“All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.” Simple wisdom from Gandalf hides much larger ramifications in “The Return of the King,” the third and final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy “The Lord of the Rings.” The stakes are higher, the dangers are unavoidable, and the fate of Middle Earth is in absolute turmoil. The story follows Frodo and Sam on their tumultuous journey into the heart of Mordor to destroy the One Ring, while the last remaining forces of mankind do battle against the evil eye of Sauron. A magnificent and glorious achievement, the film marks the last chapter in director Peter Jackson’s visionary Tolkien interpretation. And with epic-like fervor, it concludes as a monumental triumph poised to wear the cinematic crown.
The story opens with a flashback. Smeagol and friend, Deagol, are quietly fishing. Then suddenly, Deagol gets a bite and is pulled into the water. While under water, he discovers a mysterious ring. But shortly after coming ashore, he is greeted by Smeagol, who kills him in a jealous rage. Over time, the dark powers of the ring take effect on Smeagol, transforming him into the tortured wretch known as Gollum. It is here, where the story moves to the present day. Frodo and Sam are inching their way closer to Mount Doom in an effort to destroy the One Ring. And accompanying them is Gollum, who knows his way around Mordor, but is acting suspicious in Sam’s eyes. Leading them into the heart of evil, Gollum concocts an elaborate scheme to get the ring back, one that will test the strength and valor of the little hobbits.
Meanwhile, Sauron’s forces have amassed at Osgiliath and taken over. Their next stop: Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor and last major stronghold of mankind. While Gandolph and Pippin race to Minas Tirith to rally the troops, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Merry stay with the Riders of Rohan to round up as many able men as possible before rendezvousing at the capital of Gondor. However, their hopes are doused when the Rohirrim are only able to gather a small force, barely enough to break through enemy lines. Before departing for Minas Tirith, a surprise visit from an influential friend persuades Aragorn to seek the help of the undead, a dangerous mission of which no man has ever returned alive.
With time running out, will Sam and Frodo make it to Mount Doom to dispose of the ring? Will Minas Tirith withstand the brunt of Sauron? And will Aragorn become the man he was born to be?
“The Return of the King” is a truly remarkable accomplishment, made even more so when viewed alongside the other films in the trilogy. Logging in at three and a half hours, the film rarely has a moment without a sense of urgency. Even when Frodo and Sam have stopped for a cliffside nap, you get the sense that Gollum is irritated and restless, ready to pounce and snatch his precious ring. So much is at stake in this final chapter that one bad decision could have disastrous consequences: Faramir’s suicide mission, Frodo placing trust in Gollum, or Aragorn’s decision to venture through the Paths of the Dead. For every action, there is an equal or greater reaction and unlike the second installment, “The Two Towers,” this film is decisive.
The problem in viewing “The Return of the King” as a stand-alone piece is that it is not a stand-alone piece. It is not a typical film in which characters are introduced and developed over the course of the film; there is no beginning, only an end; and there isn’t a single acting performance that shines above the rest (save for Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee). As a typical story goes, this is the climax. The characters have already been developed, the stage has been set and subplots unveiled, and all you have left is the resolution. Furthermore, no single acting performance stands out because combined, it is an extraordinary ensemble effort.
Without question, “The Return of the King” utilizes the most incredible, sophisticated special effects rendered in film today. The WETA Digital team should be commended for bringing to life such awe inspiring battles and magical creatures: Huge cave trolls launch catapults and move siege towers, armed Mumakil stomp on men and horses, and Black Riders atop Nazgul shriek and wreak havoc on the battlefield, picking up soldiers and dropping them miles below to their death. Even Shelob, the sinister spider in Mordor, gave me the chills with her creepy legs and biting chelicerae. Of course, I could not mention special effects wizardry without mentioning the appearance of Gollum. Andy Serkis and the group of animators do a phenomenal job in making him lifelike and less rubbery a la Jar Jar Binks. Just watch the details – the glassy stares, the hidden smirk after Frodo sides with him, or the scene in which he converses with his alter ego, reflected in a stream. It’s priceless.
Director Peter Jackson has given up blood, sweat, and tears to create this masterpiece and I feel privileged to have seen it. Few filmmakers would have the guts to put something like this together and to do so back to back to back. Sure, the film has great special effects, a picture perfect cast, and a classic story for its foundation. But the most enduring aspect is that it captures the spirit and essence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world in a way that enhances the imagination. Does Faramir really lead a suicide march into Osgiliath for the affection of his father? Does Saruman escape from his prison at Isengaard? Does Sam wear the ring to rescue Frodo? And what about the raising of the Shire? The beauty of these films is that they are not literal translations of the work; they are meant to be supplements, discussed and analyzed till your heart’s content.
“Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow” (Romeo and Juliet). Yes, I could go on and on about the significance of this work. And certainly, you can’t fault Jackson for not wanting the film to end. “The Return of the King” has five or six plausible endings, yet continues to proceed in epilogue fashion, detailing the significance of the Grey Havens and the departures of Frodo, Sam, and the mythical folk. It’s elegant, yet sad to see such a beautiful thing come to an end. But there is hope. There have been rumors that Jackson may come back to do the film version of “The Hobbit” after shooting a remake of the classic “King Kong.” And wouldn’t that be wonderful? To go there and back again?
“The Return of the King” is the icing on the cake for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” interpretation. It’s a bittersweet finale to one gigantic masterpiece, rich with character, ambience, and exhilarating action. And it’s sure to provide many more hours of wondrous debate and discussion about the intricacies of Middle Earth and its history, which would have been precisely what Tolkien would have wanted – to stir the imagination. Fortunately, with award season around the corner and the lasting power of DVDs, that imagination could be rewarded and stirred for quite some time.