The beast is finally upon us. The final installment of the most epic trilogy of all time is going to annihilate the holiday box office. I have no doubt that audiences everywhere will love this film. It's already gained critical momentum and is a favorite at award time. I believe the film will satisfy most people, but disappoint fans of the book. I'm a fan of the book, but not some die-hard Tolkien freak. I walked into this movie expecting to see some established plot points and was very disappointed. Peter Jackson gives the film a real Hollywood makeover. The changes to the story are pretty dramatic. I can buy the idea of changing the story if it makes for a better film. Here it's used as melodrama to candy coat the ending of the film. It's like Peter Jackson didn't know where to go, so he used everything possible. I see this as a major flaw to the movie. Remember, the run times for the films are pretty long. Return of the King clocks in at a whopping three hours and twenty minutes. Forty of which could have easily been edited out. I think the fairest way to look at this movie is to analyze its successes and failures. What it does well, it does really well, better than most films ever made. It does have its drawbacks, and in the height of Rings hysteria, they cannot be ignored.
The story kicks off exactly where The Two Towers ended. Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are on their way to Mordor to destroy the ring. Aragorn and company have defeated the evil wizard Saruman and are staying with Theoden in his castle. Pippen, in another stupid act, touches the seeing eye of Saruman and has a vision of Sauron's next move. He will use his army to destroy Gondor, the other human kingdom. Gandalf and Pippen ride to Gondor to warn their leader Denethor of the upcoming attack. He is taken with madness over the death of his son Boromir. He blames his other son, Faromir, for the death and is unwilling to lead the battle. Aragorn, with some trickery from Gandalf and Pippen, convinces Theoden to march his army of Rohan to Gondor's aid. He is met on the journey by Elrond, the Elf King, with the reforged Sword of the King; used by Aragorn's ancestor to cut the ring off Sauron's hand. He is now the unified king of the humans; the ancestral leader that must take his place atop the throne of man. As you can see, this is pretty epic stuff.
Gollum, leading the Hobbitts to their death, schemes to drive them apart. The ring has overcome Frodo. Elijah Wood does a fantastic job of bearing the burden of the world. Sean Astin, as Sam, is his devout friend and the shinning star of the film. He could win an Oscar for his riveting performance. The trap that Gollum lays for the Hobbitts is a giant spider that guards the entrance to Mount Doom. They must throw the ring in its pit of fire to destroy it. This is the general, spoiler free, plot of the film. I haven't given anything away as there are numerous subplots and turns in the story. The greatest accomplishment of the film is its seamless integration of an extremely complex plot. It's filled with drama so the audience really becomes invested in the storyline. Peter Jackson is truly a master director for pulling this off. The performances are so focused. These characters are imbedded in our minds and we care what happens to them.
The visual FX are really incredible. They did save the best for last. There are three monstrous battles in the film. While I felt they dragged on for a while and were a bit computerized, they are very impressive. The folks over at WETA, Peter Jackson's FX company, hits several homers. First, beyond all the spectacular battles, is the incredible work done on Gollum. Here is a CGI character that is totally on par with the human characters. Gollum is a benchmark in filmmaking. He is so real, so amazingly realized, WETA deserves boundless accolades for their work. The next raving compliment goes to the sets. Whether digital, models or paintings, the filmmakers portray the settings with unparalleled brilliance. I think most people forget that all these battles happen in a place. Mordor, Gondor, Rohan, Minas Tirith, these places are unique. All of the action that happens, whether small or grand, explores every facet of the setting. Return of the King does an excellent job of delivering the journey part of the story, probably more than any film ever made.
Now comes the part where I go over the issues of the film. My first complaint is a problem with all the films, but especially bad here. It's just way too melodramatic. If I have to see one more scene of someone, teary-eyed, starring out into space, I'll go crazy. Scenes lose dramatic effect if they're overused. Saruman, the mighty Christopher Lee, is cut out of the film. This is so mind blowing, so unbelievable, I can't understand why they did it. I'd heard rumors of this being the case, but thought they couldn't be true. Believe it, the real bad guy of the stories, the only evil character actually played by a man and seen, is not in the film. Fans of the book will have a real problem with this. Here's the reason, by getting rid of Saruman, you take out an important event in the end of the book. I'm not saying it, but people who know will understand what I mean. I'm mind boggled by this move. Also, the love triangle between Aragorn, Eowen, and Arwen is changed for a happier ending. I had real problems with this. I suppose in the scheme of things it's not that big of a deal, but I feel this is where the Hollywoodizing of the books really hurts the most.
The ending of the movie is not the ending of the book. Once again, I would give Peter Jackson tremendous latitude with this. Change it if it makes it better and more enjoyable. What we get is multiple endings that drag on forever. There were times that I actually stood up to leave thinking the movie over, only to have to sit back down for more. Jackson should have picked an ending and run with it. He wants to please everyone by happily concluding ever part, but this cannot be done. I feel it really lets down the tone of the movie. By that point I was no longer invested in the story. My butt had gone numb from sitting down.
So the question is, where does this film fit in movie history? Is it deserving of the accolades? Should it be mentioned in the same breadth as the classic trilogies? Absolutely, this is a towering feat of filmmaking. People will love this film for an eternity. It is a monumental achievement and should be treated as such. I was entertained, without a doubt, despite my criticisms. But is this the best film of the year and the trilogy? No, it's not. I thought Fellowship was the best with this coming in second. Your thoughts may differ, but I'm not the bandwagon type. That's the honest, marketing free assessment. Enjoy the film.