Peter Jackson returns with his third and final installment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy with the explosive - and exhausting - conclusion to his acclaimed series. Let's cut to the chase: Jackson's final entry is the best of the series, largely thanks to his pushing the boundaries of digital effects to their very limits.
Picking up after a flashback to Sméagol/Gollum's discovery of the ring many years earlier, the film then takes us back to the twin stories from Fellowship andThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and company are basking in the glory of victory at Helm's Deep and Isengard, while Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum trek toward Mount Doom to destroy the ring.
Sauron's armies are mounting, and with the aid of various mercenaries, he is planning a massive attack on Gondor's mountainside city, Minas Tirith, to destroy the rule of man for good. It's up to Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) to unite the feuding realms of Gondor and Rohan, not to mention recruit a few otherworldly beings to aid in the fight against evil and, well, return as the king. This culminates in undoubtedly the most impressive series of epic battles ever put to film.
Eventually the focus turns to Frodo's quest, the highlight of which is his tangle with Shelob, the giant spider originally found in the book of The Two Towers. It's easy to see why Jackson moved it to this film: It's arguably the highlight of all three movies, a digital creature that looks every bit as real as Gollum (who, by the way, looks even better after another year of special effects improvements).
And finally - finally! - after two years of waiting, we're treated to the sight of Frodo standing on the edge of Mount Doom's fiery volcano, facing his demons for the last time. I won't spoil the ending for those unfamiliar with the story, but it stands as one of the best archetypal moments in fantasy literature and translates perfectly on the big screen.
I'm compressing this story down a lot because if I went into any more detail it would take you an hour to read it. Proving he has no grasp of editing whatsoever, The Return of the King clocks in at an obscene three and a half hours, padded ridiculously at its beginning and end. It's nearly 90 minutes before anything of substance happens in Return. Most of that time is spent rehashing events from the first two films. Treebeard gives speeches, Gollum talks to himself, Sam fights with Gollum, Faramir's dad hates his son, Rohan hates Gondor, and Arwen (Liv Tyler) appears yet again in flashbacks. We get it, Mr. Jackson, and it doesn't take endless repetitions of these scenes to make us remember a movie that just came out on DVD a few weeks ago. Anyone watching Return back to back after Towers will find a ready-made bathroom break placed at the beginning of the final film. (And on a side note, there's way too much hugging and crying at the end. For God's sake, roll the damn credits, Peter. Better entertainment than this can be found by watching the awkward scramble as the audience rushes to the restrooms after their legs have fallen asleep.)
If you can make it through the slow parts, Return of the King rewards the patient with the most heart-pounding action of the year. Is that a digital army of 20,000 orcs approaching a digital city? Or is it all real? Unlike the earlier two films, the effects here are seamless and jaw-dropping. Even the Nazgul (dragons) and giant elephants look as real as your imagination can conjure. The awkward, jerky movements of the CGI past are gone completely.
Unfortunately Jackson's attention to detail doesn't extend to the rest of the movie: Watch for an early panoramic shot of Rohan, as the smoke bellows into the chimneys, since he opted to play the scene backwards. It's a sloppy distraction from the fantasy.
For the record, Jackson seems to have taken more liberties with this final chapter of the story than in the other two movies combined, for better or worse. The timing of numerous events has been changed radically, the Denethor/funeral pyre incident has been severely altered, the (silly) deus ex machina of the eagles saving the final battle has been muted, and the final few chapters of the book have been excised nearly completely: In the books, the Shire is overrun by an escaped Saruman and subsequently "scoured," in the movie, Saruman doesn't even make an appearance. Purists will be even less thrilled with the surgery here than with that done toThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
On the whole, Return of the King is a smashing success. It looks great, but it's also the only film in the series to generate a real emotion from the audience and tell us something about how Jackson looks at life and how J.R.R. Tolkien might have as well. In the end, it stands best as a very good fantasy movie: Putting aside the droning first act, it's the most successful film of the series and an impressive final act. Peter Jackson has easily saved the best for last... I just wish he hadn't saved so freaking much of it.
As usual, the first round of DVD releases for Return of the King offers but a handful of extras, namely three making-of specials and a handful of featurettes made for lordoftherings.net.
Extended Edition Update: The final director's cut of ROTK pushes nearly four hours on DVD, and frankly it feels a bit like overkill. New scenes like Saruman's final moments and extended ones like the army of the dead (which joins the battle at a different time in this version) don't really add much to an already immersive experience. Hard core fans will want to judge for themselves, but frankly I'll take the film as it won the Best Picture last year. Extras will consume a full week of vacation if you sit through all of them: four commentary tracks and two discs of documentaries and behind the scenes footage. God help us.
*Limited Edition Update* Another year, another version of LOTR on DVD, right? This one puts both the theatrical and extended versions of the films on one two-sided DVD, plus adds a second disc with the special features and extras. Super-fans will want to check out the additional extras (and the handsome packaging, which features a see-through case), but casual viewers will probably be happy with the previous extended edition of the films.
Frodo faces rock, wins.