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|Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The
by Scott Weinberg
What Peter Jackson and his crew of filmmakers have accomplished with Chapters 1 and 2 of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is simply unprecedented. Combine the fiscal bravery of New Line Cinema with the unwavering commitment to Tolkien that Jackson and Co. clearly possess, and you were probably looking at a pretty solid series of films. But did ANYone out there expect anything like this? The plain truth is this: The "Lord of the Rings" Trilogy is quite simply one of the most staggeringly impressive achievements in the long history of film...and they've saved the best movie for last.From four distinct sources has this wondrous trilogy been born:
"I've simply run out of adjectives."
1. A movie studio willing to bankroll a stunningly dicey (and amazingly massive) project. Sure, with hindsight it might look like a no-brainer, but what if Fellowship had turned out popular with Tolkien fans, 15-year-olds and no one else? It would have grossed about $85 million and a lot of folks over at New Line Cinema would have been sprucing up their resumés right quick. New Line originally plopped 300 million smackers down to produce the trilogy, and that's not including reshoots, marketing, and all the other stuff we never really hear about.
2. A filmmaker so single-mindedly passionate about a book that he'd be willing to devote the better part of a decade to get his movie version done the right way...right down to the smallest tuft of pipe-weed. A guy driven by his passion for the source material and not just a simple payday. From locations to casting to screenplay (to say nothing of the myriad tough decisions and controversies) to effects work and on and on... That one director (and one not exactly known for massive epics) could rein all this together is staggering. That his films have turned out this blissfully entertaining is cause for the highest praise a filmmaker can receive.
3. Special effects outlet extraordinaire 'Weta' and all the FX artists who've come before, consistently nudging the technologies along with baby steps. We've reached an FX renaissance over the past several years, what with CGI proving to be every lazy filmmaker's favorite onscreen distraction. But such is obviously not the case here. You could have the world's most brilliant director, 500 million bucks, and the coolest adventure story of all time...but without the technology to actually CREATE an entirely new world, and to do it in a thrillingly convincing fashion, you simply don't have a movie. Let alone three. As a whole, Weta's work here is the new benchmark in special effects, a revolutionary achievement that other filmmakers won't even try to top. For a little while, anyway.
4. The man we can thank for all of it: Professor J.R.R. Tolkien. Some might say that a life spent studying languages would seem fairly dull, but seeing what Tolkien's imagination had to offer refutes that theory in short order. It's not often that the true classics are written in the Modern Era ("classics" generally need more than a few decades to ripen) and it's for this reason that Tolkien has taken on an almost mythical stature in his own right. The author's defining achievement, The Lord of the Rings, is quite simply one of the finest stories ever told. And from them came one of the finest movie experiences ever conceived.
Prior to the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring, did anybody really expect that we'd be soon comparing this trilogy to those of Lucas and Coppola? (Those would be Star Wars and The Godfather, for those not paying attention...) That each film would be laden with basically everything a film needs to be loved and admired and cherished for the next hundred years? That we'd finally met a filmmaker perfectly suited to bring Tolkien's globally-adored book to the screen in such majestic and stunning fashion?
Frankly, no. We didn't. Most of us were probably quite excited for the movies, and we really hoped that they'd be worthy of the name Tolkien, to say nothing of our own nine bucks.
We expected a solid double off the wall. We would have been satisfied with a bases-clearing triple.
What we got (to complete the painful baseball analogy) was this: Three trips to the plate resulting in three home runs, the third of which comes at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and the World Series of Fantasy Cinema on the line.
Despite Tolkien's work being labeled as "unfilmable"; despite the fact that the Fantasy Genre is generally considered fanboy-centric and a black hole for production costs; despite a stunningly arduous 4-year production and the constant nitpicks from the Tolkien faithful....
The Lord of the Rings is indeed one of the finest achievements in this history of cinema. And that may be putting it mildly.
Lest you attribute these enthusiastic ravings to someone knee-deep in Tolkien Love and relatively unable to keep a certain objectivity, let me clarify: I'm certainly no sort of expert on Middle-Earth. The only reason I finally picked up the books and read them was because I was so wholly blown away by Jackson's brilliant first film, and the excitement spilled over into my stack of reading materials. My passion lies within the world of movies. And when I finally got to see the first installment of Jackson's adaptation...I was hooked. I knew I was in the middle of something unique and historical. And all I could do was sit back, enjoy the ride, and feel nothing but admiration and gratitude for Mr. Jackson and his army of filmmakers.
So clearly I'm a fan. Who isn't?
But fan or not, there's simply no denying that The Return of the King is a history-making film for several reasons. It's easily the finest "Part 3" to ever complete a trilogy; it's one of the most emotionally powerful and thrilling war movies ever produced; it's a sweet-natured juggernaut that reminds us about loyalty and friendship and love; and it's nothing less than a powerful new statement regarding the blissful magic of movies.
Like I said last December: These movies are just that grand.
What's most impressive about Jackson's trilogy (and The Return of the King in particular) is that several key elements of storytelling (characterization, drama, tension, sincere emotion) are what tower over the astonishing collections of production design and stellar visual effects. The Lord of the Rings, as a whole, shows that flash and glitz can work wonders in a movie...if they're used in the service of a worthwhile story. It's amazing how few filmmakers seem to understand this simple concept.
The plot reads like a delicious soap opera from another dimension: Sam, Frodo and Gollum are slowly trekking closer to the malevolent Mt. Doom, while Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf (now reunited with hobbits Merry and Pippin) return to Rohan for a small sort of 'calm before the storm' celebration. There's also the issue of Aragorn and Arwen's doomed love affair to contend with, the rugged Rohirrim (led by King Theoden) who need some convincing to join yet another massive battle, the Shakespearean melancholy between the admirable Faramir and his hateful father Denethor, and more fascinating little subplots to keep things moving along. (Part 3 also has undead soldiers!!)
It also has the single most amazing battle sequence yet committed to film. I hate to harp on the visuals of a film so steeped in honest emotion, but it's not every day you get to see 200,000 monsters sweeping across the plains as stadium-sized elephants trample everything in their path while a dozen distinctive heroes cling desperately to one final hope. Rare is the film that features a giant spider this horrifying, a mountainside castle this achingly beautiful, a musical score this inspiring, and four or five scenes guaranteed to jam a few lumps into your throat as you applaud from your seat.
Your eyes will dazzle at the majesty of Gandalf's arrival at Minas Tirith, your spirit will soar at a simple sequence involving fire beacons, your mind will barely be able to comprehend the scope of the action scenes, and your heart will ache at the touchingly bittersweet character moments strewn throughout this massive 3+ hour masterpiece.
Simply put, this is what we go to the movies for. Period.
But, really, who needs plot synopses? Seemingly everyone and their grandmother has been bitten by the Rings bug over the past few years, and it's a resoundingly well-deserved popularity. And let's face it: given the sheer excellence of the first two installments, what were the odds that our final portion would prove to be anything other than completely magical? (The third slice from a filet mignon often tastes exactly like the first one.)
If there are two performers who truly come into their own in this third chapter, it must be Sir Ian McKellen as the kind-hearted (yet amazingly butt-kicking) old wizard and Sean Astin as the ever-loyal and surprisingly brave little "sidekick" hobbit. Frankly there's not a single sour note to be found among the expansive cast, though McKellen and Astin really manage to shine. And Viggo Mortensen takes his final step towards stardom with his humanely commanding performance as the previously reluctant royalty who learns to assume his responsibilities...and then some. (Jackson must be thanking his lucky stars that Mortensen was able to step into the role a few years back...at the very last minute.)
Sure there are a few rough edges, editorially, if you're looking real closely. But given the overwhelming popularity of the Rings Extended Editions, one is willing to forgive a few dangling plot threads - secure in the knowledge that we'll get to see 'em by next November. The few subplots that feel shoe-horned and/or truncated do absolutely nothing to detract from the King's overall impact.
So I say Thank You to Peter Jackson and his Rings co-creators - from the producers and the screenwriters to the gaffers and the costume designers and everyone in between. Thank you for giving the passionate (albeit jaded) fans of 'fantastical filmmaking' a trilogy to enjoy and embrace. Thank you for never losing sight of the vaunted source material, for treating your audience like an intelligent group, for giving us an alternate universe so full and rich and believable that it nearly defies description.
Come next February you'll see the latest Oscars telecast, and the world of fanboys and movie loons will join together in joyous glee as they see their beloved trilogy earn the highest accolades under the cinematic sun:
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - Academy Award for Best Picture
And let the world of passionate Tolkien geeks and hardcore movie freaks rejoice. Not a dry dreary costume drama, not a glorified TV-movie-of-the-week, not a weepy yawnfest. A rousing adventure epic full of heart and soul and thrills and chills, a movie that showcases the finest sort of epic sensibilities ever caught on celluloid, a movie that people cheer at and cry over and discuss for hours and enjoy over the course of three consecutive years, a trilogy that's dazzled everyone from the haughtiest film critics to the widest-eyed young kids... That's the movie that will grab the Gold Ring come next February.
And more importantly, these three movies will hold up. 75 years from now, people will mention The Lord of the Rings in the same breath as The Godfather and The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a revolutionary trilogy of films, the sweetest treat imaginable for those who devour movies as if they were candy, and a true milestone in the history of movie-making.
Haven't sold you yet?
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is one of the finest things I've ever seen. And that includes stuff like sunrises and babies and the original, unaltered Star Wars.Enjoy.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=8404&reviewer=128
originally posted: 12/17/03 21:00:00