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Published December 25th, 2003 | by Ed Colley

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

OK. First, the good news. You can believe the hype: The Return Of The King is a great film. There’s no crushing disappointment a la The Matrix: Revolutions in the final part of this trilogy. In turns incredibly imaginative, hugely exciting and slyly amusing, Peter Jackson’s third and final Lord of the Rings film is a splendid creation, and a worthy addition to the director’s oeuvre.

As in The Two Towers, The Return of the King has a dual narrative, with both strands picking up where they left off. The first follows Frodo, Sam and Gollum (who by now must be recognised as the trilogy’s crowning glory) as they edge closer and closer to the Crack of Doom in the land of Mordor. As the whole point of Frodo’s mission is to not get caught before he has the chance to destroy the Ring, this particular narrative is understandably not as rousing as the one occupied by Aragorn, Legolas et al. Additionally, there is a danger of getting a little tired of the limits of the pained expression permanently etched on Elijah Wood’s over-sized face. However, any grumbles are conquered by some moments of much needed comic relief (Gollum constantly referring to Sam as the ‘fat Hobbit’ is particularly amusing), Sean Astin’s cracking performance (dodgy West Country accent and all), and the fantastically-realised scenes containing the monstrous spider Shelob (arachnophobes beware).

It is with the second strand of the narrative, however, that The Return of the King really comes into its own. Which is not surprising really, given that it mainly comprises of the mother of all battles. Having defeated the army of Saruman, Gandalf and the gang go to Orthanc and hook up with Merry and Pippin who are sitting about happily pissed now that the bad old wizard is locked in his tower (as an aside, it has been well-documented thanks to GMTV that Christopher Lee aka Saruman was so darned miffed about his scenes being cut from the final edit of ROTK, that he didn’t turn up to the London premiere. But he’s also claimed previously that if LOTR didn’t win an Academy Award in 2004, he would resign from said Academy. Which should make the Oscars a pretty interesting night). After a bit of bother with a pesky Palantir, Gandalf and Pippin hot-foot it to the city of Minis Tirith in the Land of Gondor to help defend the city from Sauron’s hordes, whilst Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli go looking for an army of the undead to help defeat the dark Lord, allowing Aragorn to come to terms with his kingly destiny in the process.

Then comes one of the biggest, baddest and most bloody enjoyable battles Middle Earth has ever seen. Whether it’s point-of-view shots of massive chunks of rock being catapulted by each side onto the opposing enemy, the cavalry of Rohan bearing down on a huge army of Orcs as if the Devil himself were at their tails, or the gay and lithe Legolas single-handedly taking down one of Sam’s rather frightening ‘oliphaunts’, the battle for Minis Tirith is simply breath-taking:. And those critics who have claimed LOTR is a boys-own adventure that means nothing to the fairer sex will be eating plenty of humble pie with lashings of cream, for thanks to Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Peter Jackson is able to give all female film fans a great, ballsy line to quote every time they’re feeling feisty.

So, that’s the good news: superb acting, exhilarating fight scenes, snippets of comedy to relieve tension, some cracking lines, and enough brothers-and-sisters-in-arms moments to stir the most pacifistic of hearts, all marshalled by the director of the moment, a man who has never let his humanity be suffocated by an over-reliance on digital imagery or bombastic self-importance (take note Wachowskis).

And the bad news? Well, the bad news (if it can be referred to as such) is two-fold – they’re both anti-climaxes and they’re both inevitable. The first anti-climax is that ROTK only levels out rather than rises. It’s a great film for sure, but it only matches what has gone before, rather than besting it. Now that we have arrived at the third film, the chance for initiative has more or less been lost. Although rousing, it’s not quite as exciting now when Aragorn charges into battle as it used to be. When Gollum has a conversation with his reflection, it still looks damn cool, but just doesn’t have the same frisson that Andy Serkis was able to create first time round. As such, Jackson has relied on making ROTK even bigger and more dramatic than its predecessors. In doing you can’t help but think that maybe he occasionally sacrifices the opportunity of creating the personal and truly memorable moments that has made the other films so magnificent.
But these comments are really just niggles. In truth, Peter Jackson is like a World Champion weight-lifter who has set himself the challenge of lifting a weight far greater than anyone has ever attempted. In The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, Jackson managed to lift the bar off the ground and get it to his chest with glorious panache. But the tricky bit in weight-lifting is to keep the bar high in the air. It’s therefore no surprise that in Return of the King, Peter Jackson, weight-lifter extraordinaire, shows just the faintest sign of wobbling. What’s more surprising is that given the challenge, Jackson didn’t drop the bar altogether.

As for the second piece of bad news, this is quite simply that: it’s all over. Unlike Star Wars, there is no original creator who we can look to, in the hope that they will come up with more and more episodes of a well-loved tale. J.R.R.Tolkien is dead, and with him the Fellowship died too. Peter Jackson should be praised for bringing us his three films, but he can’t be expected to produce any more. The Lord of The Rings trilogy has ended, and it will be a very long time before a film is looked forward to with the same level of intense excitement, and with the knowledge that this excitement will not go unrewarded. And that should make us all just a little bit sad.

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