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Movie Review: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line Cinema, 2003

Pity the poor-bastard films that had to run up against the final epic in a multi-billion dollar franchise in 2003 for Best Picture.  The other four nominees, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, the feel-good summer hit Seabiscuit, and even Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, all seem frightfully puny in comparison.  In fact, no film had a chance in any category, as Return of the King went 11-for-11 at the Oscars, including Peter Jackson as Best Director.

Overall, The Lord of the Rings franchise garnered 30 nominations and won 17 times, including a clean sweep of the visual effects for three years, and joined The Godfather as the only series to have three Best Picture nominations.

In the third and final chapter of the series, hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are still being led by the sneaky Gollum (Andy Serkis voices) into Mordor to throw the seductive “one ring” into the fires of Mount Doom.  The evil, faceless Sauron has sent the kitchen sink to Minas Tirith to fight one last battle.

The man who would be king, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) leads elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) into a cave full of cursed undead who can have their curse lifted if they help the King of Gondor in their most desperate time of need.  Of course, they’ll need convincing that Aragorn is the true king.

Meanwhile, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has taken hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) to Minas Tirith because he looked at a glass orb once belonging to the fallen wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee, whose scenes were excised in the theatrical version) that communicates with Sauron himself.  This brings danger to the city of Rohan, led by Theoden (Bernard Hill) along with his son Eomer (Karl Urban) and daughter Eowyn (Miranda Otto).  Pippin’s friend Merry (Dominic Monaghan) stays behind, looking for a way to make his mark. 

Gandalf, in addition to taking Pippin out of the area, also hopes to be able to light the beacon at Minas Tirith so that all of Gondor will be ready to fight.  Currently, Minas Tirith is run by the steward Denethor (John Noble), who grieves over his dead son Boromir (Sean Bean), and has no love for his other son, the kind-hearted Faramir (David Wenham).

And thus, war happens on a grand scale, the hobbits run into a trap by Gollum into the lair of a giant spider named Shelob (in a bit from The Two Towers that didn’t show up in the previous film), and the film comes to its logical end…and another end…and another end.

Well, it is hard to say goodbye, as Return of the King illustrates.  Even as a fan, I thought the 40 minutes or so of endings was too much.  It was pretty laughable when this film took home the Best Editing Oscar, beating the superior City of God in this category.  City of God, which I still consider my favorite film of the decade, threw a bit of a monkey wrench into what I thought was the best film of 2003, since I considered it a 2002 entry, but Oscar didn’t.

But I forgave the indulgences, and ROTK was definitely my favorite film of 2003.  Looking at this film three years later, the epic storytelling achieved by Peter Jackson is astounding.  The part where Aragorn is crowned king and goes to the four hobbits, who feel they have to kneel, only to be told, “My friends, you bow to no one,” and having the entire court of Minas Tirith bow to them, always gets me.

The other thing that is awesome about this, and the entire series, is how many different kinds of allusions, parallels, and philosophical topics you can come up with concerning the events taking place in the story.  The easy one is the meaning of the one ring; it can be taken literally as a magical, seductive treasure, or it can be viewed as an addictive drug, or an attraction to power.

Writing about it as a Best Picture is woefully out of context, considering there are two previous chapters and this film doesn’t exactly stand alone, which provides interesting debate.  Does a film have to stand alone to be considered as a Best Picture?  Obviously, in the real world, it doesn’t.  But had this film come out without the two other movies, we would be wondering what the heck was going on.  It’s not a quibble on my part, but writing about this film, and only this film, is a bit strange.

Besides that philosophical musing, it’s a miraculous picture and a classic.  Peter Jackson showed true “Next Spielberg” chops during the trilogy, and it’s unbelievable that now, after billions of dollars, New Line doesn’t want him to direct The Hobbit.  There’s probably an interesting parallel between this squabble and the films themselves.  Here’s hoping an amends can be made.

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