Before we get to the business of reviewing LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, let’s take a moment to marvel at the fact that Peter Jackson persuaded a studio, New Line, to give him not only the money, but also the free hand to bring this trilogy to the screen while remaining true to his vision. It was a property that stymied Walt Disney, after all. Jackson, in what may have been his biggest gamble, has made his films unabashedly heroic and unapologetically sentimental and won us over in an era where irony is not only the norm, but all but de rigeur. The man knows how to tell a story.
Not to beat around the bush, this film is soul-stirring perfection. At 210 minutes, there is not a wasted frame of film. From the smallest moment of quiet conversation to epic battle sequences full of sweeping vistas black with ravaging hordes of Orcs and worse, we are swept into this mythical world with an emotional immediacy that is as compelling as it is enthralling. A broken heart resonates with the same thunderclap of dragons wings. In this, the darkest of the films, the characters grow as each fulfills his or her destiny so that they, as well as the story itself, achieve a kind of closure. Bittersweet, though it may be.
The film begins where THE TWO TOWERS left off, with Gollum, but not the creature weve seen before. We see his finding of the ring as Smeagol (Andy Serkis briefly as himself, not a digital effect), what he does to get it, what he does to keep it, and the horrifying metamorphosis from hobbit-like river folk into the thing that worships the ring. If you have never noticed it before, there is now no mistaking the similarity between Gollum’s eyes and Frodo’s (Elijah Wood). In both they are large and blue and full of wonder. Here at beginning the third film, Jackson and company unequivocally lay out Frodos fate and tie it to Gollums and by extension, the fate that awaits Middle Earth should Frodo and his companions fail in their mission, The loss of free will, replaced by madness and complete negation of self becomes the persistant backdrop to all that follows.
And what follows has such a rich texture and depth that it is all but impossible to take everything in with just one viewing. The final battle for Middle Earth is at hand, the heir of Gondor will return, and, of course, Frodo must get the ring to Mount Doom to destroy it before Sauron, the cause of all the misery, can get it back and destroy mankind. And, further of course, before the ring itself can destroy Frodo the way it has destroyed Smeagel and turned him into Gollum. The special effects are spectacular as good fights implacable evil for the fate of the world. Yet it is not the battle with a nightmare of a giant spider that matters, it is the dogged loyalty of Sam (Sean Astin) for Frodo that is the point. It’s not the eerie luminescence of a ghostly army of the damned closing in on Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and company, it’s Aragorns newfound and suitably majestic demeanor that he uses to confront them. And Pippin and Merry miraculously become more than the comic relief but in performances by Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan that, like Astin’s, Wood’s and Mortensen’s, are all award worthy, become fully realized characters capable of the same depth of emotion as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) watching with mixed emotions the passing of the third age of Middle Earth, or as Eowyn (Miranda Otto) in her hopeless love for Aragorn, who continues to pine for his elf princess, Arwen (Liv Tyler).
Jackson’s visual vocabulary has its own magic. There are the dreamlike shifts of scene and time for telling the elf tale or Arawen and her father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving bringing some gentle nuance to the elf kings starchy demeanor). The Pre-Raphaelite tableaux and aetherial lighting that gives way to gritty battle and ugly dying that recalls a Dore engraving. And, as always, the focus is on the faces of each character so that even in the midst of an epic-sized tale, the scale remains, you’ll pardon the expression, very human. Even the One Ring and Sauron’s flaming disembodied eye are imbued with palpable personalities, personalizing the evil that they represent, rendering it even more insidious.
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING is fabulous in every sense. With its companion films in the trilogy, it’s in a category of it’s own that is so far above the usual cinematic entertainment in scope and execution, that any attempt at comparisons is an exercise in futility.