Lord of the Rings 3: The Return of the King (2003) Movie Review

While Peter Jackson’s “The Return of the King” is certainly a marvel of moviemaking, it lacks the newness of “The Fellowship of the Rings” and the proper narrative structure (and flow) of “The Two Towers”. I suppose it was too much to hope that “ROTK”, the final piece in Jackson’s 3-picture, 3-year enterprise, would top the two previous installments. While it does wow with its dynamic and monstrous battle scenes, there is something clumsy about the whole thing. To wit: the film has one epic battle too many and goes on for about 30 minutes too long, adding scenes involving the Hobbits that should have been saved for one of those loaded “special edition” DVDs.

“ROTK” takes place days after the epic battle for survival at Helm’s Deep, with Sauron’s forces now gathering to plunder Gondor and its major city, Minas Tirith. There are some problems for our defenders of Middle-Earth: one) Minas Tirith is currently ruled by a psycho who thinks nothing of sending his only son to die in a foolish attempt to take back a Gondor city overrun by Orcs; two) Frodo and Sam seem nowhere close to destroying the ring, or shaking loose their murderous guide Gollum; and three) the nation of Rohan, which fought at Helm’s Deep, don’t exactly get along with the folks at Gondor. And oh yes — besides fighting just ugly Orcs with bad teeth this time around, the good guys have to deal with towering elephants, club-wielding giants, and flying dragon-something-or-rathers.

Like the first and second installment of the trilogy, the deluge of background information imparted by “ROTK” shouldn’t bother the average moviegoer. There are a lot of questions that are answered, and a lot of answers to questions that audience members who have never read author J.R.R. Tolkien’s books could care less about asking. Returning to do battle once again is Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, who must reclaim his title as King in order to unite the two human factions and get some help from some ghosts. (That last part is absolutely true.) Meanwhile, elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) has given up immortality to be with Aragorn, who is also being pursued by Eowyn (Miranda Otto), the fiery Rohan who wants to fight like the men, but tradition bars her from doing so.

Aside from the ongoing chaos around Minas Tirith, the film intercuts with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) as they continue on their arduous and (seemingly) neverending quest to destroy that blasted ring. Which brings up this observation: for a ring that is supposed to have such world-shattering powers, the trilogy never really offers up anything other than the ring’s ability to turn someone homicidal — which in itself doesn’t seem too dangerous (at least to the rest of the planet) — and its ability to make its wearer invisible. Okay, so it can turn someone insane and make him or her invisible. Is this really the type of weapon that can make an entity like Sauron, who has an unlimited army of Orcs at his disposal, the supreme evil everyone keeps saying he is capable of becoming? What’s that ring going to do, make him even more evil? Turn his big red eye invisible? Color me unimpressed by the ring.

Aside from the supposedly destructive power of the ring proving to be a major McGuffin, “ROTK” has problems with narrative. The film’s centerpiece is its giant, hour-long battle in and around the city of Minas Tirith. But the movie doesn’t end there — not even close. There’s another lengthy epic battle at Sauron’s homestead, as the human forces seek to distract Sauron while the hobbits continue on their neverending (and I do mean neverending!) attempt to destroy that blasted ring. It’s all fine and well, and Jackson executes the battles with amazing ability, but the movie’s narrative thrust is effectively destroyed. Unlike “The Two Towers”, which culminates in two simultaneous battles at two different locations, “ROTK” seems to keep going…and going…and going…

Although the film clocks in at a bloated 3 hours and 30 minutes (about, as mentioned, 40 minutes too long for it to be a perfect movie), some of the major characters from previous installments get shortchanged. The bowman elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his dwarf sidekick Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) barely have any screentime. Oh sure they take part in all the major battles, but you could put their combined dialogue on half a page of script. Even lead Viggo Mortensen seems to have little to do except swing that giant sword of his. The only real standout is Miranda Otto, who excels as the rebellious and passionate Eowyn. I would say more about Liv Tyler’s appearance, but since her battle with the Ring Wraiths in the original, she’s been relegated to nothing more than blink-and-you’ll-miss cameo appearances.

Of course all of the above isn’t meant to sell “ROTK” short. It is, to be sure, a massive undertaking, and Jackson and company have succeeded admirably. Nary a battle scene takes place without generating excitement, and there isn’t even any background actors playing “touch swords” that I could detect. The CGI is as close to flawless as it could possibly get, and even when the whole screen is filled with CGI people, creatures, and action, it still looks 100% better than anything George Lucas could think up. On a purely technical sense, “ROTK” and its fellow two installments are true works of wonder.

Peter Jackson (director) / J.R.R. Tolkien (novel), Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (screenplay)
CAST: Sean Astin …. Sam
Sean Bean …. Boromir
Orlando Bloom …. Legolas
Billy Boyd …. Pippin
Ian McKellen …. Gandalf
Dominic Monaghan …. Merry
Viggo Mortensen …. Aragorn
Miranda Otto …. Eowyn
John Rhys-Davies …. Gimli

Buy Lord of the Rings 3: The Return of the King on DVD