The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Posted by Joel Copling on December 13, 2014

If there was a single word to encapsulate 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," co-writer/director Peter Jackson's adaptation of the third novel in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, it would be "beastly." This word has more than one definition in the case of the film at hand, but the definition in the foreground applies to its length. At a mammoth-like 201 minutes (which translates, for those who are slow on the math, to nine minutes short of three-and-a-half hours), the film boasts a truly epic scale. Fortunately, not a second is wasted--no, not even within the vignette series of sequences that unfold, one after another, and make up the ending. It's all of a piece with closure, an action that is also theme in this case.

When we last left them, hobbits-of-the-Shire Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Samwise "Sam" Gamgee (Sean Astin) were still on the trail of Mount Doom, the resident volcano in the evil land of Mordor, in order to destroy the Dark Lord Sauron's fabled Ring of Power, and the pathetic Gollum (Andy Serkis) was still in their company. The seams are beginning to show in Frodo's ability to withstand both the dangerous lure of the Ring, which gives its wearer both an ability to become invisible to any eye but Sauron's own (a dark, slitted pupil wreathed in flame), and the pitiful inauthenticity of Gollum's insistence that he is not a trickster (The opening sequence, a flashback, recounts how the fell creature came to possess the gold band--by way of murder on his own birthday). This ultimately translates to Frodo's sibling-like relationship with Sam, and it could prove Frodo's downfall, especially as Gollum springs a trap unto Frodo's path.

Meanwhile, the other hobbits, Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan), are reunited, following the defeat of the traitorous wizard Saruman at Isengard, with the newly resurrected Gandalf (Ian McKellen), human and heir to the kingship of Gondor Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), king of Rohan Theoden (Bernard Hill), and friendly rivals Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). The reunion comes just in time for Pippin to have a vision of the imminent defeat of Gondor, to which he and Gandalf travel by horse; there they find Denethor (John Noble, ridiculously effective with minimal screen time), steward of the kingdom, stricken with grief over the death of his firstborn son Boromir and indifferent to the troubles of his younger son Faramir (David Wenham).

These disparate plots, following Frodo and Sam as they make their final steps toward the fires of Mount Doom and Gandalf and company as they loom ever closer to a massive battle in the wake of Minas Tirith, the final stronghold on the side of good in front of Mordor, are rife with effectiveness on their own merits; together, they truly define the term "epic." The ensuing battle between men (both living, from Theoden's many squadrons, and dead, from with a cursed mountain pass) and Orcs (who arrive on massive beasts that are the unholy crossbreed of mammoths and elephants) is as thrilling as Frodo's escape from a giant spider called Shelob, and the final stand between the dreaded Witch-King of Angmar and Theoden's hardened daughter Eowyn (Miranda Otto) is as brutally satisfying as the downfall of Sauron and his Ring of Power.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," like 2002's "The Two Towers" before it, cannot quite match the diamond-hard pleasures of 2001's inaugural "The Fellowship of the Ring," which was richer thematically, but this is visually stupendous, sometimes haunting stuff, a veritable nightmare of the imagination at its darkest and most threatening. The visual effects (especially for Gollum, performed brilliantly by Serkis), even after 11 years, are seamlessly executed, Howard Shore's resplendent score is a character unto itself, and the performances (particularly Astin's, which is phenomenal in every aspect, especially in the extended denouement) and characters are, all of them, superbly realized. This isn't merely one of the great recent screen epics, but the final step in possibly the greatest trilogy in cinematic history. The exclamation "Bravo!" comes to mind immediately.

Film Information

Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise "Sam" Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Billy Boyd (Peregrin "Pippin" Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), Orlando Bloom (Legolas Greenleaf), Bernard Hill (Theoden), David Wenham (Faramir), John Noble (Denethor), Karl Urban (Eomer), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Andy Serkis (Gollum).

Directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, based on the novel "The Return of the King" by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rated PG-13 (epic battle sequences, scary images).

201 minutes.

Released on December 17, 2003.