The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Every tale embarks us on a new journey. Every journey eventually comes to its inevitable end. However, when it comes to motion picture trilogies, the last instalment has always failed to live up to its utmost hype & expectations on most occasions. Over the years, the final chapter of most film trilogies have turned out to be the weakest. It happened with Frances Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, in which the second sequel was absolutely unnecessary as Part II had ended the saga on a perfect note. It also happened with George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy, where Return of the Jedi was just no match to its revolutionary predecessors. And recently, it even happened to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, as The Dark Knight Rises didn’t only disappoint as a weak sequel but also as a shockingly weak stand-alone film.
The second sequel in every trilogy not only faces the burden of living up to the success of its predecessors but, being the final chapter, it also has to deal with the heavy emotional baggage that comes from its loyal fans. And since they have showered these films with so much love, they do deserve a proper send-off, at least. As for The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring turned out to be a genre-defining classic. The Two Towers somehow managed to tower above its predecessor & set an even higher benchmark for the final film. Already facing more anticipation than previous two chapters combined, it did seem near-impossible for The Return of the King to triumph over such expectations but against all odds, this final journey of Middle-Earth delivers everything & achieves much more than what was expected from it to ultimately bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary saga to an epic & magnificent conclusion.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the culmination of the wonderful journey we embarked on with The Fellowship of the Ring and picks up the story right from where it was left off in The Two Towers. To destroy the One Ring, Frodo & Sam continue their expedition through the secret passage into Mordor that Gollum is leading them onto but are unaware of his true intentions. After tasting defeat in the Battle of Helm’s Deep & loss of Saruman, the Dark Lord Sauron sets his eye upon Gondor and wages his final attack against all the free realms of the Middle-Earth. Very much aware of the looming threat, Gandalf travels to Minas Tirith (Capital of Gondor) to make their forces ready for battle & to defend the city. King Theoden also rallies his forces & rides off to Gondor’s aid while Aragorn, Legolas & Gimli take the Paths of the Dead to summon an army to fight against Mordor’s forces. But in the end, it all comes down to Frodo & the One Ring to decide the final fate of Middle-Earth.
One great thing that worked in favour of The Lord of the Rings is the fact that all its three parts were written & filmed at once, with only post-production work left to be done within its year of releases. Being a single story that spans over 3 films, this chapter did ease things for Peter Jackson from the direction point of view as he knew how to bring the saga to a fitting conclusion. But since The Two Towers had left out many events, this film needed to cover all those missing segments while narrating its own tale. And thanks to Jackson & co-writers (Walsh & Boyens), The Return of the King accomplishes everything it set out to do & does it in a spectacular fashion. As it is the final film of the trilogy, there is a sense of urgency in its story in comparison to its predecessors but, in spite of that, it appropriately covers all the essential elements of the book, ties up all the loose ends & gives proper farewells to its characters and throughout its runtime, it delivered all of that blended with high-quality entertainment of such epic proportions that in the end, fans couldn’t have asked for a better finale.
The Lord of the Rings still remains director Peter Jackson’s magnum opus & The Return of the King is his finest directional achievement. Making all films in a trilogy succeed on both critical & commercial scale is no easy feat but to make the next instalment work better than the previous one two times in a row is even rarer. Yet, Jackson manages to do so in the end with his sweeping cinematic vision, stunning eye for detail & in-depth knowledge of balancing emotional storytelling with thrilling action entertainment. The Return of the King presents Peter Jackson at his absolute best as this time, he pushes everything to its extreme & makes this film work on so many levels that it not only succeeds as the best film of the trilogy but also sets a new standard for epic filmmaking. Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh & Phillipa Boyens, the screenplay is cleverly adapted from the source material as many right choices were made in the decision of what to include & what to leave out from the final script. Walsh also tries her hand at direction as the shocking prologue this film opens with is her creation.
Coming to the technical aspects, it presents a major upgrade in almost everything that went into the making of this film. Starting with the production design, The Return of the King introduces the set of Minas Tirith for the first time in full-scale & thanks to the high level of detailing that went into its design, it looks amazing on film canvas. Other equally majestic sets include the gothic Minas Morgul, Cirith Ungol & Black Gates of Mordor, the unsettling Shelob’s Lair & Mount Doom. Cinematography continues to dazzle & among the three films, this is where it’s at its finest. The camera angles, the close-ups, the wide-tracking shots & everything else only adds more to the magical experience of this film to make it an even better visual feast than its predecessors. Music also reach an epic level in this chapter as its tracks are truly imposing, beautiful & further expands the domain of its predecessors. Overall, the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings is an astounding work of artistry that will easily take its place amongst the greatest film scores of all time &, without a shadow of a doubt, is the finest achievement in Howard Shore’s illustrious career.
Just like the previous two films, the most groundbreaking feat of The Return of the King is its visual effects. And this time it isn’t a slight advancement over the last film but a pretty huge leap, not just for Weta Digital but also for VFX in film. Everything that made its brief appearance in the first two films is fully explored in this chapter plus the length, scope & magnitude of battle sequences this film presents, especially the Battle of Pelennor Fields, is second to none. Jackson has shot the action sequences ingeniously & to make sure that those scenes don’t get tiring for the viewers, kept adding new supplements in them at regular intervals to provide a spellbinding cinema experience. The VFX team also added finer enhancements in the rendering of CGI characters like Gollum, Shelob etc and thanks to their vital contributions & Weta Workshop’s precision craftsmanship in the make-up, costumes & sound departments, The Return of the King sets an entirely new standard for visuals in cinema that remains unequaled, as of today, in the scope of how much it contributes to the film’s art while elevating the whole story.
Running at 201 minutes, it’s easy to assume that The Return of the King could’ve been further trimmed but I disagree. In spite of its 200 minutes runtime, there are a lot of things that didn’t make it to the theatrical cut due to pacing & other constraints and that’s why, just like its predecessors, the extended edition is more recommended. It adds 50 more minutes of additional & extended scenes which change the overall impact of the film enormously by adding more faithfulness to the book, more depth & understanding to its plot, more refinements to its characters & more entertainment to its action. Many criticise the last 45 minutes this film takes to finally end its story but if you ever watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy in one sitting, it’ll make perfect sense to you. Not only was it a reasonably enough time to recover the audience from what is an emotionally draining experience but it also finishes the story very much within the spirits of the novel by giving proper farewells that every single one of its characters deserved.
The Fellowship of the Ring & The Two Towers introduced almost all characters we needed to be acquainted with & this film just brings all their character arcs to completion. The only new character we meet in this film is Denethor (John Noble), Steward of Gondor as well as father to Faramir & Boromir, whose death drives him mad. Unlike the previous two films in which Gandalf the Grey & Gollum turned out to be the most impressive characters, respectively, there is no single dominating performance in this film as its entire cast puts up a more mature on-screen portrayal of their respective characters. The ring-bearer’s quest to destroy the One Ring gets all the more difficult in this film as Frodo (Elijah Wood) further breaks down under the corrupting power of the ring. Sam (Sean Astin) remains a loyal friend to Frodo & despite every setback, assists him until the very end. Gollum/Sméagol (Andy Serkis) proceeds with his plan of leading the Hobbits into a trap for he wants the ring for himself. The film also shows Sméagol’s backstory & his degeneration into Gollum in its opening prologue.
Also in this tale, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) finally puts aside the tag of a ranger & claims the throne of Gondor, of which he is the rightful heir. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) & Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) continue their friendly rivalry over Orc kills while they both aid Aragorn in summoning an army that dwells in the mountains. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) travels to Gondor to alarm the city of the impending threat & leads Gondor’s forces against Mordor’s legions of Orcs, Trolls & Nazgûls. Pippin (Billy Boyd) travels to Gondor with Gandalf & eventually becomes the esquire of Gondor while Merry (Dominic Monaghan) becomes the esquire of Rohan. Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) reforges the sword Andúril & gives it to Aragorn while informing him about Arwen’s (Liv Tyler) fate. Faramir (David Wenham) is sent on a suicide mission by his father to reclaim the fallen city of Osgiliath. King Théoden (Bernard Hill), with his nephew, Éomer (Karl Urban), assembles the Rohirrim for the war against their common enemy while his niece, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), disguises herself & travels with them to prove her worth in battle. The extended edition also brings the characters of Saruman (Christopher Lee) & Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) to their closures. And overall, there is nothing much to complain in the acting department of this film.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is unanimously hailed by critics & readers alike as the greatest fantasy novel ever written & a milestone in the works of literature. The on-screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was one of the most ambitious projects undertaken in film history and could’ve easily gone wrong. But thanks to the incredibly faithful & smartly written script that remained true to Tolkien’s world, the painstaking research, stunning production design & the high level of detailing that went into the making of this film, along with the essential contributions which come from its pitch-perfect cast & extremely talented crew, The Lord of the Rings, at last, was able to make an immensely successful transition to the big screen and it probably wouldn’t have been this good without the quicksilver vision of filmmaker Peter Jackson, a devoted Tolkien fan himself. The Lord of the Rings did catapult Jackson into the big guns of Hollywood film industry while also introducing Weta Digital as one of the foremost visual effects company on the planet but where it made its biggest impact is on cinema itself as it changed everything about epic & fantasy filmmaking, is one of the most important films of the modern era & a landmark moment in motion picture history.
On an overall scale, The Return of the King is the finest chapter of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It not only triumphs as one of the greatest sequels ever made but also as one of the most critically & commercially successful films of all time. And along with The Fellowship of the Ring & The Two Towers, it also makes up for cinema’s greatest motion picture trilogy that will not soon, if ever, find its equal. It doesn’t need mine or any cinephile’s recommendation as the film’s universal acclaim speaks for itself. Winner of 17 Academy Awards out of 30 nominations over the course of 3 years; in which The Return of the King won a record-breaking 11 Oscars out of 11 nominations, including the big category awards like Best Picture (only fantasy film to win so), Best Director & Best Adapted Screenplay. Commercially successful as well since the three films made nearly $3 billions in box-office collections; in which The Return of the King became only the second film to cross the billion dollars mark in worldwide gross. Lauded by film lovers (all 3 films are within the first 25 ranks on IMDb Top 250) & lauded by critics (all 3 films have a 90% above score on critic sites like Rottentomatoes & Metacritic), The Lord of the Rings, in some ways, is to cinema what its novel was to literature and it will remain a standard by which all future film trilogies will be measured for years to come.