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King Maker

 

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Peter Jackson, New Zealand, 2003

Rating: 5.0

 

 

Posted: December 20, 2003

By Laurence Station

It's all been building to this. Needless to say, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- once thought to be a huge gamble by the powers that be at New Line -- has turned into a phenomenon. Fortunately, Jackson didn't have a chance to fall victim to the shower of praise that followed The Fellowship of The Ring's debut two years ago, and thus lose focus as the series continued; the New Zealand filmmaker captured the bulk of principal photography before the world ever laid eyes on the first installment. Thus, aside from fine-tuning special effects and capturing pick-up shots, his work was done. The result was a ten-plus hour epic film, chopped into three parts. Even before Return of the King arrived, Jackson's masterwork stood as nothing less than one of the great cinematic triumphs, a combination of technical mastery (courtesy of the wizards at Weta Digital) and, critically, flesh-and-blood characterizations (enormous credit due to co-screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Jackson's companion Fran Walsh). The Lord of the Rings is a testament to what can be achieved when a director refuses to dumb down the storyline or attempt to cover up shortcomings in character development by overloading on the "wow" effects.

Return of the King, obviously, picks up where the second installment, The Two Towers, ended. Two hobbits -- the ring-bearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his faithful companion Samwise (Sean Astin) -- are being led deep into Mordor by Gollum (a groundbreaking, fantastically lifelike computer-generated creature voiced and given physical expression by Andy Serkis -- who we get to see in person during an opening flashback as the uncorrupted Sméagol) in hopes of destroying the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Meanwhile, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), would-be king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies, still saddled with a comic relief role) and the woodland elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) retrieve the Fellowship's other two hobbits -- Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) -- from the defeated Saruman's tower and head for Gondor, where the final War of the Ring will be fought.

The disembodied Sauron (represented by a great, lidless, fiery eye), who looks to destroy the world of men and reclaim his lost One Ring, has marshaled an enormous force. At Sauron's disposal are orcs (who feel the next Age belongs to them), men from the East, and mercenaries, along with a menagerie of horrid beasts (from giant elephant-like creatures called Oliphaunts to the shrieking, dragon-like winged steeds ridden by the powerful Nazgûl) to do his bidding.

The men opposing this enormous force are leaderless and divided --which is where Aragorn and the title of the film come in. Having spent his life avoiding his destiny, living amongst the elves and going by the name Strider while plying his trade as a ranger in the North, Aragorn finally takes up his kingly mantle at the most critical hour, when the outnumbered armies of men need him most. Here, Viggo Mortensen does an excellent job, embodying the character as a man of action rather than one only capable of fiery speeches (though he does deliver a fine one near the end). He's a leader in the truest sense: the first to charge an opposing enemy line; faithful to his compatriots; driven by a sense of duty to what is good and right rather than royal bloodlines or a presumed sense of entitlement. If Sauron's forces are to be defeated, Aragorn will be the one dealing the fatal stroke.

The siege of Gondor's capitol, Minas Tirith, by Sauron's forces and subsequent Battle of the Pelennor Fields are truly spectacular, some of the most stirring large-scale action sequences ever captured on film. Of course, that's to be expected. This is the climactic part of the saga, and it should be enormous and thrilling and costly. It is all that and more. But what stands out most are the little touches throughout: King Théoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) racing down the line of his men on horseback, steeling them for the coming charge by clacking his sword against their extended spears; Gandalf comforting Pippin with a pastoral observation on the afterlife as enemy forces bear down on their position; Sam lifting a nearly defeated Frodo and carrying him on his back toward the entrance of the volcanic Mount Doom.

Jackson and his team could have simply been satisfied with the marvelous computer-generated effects and boldly heroic lead performances, but it's modest gestures, such as these innately human moments, that make the film so special -- an attention to the simple or selfless act that elevates the work above mere entertainment and into the realm of real art.

The film's ending does drag on quite a bit, as the various characters say their farewells and carry on with their lives. But though some might find the seemingly never ending endings tedious, to have taken such a long expedition (figuratively and literally) with these heroes, it would be a disservice to not show them reaping the reward of their arduous labors or coming to terms with how such involvement has irrevocably changed them.

Return of the King is what the third act of any epic tale should be: an emotionally satisfying experience for those who've taken the journey, a tale that resolves itself spectacularly without cheapening the cost of victory by making it too easy for the principals involved. Mission emphatically accomplished on all fronts.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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