A revolutionary film.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was the third and final film in The Lord of the Rings saga based on the books by J.R.R. Tolkein and directed by Peter Jackson. Return of the King was the most successful installment of the trilogy both commercially and critically earning $1.12 billion worldwide and winning 11 Oscars. The $1.12 billion made it only the second film to ever make over $1 billion and became the second highest grossing film of all time at the time behind only Titanic.
It is very difficult to talk about one of The Lord of the Rings films without talking about the rest but I will try and keep this review focused only on The Return of the King. The Return of the King was intended to be a grand finale for the series and it shows with the 3 hour and 20 minute run time of this film as well as the massive scale. Each of the films were massive in scale, the Moria scene from Fellowship and the iconic Helm’s Deep battle from Two Towers perfectly illustrating how big, but The Return of the King just feels like it is on another level entirely.
The casting for this film, like all the others, is nothing short of spectacular. The only big addition to the cast was John Noble as Denethor, and while he may be one of the most annoying and downright evil characters in this film, that’s what makes him one of the best. With Sauron not really being a tangible villain and more of a threat to the heroes, Tolkein created characters for the readers to hate and direct their anger towards. Every great story needs a villain and Denethor, along with the orc lieutenant Gothmog, are the tangible villains this film needs and really adds so much to the film. There is only so much a viewer can feel about the mysterious and evil eye who commands a dangerous army so these villains act as a temporary protagonist and Jackson adapted them beautifully. The rest of the cast continues to be brilliant with Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Sean Astin as Sam being two of the better performances in this film.
As the final film in the trilogy, The Return of the King was tasked with tying up loose ends and completing character arcs and this film does it beautifully. Théoden, played by the underrated Bernard Hill, is arguably one of the best characters in this film. His quest for redemption after falling under the spell of Saruman is clear and the way he seeks to right his wrongs, some he is not really responsible for, is brilliant. The effect of Helm’s Deep is clear on him and the speech before the Ride of the Rohirrim is the stuff of legends. Faramir, while having the simple arc of seeking his father’s approval, is one that tugs on the heart strings of the viewers and is done very well. Eowyn’s arc is completed nearly perfectly as she finally gets her moment to shine, killing the Witch King, and it doesn't come off as forced or out of nowhere. What really makes these characters and the story is the chemistry between the actors. The connections these characters have are believable because the actors have such incredible chemistry, specifically the big three of Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas along with the hobbits. Additionally, no scene in this movie feels wasted at all. The character of Smeagol, has the first scene in the film which acts as an origin story and adds so much to an already great character. Every moment feels important and adds to the story or to the characters in some way, even the competition between Gimli and Legolas does much in showcasing their abilities as well as building their relationship.
The music of this film, as with the rest of the trilogy, is once again amazing. Howard Shore does a spectacular job with the main theme, especially the Rohan and Gondor themes, as well as the music in between shots such as when the orcs finally break into Minas Tirith and the music shifts dramatically. From the Shire theme to the march of the Rohirrim to every time the orcs march, Shore provides the perfect music and adds so much emotion to the film. Shore won an Oscar for the score and even took home another for best original song, “Into the West,” which he wrote alongside Fran Walsh. Music can be the difference between a good film and a great film and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack is what sets these films apart from the rest.
Anyone who talks about The Return of the King is almost required to discuss the groundbreaking visual effects. Again, with a film that came out almost 17 years ago, some of the effects are going to look very dated and will not hold up today, specifically the scene where Legolas takes down an elephant, but for the time, the work was groundbreaking. The sheer scale and amount of CGI used in this film is part of what makes it so incredible, because the film had a relatively modest budget of $94 million compared to the near $200 million of Titanic. The combination of CGI with practical effects, as well as miniatures, is brilliant and saved the film money while also adding a sense of realism. I cannot talk about the visual effects without mentioning Smeagol and the man behind it all, Andy Serkis. Videos of Serkis in a motion capture shoot running around with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are some of the funniest videos you can watch but beyond that, it really speaks to the man's dedication. His commitment to the role was so crucial because it gave actors something physical to interact with, which makes every scene featuring Smeagol that much better, especially considering Peter Jackson planned to use nothing and merely CGI the character in. Serkis is one of the father’s of motion capture technology and has done so much for the industry and he really began to receive attention for his work with his role in The Return of the King. From the voice to the facial expressions, Serkis’s performance is nothing short of brilliant and one of the highlights of this film.
The only real problems I have with this film are the ending and the “invincibility” of some of the characters. Towards the end of this movie, quite frankly I was exhausted. This is natural because the film is almost 3 and a half hours long and is either building tension at a breakneck pace or having these massive battles that are simply exhilarating. While this is not a problem earlier it does become one when the film wraps up. The ending drags on a bit with Jackson looking to tie up nearly every character arc, and not in some simple montage way. After all of the heightened tension and incredible pace the film slows down significantly in the last 20 minutes. Another problem is the fact that some of the characters don’t necessarily feel like they’re in danger, especially the big three of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. Many critics point to Aragorn’s fight against an orc in the first movie, when he “saves” Boromir and proceeds to have a very difficult fight that takes all of his skill and strength. By the end of The Return of the King, he charges into legions of orcs and comes out almost completely unscathed. This just takes away a lot of the tension in these scenes because there is little fear that anything with happen to them and also makes the orcs look incompetent.
Overall, this is a great film, deserving of its 11 Oscars and is one of the best I have ever seen. While it does have some flaws, those are more nitpicks than anything that truly brings down this film. This film is one for the history books and its impact on the industry cannot be overstated.
Favorite Quote: “Come on Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you. But I can carry you!”-Samwise Gamgee (I mean come on, one of the best moments in the whole series)
+Groundbreaking Visual Effects
+Great cast and completed character arcs
-Ending drags a bit
Final Score: A+
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
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