Combustible Celluloid
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With: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, David Wenham, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, John Noble, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, Sean Bean, Ian Holm
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien
Directed by: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images
Running Time: 201
Date: 11/30/2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'King' Jackson

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

And so here it ends, this magnificent epic that took seven years to make and three years to watch. Though it has its occasional flaws, the project as a whole stands as a significant achievement in the history of movies.

That director Peter Jackson was able to consistently sustain such a complicated -- and, frankly, potentially dull -- story over nearly 12 hours, juggling at least two-dozen characters over criss-crossing storylines and massive battle sequences, is something of a minor miracle.

Consider the very few successful world films that run this long: only Edgar Reitz's Heimat films, Bela Tarr's Satantango and Christine Edzard's Little Dorrit rank anywhere near it. (Of course this is not counting TV films such as Berlin Alexanderplatz or The Decalogue.) Then think about the varying quality of other recent trilogies and series' such as The Matrix or the recent Star Wars films, and The Lord of the Rings stands alone.

As a single three-hour plus film, The Return of the King is an outstanding entertainment, staging battle sequences that make The Last Samurai look small and pathetic, crafting suspense sequences that left imprints of my clutched fingers on the arms of my seat.

But here's the problem: the thing just doesn't end. At the closing of the original 1977 Star Wars, George Lucas included an almost unbearable ceremonial scene in which our freshly washed heroes smiled at each other and accepted medals while triumphant music blared. The Return of the King includes about a dozen scenes of that same type.

Just when you think you've seen the last coronation, ceremony, tearful goodbye, wedding, etc. -- followed by a fade-out -- another scene starts afresh, another ceremony or another tearful goodbye. It can be a bit unsettling, especially if your legs need stretching or your bladder is bursting.

But after 12 hours, we can easily forgive Jackson his need for closure, to say goodbye to these Hobbits and Elves and Ents that he's spent so much of his life with. Clearly this was a film he dearly loved making.

This final chapter chronicles Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) as they make the final leg of the journey to Mordor, accompanied by the treacherous Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) -- who has begun to subtly turn Frodo against Sam.

Meanwhile, Pippin (Billy Boyd) has accidentally bought Frodo some time by messing around with a magic ball, causing Sauron to believe that he is the Ringbearer. So Gandalf (Ian McKellen) whisks Pippin away to Gondor, to await the final battle. Gondor is controlled by the crazy Denethor (John Noble), father of Faramir (David Wenham) and the late Boromir (Sean Bean).

At the same time, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) remain at Rohan with King Theoden (Bernard Hill) and the king's niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto). Even Pippin's friend Merry (Dominic Monaghan) prepares for battle.

Aragorn learns that his true love, the Elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) has become mortal and is dying, unless Aragorn can win his fight and get to her. And so just before the big battle begins, the trio rides off to enlist some help -- an army of the dead.

It all comes down to the final moments as Frodo and Sam attempt to throw the ring into the fires of Mordor while the heroes hold the battlefield below.

Somehow each film in the series has revealed a single standout performer. In the first, McKellen shone as the powerful but compassionate Gandalf. In the second, Andy Serkis gave us a creepy, conflicted Gollum/Smeagol. This time, it's Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee. As Frodo gets more and more befuddled by the power of the ring, Sam steps up more and more often and very nearly becomes the hero of the piece.

The film's most memorable moment has Frodo standing on the precipice, just above the fires of Mordor. He holds out the ring but can't let go. Sam screams at him to drop it. Jackson hangs on to the moment for an impossibly long time, causing us to squirm and making us want to shout along with Sam. "For crying out loud, just drop it!"

But it's all over now. Die-hard fans shouldn't be too sad, however. We still have next year's inevitable "extended director's cut" DVD release to look forward to. Meanwhile, Jackson -- who yesterday won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle award for Best Director -- has earned a much-needed rest.

DVD Details (Theatrical Version): The first Return of the King DVD runs 200 minutes, which is about as long as the two "Extended" DVD editions of the previous two films. As of now, the total running time is 10 hours and 31 minutes, but I imagine that will increase when the third and final "Extended" edition comes out later this year. Everyone knows that this initial two-disc set is merely for people who can't wait for the "Extended" version, and it's still pretty great. It has spectacular picture quality; the digital creatures look excellent on the small screen, and it has just about the highest sound quality I've ever heard.

Watching the film again, I realized that its greatness lies not so much in what it achieves, but in what it doesn't do. Jackson sustains his story throughout the ten hours with perfect clarity; we never get confused or bored, which is not something that can be said about the Star Wars or Matrix films. It also has an organic, homemade feel, and the enthusiasm of the people behind it is palpable. So many films are made with arrogance and contempt for their audience, and this is a refreshing exception.

Unfortunately, the extras on this disc are all the same formula featurettes with footage of the films spliced together with talking head interviews. Once again, the DVD-Rom features are not compatible with Macintosh, and so I was not able to view them. The only interesting bit is the "Supertrailer," a six-and-a-half minute trailer for the entire epic. I guess they're saving the good extras for the "Extended" edition.

DVD Details (Expanded Edition): At last it's finished. The total running time is now 681 minutes, or 11 hours and 35 minutes. That's one spectacular epic, flowing beautifully from beginning to end with no dragging. The final DVD is a four-disc set packed with the expected extras: four feature-length commentary tracks, 13 featurettes, photo galleries with optional commentaries, plus interactive maps to show you the way. These DVD sets have truly re-defined excellence.

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