Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Miranda Otto, Orlando Bloom, Bernard Hill, David Wenham, John Noble, Karl Urban, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis

MPAA Rating:  (for epic battle sequences and scary images)

Running Time: 3:21

Release Date: 12/17/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

All stories must come to an end, and after three films over three years, The Lord of the Rings does as well. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King brings one word repeatedly to mind: overwhelming. Everything that has been building since we started off in the Shire in The Fellowship of the Ring comes to complete fruition. The characters we have seen overcome tremendous obstacles—both within themselves and within the fantastical realm in which they live—discover new strengths and weaknesses and complete their character arcs. The world we have seen open up before our eyes becomes fully fleshed out, and new and old pieces fit together to create a wondrous visual tapestry. The thematic threads are tied together and play out in full force. And we finally see the entirety of director Peter Jackson's awe-inspiring feat in bringing the work of J.R.R. Tolkien to full-blooded life. The Return of the King has a scope that rivals and ultimately surpasses the preceding chapter, but it is also intensely intimate in its focus on its characters. This is a grandly emotional experience in its spectacle, its humanity, and its mere existence as the conclusion to a story that has captured my imagination and heart from the beginning.

The last stage of the quest to destroy the One Ring and of the fight to stop the evil forces of the Dark Lord Sauron from taking control of Middle-Earth begins with Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis) slowly making their way along the hard road to Mordor and the ultimate destination of Mount Doom, where Frodo must destroy the Ring in the fire from which it was forged. Frodo, though, is slowly succumbing to the temptation of the Ring and to his pity for the treacherous Gollum, whose trap is about to be sprung. Meanwhile, after the victory at Helm's Deep, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) arrive at Isengard to reunite with their former companions Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and witness the results of the destructive work of the Ents. The discovery of a seeing stone corrupted by Sauron could have destructive consequences when Pippin is lured to it. The time for war is at hand, and Gandalf and Pippin ride out to Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. It is up to Aragorn to convince the men of Rohan to come to Gondor's aid when it is needed in the final battle between men and Sauron.

The story starts with the glimmer of hope that appeared at the end of the battle of Helm's Deep and starts us on a gradual decline again into despair—"the deep breath before the plunge." The focus shift from the journey of Frodo to the larger happenings of Middle-Earth is fully actualized in the fact that most of the plot revolves around the exploits of the rest of the original fellowship. Aragorn slowly accepts his destiny as the future king of men and comes face-to-face with it when Elrond (Hugo Weaving) reveals that the life of his daughter and Aragorn's love Arwen (Liv Tyler) is sealed in the fate of the Ring. King Theoden (Bernard Hill) must decide if the country of Rohan will unite with Gondor for the good of mankind, and Eowyn's (Miranda Otto) frustration with her people's subservient view of women comes to a head. Pippin and Merry both find the courage to join in the armies of Gondor and Rohan respectively, although they both are met with unfriendly and cynical responses. Even though the bulk of the story rests on the actions of these and other characters, Frodo and Sam's friendship reaches its lowest depths thanks to the villainous Gollum and its peak as true loyalty comes through; it's still treated as the heart of the tale.

For all of the film's humanistic elements, Jackson is able to achieve emotional impact with pure visual and visceral spectacle. As strong as the imagery in the past two installments has been, this film's may be the strongest. A sequence leading us through the city of Minas Tirith (which we caught a brief glimpse of in Fellowship) is amazing and helps give the audience an idea of where people are in the battle to come. The battle itself is spectacular in the way that Jackson lets all the fantastical elements of this world run wild. As the story has progressed, we've slowly become accustomed to these sights, so when, during the battle at Minas Tirith, there are trolls, oliphants, and fell beasts involved, we hardly bat an eye. One of the great successes of these films that's so apparent here is the way Jackson has managed to immerse us this deeply into this world. One new group of otherworldly characters makes an appearance here in the form of dead, dishonored soldiers, and at this point, we can only think, well, why not? There's also the always rousing sight of thousands of soldiers charging into certain doom after their leader has given a stirring, quasi-Shakespearean speech.

Jackson solidifies everything this series (or extended film) is this time around by bringing all of its themes together. There's the obvious theme of courage and unity as King Theoden abandons his selfishness and decides to fight on the side of Gondor, despite the fact that they did not aid at Helm's Deep. The friendship of the hobbits finds a distinct parallel that was only hinted at before in the relationships between Merry and Pippin and Frodo and Sam. The corruptible temptation of power continues with Frodo and Gollum's desire for the ring and also with Gondor's steward Denethor (John Noble), who goes mad at the prospect of losing his family's rule to a new, legitimate king. Fear and hope are at odds throughout; Gandalf sees hope, though, in even the most dire situation, as he tells the frightened Pippin of the journey that's to come after death. Jackson handles all of this like some great, epic hero poem, an approach that has been hinted at throughout the films but is set here and never more masterfully than during a sequence that has Faramir (David Wenham) charging towards certain death at his father Denethor's order while Pippin sings an elegiac song to the steward as he ruthlessly rips into a meal.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ends with an epilogue that goes on longer than might seem necessary, but it again shows how invested in these characters we are. And it brings a new idea to light: What is there left to do after all is said and done? The theme that, to me, has the most universal appeal, however, rests in Frodo's burden. It is his and his alone; everyone he has met can only help him along the way. We all have a Ring to carry, can only hope to have someone like Sam along the way, and desire that whatever we accomplish in the end has some impact for the rest of humanity—even in some small way. That's what makes The Lord of the Rings a story that I will doubtlessly return to many times before my journey is at an end and, more importantly, one that I can look forward to passing on to my children, and that is the greatest compliment I can think to give.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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