The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Review
It took me a while to warm to Lord Of The Rings. Never having read JRR Tolkien's novels or had much time for this kind of fantasy fiction, I found the first movie in the trilogy, The Fellowship of The Ring, long, slow and a bit twee with its lovable, bumbling hobbits and its pure-hearted elves. Granted, Peter Jackson had a lot of characters to introduce and plot strands to set up, many of which would not bear fruit until the second and third films. Still, the chases and skirmishes grew repetitive and did we need to see quite so much of New Zealand's landscape? It was The Two Towers that won me over. The second chapter had a lot more drama to hold your interest between the action scenes. And what action scenes! The battle of Helms Deep set a new benchmark for movie spectacle. Better yet, The Two Towers gave us Smeagol, the devious, tormented creature who proved that computers could create a character that not only looked real but had a three-dimensional personality. Now the trilogy draws to a close with The Return Of The King and I'm hooked. I was up early this morning to see a 10am showing in a cinema packed with fans of all ages, all of whom incidentally sat still and kept quiet for the whole three hour and twenty minute running time. That's a better recommendation than any I could give.
The story so far: Middle Earth stands on the brink of conquest by the forces of the dark entity Sauron. Only one thing can destroy him - the magical Ring which holds his power must be thrown into the volcanic cauldron of Mount Doom, where it was forged. A simple enough task but the catch is that Mount Doom lies in the heart of Mordor, Sauron's domain. The good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has entrusted this mission to a humble young hobbit called Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). Accompanied by his loyal friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Frodo has finally reached the dark land but to guide them safely to the mountain, the two hobbits are forced to rely on the help of Smeagol (Andy Serkis, who provides the creature's voice and plays him in flashbacks). This wretched specimen once possessed the Ring and, though it corrupted him and turned him into a monster, he's still bewitched by it and will stop at nothing to take back his "precious".
While Frodo approaches the climax of his quest, Gandalf and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), heir to the land of Gondor, struggle to unite the peoples of Middle Earth. They've just won a great victory over a legion of vile, flesh-eating orcs at Helms Deep, however that was merely a warm-up for the battle to come. Sauron's troops are marching on the key city of Minas Tirith, which holds the throne that should rightfully belong to Aragorn. A vast invasion force is on its way, including not only orcs and human mercenaries but a squadron of fell beasts and a herd of oliphaunts. You've seen these monsters in The Two Towers - the fell beasts are the winged dragons ridden by Sauron's ghoulish allies, the Ring Wraiths, while the oliphaunts are the enormous, hairless mammoths that Frodo and Sam spied on their journey to Mordor. Now you'll see them in action. As battle draws closer, the outnumbered humans seek help from an unusual source. Deep down though, Gandalf and Aragorn know this is a war they can never win and the best they can do is play for time and hope that their friend Frodo will be able to defeat the odds and destroy the Ring.
The Return of The King looks magnificent, that goes without saying and I hardly need to tell you the special effects are state of the art. The Battle of Minas Tirith trumps Helms Deep for scale, thrills and technical excellence. If it doesn't knock your socks off like Helms Deep did, it's probably because we've seen such a deluge of megabudget action sequences this year. These days every event movie that comes along seems bent on outdoing the last one and if they haven't yet reached the point where the audience can gasp no more, it's not far off. You can only see so many of these gigantic set-pieces before blockbuster ennui sets in and "wow, a tyrannosaurus!" turns into "what, only half a dozen fell beasts?". If The Return Of The King is hurt less by the general overkill than, say, The Matrix Revolutions, it's because it has a lot more going for it than special effects. It can stand on its directing, writing and acting and you never feel like you're just watching computer artists show off. Peter Jackson's direction is both elegant and muscular and his script, co-written with Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, for the most part does an admirable job of condensing an elephantine story into three films you can just about watch without a toilet break. Some cinemas are supposedly inserting an intermission into this one but mine didn't and I don't feel it's necessary.
Jackson has had quite a cast at his disposal. Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen have now become such icons that you can't imagine anyone but McKellen as Gandalf, the wise, stern wizard or Mortensen as Aragorn, the fearless warrior king. Playing Frodo, the innocent charged with carrying the soul-stealing Ring, Elijah Wood has always had the most thankless role. He's spent a large part of the trilogy with the same haunted look in his eyes and it's never been easy to like him much. It doesn't help that Frodo makes an awful lot of stupid decisions. For me, it's the indefatigably loyal Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) who's the series' unsung hero, overcoming his fear to save Frodo time and time again. Sean Astin's touching performance is one of the trilogy's greatest strengths. It comes as a pleasant surprise that the other two hobbits, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), who were annoying comic relief in Fellowship and seemed extraneous in The Two Towers, become interesting and likeable the third time around.
With so much story to pack in, it's probably inevitable that some characters will be marginalised but it's still a shame when it happens to the ones you like. Firm audience favourites Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), who were set up as major protagonists in Fellowship Of The Ring, have been given very little to do in the second and third chapters. Once again the pair are relegated mostly to fighting in the battle scenes. It's some consolation that they do feature in one truly show-stopping sequence which I wouldn't dream of spoiling here.
Another character who was important in the first film but appears unnecessary in the sequels is Arwen (Liv Tyler), Aragorn's elvish sweetheart. She sacrificed her immortality to be with her love and faces death if the Ring is not destroyed yet so little screen time is devoted to her plight that it seems like an aside and given that all of Middle Earth is doomed if Sauron is victorious, it's hard to care very much. Nor does it help that Eowyn, her rival for Aragorn's affections, is a much more vibrant and sympathetic figure. I found myself wishing Gandalf would take him aside and give him a little romantic advice.
Faring much better are some of the newer characters like Denethor (John Noble), the guardian of Minas Tirith whose grief over the death of his son Boromir (Sean Bean in Fellowship Of The Ring) has driven him insane. Mad rulers are two a penny in epics such as this but Noble finds a new and subtly chilling way to play one. Returning from The Two Towers are the noble King Theoden (Bernard Hill) and his niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto). Eowyn comes into her own in Return Of The King. No longer content to make eyes at Aragorn, she defies her uncle's wishes and the conventions of her time by putting on armour and fighting alongside the men. She makes a great heroine and the most rousing moment in the whole trilogy belongs to her.
And so the saga ends, unless of course Peter Jackson goes ahead with his rumoured adaptation of The Hobbit, Tolkien's prequel which recounts the adventures of Frodo's uncle, Bilbo Baggins (played in Lord Of The Rings by Ian Holm). Whether or not this happens, The Return Of The King wraps the story up satisfyingly. It does have its faults - the plot niggles mentioned above and also a slight feeling of disappointment when the climax played out in exactly the way I expected. I might also quibble that, after reaching a perfect, truly moving ending, the film carries on to include one epilogue too many - but then brevity has never been the saga's strongest suit! Flaws aside, this is a thoroughly gripping adventure, a stunning piece of film-making and a fitting conclusion to a unique series of movies.