Peter Jackson’s trilogy has been a monumental achievement both on a production level, and a critical/financial level with each of the previous two entries universally praised and two of the biggest hits of all time at the box-office. Can the last film in the trilogy be up there? After all history has shown us with the likes of “The Godfather Part III” and “Return of the Jedi” that closing off a trilogy can be the achilles heel of what were up to that point indomitable franchises.
Even this series has had its faults. At three hours long each, both previous films were long enough that tedium and slowness did creep in at points, and some key elements from the book were lost or changed. Without question the theatrical cut of “The Two Towers” was easily the weakest entry in the series due to some choppy editing which left it too Aragorn-centric and forgot some key essentials. That film’s extended cut however is a whole league better in terms of narrative flow and character dynamics.
“Return of the King” is a different story. In comparison to the previous two films, this is on a whole other level in terms of scale. With constant switching to immense wide shots, well developed character interactions, an extended and FAR more impressive battle sequence than the last film, and a real emotional core – this is without question some of the best filmmaking in years and makes usage of the term ‘epic’ laughable when applied to such films as “Gladiator” or even the first two LOTR movies.
Following the book surprisingly closely although borrowing heavily from “The Two Towers” novel for Frodo’s storyline, the switching between the different plot threads is nice and smooth and feels far more well-balanced. Also thankfully gone is the monotone gray/blue of the second film, replaced with far more varied and fantastical environments with their own distinctive charm.
Production design, effects, and makeup are all pushed to the extreme and work beautifully. Some sequences or looks in particular such as the ghosts within the ‘Paths of the Dead’ are truly jaw-dropping, Shelob although a little CG-ish is handled extremely well and the filmmakers ratchet up the suspense level within the sequence to the extreme.
The Battle of Peleannor Fields out and around the immense white city of Minas Tirith is a sight to behold. Rather than copying Helm’s Deep which was more about close-up sword-fighting and gritty guerilla tactics, this battle is all about strategy and scale with catapults flying, armies flowing in from different directions and giant elephant-like and winged Nazgul monsters swooping in and around to attack. Its about an hour long but never gets repetitive or tired like some moments of Helm’s Deep did.
Acting is superb all across the board with Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Miranda Otto delivering some truly amazing work. Ian McKellan’s Gandalf (who seemed to be just guest starring in Two Towers) returns with a more significant role and shows the most emotional side we’ve seen of Gandalf yet. Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies as Legolas & Gimli are sadly more sidelined this time in favour of the hobbits, Aragorn and Gandalf. John Noble as the sole main new character Lord Denethor plays the rather tragically unstable man nicely. There’s a great sequence involving Pippin singing, Denethor eating chicken and a Gondor army charging into certain death that goes to show how well made/cut this film truly is.
Weaknesses? Minor and again all to do with editing. At 3hrs 20mins this is a LONG movie and you feel it – especially towards the ending. As there’s so many subplots to wrap up, the ‘coda’ of the piece goes on for about half an hour which is accurate to the books but those unfamiliar with them will be wondering why doesn’t Jackson cut corners and speed things along. The opening 10-15 minutes is different and quieter than the other two films which comes as a surprise. Also the post-Shelob but pre-Mt. Doom scenes seem quite rushed. There were some scenes and sequences in there in the books which don’t seem to have made it and I’m sure we’ll see on the extended edition but in the theatrical it makes Mordor seem a rather small place.
That’s it though. Petty nitpicks against an otherwise immaculate piece of moviemaking. When things come together so perfectly for a film its astonishing (hell the only reason it ain’t getting 5 stars now is that I’m sure the extended edition will be even better). There is absolutely no doubt that not only is this the film of the year, but one of the greatest ‘epic’ films of all time. A truly cinematic experience that you’ll find practically impossible to forget and a more than fitting end to one of the greatest film franchises ever made.