The power of the One Ring is growing stronger, as Sam (Sean Astin), Frodo (Elijah Wood), and the crazy creature Gollum (voiced and actually played in the film's opening sequence by Andy Serkis) make their way to Mordor to complete their destiny. On the other end of the spectrum is Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who is slowly accepting his royal future as he leads the armies of Gondor and Rohan into a final battle against Sauron's Orc troops. The future of Middle-Earth will be decided in the human city of Minas Tirith, where the forces of evil are assembling to destroy everything they possibly can. And in the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo must try to overcome the power of the Ring, and the treachery of Gollum, to launch the golden hoop into the fiery pits and save every dwarf, elf, hobbit and man around.
So here we are again, at the very end of a long cinematic journey and a one-time financial risk that has paid off millions of times over for New Line Cinema. Two years ago, the "Lord of the Rings" saga began as a slightly bewildering, enthusiastically acted drama undone by sub-par special effects and the ravings of J.R.R. Tolkien fans who swore up and down that I was missing the bigger picture. In retrospect, I was missing the bigger picture, since director Peter Jackson's DVD-only extended cuts of "Fellowship of the Ring" and the follow up, "The Two Towers," restored important moments of character development and plot that made the two films much more enjoyable and their ideas and relationships clearer. Without the benefit of a longer DVD cut, "Return of the King" (IMDb listing) brings the hobbits and myself back to square one, and I just can't get too excited about it.
"Return of the King" is predominantly a war film, and one made for fans of the Tolkien world who tear up at the very mention of the name "Gamgee." Sadly departed are the unspoken and nuanced moments that made "The Two Towers" an enormous step up from "Fellowship." "King" is meant to close the book on this saga, and the film's mindset is exactly that. There is little time to dwell on the relationships fought for by the first two movies. Heavens, there's barely time for dialog! Jackson and his WETA warriors bend over backwards to give the fans what they want (or deserve) with the action sequences. The film's star attraction is the skirmish at Minas Tirith, which rages on for over half of the picture's rather speedy 205 minutes. The special effects have improved since "Fellowship" was released in 2001, and Jackson gives the 1s and 0s a workout like no other filmmaker has before, even in the year of the two remarkable "Matrix" sequels. We get battling cave trolls, armies that stretch as far as the eye can see, and a battalion of the undead who float their way into combat.
It's truly amazing stuff, blah, blah, blah ... Unfortunately, it takes the place of simpler but touching relationships that Jackson meticulously constructed in the earlier films. The crucial friendship between Aragorn, dwarf Gimli and elf Legolas is pushed aside in "King," only coming 'round to act as a lame punch line when the film tires of its own somber nature. I was also distressed to see Jackson do absolutely nothing with the burgeoning romantic triangle between Aragorn, Eowyn and Arwen. That arc was ready to explode, but in "King," it's cast off with one line of dialog. Of course, any time devoted to these characters would take screentime away from snarling Orcs, wouldn't it? And God forbid if that happens.
Admittedly, Jackson does what he can with Tolkien's winding prose, and there's plenty to commend the burly, lovable New Zealand filmmaker for in "King." There is great overdramatic reverence to the emotional arcs of the story this time around, as if Jackson was covering his behind to make the sure the trilogy is paid off in full. The Sam and Frodo plot thread is handled almost religiously, backed by ethereal choirs and Jackson's newfound use of slow motion. I should be grateful Sam and Frodo have something constructive to do in this movie, which was not the case in "Two Towers." Major kudos should be thrown to Sean Astin, who nails Samwise down to perfection: a bumbling hobbit who just may be too dim to understand when to give up, thus falling into hero status without knowing it. Beautiful. It's a powerful piece of acting, made more impressive by Jackson's rare refusal to shatter it by cutting away to even more snarling Orcs. I also enjoyed Aragorn's reluctance to accept his kingly status. As an actor, Viggo Mortensen seems more comfortable with a flailing sword in his hand than with a crown on his head, and the character mirrors that sentiment throughout the film. The hobbits are the real heroes in "King," which is truly the theme of picture. But all of these plot elements are really secondary to the special effects and the battles, which is criminal when you consider the wealth of pathos the story organically presents.
In the end, my favorite moment of the film wasn't Shelob the gigantic spider chasing Frodo around her web, Eowyn taking the Witch King down off his flying steed, nor was it Legolas conquering a computer generated elephant with that flawless marksmanship of his (though that is neat). My favorite moment was a simple shot of a battle-weary Aragorn taking his true love Arwen (who had long been given up for dead) into his arms and planting a loving kiss on her like a man faced with the prospect of standing in front of Liv Tyler should. There's more storytelling and character in that 10 second frencher than in any two-hour-long battle sequence, no matter how shiny the creatures are rendered or how much Sam cries. "Two Towers" had persuasive moments like this in abundance. I'm not sure why Jackson decided to take the honest emotion out of "King" in favor of the grandiose, but it doesn't have the same resonance that "Towers" did and "Fellowship" almost achieved. I suppose I'll have to wait for the extended version of "King" next holiday season to get the meat on the bones. That hardly seems fair.
"Return of the King" is a film to love in the heat of the moment. It cannot be denied, and I think Peter Jackson has done the fans well in making sure the visual feast is served correctly. For the Tolkien novices like myself, these last two holiday seasons have been spent chasing down and sorting out a very elusive franchise. Peter Jackson has created a cinematic monster that will outlive us all, and I give him credit for sticking to his guns. But I feel as if I missed the party, and now I'm relieved that this is all finally over.
Filmfodder Grade: C+