Friday, December 12, 2014

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Welcome back to FlashBack Friday as I review the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy! Even though I didn't consider it to be a high point in the series, The Two Towers not only won critical and commercial acclaim, but also set the stage perfectly for the epic conclusion to Tolkien's story that The Return of the King promised to be. I don't know if I have ever been as excited for a movie to finally be released in theaters as I was for this. I remember being a junior in high school and watching this trailer - which I still consider to be one of the greatest ever made - endlessly rather than pay attention to my teachers (to this day I still can't remember what the subject of that class was). I don't think even Return of the Jedi had the kind of build-up of this film, as the Oscar-caliber production design, cinematography, special effects, acting and directing of an entire trilogy came to a head in what appeared to be the most ambitious and emotional of the lot. I'll probably have to discuss some spoilers, so if you haven't seen this movie you should first evaluate your life choices and then go watch the dang thing!

After their miraculous victory at Helm's Deep, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli return to Edoras and plan their next move against Sauron. However, they aren't the only ones plotting, as the Dark Lord reaches out to the curious Pippin through a seeing stone for information on the ring-bearer. Though the young hobbit held his tongue, the forces of evil believe him to carry the ring of power and begin congregating at Minas Tirith for what Gandalf pronounces as "the great battle of our time". Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam are led through the dark lands of Minas Morgul by a conspiring Gollum. Though Sam overhears the creature plotting their murders, Frodo refuses to banish Gollum both out of his usefulness as a guide and empathy for his obsession. But Gollum will stop at nothing to regain his precious, and Sauron unleashes his deadliest forces on Gondor to stamp out the last hope Middle Earth has.

It's tempting to summarize the entire movie, but I'll probably delve into most of the major plot points as I go. In typical LOTR tradition, this film begins with another prologue that immediately snares the attention of the audience like the worm on Smeagol's hook. It isn't particularly grand or epic, but the insight into Gollum's dark past is fascinating to witness as he possesses the ring through a murderous act of greed. It's easily the most unsettling prologue we've seen, and one of the creepiest scenes of the entire series. Not only does this give us a chilling look at Gollum's origins, but we also see the path that Frodo will ultimately take if he succums to the evil that is the ring of power. 

Rather than go through the story plot point by plot point, I think I'll go through the characters that made a particular impact on me. Of course I have to start with the two hobbits that carry the heaviest burden, and their journey is never more difficult than it is in this film. I mentioned in my Fellowship of the Ring review how I really related to and admired Frodo for the endurance and strength he shows in these films, despite his small frame. While he ultimately does succum to the ring's allure by the time they reach the fires of Mt. Doom, his resilience to the ring's temptation is almost unparalleled in Middle Earth, and I don't think anyone else could have made it as far as he did.  Even Gollum has a critical part to play, as Gandalf predicted, and he falls into the volcano desperately clinging to the precious even as his body decomposes in the lava. Of course, it was only with the help of Samwise the Brave that Frodo completed the journey. He's the only character courageous enough to take on the terrifying Shelob on his own, which is still probably the best human vs. monster battle I've ever seen on screen to this day. Sam's unflinching loyalty and courage was exactly what was needed to get Frodo to the finish line, even if he couldn't carry the ring himself.

Another huge player in this film (which makes sense, given its title) is the ranger destined to be king, Aragorn. His reluctant leadership is somewhat a result of his fear of repeating the mistakes of his forebearers, but it's his selfless desire to protect the people of Middle Earth that makes him such a perfect leader against the forces of evil. He ultimately overcomes his genetic weakness to the ring's power by risking everything to give Frodo the opportunity to destroy it once and for all. But first he has to brave the land of the dead (in an awesomely spooky and slightly macabre scene) to recruit an unstoppable army and arrives at the battle of Pelennor Fields just when all hope seems lost. Still, my favorite moment of his has to be this rousing speech at the Black Gates of Mordor, which is followed by an incredibly heroic one-man charge against a 10,000 orc army. He's always been one of my favorites, and between that and his refusal to let the four hobbits bow to him, it makes sense that he's the best humanity has to offer in Middle Earth.

I mentioned how great the battle of Helm's Deep was in my last review, and I definitely stand by that. However, even the most epic shots of that film are completely outdone in almost every frame of The Return of the King. The armies battling at Pelennor Fields number in the hundreds of thousands, and the dynamic aerial shots of Nazgul dropping Gondor soldiers to their deaths as well as the sweeping angles between charging Oliphants are some of the most breathtaking action scenes ever put to film. One of the most exhilarating moments of the film comes on the battle field when the riders of Rohan join the battle and charge into the outmatched orc army like a tidal wave. I could spend paragraphs and paragraphs describing these battles, as they're each a neverending spectacle that I never get sick of watching.

Despite the decade since its theatrical release, these battle scenes (and effects in general) hold up incredibly well, setting the bar that I've still never seen another fantasy film reach since. The production team achieved this through outstanding miniature work, enormous physical sets, as well as innovative CGI, the combination of which isn't used nearly enough in film these days. Minas Tirith is easily the coolest looking city in Middle Earth, and it's multiple layers are a perfect setting for such an overwhelming siege of orcs and trolls hell-bent on destroying men, women and children. It also provides an epic backdrop for battles out in the fields, or when Gandalf uses his staff to ward off attacking Nazgul.

There's a sense of urgency throughout this entire film that even the most intense moments of Fellowship of the Ring rarely achieved. On the special features of the disk there are interviews of cast members recounting their year-and-a-half long shooting schedule (all three films were shot simultaneously and out of order) and describing every scene from The Return of the King as having a little more weight and import than those of the other two, and that heightened focus definitely shows on screen. All of the performances are somehow elevated in this film, and the character arcs are brilliantly written to complement the actors' tremendous efforts. A particular stand-out for me was Sean Astin (playing Samwise Gamgee), whose every line resonated and became instantly iconic in my mind. His determination, sorrow, and joy is palpable in every scene, and the strength his character shows on the slopes of Mt. Doom is truly inspirational.

As with all of these films, the music is an essential part of both the sweeping quality of the action scenes and (more importantly) of the emotional resonance of the character moments. Howard Shore has somehow managed to outdo himself, and I don't think any score has ever been as perfect for the world in which it's set. Just listening to the new theme of the film as Gandalf races through Minas Tirith will give anybody goosebumps. Unlike in The Two Towers where it was primarily the music that brought the emotional investment to the film, here every aspect of the filmmaking is masterfully combined to create not only a spectacle but an incredibly emotional journey. My wife and I were both reaching for tissues by the end of the film, and it's the impeccable blend of visuals, performances, writing, and music that makes such an experience possible in a film. Frodo and Sam's final interaction on Mt. Doom and the subsequent wrap-up scenes have me completely broken down in tears (manly tears, of course). 

I don't really have any complaints about this film, which I was incredibly relieved about. For some reason my memory of The Two Towers was as positive as the other two in the trilogy, so when I was less impressed with it this time around I began to worry if I was overrating this film as well. Thankfully my fears were never realized, as this proved to not only hold up to my memory of it, but also solidified itself as the best in the trilogy. I've obviously heard the common gripe that it has too many endings, but none of them seem extraneous to me as each one puts a well-earned bow on the characters's stories that we've come to know and love throughout the 9+ hours of screentime. Even at well over three hours, I believe it's a perfectly executed narrative that is so meaningful and inspiring that I can't even pretend to find a real problem or flaw.

This film was obviously an enormous hit (still one of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time) and holds the record for most Academy Awards in a single year with 11 wins. Though some will look at this unprecedented outpouring of praise as a tip of the hat to the trilogy as a whole, which is fair, I can't find a single category in which it was awarded that wasn't worthy of the honor. The Return of the King is the culmination of a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration of world class talent all at the top of their games. We may never again see a story so epically told and brilliantly realized, but I'm just so grateful we got the one we did.

I'm obviously completely in love with this movie and could easily put this on the top of my all-time list on any given day. No matter who you are or what kind of movie you enjoy, there is something for you to grasp on to in this film. It's universal in its themes, yet strikes a chord with each individual on a personal level. I certainly can't think of another film that connects on so many levels. This is the strongest recommend I could give to any movie, and I hope everyone can appreciate this for the incredible masterpiece that it is. I could keep writing for pages and pages, going into painstaking detail about every moment of this film that I loved and why. Suffice it to say that this is my movie soul-mate, and I give it four stars.

It's been a pleasure doing this series, and I'm going to miss having a LOTR movie to look forward to every week. However, Peter Jackson still has another shot at giving us a great adventure in Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. You can see my reviews of the first two Hobbit films by visiting the "Archives" section of this blog, but I enjoyed them both and hope we can get a solid farewell to the world Tolkien created. Thanks for reading and let me know what you think of The Return of the King in the comments!

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING is rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images