By all means, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the ultimate fantasy film – fans adore it, general audiences adore it and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences surely did adore it, bestowing it with the all-time record of most Academy Award wins, including for Best Picture (making this one of the most inspired films to ever win Best Picture). It is difficult to argue with the sentiment that this is a great film (and for a film that runs over four hours long, you’d better hope that it is a great film – I find it difficult to even watch a film that runs over half of the length of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), yet there are far more positives than negatives in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, not in least the fact that is is just a tremendously entertaining film that displays the best of filmmaking.
Now as I did with the review for The Two Towers, I mentioned that there is always a stigma attached to follow-up films. There is none more harsh than that bestowed upon the third film in a series – it is very rare that the third film in a series is ever the most acclaimed in the series, and very often, it carries the curse of being the weakest in the series (some have indicated that this is evident in The Godfather Part III, but I refuse to acknowledge that that film even exists). The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is absolutely bizarre in the fact that it is popularly seen as not only being the best film of the trilogy, but one of the best fantasy films ever made. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is quite simply the culmination of everything that is great about filmmaking, and the universe just came together so perfectly to make it absolutely dazzling and endlessly entertaining, and it is impossible to just not enjoy this film, even if the run-time is one of the most daunting concepts I have ever encountered, but yet there is not a single moment that is boring or dull or anything other than simply extraordinary.
The central theme of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is that of heroism – by the time this film has come about, our characters are in the last stretch of their adventure, and they have to now accept the fact that evil can only be vanquished once they have allowed good to prevail. Each of the characters proves their mettle as heroes (and some more than others), and we witness not the battle between Good and Evil, but rather the struggle to force Good to overpower Evil. It is fascinating, considering one would expect a huge and intense battle between the two forces, which would suggest that they are in some way equal. Of course, they are not (mostly because every character in The Lord of the Rings is inherently good, and were just corrupted, whether by the One Ring or the power it possesses) – this is of course not to the credit of Peter Jackson or his collaborators, but rather that of J.R.R. Tolkien, who invented this intricate world and epic story. To praise The Lord of the Rings is to praise J.R.R. Tolkien, but we should give Peter Jackson some credit as well. He created films that were perfect representations of Tolkien’s world, and I have noticed that while the idea of the book always being better than the film always pervades, even with The Lord of the Rings, all the complaints are merely superficial, and it seems Jackson managed to keep nearly everything where it should be (other than omitting the delightful Scouring of the Shire chapter, killing off Saruman and Gríma Wormtongue far too early on, and in a much less brutal manner). Honestly, Jackson paid the novel the service it required, and while it may be very different in some of its delivery, in the end, this was the best version of the books we could hope for.
I have mentioned that the cast of The Lord of the Rings has been one where there hasn’t been a consistent standout. The core cast is very good, but between films, there are standouts and actors who give memorable performances. In summary, Sir Ian McKellen absolutely stole the show in The Fellowship of the Ring, and Andy Serkis gave an iconic and brilliant performance. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King boasts a far more subtle but equally brilliant performance that steals the show and rises about every other performance, and in the most unlikely of places – in Samwise Gamgee, as portrayed by Sean Astin. Astin was consistently good in the entire trilogy, but somehow he just did his best work in the final film. Warm, funny and good-natured, his Sam is one of the most likable characters in the film trilogy, and is who I consider the genuine hero of The Lord of the Rings. Astin rises to the occasion, and brings out the best in a character that was very subtle and sedate in the first two films. While not close to being as brilliant as Serkis, Astin was tremendous, and it makes me a little upset to see that his career didn’t quite get the boost that it should have from his masterful performance in The Lord of the Rings. But there is always hope, and Astin’s performance here is one of the best in the entire trilogy, and it won’t be forgotten anytime soon, if there is any justice in this world.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a considerably brilliant finale to a great trilogy, and Jackson closes all the chapters that he did in the previous films, with suitable aplomb – however, there is something far deeper here that isn’t present in any similar stories. Many have been fast to name The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones in the same sentence. Now I have nothing against Game of Thrones (and I think it is a great book series and a wonderful TV show), but there is an emptiness to it that doesn’t exist within The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, fantasy has become a genre where emptiness is normal, and sometimes even encouraged. The Lord of the Rings is absolutely rich in how multi-layered and complex it is, and Tolkien created an entire universe – and you can constantly feel it, both in the book and in the films, that there is something much bigger at play here, and the entire universe is so well-constructed and deeply intricate. I am well aware that this is bordering on simply praising the book rather than the films – but there is a point here – Jackson seems to have paid particular attention to displaying Tolkien’s detailed universe here, and while Jackson has ventured into the world of exploring the rest of Middle Earth, his greatest achievement has to be The Lord of the Rings, and he brought it to a considerably brilliant ending with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
There isn’t much else to say, honestly. The same statements I made in the previous reviews hold true to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as well – visually stunning, with great production design and superb cinematography. Howard Shore’s score is used perfectly here, and some of the original songs are amazing as well. As a whole, each and every member of the cast and crew were at the top of their game while making this film, and it shows – there is hardly a flaw to be seen throughout this film, and once you get through the mammoth running-time of four hours (if you watched the Extended Edition, which is superior in every way) the film packs an emotional blow. It isn’t clear exactly why, but the film just ends on a perfect note, and personally I could not ask for a better conclusion to an iconic trilogy.
In conclusion, I would like to just say something about the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy – I honestly enjoyed them more than most film series, and with the exception of Star Wars (the original trilogy, obviously), there hasn’t been a more perfect film trilogy. The films look beautiful, the acting is absolutely sublime and the films as a whole are epic in every sense of the word. Peter Jackson may forever be seen as the director who made Lord of the Rings only, and all his future work can be disregarded for this fact. I honestly adored the trilogy, and with the emotional resonance these films have, it is not a surprise that many people hold them dear to their hearts. So if you haven’t seen them already, then I urge you to do so – you will not regret it. They are just simply perfect, and while they do lack the literary magic of Tolkien’s book, they are nonetheless absolutely mesmerizing, and I only wish I could experience watching them for the first time again, because it was the very definition of cinematic magic.