NOTE: This is a review of the theatrical version of The Return of the King.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King raised the stakes for fantasy epics, as well as large, grand-scale filmmaking as a whole. It has not only the hardware — it’s one of three films to win the most (11) Academy Awards — but the legacy to prove it. Through 200 sprawling minutes, it does ostensibly the impossible. It reintroduces us to the characters with whom we’ve spent anywhere from six to eight hours (depending on if you’ve indulged in the theatrical or extended cuts); lifts us up to great emotional heights; plunges us back down when fate has its way with some of them; ties up its many plot-threads; and ultimately rewards the viewer’s commitment with a final act for the ages.
The Return of the King is so uniformly strong that it boosted the quality of its predecessors in my mind, if predominately in a contextual sense. I found The Two Towers marginally laborious; victim to the ordinary problem that numerous middle chapters face insofar that they theoretically have no formal beginning and no satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, it’s a necessary installment, and, in hindsight, it has more than a few great scenes to bolster its essentiality in one of the greatest trilogies in the history of cinema.
The film shows the fragmented-but-not-broken members of the Fellowship embarking on the final leg of their journey to Mount Doom, where the young hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) look to destroy the One Ring. Underscoring the impact of the moment is an enormous battle at Minas Tirith, where “the doom of our time will be decided.” It is the battle to end all battles and Peter Jackson and company conduct it as such. So seamlessly does Jackson and the tireless army of VFX workers marry live-action and computer-generated scenes of spectacle. Dueling armies comprised of thousands of foot-soldiers, and even more on towering creatures of both land and Middle-earth, collide in a thunderous display of technical wizardry and cinematic tapestry.
But back to the story. Frodo and Sam are guided into the dark land of Mordor by Sméagol (Andy Serkis), whose loyalty to the two hobbits is waning. Throughout The Two Towers, he was battling his alternate personality in Gollum, who wants the Ring (“my precious”) back in his possession. He’s a pathetic cretin for whom you pity even more when the film’s prologue shows Sméagol and his cousin Déagol (Thomas Robins) happening upon the Ring while fishing. The outcome is unsettling, and shows the nefarious and evil spirit of Gollum festering inside Sméagol back when he still wore clothes and walked on two feet.
Meanwhile, Gandalf the White (Ian McKellen); Aragorn the ranger (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) finally reunite with their two hobbit friends Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) following the battle of Isengard. This converges The Two Towers‘ trio of plotlines in two. One follows the Ring’s corruption of Frodo starting to take place, rendering him paranoid and distrusting of Sam. The other, follows the aforementioned six to Minas Tirith while Aragorn prepares to assume the title of King of Gondor, hence the title.
As with its predecessors, The Return of the King is at its best when it retains focus on the bond shared between Frodo and Sam, even as that bond becomes untethered by Frodo’s descent into darkness. I find the relationship between these two hobbits fundamentally more complex and intrinsically relatable than I do the saga of Aragorn, who I still can’t help but feel is more in-line with generic action warriors.
Wood and Astin have grown with each installment, strengthening the kind of chemistry that arises from two performers who have spent many waking hours in costume together. You get the sense that during their mutual gazes at one another, most notably in the final minutes of this film, they’re sharing those moments of happiness and relief not solely as the characters they play but as individuals for whom they have boundless respect.
Both Wood and Astin are at the center of what I’d consider the film’s most terrifying battle, and it’s not in a field surrounded by thousands of armor-clad swordsmen. It’s in a cavernous tower where a spider the size of an apartment building attacks and traps Frodo in a thick webbing. He’s not dead; he’s simply a packaged meal to be consumed by the spider, named Shelob, later. After a parting of ways, Sam shows up in the knick of time to at least assure his friend gets some air while he remains unconscious.
Epics of this nature sometimes move too briskly to deliver delightful human moments such as this one. Writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson populate The Return of the King with several of them, interrupting intensely choreographed battles for somber moments of reflection and a reminder of the stakes present. In the sense of pacing, the third chapter is much more closely aligned with The Fellowship of the Ring in terms of its natural ebbs and flows. Moreover, that spider is legit terrifying; maybe a better and more convincing CGI creation than Treebeard.
Most films that exceed three hours — much more those like The Lord of the Rings, that are brimful with characters, mythology, intersecting and isolated motives, and massive battle sequences — are going to be subject to occasional lulls and slower passages. The only character whose saga concludes without an accompanying emotional crescendo is that of Arwen’s (Liv Tyler), the half-elf faced with the decision of renouncing her elfin immortality in order to be the queen to Aragorn’s king, or continue the life to which she’s accustomed. Throughout these films, Arwen as a character hasn’t been graced with the similar depth and detail that someone (something?) like Gollum possesses. It’s probably more of a fault of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing than anything, but her narrative arc doesn’t quite communicate the sheer gravity of her decision.
Finally, there’s Denethor (John Noble), father of Boromir (Sean Bean) and Faramir (David Wenham) and unsavory Steward of Gondor. The writers carve out a small but potent section of the film dedicated to the grief he faces over the death of Boromir, leaving Faramir compelled to carry out a suicide mission no matter what outcome transpired. The outcome that does, however, is perhaps far more saddening, yet also emotionally stirring.
Some might say I did myself a disservice opting for the theatrical versions of The Lord of the Rings as opposed to the extended editions, which add roughly an hour to each installment (The Return of the King‘s extended cut clocks in at 251 minutes, or four hours and 12 minutes). That’s an assignment I will take on at another point in time; I’ve purchased a Blu-Ray boxset of the three, if there’s any undue speculation. My own apprehension to the series was largely due to my own aversion to the fantasy genre as a whole. I concede that I emerge not fully understanding every character nor motivation in this series, nor do I even think of taking any kind of Tolkien-centric quiz to get a score of my knowledge of this trilogy. I’m of the firm belief you would’ve had to have latched on this series at a young age (early adolescence, perhaps) in order to become seriously invested on an emotional level that proved lasting. I’m not quite sure I’m there, or if I’ll ever be. And that’s just fine with me.
But I’ve seen enough films and studied the medium for long enough to know this: The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a stunning cinematic achievement. There have and will surely be others. But as they come, Peter Jackson’s genre gold-standard will remain to remind them all who got there first.
NOTE: As of this writing, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is currently streaming on both Netflix and HBO Max.
Starring: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Karl Urban, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Noble, Ian Holm, Sean Bean, Marton Csokas, Lawrence Makoare, and Thomas Robbins. Directed by: Peter Jackson.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!