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Lord of the Rings, The: The Return of the King (2003) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 17 December 2003
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 finally here, and it’s 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 Howard 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.

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 – 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 the aforementioned massive publicity) 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 at one point 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 here are as impressive as the opticals, with a spine-tingling mixture of roar and screech and floor-thumping impact as Mordor flares up and the evil Ringwraiths soar out on their flying, shrieking monstrosities. Sword strikes and footfalls all have appropriate impact, as do boulders shattering fortress walls.

For all this, “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.

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 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.

“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.

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