I can only think of two moments that elicited a response from my crowd; one involving Eowyn slaying an ominous foe and another involving Gimli's reaction to Legolas' superhero antics.

Of course, techically the film is brilliant, but that doesn't really pave new ground for it, because the other two also excelled in that category. It's amazing, though, to see the real live actor playing Smeagol the hobbit and comparing him to Gollum the computer-generated guide. The feats of designing such expansive settings and realistic creatures with computers still amazes me. Watching armies of thousands go into brutal battles and realizing they're not even there just makes me marvel.

Peter Jackson has done a masterful job of taking a story so grand and turning it into one of the most successful movie trilogies of all time. For that alone, the man deserves the Academy Award for best director this year. Technically, he'd be receiving it for the one film, but in actuality, it would be a reward for three years worth of LOTR goodness.

I just really missed Christopher Lee. Damn you, cutting room floor! Oh well, at least there will eventually be restored footage and I'll have the option of seeing it some time in the future.

I actually waited a week or so to see this movie, at a time when my girlfriend had gone home for the holidays. She didn't really care to see the film, because she had yet to see the others. There wasn't some prejudice to the movie in general, she just felt that seeing part three before seeing one and two didn't make a lot of sense. Of course, this is the same girlfriend who saw AMERICAN WEDDING without seeing the first two AMERICAN PIE movies, so it's not just a prejudice against trilogies, either. It's just that in this case, she was right. I would probably be bored stiff if you stuck me in a theater to see RETURN OF THE KING before I saw the two films that preceded it. That's not a knock at the individual movie; it's a compliment to the series as a whole.

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