Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003)
Main cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf the White), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise 'Sam' Gamgee), Billy Boyd (Peregrin 'Pippin' Took), Liv Tyler (Arwen), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck), Miranda Otto (Éowyn), Orlando Bloom (Legolas Greenleaf), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Karl Urban (Éomer), David Wenham (Faramir), and Bernard Hill (King Théoden of Rohan)
Director: Peter Jackson
Before everyone forget and start calling me names, let me remind you that I love the previous two movies to bits. Because apparently whenever someone dares say that this movie isn't good, I must submit a list of credentials first, so here goes: I have read only the later portions of the book and I don't intend to read the rest of the book. If that means that my entire review is no longer valid with you, feel free to press the back button on your browser.
I'm sad to say that the emotions that burn in the previous two movies are no longer present in The Return Of The King. This movie feels so imcomplete and disjointed, it suffers from the same fate as Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, albeit at a less devastating scale: it relies very heavily on the goodwill of the audience that are familiar with the book to fill the gaping holes in the movie with what they remember from the book.
But first, the story. Where we left off from the last movie, the battle at Helm's Deep is over, Saruman has magically disappeared from the movie, and now our ragtag quartet of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf are wondering how Frodo and Sam are faring. But they know those two are alright. How? As Aragorn says, his heart knows. Or something. Somewhere between this movie and the last, aliens from the cheese factory have kidnapped the scriptwriters and replaced them with Chris Carter clones. This time, Sauron marshals his army to attack Minas Tirith, the City of Kings, in the kingdom of Gondor. Gandalf and Pippin ride ahead to warn Denethor, the custodian of Minas Tirith, of the danger only to find the man half-mad from grief (his son Boromir died in the first movie, remember?). Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli stay behind to help King Théoden of Rohan marshal an army to come to the aid of Minas Tirith.
Meanwhile, Frodo faints. Sam props up Frodo. Frodo wails. Sam comforts Frodo. Frodo whines. Sam placates Frodo. Frodo is hungry. Sam feeds Frodo. Frodo stares wide-eyed at the camera. Sam whimpers, "Mr Frodo?" Frodo gives up. Sam tells Frodo he is the best so Frodo can't give up! Frodo can't go on. Sam carries Frodo. Gollum causes problems. Frodo hates Sam. Sam sulks. Frodo goes alone. Frodo faints. Frodo gets attacked by angry Shelob. Frodo stumbles. Frodo is ambushed by Shelob. Sam saves Frodo. Orcs come and take Frodo to their fortress. Sam saves Frodo again. Repeat, rinse, repeat.
My biggest problem with this movie is Frodo. Jackson and his batch of scriptwriters overplay Frodo's plight that they turn him into a victim rather than an unlikely hero. If Jackson can take liberties by changing the Rangers that help turn the tide against Minas Tirith into an army of spectral mint-Listerine colored undead, why can't he allow Frodo to redeem himself in the end by performing one heroic act - getting rid of the Ring? In this movie, it is the Gollum that ends up saving the world, although the poor sucker won't appreciate the fact. Frodo is a victim that has to be carried all the way to Mount Doom and even then, he fails to do what so many others have died just to distract Sauron and give him time to do. Throughout it all, Sam remains the faithful best friend, always dogged, always loyal, reminding me of a dumb whipped dog that remains loyal to a master that keeps beating it badly.
Another problem I have are the plot holes in the story. [spoiler starts] How convenient that there is a mountain pass near where the men of Rohan set camp for the night, a pass where a magical army that can turn the tides against Sauron's men await - an army that only Aragorn can command, an army that crops up so neatly after Elrond hands Aragorn the sword of kings. How wonderful that the eagles show up at the last moment to attack the evil dragons. And while I'm at it, I'd think Aragorn will have to decency to explain to the army of Rohan why he and his two Stooges are leaving them in the middle of the night. They are risking their lives to protect Aragorn's kingdom, after all. [spoiler ends] I don't care if these are exact retellings of Tolkein's original book. If that is so, then Tolkein as well as the scriptwriters should know better. Jackson could have inserted these elements smoothly into the story, but no, he just brings them up in a deus-ex-machina way that jars me from the movie.
The fundamental flaws in the script aren't improved in any way by pacing problems in the movie. Jackson has reached the bottom of the barrel here when he has the characters stare at each other for ten seconds just to drive home that I'm supposed to feel blue for these characters. The last half hour of the show is a series of "black-out" scenes that are slow, draggy, and come off as half-hearted attempt to wrap up the story. There's no smooth transitions between these scenes, no sense of chronology, just a rushed sequence [spoiler starts] of hobbits coming home (no cleansing of Shire in this movie), hobbies drinking, Sam marrying Rosie, Frodo tells Sam about his book, Frodo collects the three hobbits and then he joins Bilbo in that ship to the Elves' Never Neverland across the sea, the end. [spoiler ends] Why? How? What? I guess I am expected to read the book to find out.
There are several small and tiny things that bother me: Éowyn manages to remain luminous and clean as if she's just stepped from a shampoo commercial instead of riding hard for days and killing bad guys in the heat and dirt, the overglorification and overexaggeration of Merry and Pippin's roles to the point that they inexplicably are taken into battle when they have already proven that they are hindrances and enemy-baits (a lesson Boromir learned the hard way), the cheesy reunion scene towards the end and the cringe-inducing [spoiler starts] kiss between Aragorn and Arwen that follows, and the dumbing down of Denethor into a cartoon villain. And who can forget the glorious scene of mint-flavored Listerine slime being poured over Minas Tirith in what I suppose is the scene of the army of undead cleansing the city from the bad guys? [spoiler ends] I've seen much better in Jackson's underrated movie The Frighteners.
Along the way, the movie forgets or overlooks or leaves out for the DVD: Éowyn's relationship with Aragorn and Faramir, Legolas' ability to speak in any way other than pointing out the obvious, and Saruman. What on earth happened to Saruman? That throwaway mention of Saruman early on in the movie about him losing his power is not enough to give a clear picture of his fate. I don't buy the argument that it is okay to wait for the DVD to get the whole picture of what Jackson wants to do. If he puts out a movie now and expects me to pay money to see it in the theatre, he should not have tackled so many things in his script only to abandon them halfway and ask me to buy the DVD to understand the movie better. That argument may work with die-hard Ringphiles, but not with me.
But what I do like about this movie is how Miranda Otto's Éowyn gets to be the sole woman in the three movies combined to actually play an active part in fighting Sauron. Her declaration of "But I am no man!" makes me cringe a little, but she kicks ass. Her ability to look fresh and clean even after a bloodbath is also to be commended - it is up there with the ability of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli to remain unscratched after a long hard battle. Gimli, by the way, is really funny. He should have been the Ring Bearer. Oh, and fans of Ring slash shall have much to rejoice as the hobbits really - and deliberately, I suspect - trump up the slashy moments in this movie.
I have been hammered by fans of this movie on the three different online forums where I vented my disappointment since I've watched The Return Of The King, and my observation is that these fans enjoy the movie better when they have read and love the book. They feel free to plug in the plot holes with details from the book. In my case though, I have nothing to plug the plot holes with, so I left the theatre rather perplexed by these plot holes in the movie. Some fans even create rather far-fetched justifications for some of the peskier plot holes in the movie, my favorite being that Tolkein initially wrote the book as a morality tract about the sins of war and the corruption of the innocent so Frodo must fail his duty. Even if this is Tolkein's intention, Jackson's admittedly very effective overromanticization of war and his gratuitous use of women and old men huddling in fear as handsome and courageous men defend the city definitely does not give off a Lennonesque peace statement.
But at the end of the day, Jackson's intentions don't matter. If the movie feels incomplete or disjointed and I have to rely on the book to enhance my movie experience, that movie has failed in its function. The Return Of The King is visually a feast to behold, but when it comes to the editing of the story, it's a veritable Pits of Mordor down there.
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