It may not be overstatement to say The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is perfect. That doesn't mean it's without flaws -- one could nitpick at various elements which don't feel quite right for one reason or another. However, the film does what it is meant to do: bring in the final sweep and conclude a trilogy of movies upon which unprecendented expectations have been placed, and do it smoothly, gracefully, and powerfully.
The Return of the King not only works as a film that stands alone, with an isolated narrative and individualized dramatic flow, it reminds us the three movies (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and ROTK) comprise one big, solid story sharing one vision -- and that they are meant to co-exist. The third installment loses none of the momentum set up by the first two, and that may be a first in the realm of movie trilogies.
While thinking about this trilogy, I ponder over the strange dynamics of its journey to the screen. Peter Jackson and his team of wizards had already set themselves up with the first two movies -- they were instantly beloved, receiving more praise from critics and public alike than most movies could ever dream of having. Naturally, the demand would be for the third episode to match the same heights. Even if Jackson only needed to deliver a movie that simply met expectations, he'd already have to create something quite special. Thus, the successful effectiveness of the final film should be an astonishing feat -- we aniticipate nothing less. It's like putting Jackson on a golf course and telling him 18 hole-in-ones is par for the course.
But he did it. How many other lauded filmmakers can claim such a feat? Not George Lucas, whose Star Wars series is suffering a fall from grace. Not Francis Ford Coppola, whose third Godfather is generally derided. Not the Wachowski Brothers, who in a single year managed to lose the good will of the fans who embraced their first Matrix movie. It may be fair to say that Jackson at least had a well-regarded source to base his movies on -- J.R.R. Tolkien's novels. But I think that only added more pressure. It doesn't matter; what is important involves Jackson and his team taking it upon themselves to create a group of movies for which places were waiting in the pantheon of film, and these movies have taken their seats gloriously.
That's why I declare this last movie of the trilogy to be perfect. By merely fulfilling the requirements of its job, the film emerges as a stunning achievement.
In watching The Return of the King, I realized with amazement how Jackson was able to make me hold my breath on a consistent basis. When both Fellowship and The Two Towers ended, I was trying to catch my breath -- in the third movie, I think I was holding it for about two hours, wondering how much more I could take. Everything we expect from a Jackson Lord of the Rings movie fills the screen -- spectacular scenery, urgency of situation, incredible depictions of medieval war, and solid human drama. And yet, I still felt renewed surprise at the beauiful overview of the city of Minas Tirith as well as at scenes showing Shelob squaring off with a certain hobbit and a whole new mythical army making a critical appearance.
One negative reaction I anticipate will be some grumbling about the ending sequence -- and here anyone who doesn't want to know more about the ending (of which I am about to discuss the structure and not plot details) should skip the rest of this paragraph. I'd like to make a case for the appropriateness of the ending, which feels something like an extended epilogue potentially ending in about five places. I believe many viewers will want the relief that comes after the climax and be done with it, but I'd find that terribly unfair, and, in fact, I was hoping we'd get a lot of aftermath scenes. I got my wish. For me, it's affirmation that the trilogy wasn't just about battles and war -- it was also about what came before and what comes after. And after watching our heroes suffer and endure for about nine hours worth of film, I think they deserve to have their moments in the aftermath. Some viewers will inevitably grouse about the movie not ending when it should have, but I think, with time, the fans will appreciate how Jackson wrapped it up. It is done with care and decency, with respect for the characters; it is moving and appropriate.
I can take a step back now and still look at these three movies in awe. This world we live in has become so cynical. Postmodernism is the norm: we look back and reference the cultural footsteps of the pioneers of our current entertainment age with loose levity. Sincerity and idealism struggle to find a place in our time, yet The Lord of the Rings series has not only survived in this environment, but also thrived in it. The Return of the King combines epic scope with the essential values we are still able to hold dear in our age of self-awareness -- hope, friendship, cultural harmony, and the belief that a morality above the individual level is able to bring out the best in people. It nurtures and fulfills a bond between its characters and its audience. It brings a long journey full circle and reminds us of what makes true heroes. Indeed, long live the King.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated "PG-13" for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.