Oscar Movie Month: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" Review

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The third and final film in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King opens to find Middle-earth on the cusp of great change. Weary hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) venture further into the dark realm of Mordor, guided by the increasingly desperate Gollum (Andy Serkis), the two-faced former owner of the Ring that Frodo must destroy in the fires of Mount Doom.
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Oscar Movie Month: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" Review

-- Rating: PG-13 (intense epic battle sequences, frightening images)
Length: 201 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 17, 2003
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy

The conventional Hollywood wisdom regarding movie trilogies is that the second and third installments will not be as great as the first. When "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" was about to come out in theaters, lots of people thought for sure that the film could not top the epic scope of the first two movies in the franchise. They were wrong. Not only does the final installment surpass the first two, it leaves them in the dust and is arguably one of the best sagas to ever make it into a movie theater.

The story begins where "The Two Towers" left off, with hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) and best friend Sam (Sean Astin) about to enter Mordor, where they must complete their journey. Mordor is home to Mount Doom, a fiery volcano where the evil ring that Frodo has been tasked with guarding must be thrown into the fire. Once the ring is destroyed, Middle Earth will be saved. Joining the two hobbits on the journey is the lecherous Gollum (Andy Serkis), whom they must rely on to get to Mount Doom, even though he is hardly trustworthy.

Meanwhile, forces are gathering to stop the destruction of the ring, which means an all-out war is likely to ensue. Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is a master warrior who must lead the rest of the heroes into battle, including Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who is the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor. All the forces amass at Minas Tirith, where a great battle takes place that will decide the ultimate fates of all involved. Most films of this nature would end there, allowing the audience to wallow in either the victory or defeat of the heroes. This film is different, however, because the last twenty minutes serves as an epilogue that explains what happened to the surviving characters after the war is over. It is an unusual yet satisfying conclusion to a grand trilogy that not only pays homage to the J.R.R. Tolkien book, but may have surpassed it in terms of excitement and entertainment.

There are many action scenes in this film, and each one of them is done on a huge scale that makes for some very tasty cinematic eye candy. No expense was spared in the making of the film, with a budget that was estimated at $94 million. That may seem tame by today's $200 million budget standards, but in 2003, it was a risky proposition for a film. The risk more than paid off, since the film grossed over $377 million worldwide, not including DVD or merchandise sales. That also didn't include premium 3D tickets, since the film was released before the post-"Avatar" 3D and IMAX craze. This only serves to illustrate just how huge the box office intake was. Luckily, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is more than worthy of all the money, Golden Globes, and Oscars that it raked in.

The performances in the film are solid from top to bottom, but much of the credit for the film has to go to director Peter Jackson. He made a film that was not only worthy of capping such an epic trilogy, but he also created a piece of art. The three hours and twenty minutes of running time seem to go by in a flash because the viewers are completely immersed in the world of these heroes and villains. The film is also a technical joy to look at, with CGI effects worked seamlessly into the live action. This is especially evident with Gollum, who moves and talks with the fluidity of a live human, even though he is computer generated. In fact, he is so realistic that he almost steals the show from the rest of the actors.

Jackson is clearly a fan of Tolkien, is well-versed in all things hobbit, and isn't afraid to show how intimate his knowledge of the books is. Those books have everything anyone could desire out of an epic tale-love, loss, tragedy, and triumph. All of these are present in "The Return of the King," which is why the audience is likely to have a very visceral reaction to the film. Viewers will laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. They will leave the theater emotionally exhausted yet exquisitely happy at what they have seen. This is the type of response that can only be drawn by the very best of films that the movie industry has to offer. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is among those films.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars