The good, the bad, and the Ring: Re-evaluating Middle Earth – The Return of the King

Concluding Peter Jackson’s first Tolkien trilogy – with pomp, sturm und drang – is Return of the King. Andrew and Harry weigh up the pros and cons of the endless endings, the monstrous battles and lofty melodrama that brought the box office – and the Academy – to its knees.

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Andrew Noel: If you’re reading this and you’ve seen the final part of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, you may as well stop here. You already know how amazingly fantastic it is and therefore don’t need telling again.

Still here?

There is no other way of putting it; Peter Jackson’s beautiful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy literary series is spot on. And what better way to end such a classic film series than with The Return of the King. I honestly pity the guy who’s writing the negative review of this film because I’m struggling to think of anything particularly bad about it.

With The Return of the King, there really is something for everyone. There is enough action to satisfy even the biggest of Michael Bay’s fans. There’s a strong storyline to hook to viewer; after two films about our heroes’ battle against the forces of evil, the film’s ending far from disappoints. There’s a smattering of well-placed, high-brow humour. There’s even some romance. The Return of the King manages to cram all this into one film, and still doesn’t feel bloated.

Through all of this, the film keeps its high standards. The visual effects are (of course) mind blowing, as previous articles will have stated. Even not counting Andy Serkis’ Gollum, the battles and scenery feel like they come right out of the pages of Tolkien’s novel. Like the other films, the cast are up to their highest standards of acting. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the White is a powerful force, challenging Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn and Elijah Wood’s Frodo in terms of who really is the main character.

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Then there’s John Rhys-Davies’ Gimli and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas; the actor’s bounce off each other spectacularly to create some excellent character banter. Even the supporting characters do no wrong; Bernard Hill’s stubborn Theoden is masterful, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond dominates a scene with merely a glare, and Miranda Otto’s Eowyn really comes into her own.

The Return of the King really gives a new meaning to the term ‘epic’. As Aragorn turns to face an army of Men and whispers “…for Frodo” before running towards an army of Orcs with his sword held high, don’t tell me you didn’t feel a shiver down your spine. As Frodo and Sam climb wearily to the summit of Mount Doom and a familiar, deformed creature appears to halt their quest, you must have felt your heart pounding. Just two examples of the ever-present excitement featured in this finale.

But it’s hard for me to put into words just how great The Return of the King is. This evening, after you’ve finished work, settle down on the sofa and pop in one of the greatest endings to a franchise ever. Then you’ll understand.

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Harry Brewis: I’m what you’d call a ‘Fan of the Hobbit movies’. It’s a terrible affliction, and unfortunately there’s no cure. You can only get infected if you have the Childlike Wonder And Fun gene. It’s a curse. People will laugh at you for preferring them to the originals. You’ll lose friends. You’ll lose LARP swordfights because Sting is a way shorter sword than Andúril and there’s no way to make up the range.

But it’s not all bad. The tradeoff is, I get to really enjoy six hours of fun content and am blessed with a feeling soon to be gone for ever – I’m looking forward to the new one. Soon there will never be another LOTR movie to look forward to. This is the last time, so I’m enjoying that while I can.

I’m writing one of the positive reviews for the Hobbit movies when we get around to those; to be short, they’re amazing. And this amazingness is what makes lots of the LOTR movies – and particularly Return – look kinda bad by comparison.

Peter Jackson is a fantastic filmmaker whose career is astounding. The guy makes crazy stories rich in unique charm, ridiculous symbolism, and a love of all things fake. Prosthetics, masks, extravagant props, and later CGI, are his trademark. There’s a wilful insanity to his work that you don’t see in many filmmakers. On that note, the first two Lord of the Rings films, while decent, are a little disappointing to me because they’re not really like that at all.

They stick out from his oeuvre in really notable ways – suddenly this amazing personal style is put aside to tell as ‘realistic’ a story as possible. We keep hearing stories about how all the swords and armour had elven writing on them to ‘feel real’, even though we never see this text in the films.

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This obsession with objective realism, instead of the psychological realism of his other films, is offputting but probably necessary – Jackson wanted to make the perfect adaptation, and silenced even his own creative vision in doing so. While the first two films suffer for that, Return of the King suffers the most because it is the work of a director at war with himself.

There’s something missing. The story features a glimpse of the sense of humour and fun a Jackson fan would recognise, but filtered down to a low drone that accompanies an ‘epic story’. The final film’s story is nowhere near interesting enough to deserve the 200-minute runtime. Some stuff happens to Frodo and Sam, and then big fights happen and everyone says goodbye for 45 minutes. You can see the frayed ends; the original text, Jackson’s attempts to turn it into more of an action movie and simplify it somewhat, chaotically mixed in with an obsessive attention to detail and the director’s secret comedy auteur genius bleeding out the edges.

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The big sticking point for me is the ‘Army of the Dead’ scenes. Jackson was very careful and purposeful with CGI in previous instalments, unwilling to engage in the delicious fantasy-cartoonish excellence he would later embrace in King Kong, Lovely Bones and the Hobbit films… and suddenly you get this finely-tuned-down-to-the-details battle scene with magic glowy ghost dudes all over the place. It’s a mess.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that, eventually, he made The Hobbit, fully embracing the cartoonish plastic-reality he denied himself for the original trilogy. But, in Return, what you get is a bizarre mix of the two styles where his transformation back into Peter Fucking Jackson took place. I’m glad this transformation happened, but it means the third film is nowhere near as close to the highs of either series’ strong points, and probably contains the lowest of both. That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to watch, but it also doesn’t mean it’s very good.

 

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