Saturday, October 12, 2013

Film #105: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Director: Peter Jackson

Original Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: six or seven

*Note: The Lord of the Rings (LotR) trilogy was considered a single film by the list compilers at TIME, but I have reviewed each film separately. Here was my review for the first installment, The Fellowship of theRing; my review of The Two Towers is here.

Legolas Quick-Draw-and-Fire Summary

The hobbits are still little, but the stakes and fights are way, way, way bigger. “End of Middle Earth” bigger.

Extended Summary

*If you’d really like to dork out, you can check out thiseven-more detailed summary at imdb.

Following the defeat of Saruman’s army at Helm’s Deep, Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and King Theodrin make their way to the evil sorcerer’s tower, where the wizard is trapped and surrounded. The companions reunite with Merry and Pippin, who have been awaiting their friends. Aragorn and Theodrin attempt to convince Saruman to assist them by telling them of the Dark Lord Sauron’s plans, but the wizard is slain by a vengeful Wormtongue before he can provide any information. The group leaves the White Tower and heads back to Edoras.

Not far from Osgiliath, where Faramir freed them, Sam, Frodo, and Gollum continue their way towards Gollum’s promised “alternative path” to Mount Doom. Sam, overhearing Gollum telling himself about luring the hobbits into a trap, is convinced that the shifty creature is leading them to their deaths. Frodo, however, sees no choice but to trust their guide.

Frodo, Gollum, and Sam prepare for their incursion into Mordor. Of course, the scuzzy critter in the middle doesn't exactly help their cause.

Back in Edoras, Pippin makes the foolish decision to take hold of a “Seeing Stone” which they had discovered back at Saruman’s tower. The stone allows the user to peer into Sauron’s mind to an extent, but it also allows the Dark Lord to see back. Pippin is freed from the stone by Aragorn, and whisked away from Edoras by Gandalf, who knows that the hobbit’s location will now be known to Sauron. He decides that they must make towards Minas Tirith, where he can begin to muster the city’s defenses against the imminent attack which Pippin saw in Sauron’s mind.

When Pippin and Gandalf arrive in Minas Tirith, they find that the grand city’s steward, Denethor, is wracked with grief and despair due to learning of his favored son, Boromir’s, death. Denethor is too absorbed in his own self importance and pain to heed Gandalf’s pleas that he prepare the city for an oncoming attack from nearby Mordor. Gandalf and Pippin then take the initiative and slyly ignite the city’s beacon system.

When the beacon arrives far off in Edoras, King Theodrin subdues his displeasure at Gondor’s past lack of assistance to his own people and musters his men to head for Minas Tirith. His daughter, Eowhin, disguises herself as a male warrior and joins the hurried march.

Back in Mordor, Sam, Frodo, and Gollum have entered and lain eyes on the imposing Minas Morgul, the massive black fortress that is home to the Witch King Angmar, the most powerful of all of the ring wraiths. The hobbits and Gollum witness the pouring out of a massive army of Sauron’s forces, just before they begin to ascend a massive staircase up the side of a mountain – this is Gollum’s secret path into Mordor.

The hobbits and Gollum ascend the path around Minas Morgul, with a massive force of monsters marching below.

Back in Minas Tirith, Faramir, son of Denethor and brother of the departed Boromir, attempts to head off Sauron’s forces in Osgiliath, but he meets defeat after a pitched nighttime battle.

In the middle of the march to Minas Tirith, Aragorn and his companions begin to doubt their chances of victory. However, help arrives in the form of the elf king Elrond. Elrond gives him the newly re-forged sword of Aragorn’s ancestor king. The sword gives them new hope, but more will be needed. At Elrond’s urging, Aragorn makes into a nearby mountain pass which is haunted by an army of ghosts who had betrayed Aragorn’s ancestor two millennia earlier. Accompanied by Legolas and Gimli, Aragorn braves the spectral mountain, faces off with the ghostly leader of the traitors, and convinces them to follow him. Aragorn vows that, should the ghost army fight with him, he will release them from their cursed existence.

Back in Minas Tirith, the final battle has now begun. From their newly captured center at Osgiliath, Sauron’s forces attack The White City. The massive horde of all manner of creatures – including, orcs, trolls, Uruk-hai, goblins, and others – bombard the city’s defenses relentlessly. However, every time Sauron’s army seems to be on the verge of taking the city, help arrives. First, it is from King Theodrin, who leads his Rohirrim into the flank of the attacking army. For a while, the forces of good seem to be gaining the upper hand. However, the Witch King Angmar joins the fray and takes out Theodrin. Just when the tide of battle seems to be swinging back to Sauron’s side, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli attack from Osgiliath with their ghost army. With their forces bolstered, the defenders of Minas Tirith wipe out the attackers. Among the slain is the powerful Witch King, whom Eowhin herself has dispatched.

Gandalf looks on from Minas Tirith, the tremendous forces of the Witch King Angmar approaching to topple the glorious city.

Inside Mordor, Gollum finally makes his move. As Sam had feared, he leads Frodo into a deadly trap. Leading Frodo into a dark cave and then abandoning him, he leaves the hobbit to be attacked by Shelob – a massive carnivorous spider. Frodo is initially poisoned into paralysis by Shelob, but Sam comes to the rescue and fights off the vicious creature. Frodo is initially taken by some nearby orcs to a stronghold, but is freed once again when Sam capitalizes on infighting and manages to pull his friend away.

In Minas Tirith, the champions of the city take little time to celebrate. They realize that, despite their victory, Sauron has more forces that he can send after them. They also realize that, as long as the Ring of Power still exists, Sauron will never be defeated. Aragorn realizes that their only hope of true victory is to give Frodo enough time to reach Mount Doom and destroy the ring. To do so, Aragorn and the remaining forces of good decide to bring the fight to Sauron at Mordor. When they arrive at the Black Gate of Mordor, Aragorn, who has now fully accepted the mantel of “King,” goads Sauron’s forces into emerging from behind their walls. This pulls the attention of the Dark Lord away from inside Mordor.

Deep within Mordor, Sam and Frodo have been struggling their way towards Mount Doom. Frodo can barely walk, so weighed down is he by the power and burden of the ring. He and Sam are unsure of how to approach Mount Doom without being noticed by Sauron’s ever-searching massive eye. That is, until all of the forces make for the Black Gate to confront Aragorn’s army. The way is now clear for them.

At the Black Gates, Aragorn's army (center) are surrounded by Sauron's remaining hordes. This provides the distraction that Sam and Frodo need inside Mordor to dispatch the ring.

Sam physically carries Frodo up towards the entrance of Mount Doom, only to be waylaid by Gollum, who goes after the ring. Amid the scuffle, Frodo breaks free and enters Mount Doom. He at first makes as if to drop the ring into the pit of fire, thus destroying it, but at the last moment, he refuses. The ever-corrupting power of the ring has finally corrupted even Frodo, who puts the ring on and becomes invisible, which also alerts Sauron to the ring’s presence. Before Frodo can escape, though, Gollum reemerges and finds him, literally biting the ring off his finger. The two struggle over the ring, with it and Gollum eventually falling over the edge and into the pit of fire. Both Gollum and the ring are destroyed, and the Dark Lord Sauron is finally defeated.

The forces of good have finally and completely triumphed. Aragorn is officially recognized as the first true king of mankind in over two millennia, and Arwhen decides to forsake her elfish immortality and join him at his side. The remaining elves embark on their ships for “The Undying Lands,” taking the now very-aged Bilbo with them. Surprisingly, Frodo takes the elves invitation to join them in their journey away from Middle Earth. Frodo’s tribulations have left scars, physical and otherwise, that prevent him from ever living a normal life in Middle Earth again. And so, he bids his friends farewell and sails away.

In the end, Sam, Merry and Pippin all return to Hobbiton, where Sam re-assumes his life as a humble gardener, marries his sweetheart, and has a family.

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing)

Still the best film of the three, though one that has, like its predecessors, lost just a bit of its magic to me. The reasons are similar.

So much of LoTR: Return of the King is still an absolute blast to watch. So much so that I wished that I’d been able to see it on the big screen again, though I don’t know if my backside could have taken the endless sitting (the extended edition clocks it at nearly four hours).

True to its epic form, the entire third act of LoTR brings things to a massive and mostly satisfying conclusion. It probably would have been easy for any filmmaker to let a few plot threads dangle or try to inject too many of the countless minutiae from the source novels. Peter Jackson and his co-writers did no such thing, though. As massive as the plot and cast of characters are, it never feels too bloated, and virtually every scene and interaction either is central to the story or deepens our view of the battle for Middle Earth.

The inclusion of the Dead Men of Dunharrow may at first seem self-indulgent to Peter Jackson's horror whims, but it ties perfectly well into the larger plot. Not to mention it provides some of the most awesome scenes in the film, such as this one when they storm Osgiliath.

When taken with the first two installments, Return of the King completes the tale magnificently. Everything that is hinted at or brought up in the first two films finds its closure by the end. Aragorn’s place as the unwilling king; Theodrin’s ill will towards the Gondorians; Gandalf’s descent into death and rebirth as the new White Wizard; the hobbits’ noble attempts to be a part of something far greater than their humble selves; all of it comes together in the epic battle at Minas Tirith.

The fight at Minas Tirith is, as one would hope, the grandest of all in the series. As entertaining as the battle of Helm’s Deep is in The Two Towers, Minas Tirith cranks everything up to tremendous levels. From the initial assault, featuring wicked black dragons snatching defenders off the parapets and hurling them back into the city, to the nearly endless waves of monsters and beasts of war charging the forces of man, it’s simply eye-popping to behold. Again, it does lose something on anything smaller than the true big screen, but I still found myself captivated taking it all again for the umpteenth time.

Return of the King also adds in some new elements and players, which only enhance the film’s strengths. The inclusion of the ghastly Dead Men of Dunharrow is a great touch of the truly supernatural into the fantasy setting. Tapping into his horror roots, Jackson makes this ghoulish army as terrifying as it is awesome. There’s no small amount of satisfaction in seeing their spectral green forms wash over Sauron’s forces first at Osgiliath and then on the field of battle outside of Minas Tirith.

With all the fun that Return of the King provides, it still has lost a bit of luster, in similar fashion to, and for the same reasons that the previous two films have: Frodo and Sam’s part of the story. I completely understand that, actually, Frodo’s mission is by far the most crucial to the entire plot. And I understand that the relationship between him and Sam is the quiet heart and soul of the entire epic tale. Still, their trek through treacherous Mordor is painstakingly long, especially at the end. By the time Sam utters the words, “I can’t carry the ring for you, Mister Frodo, BUT I CAN CARRY YOU!!” I’m worn out with their love-fest.

Sam carries Frodo. The first time you see this scene, in the edited version of the film, it may carry an emotional punch. After that, though, it strikes as tiresome and sentimental.

On top of that is what may be the most dragged out, laborious ending in film history. I get it – this is an eight-hour-plus film trilogy (ten-plus if you watch the director’s cuts), so it’s going to take longer to provide closure for everything that has transpired. But really, it’s hard not to feel that the end of the story should be shortly after the victory at Minas Tirith, or at the very least, after Sam and Frodo finally destroy the ring. And yet, the movie keeps going for nearly thirty minutes AFTER that. The first or even second time I watched them, I didn’t notice it. But after you’ve seen the films several times, the ending can feel rather glacial.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is still a monumental achievement in film. It’s bound to be many years, and even decades, before a film series translates the true spirit of fantasy storytelling with such outstanding visual effects, action, and adventure as Peter Jackson did. He’s trying to replicate it with The Hobbit as I write this, but even if the prequel tale’s three films are as good, they will still be in the shadow of their earlier, grander cinematic translations. I may not be as enamored of the series as I was for several years after their release, but they truly set a standard that I don’t see being matched for a very long time.

And that is, truly and completely, a wrap. 105 shows down. And that is all.

Coming Soon: Wrap Party!! - Where I do a recap of my last three-and-a-half years of working through this entire list and revisit my favorite and most despised films from the 105 that I watched. 

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.