Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The (2003)
Release Date: December 17th, 2003 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson Actors: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Marton Csokas, Bernard Hill, Ian Holm, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Karl Urban, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham
he familiar theme music introduces the luminous title for the final chapter in this distinguished high fantasy trilogy, leading into a pertinent flashback that chronicles the deterioration of Smeagol into the wretched creature Gollum. Its inclusion is reminiscent of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” in that it gives audiences a curious glimpse into the past of a revolutionary, central character. A few minutes later, the hobbit Pippin steals Saruman’s crystal ball by trading a round pitcher for the magical orb, undeniably reminiscent of the switching of a bag of sand for a golden idol in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
After the victorious human defense at the battle of Helm’s Deep, Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen), ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and human king Theoden (Bernard Hill) meet up with hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) and forest monster Treebeard to survey the successful siege of Isengard. It is in this fortress that the powerless enemy wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) remains trapped. From there, they all return to the capital of Edoras, where the humans celebrate their triumph. But when Pippin handles the mystical sphere he previously acquired, he learns of the dark lord Sauron’s plans to strike at another human outpost, Minas Tirith – to where Gandalf must now journey to warn the city.
When Gandalf arrives, he discovers that the power-hungry steward Denethor (John Noble) doesn’t wish to unite with Theoden and his former allies, due to Aragorn’s involvement in the coming war. Aragorn is the rightful heir to the throne, but his abandonment of a life of royalty and his ungoverned people of the North have garnered little respect from other human establishments that have maintained and recognized leadership, organization, and societal ranking. As orcs begin to infiltrate the outlying settlement neighboring the castle, Pippin covertly lights the beacons that signal for help from Rohan, where armies are amassed to ride for a preeminent war. Meanwhile, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), guided by Gollum (Andy Serkis), continue to trek through secret mountainside trails encircling Mordor, where they hope to penetrate the walls and finally destroy the ring that has been decimating Middle Earth.
More prevalent flashbacks and slow-motion (even during unaffecting moments) frequent this last film, further augmenting overdramatic scenes, all while commentary on the farfetched notion of the smallest, most insignificant denizen tasked with highly contrasting responsibility is pushed to the forefront (along with the equality of slender women on the battlefield). Apparently, heroism is most exhilarating when exuded by physically and dimensionally restricted underdogs. Camaraderie is strongest here, too. Paranoia and distrust fuel mistakes and betrayal (even behind enemy lines), while towering giants are unbelievably overcome by diminutive combatants. Arwen (Liv Tyler) is somehow tied to the fate of the humans, her life dwindling as Sauron’s power grows; the heroes would be hopelessly outnumbered if not for a spontaneously derived army of mountain-dwelling, undead mercenaries that have quite fortunately sworn allegiance to Aragorn; and a legend of the Witch-king (Lawrence Makoare), the leader of the Nazgul, is conveniently invented to specify his invincibility at the hands of man. And, of course, just the ascending of Mount Doom appears like an unaccomplishable task.
But the unrelentingly massive scope of this climactic chapter is once again awe-inspiring, entailing exceptional use of computer graphics, prosthetics and makeup, armory, costuming, and wondrously detailed sets. The trolls and the orc lieutenant (Joel Tobeck) are grandly monstrous; uncontrollable, juggernaut elephant mutants cause spectacular destruction; and the heavily foreshadowed behemoth Shelob turns out to be essentially just a giant tarantula (why a more creative derivation couldn’t have been conceived is troubling). Details are painstakingly realized in an incomparably gigantic, magnificently flashy showdown at Minas Tirith, where even Gandalf vigorously wields a sword. With so many characters, it’s not entirely surprising that the conclusion is stretched out into several, separate pieces (as if multiple endings strung together), as each persona seeks complete closure – though the repetitive fading to black to initiate one after another parting shot is agonizingly drawn out (in particular, Sam reuniting with his love interest is altogether immaterial). Nevertheless, it’s a fitting, satisfying finale for one of the most epic of all movie trilogies.
– Mike Massie