THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 21 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Epic Battle Sequences and Frightening Images

ReturnKing poster

Directed by: Peter Jackson

Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

(based on the novel THE RETURN OF THE KING by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Ian Holm & Marton Csokas

When Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was announced, everyone in the fantasy circuit probably went crazy. This sounded like a movie deal that was too good to be true. After all, this was a three-year laid out in advance. While all three films were shot simultaneously, they were distributed for three consecutive Christmases in a row. FELLOWSHIP was a solid start to the series, but lacked a natural flow and felt like an obligatory introduction in areas. TWO TOWERS is my favorite of the trilogy with the most exciting and dark material being covered from the entire Middle Earth saga. However, RETURN OF THE KING is the film that walked away with 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture). Though it remains more of a technical achievement than any of the other films, KING fumbles in the home stretch with a running time that feels too drawn out (made worse by an ending that can’t decide what it wants to be).

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The journey is drawing to a close as the ring of power nears possible destruction and peace for Middle Earth is becoming a real possibility. Frodo, Sam and (the not so trustworthy) Gollum are getting closer to the fires of Mount Doom. As Frodo becomes slowly corrupted by the ring, tensions between him and Sam grow. Gollum enacts a diabolical plan to get his precious ring back. While all of this is happening, the last battles are upon those few who remain from the original Fellowship and Aragorn is mustering up what it takes to reclaim his crown at one of the last kingdoms of men. This all leads to, of course, epic battles and a conclusion that will decide the fate of Middle Earth once and for all.

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TWO TOWERS delivered in bringing one of the best battle scenes ever in Helm’s Deep. That hour-long conflict would be hard to beat in a follow-up film, so Jackson’s solution is simple. He’s pretty much stretched out a majority of this three-plus hour film into two separate battle sequences. Scenes of Frodo and Sam trying to make it to Mount Doom are intercut, but the battles themselves are quite awesome. Adding another layer of tension is a crazed Steward who doesn’t want to give up his position of power for Aragorn as the rightful ruler. KING has plenty of moments that seem tailor-made to get the viewer to cheer and they work effectively. It’s nice to see cocky villains who you’ve been pissed at for most of the trilogy (or just this movie) get their comeuppances. One specific scene caused the entire theater to burst into applause when I first saw this back in 2003 and that moment still holds up perfectly to this day!

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This final film is loaded with appropriate pay-off for the whole trilogy. It’s nice to see story-arcs that have been building for over 6 hours (when you combine the running time of the previous two films) turn out to be worth the wait. The best of these lies with Frodo, Sam and Gollum though. The identity of the mysterious “she” that Gollum mentioned in his cryptic dialogue with himself at the end of TWO TOWERS comes to fruition in a scene that features probably the scariest creature of the entire series (which is saying a lot). This long suspenseful sequence also gets one of the biggest applause-worthy moments in its final minutes.

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Peter Jackson keeps an epic scale fully in tact for this finale to his original Middle Earth trilogy (way before three-film adaptation of  THE HOBBIT was even announced). This also contributes to the only problem that keeps RETURN OF THE KING from perfection in my eyes. The running time is unbelievably bloated and that all comes in the final 40 minutes. Spanning over three hours in length, Jackson feels the need to throw 5 different endings into the conclusion. It’s almost like he didn’t want to end the story, so he kept filming different final scenes and decided to loop them all together in the actual movie. Some of these details are so minute and insignificant (including Bilbo’s departure to the elf paradise and even going as far as Sam’s wedding) they become annoying. In this sense, Peter Jackson slightly wears out his welcome. When you’ve got 40 minutes of wrap-up scenes, there’s a big issue with the storytelling at hand.

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I don’t love RETURN OF THE KING as much as most other RINGS fans and the reason why might be considered a relatively simple complaint. The film slightly overstays its welcome in its (multiple) ending(s). The battles definitely up the action from the stellar Helm’s Deep sequence in TWO TOWERS and scenes that almost seem guaranteed to receive an applause in the theater still hold up flawlessly. It has been a lot of fun to watch character arcs develop and play out naturally over a 9-hour-plus trilogy (which is one hour shy of one season of GAME OF THRONES). Perhaps, the overlong climax is a prime example of too much of a good thing that ultimately becomes a problem. In the end, RETURN OF THE KING is a highly satisfying conclusion to a supremely successful trilogy of fantasy epics.

Grade: A-

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