The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
I'm trying very hard to write about this film in a tone that does not suggest damning with faint praise, but I'm at a loss. Yes, the film was good, and yes, I was entertained (for the most part) throughout the three hour, twenty minute running time, but something was lacking, especially when compared to the best film of the LOTR
trilogy, The Two Towers
. In my eyes, despite refocusing on the Hobbits and concluding the trilogy's narrative (about four times by my count, but more on that later), The Return of the King
is basically a rehash of The Two Towers
Case in point. What really separates the Battle of Helm's Deep from the Siege of Minas Tirith? Not a whole of a hell lot, save the somewhat ridiculous subplot involving the insane Steward of Gondor, Denethor, grieving over the "death" of his son. Basically, you have a massive orc and troll army laying siege to a human-defended, citadel built into a mountain; then when things look lost for the defenders, the last minute appearance of reinforcements turns the tide of battle. The thing is, The Two Towers
only had to conclude with the story in a state of flux, whereas The Return of the King
had to conclude the entire story. This means that the Siege of Minas Tirith, along with the attack on the Black Gate, are relatively abbreviated; The Two Towers
had the luxury of building up to the Battle of Helm's Deep, as well as the Ents attack on Isengaard, allowing the filmmakers to not only eke more and more suspense, but also to fully develop the push and pull of the battle. In The Return of the King
, the action is certainly frenetic and exciting, but also lurches quickly. Suddenly, the orcs and trolls are nearing the top tier of Minas Tirith, though we see little of how they accomplish the feat (again, compare with the attack at Helm's Deep, where we see the human and elf defenders fight at each level, until the orcs and Uruk-Hai breach the defenses), and when the the Army of the Dead arrive, the battle is swiftly over, though we don't get to see much, just a swirling, luminescent, green light roaring across the battlefield, and then the battle is over (though the film does manage to spotlight Orlando Bloom's Legolas, much to the squealing delight of some tweener girls sitting behind me; me, I much preferred the kick ass warrior woman, Eowyn, and the gruff comedy of the underused John Rhys-Davies, as Gimli the Dwarf).
My description of the Siege of Minas Tirith is indicative of the film's larger problem. Even with a more than three hour running time, The Return of the King
has to cover a lot of material, probably too much for even its extended running time. Thus, Jackson and his screenwriters fall back on the "...and then..." narrative approach that marred The Fellowship of the Ring
; events don't flow together, they just happen one after another. Again, I would point to The Two Towers
, which had only three narrative strands, with scenes and sequences that built up to an organic conclusion (Merry and Pip's travels with Treebeard, concluding with the attack on Isengaard; Aragon, Legolas, and Gimli falling in with the people of Rohan, concluding in the defense of Helm's Deep from Saruman's armies; and Frodo, Sam, and Gollum's travels towards Mordor, concluding, naturally enough, with them entering Mordor). Really, to be fair, I don't know how they could have pulled off something similar in the third film, without adding another hour or two to the film, and I hazard to guess that New Line would not be too crazy about releasing a film pushing five hours (they have a gimmicky DVD release for that). The pitfalls of the "...and then..." approach to narrative is revealed in the film's many, extended denouements; reasonably, Jackson could have ended the film at least four or five times in the final 30-40 minutes, with all of the fade to blacks, and then the fade ins. Frodo and Sam are stranded on the rock, surrounded by the lava of an erupting Mt. Doom, fade to black; and then they are rescued by Gandalf, fade to black; and then Frodo wakes up in Minas Tirith, to be greeted by all the surviving members of the Fellowship, fade to black; and then Aragon's coronation (including the return of Arwen, felt kind of bad for Eowyn, and the bow to the Hobbits); and then a transition to a map of Middle Earth (with some voiceover narration), and a return of the Shire, and all kinds of Hobbity thing (drinking, Sam's wedding); and then Bilbo and Frodo depart with the elves, unable to live in this world (unfortunately, this kind of truncated narrative did not do much service to the idea that Frodo could no longer live in the Shire). God, heaven forbid they actually filmed Saruman's Scouring of the Shire epilogue (at least they could have kept Christopher Lee in the picture, which would have helped; The Return of the King
really needed an identifiable villain, as a bunch of anonymous orcs and a disembodied, flaming eyeball just don't really seem to cut it). About four years of events (I believe that is the time period indicated by the film) covered in such a short period of time, much of which could have actually been cut, may well work on the printed page, but it just gets tiresome. My brain, and my ass, just wanted the film to get on with it.
This is not to say that the film is without merit, as there are plenty of things to enjoy in it. Gollum continued to be a fascinating creation (we even get a prologue sequence detailing his backstory), though his turn towards treachery in The Return of the King
makes him much more one-note than in the earlier film (other sequences from The Two Towers
are reprised to a much lesser extent, such as the conversation between Arwen and Elrond), and I enjoyed the focus on the three other Hobbits, especially Sean Astin's Sam, who turns out to be the true hero of the piece (I also enjoyed the expansion of Miranda Otto's character, Eowyn). And there are several individual sequences which I liked very much: the before mentioned scenes of Gollum's backstory; the rousing lighting of the beacons; the slow-motion, suicidal charge of the Gondor calvary, to the accompaniment of Pip's song; and the attack of the giant spider, which contains perhaps the coolest shot of the entire trilogy, the extreme low-angle, canted medium shot of Frodo with the giant spider looming over him (kind of wish that Peter Jackson had introduced more of that visual pizzazz throughout the trilogy, though, this shot is very similar to the one involving the Ring Wraith searching for the Hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring
; by the way, the Witch-King, who I took to be one of the Ring Wraiths, was comparatively, and surprisingly, weak in the newest film).