|Lord of the Rings, The - The Return of the King|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 25 May 2004|
It is exceptionally difficult for a fantasy film to get any serious respect from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Sure, there are wins for makeup and special effects and once in awhile production design, and there is the occasional nomination for Best Director or even Best Picture, but victory is rare. So when a movie that is pretty much the epitome of epic fantasy like “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” wins 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (and, for audiophiles, Best Sound, Best Score by Howard Shore and Best Song), it means that a lot of tough skeptics were won over – which in turn means that, yes, this is a terrific movie.
In fact, “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is one of the best movies ever made, in the fantasy genre, the epic genre and/or any other genre (the Oscars are a great acknowledgement, but lack of awards wouldn’t change the film’s quality).
Look up “epic” in the dictionary and you’ll find a definition that handily fits both J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy of books and director/co-screenwriter Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of them. “The Return of the King,” the third and final installment (following 2001’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” and 2002’s “The Two Towers”) is a thundering achievement, both figuratively and literally. Want to experience sights and sounds that will just about convince you that you really are on an otherworldly battlefield, where the ground shakes from the clash of thousands upon thousands of humans and orcs? Here you are – and if that were all “Return” delivered, it would still be one hell of a movie. However, Jackson and his remarkable team – including fellow screenplay adapters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, composer Shore, top-flight special effects artists and a collection of terrific actors – aren’t content to leave it at that. “Return of the King,” for all its fantasy and larger-than-life trappings, has as much (indeed, often more) emotional realism as any real-history-based cinematic tale.
As with the two earlier “Rings” films, “Return of the King” comes to DVD first in a two-disc edition, with the theatrical cut of the film on one disc and a collection of documentaries and featurettes on the other. A special extended version with various commentaries and many more special features is due out later in the year, so this edition is for those who a) can’t wait and b) want to re-experience the theatrical version without the changed rhythms of a longer, different cut.
For anybody who has somehow missed the books, the first two movies and all the attendant publicity – surely some lonely souls somewhere fit this description, though there can’t be many – “The Lord of the Rings” takes place in a realm called Middle Earth, populated by humans, elves, dwarves and small, mostly unadventurous folks called hobbits or halflings, who until now have kept to themselves. However, an evil entity known as Sauron means to overwhelm Middle Earth by means of a magical talisman, the Ring, which is currently in the custody of the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). Frodo, unheroic as he believes himself to be, has committed himself to destroying the Ring by the only means possible – throwing it into the fires of the volcanic Mount Doom, where it was forged. Mount Doom is in Sauron’s stronghold, the land of Mordor, which is swarming with demonic orcs and various monsters, all under the Dark Lord’s sway. By the time of “Return of the King,” Frodo’s only companions are his loyal friend and fellow hobbit Samwise (Sean Astin) and Gollum (an amazing amalgamation of CGI and a performance by actor Andy Serkis), the Ring’s much-deteriorated and fairly crazed former keeper, who offers to lead the hobbits to Mount Doom but schemes to reclaim the “precious” object for himself through treachery.
Of the original band who set out with Frodo in “Fellowship,” one, Boromir (Sean Bean), is dead, leaving his thoughtful, abashed brother Faramir (David Wenham) to deal with their father, the grief-maddened Steward of Gondor (John Noble). Human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) has finally accepted his destiny as the heir to the throne of Gondor – i.e., king of most of Middle Earth – should he survive the wars, while the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are all engulfed in some of the most overwhelming battles to ever hit the screen.
The clash of armies here inspires true awe – in Chapter 28 and onward, there are shots of hundreds of thousands of human and demonic soldiers charging each other by the battalion that have a surging power that leaves your jaw in your lap. It looks physically real, even though logic (and both massive publicity and the featurettes) tells us that most of it was actually created in a computer. For the most part, the interactions between live players and environments and elements that exist only as pixels is seamless, with Gollum a real master stroke of collaboration between performer Serkis and the effects team. Greenish ghosts scouring the landscape in Chapter 40 may strike some viewers as a bit artificial – the visuals don’t have the dimensionality of the rest of the effects – but this is a nitpick.
The sounds and sights here are extraordinary. If you don’t have a world-class subwoofer, Treebeard’s deep rumbling voice may be a bit congestive in Chapter 3, but the sound and picture quality on this release is overall exquisite. In Chapter 4, there is a wonderful, enveloping discrete effect as cheers erupt around us in a banquet hall and in Chapter 6, we are surrounded by a supernaturally menacing roar as Pippin attracts the attention of Sauron. In Chapter 9, Gandalf and Pippin come charging out of the right rear on horseback, aurally riding straight past us and into the mains. A battle in Chapter 13 at a garrison on the water’s edge has splashes, footfalls, roars, sword strikes, growls and even singular human breaths placed specifically throughout the environment as the melee becomes ever more brutal. Chapter 14 has a visually beautiful sequence as mountaintops light up one by one with signal fires. Chapter 16 has the painful cries of the monstrous flying Nazgul circling the speaker system, convincing us that tortured monsters are all around in an example of brilliant fantasy sound design – the beasts seem real. Chapter 20 combines some soulful, plaintive onscreen singing by Boyd with stark music, horses’ hooves and arrows flying for a melancholy prelude to battle. Chapter 26 shows us the orcs on the march before all hell breaks loose. Chapter 29 tears us away from the battle and astonishingly proves equally engrossing, with squishy, scuttling sounds and threatening roars sneaking up on us from all sides as Frodo battles a fast-moving giant spiderlike creature. Chapter 37 has another melee sequence that is so all-encompassing that there is nothing to do but watch in awe – discrete strikes, roars, screams, punches, falls and other combat sounds are everywhere and the screen is literally filled with battling men, orcs, giant beasts and weapons. Chapter 59 brings back vivid colors not seen so brightly since the beginning of “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
Shore’s score is aptly powerful and beautiful, with a final song, “Into the West,” performed by Annie Lennox (co-written by Shore, Lennox and screenwriter Walsh), that makes it well worth sitting through the Chapter 60 closing credits, which are gorgeously illustrated by sketches of the cast, creatures and realms that we have been immersed in for the past few hours – or years, depending on when one feels the viewing experience begins.
For all its spectacle and technical expertise, “Return” has marvelous, memorable heart. Wood is profoundly affecting as the troubled, exhausted Frodo and Mortensen is an icon of determination, but the biggest standouts are Astin’s innocent and ardently caring Sam and Boyd’s Pippin, who carries on admirably in the face of his own terror. Miranda Otto as a noblewoman whose resolve to join the fight has a surprising consequence and Bernard Hill as her kingly uncle both have convincing regal bearing and human passion.
The supplements on the second disc are very agreeable, although there is some overlap of material in the three long documentaries and even the seven shorter pieces originally made for lordoftherings.net. It is fun to see footage from Jackson’s original pitch presentation in the “Filmmaker’s Journey” segment and all of the documentaries have some gorgeous artwork from various illustrators’ takes on Tolkien’s prose.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” absolutely transports us to another world, makes us believe in and care about what we see there and returns us to our own lives feeling that we’ve actually been somewhere else for awhile, doing something that matters. It provides pretty much everything that can be asked of a motion picture experience, and then some.