The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Directed by Peter Jackson

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is an exciting but overwrought and deeply flawed epic.

His ally Saruman having been defeated, Sauron sends his armies against the city of Minas Tirith, towards which Gandalf, Aragorn, and Theoden rush with help. Meanwhile, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum make their way into Mordor to destroy the One Ring.

Jackson has created a lavish, entertaining spectacle in The Return of the King, but the movie is so severely flawed in such a variety of ways that its artistic worth is severely compromised. The quality of the film is, consequently, extremely uneven.

The movie's special effects are stunning, but much of the impact the director could have achieved with them is dissipated by his melodramatic sensibilities and inclusion of unsuccessfully humorous incidents. While the inept attempts at comedy conspicuously present in the first two films are less intrusive in the third, The Return of the King does include more than a few unfunny asides and silly occurrences. The acting, happily, is generally good, although there are a number of awkward moments when some actor or another strives so hard to emote his capillaries look as though they are about to burst.

Unfortunately, the intermittent histrionics of the actors are not the only excess in Jackson's consistently overwrought film. While the two prior movies were often overdone, the third surpasses them both and wallows in its clumsy efforts at drama. The pseudo-Shakespearean speeches given, at different points, by Gandalf, Theoden, and Aragorn are utterly laughable, and the scene in which Faramir apparently rides to his doom at his father's cruel whim while Pippin croons a dolorous song is so hammy it is humorous. The list goes on and on.

While I concede that film and print are different media, some comparison of the movie with the book will help to show the potentially interesting material Jackson had at his disposal and the ways he systematically excised any substance from that material. For example, the director's rendition of the conversation Aragorn and Gandalf have with the Mouth of Sauron before the Black Gates is particularly disappointing. In the book, Sauron's ambassador claims to have Frodo in his custody and offers to return him to Gandalf if the wizard and those with him surrender. Gandalf refuses, believing that he is sacrificing Frodo's life for the sake of a greater good. From the time I first read The Return of the King, I have found the moral conflict with which Gandalf is faced to be a particularly interesting and affecting one, and I looked forward to seeing it on screen. Unfortunately, Jackson has completely altered the scene. He has removed any intellectual or emotional appeal from it and replaced Gandalf's resolve with a pathetic joke from Gimli. The scene is, as a consequence, utterly forgettable.

One more example should suffice to show how Jackson has avoided complexity and presented the viewer with a labored, trivialized, and extremely melodramatic vision. The character of Denethor is hardly admirable in Tolkien's book, but his despair and madness are shown there as being a result of his looking into the palantir, a sort of crystal ball, he possesses and his receiving from it visions which have so been manipulated by Sauron as to lead him to believe that his position is hopeless. Jackson, apparently, decided that Tolkien was being entirely too subtle and has transformed Denethor into an obnoxious madman with bad table manners.

Although severely limited by its faults, The Return of the King is, nevertheless, a visually stunning and exciting film. The city of Minas Tirith is absolutely amazing, and the armies of Mordor, with their hosts of hideous, inhuman fiends, are vile and terrible. Shelob, a gigantic spider encountered by Frodo, is monstrous and horrific, and the physical locations used throughout the movie are consistently beautiful. Many of the fights are skillfully choreographed, although a few are somewhat silly, such as that in which Legolas performs a series of gymnastic leaps across the body of a giant elephant. The costumes are almost all wonderfully designed and evocative of some strange and ancient world. What remains of Tolkien's story still has much of the grandeur and majesty of a real epic, despite its having been diluted with numerous ridiculous or overdone moments, and whatever shortcomings Jackson has as a director, it must be conceded that he does endow the movie with a sense of vast scale and terrible import. He has succeeded in making an engaging movie as a consequence.

Despite its numerous and distracting flaws, The Return of the King is an exciting, rousing adventure. Because Jackson's vision is so blandly pedestrian, however, it is no more than a pleasant diversion.

Review by Keith Allen

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