"Sauron moves to strike the city of Minas Tirith. His defeat at Helm's Deep showed our enemy one thing. The heir of Elendil has come forth. Men are not as weak as he supposed. There is courage still - strength enough left to challenge him.Released a year after The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King is the concluding installment to Peter Jackson's big budget multi-award winning adaptation of JRR Tolkien's epic masterpiece (1954-1955), which is the most successful film trilogy of all time, and the most spectacular, highly rated in this critic's view.
Sauron fears this. He will not risk the peoples of Middle-Earth uniting under one banner. He will raise Minas Tirith to the ground before he sees the return of the King."
The film opens with a prologue set the best part of six centuries before the main plotline. While fishing out on the River Anduin to celebrate hobbit Smeagol's (Andy Serkis) birthday, Deagol (Thomas Robins) discovers The One Ring, lost for over two and a half thousand years. Drawn to its power Smeagol kills Deagol and retreats into the Misty Mountains with it where gradually over time he is reduced to the creature Gollum, mangled, animal-like, and psychologically disturbed, with the entire process of the transformation narrated by Gollum as he tells of how he became what he is today and what he forgot about the life he once had.
There are a number of reasons, not just the fact it is so interesting to see Gollum's story, why this is such a powerful, heart-wrenching and engrossing opening to such an outstanding film, three of which I shall write about...
Firstly, the makeup! When watching the first two films one will wonder how a hobbit could become such a mangled and warped creature, especially when comparing Gollum to Frodo (Elijah Wood), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Sam (Sean Astin). However, the process is shown to be a very gradual one, with each shot showing the hair thinning more, the body becoming skinnier and bonier, the eyes bulging more, the teeth becoming sharper and fewer, and the use of his limbs becoming more warped and animal like, with his voice getting huskier and higher pitched at the same time. The makeup shows just how much The Ring's power transformed Gollum from a hobbit into what he and emphasizes just how much it ruined Gollum. The images of the makeup are also fairly disturbing to look at and are also very striking, so they are guaranteed to stick in your mind as you look upon them.
Secondly, the voiceover! The narration by Andy Serkis in his voice of Gollum which is both husky and high-pitched, and seriously spine-tingling, thanks to the voice being altogether creepy in the first place. Aside from that it also makes it clear how much there has been suffering for Gollum from his point of view and provides some significant character development as you watch the torture The Ring unleashes upon him unfold before your eyes. Third and finally is Serkis's performance. Serkis makes Smeagol icily cold and gripping in the murder of Deagol to a gut-wrenching level. The pain and writhing in the emotions Serkis expresses and the physical movement are truly well-created and feel so realistic that you will be unable to tear your eyes away, with the display in front of you making you sympathize so much for the character's predicament and, in some people's views, weakness, and, will effect the way you view the character in the rest of the film.
Now for the main strand of the film's narrative, which picks up almost exactly where The Two Towers left off. The film sees three parralel narratives, which go something along these lines to carry the film from start to end...
The first narrative follows Frodo and Sam being lead ever closer to Mount Doom by Gollum. Little do they know that Gollum is plotting to kill Frodo and reclaim The Ring, but not before turning Frodo against Sam. Things are also further complicated by the fact that The Ring's power is taking ahold of Frodo, and he is getting ever more loving of it.
The second and main narrative starts with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Theoden (Bernard Hill), Eomer (Karl Urban) and Gamling (Bruce Hopkins) taking Merry and Pippin from Isengard to a 100% safe place in Edoras, with Pippin finding Saruman's (Christopher Lee) Palantir in the water at the base of Orthanc after Saruman is killed by Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) and falls from the top of the tower, and Gandalf taking it for safe-keeping. During the night, however, Pippin looks into it again and sees a glimpse of Sauron's (Sala Baker) plan to destroy Gondor, with the enemy assuming that Pippin has The Ring. From here this narrative splits into three parralel narratives...
Gandalf takes Pippin to Minas Tirith to keep the young hobbit safe, and to persuade Lord Denethor (John Noble) to prepare the city's soldiers for battle. After the 600,000 plus orcs and trolls take Osgiliath and kill all of Faramir's (David Wenham) men, Gandalf leads Minas Tirith's soldiers in the defence of the city as it is attacked left, right and centre by the hoards of orcs and trolls, as far as the eye can see on the Pelennor Fields, lead by Gothmog (Lawrence Makoure, with the voice of Craig Parker), and by the nine Ringwraith-ridden Nazgul, lead by the Witch-King of Angmar (Makoure, with the voice of Andy Serkis). Meanwhile, Theoden and Eomer lead over 6000 riders to Minas Tirith in a battle to the death against all the orcs and trolls, and a large group of Mumakil, ridden by hundreds of Haradrim. While all this goes on Aragorn, having been given the sword of Elendil (Peter McKenzie in the first film) by Elrond (Hugo Weaving) - who convinces Aragorn to follow his destiny, leads Legolas and Gimli into the Paths of the Dead to convince the ghosts of soldiers Isildur cursed over 3000 years ago to fight for him and bring them victory on the Pelennor Fields.
The third narrative sees Arwen (Liv Tyler) choose a mortal life with Aragorn, and convince Elrond to reforge the sword of Elendil and give it to Aragorn so he may lead the peoples of Middle-Earth to victory and reclaim the throne of Gondor (see the end of second narrative). However, Arwen's fate becomes bound to The Ring, and unless it is destroyed she will die.
I am aware that I emphasized this in my reviews of the first two films, but it has to be said that yet again Peter Jackson proved that filming the entire film in his native New Zealand was a truly outstanding creative decision. In The Return of the King Jackson makes great use of everything, from forests and lakes, to cliffs and snow-topped mountains, creating a stunning Middle-Earth to perfection. Although I am aware that many will disagree with this, I feel that the most beautiful use of New Zealand was in the lighting of the beacons scene, where Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and his team (from a helicopter) take a series shots from the peaks of a range of snow-capped mountains. These fine shots are so beautifully eye-catching and breathtaking to look at, and will truly make you long to travel to New Zealand.
Like its predecessors, it will come as no surprise to those of you who have seen The Return of the King that it won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, by, quite frankly, topping the special effects of both The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Two Towers. Even a person who openly hates the fantasy genre with passion will be unable to deny just how fantastic the effects are and will find it impossible to take their eyes off the beautiful effects before them. Where the special effects are concerned, the all-time highlights include the siege of Minas Tirith, which leads to the Battle of Pelennor Fields; Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli's confrontation with the King of the Dead (Paul Norell); Sam's battle with giant arachnid Shelob; and, most of all, the film's climactic destruction of The Ring, which, upon The Ring going down into the lava of Mount Doom causes the eye of Sauron to implode, causing Mordor to collapse in on itself, and Mount Doom to erupt, destroying the three surviving Nazgul and the Ringwraiths that ride them with balls of fire and molten rock, and great rivers of lava to flow down the sides of the volcano. Each and every one of these outstanding visuals is created with so much great care and attention to detail, making them memorably stunning, impacting and vivid that you will be unable to take your eyes off them as they wow you, and bring you to the edge of your seat. Shelob is a masterpiece of CGI, and just feels so realistic and intimidating through the sheer size and ferocity that the effects department created through said CGI, that she will be impossible to forget and an absolutely incredible character to watch on screen, so full marks to the effects department for her truly successful and outstanding creation.
However, just like in The Two Towers, it is Gollum who once again captures our hearts and attention more than any special effects. Based on Andy Serkis's cat and lizard based motion capture performance, what is truly incredible is the fact that Gollum is seriously disfigured and animal-like thanks to the CGI, yet is still feels really realistic and is 100% believable as a character, making it impossible for your attention to be distracted from this completely and utterly eye-catching and gripping character, and is a true masterpiece in CGI creation.
Like its predecessors, the film doesn't rely on the jaw-droppingly eye-catching visuals to carry the film, but rather uses its characters to carry the film from start to finish. The human characters of Aragorn, Theoden and Eomer are all such strong-willed and determined leaders and are fantastic in the battle sequences, while Eowyn (Miranda Otto) follows her heart by disguising herself as a man in order to battle, Faramir shows just how determined he is to protect Gondor by leading his men on a suicide mission, and Denethor truly shows just how much the loss of a child can affect a parent, as his grief over the death of Boromir (Sean Bean) causes him to give up, and his despair over Faramir's apparent death (which - if Faramir were dead - would mean the loss of both his children) drives him to suicide.
As for the characters that aren't humans, but are instead various elves, wizards, hobbits and dwarves, like with the fist two films, they are all rather, well, human. Merry and Pippin conquer all of their fears and anxieties shown in The Fellowship of the Ring, and charge into battle against the forces of Mordor, slaying many foes, and showing just how much they have truly grown up since they left the Shire. Frodo struggles on his quest and eventually comes to terms with the fact that he isn't strong enough to complete his quest alone, while Sam proves to be a great source of comfort to his best friend, and shows just how courageous he has become over the course of the trilogy, as the toughness of their quest hits them hard in the chest on the slopes of Mount Doom. Even, Gollum, can be seen as human, certainly in the first half of the film, as he has his usual moments of creepy schizophrenia, and starts to doubt whether he has the strength and courage to kill Frodo. Even more surprisingly, is the fact that over the course of the film Gandalf starts to become more and more human, and his great power and skill in battle slowly dwindles. Although he is an unstoppable battler and a truly courageous leader in the siege on Minas Tirith, after his staff is destroyed by the Witch-King, it becomes clear that he is struggling to battle as hard and courageously as before and that he is becoming weaker and even more frail, yet he still maintains a great status of power and strength.
In spite of all the above mentioned elements of the film, it is the relationships, the bonds and the decisions that the characters make that make the film as powerful as it is. Friendship, love and self-sacrifice are truly prominent, as is an ever growing, powerful sense of mortality, with the final scenes of the film showing that no matter how noble a victory can be it can still come at a great cost, as Frodo decides he must leave Middle-Earth and make a fresh start, due to the physical and psychological scarring his journey caused. Tolkien fought in the trenches during World War I, and it is easy to draw parralels between his personal experiences, and the ultimate melancholy tone that surrounds the trilogy's conclusion. For many the heart of the film lies in the moments following The Ring's destruction, as Frodo and Sam lie on a large hunk of tall rock, the lava flowing all around them, and sadly reflect on the fact (they think) they will never see the Shire again, and Frodo say "Glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things". It is a heartbreaking moment, particularly if A) you've never seen the film before, and B) you've never read the books before; due to the fact that these are characters that you have come to love and after going through three films with them you feel such a close bond with them; but it is so touching to see that their journey has made Frodo and Sam as close as possible and that Frodo can't think of anyone he would rather have beside him when he dies; and it is moments such as these that elevate not only the film, but the entire trilogy, from blockbuster to genuine masterpiece.
In short (the irony considering this is the longest review I have ever written) The Return of the King is a truly well-written, beautifully and intricately created masterpiece of a film, that is deep, dark and emotional. A stunning conclusion to this epic trilogy, which truly earned those eleven Oscars, and is undeservedly only the third highest grossing film of all time, behind Avatar (2009) and Titanic (1997) - The Return of the King deserves the top spot.
2003 (Original Edition), 2004 (Extended Edition).
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Billy Boyd, Andy Serkis, Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, Karl Urban, David Wenham, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Lawrence Makoure, Craig Parker, John Noble, Bruce Hopkins, Paul Norell, Sala Baker, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Thomas Robins.
Christopher Lee, Bruce Spence, Brad Dourif (Extended Edition only).
Oscars: Best Picture (Peter Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne, Fran Walsh), Best Director (Peter Jackson), Best Adapted Screenplay (Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens), Best Editing (Jamie Selkirk), Best Visual Effects (Jim Rygiel, Joe Letteri, Randall William Cook, Alex Funke), Best Sound Mixing (Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges, Hammond Peek), Best Costume Design (Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor), Best Art Direction (Grant Major, Dan Hennah, Alan Lee), Best Makeup (Richard Taylor, Peter King), Best Original Score (Howard Shore), Best Original Song (Into the West - Howard Shore, Annie Lennox, Fran Walsh).