Thursday, June 6, 2013



The Academy's choice of Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING as the best picture of 2003 is significant on several levels: it was the first win ever for a film in the fantasy/adventure genre, the second win for a sequel (the first being GODFATHER II in 1974), and the first for a third film in a series, and it was also the first film since 1997's TITANIC to top the box office for the year while also winning best picture.  In many ways, its victory seemed inevitable because it was the last chance to give a best picture award to a film series that obviously impressed Oscar voters from the very start (the first two films in the series, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING and THE TWO TOWERS had already won six awards between them).  Personally,  I find all three films highly entertaining, and really about as good as big budget main stream Hollywood filmmaking can get.  And while I don't think that THE RETURN OF THE KING is the best in the series, it still an exciting and great looking adventure movie, with effects that still impress ten years later.

It all began in 1936 when English Oxford professor JRR Tolkien published a book that he had initially written only for his own children called THE HOBBIT.  Its success with both children and adults led to the inevitable sequel, the massive, and much more serious novel,  THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  (When it was originally published in 1954,  the book publishers demanded it be cut into three separate novels, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE TWO TOWERS, and THE RETURN OF THE KING).  Influenced by  the ancient poem BEOWULF, his own Catholic beliefs and European mythology in general, the books became massively successful, and they have never stopped finding an audience, becoming some of the most widely read novels of the twentieth century.
Given their popularity, a film version of the novels would seem inevitable, and the film rights of the novels were purchased by United Artists as far back as the late 1960's, but the enormous difficulty of bringing a fantasy world full of magical creatures to the screen seemed insurmountable.   In 1978 animator Ralph Bakshi made a feature length animated version that covered the entire first book and half of the second, but the film was a disappointment (although Jackson has admitted to using some of its imagery in his films).  A made for TV followup in 1980, not worked on by Bakshi, was far worse, reducing the story to a simple kiddie film.  Finally, in the 1990's, it looked like special effects had advanced to the level where Tolkien's middle earth could finally be brought to the screen properly. At least that's what New Zealand born director Peter Jackson thought while making the 1996 horror comedy THE FRIGHTENERS, especially because he had just formed a special effects company called Weta, and Tolkien's novels seemed like an ideal challenge.  So, Jackson and his writing partner Fran Walsh began trying to sort out the rights for the film; it took so long that at one point, it appeared that Jackson was going to make his dream project, a remake of KING KONG, first. (He would eventually make that  film in 2005). But, finally at New Line pictures, Jackson got what he wanted: three separate films, to be shot in New Zealand,  mostly all at once,  with each film being released a year apart.  It was a massive undertaking, with Jackson pressured to produce a film series that would satisfy both long term fans of Tolkien and a new generation of movie goers who may never have heard of the novels.  Along with that, the films would have to have huge budgets, requiring numerous location shooting, thousands of extras in full costumes and makeup and of course cutting edge special effects.  (It was such a massive undertaking that there were often four or five separate film units shooting footage simultaneously) Fortunately for New Line and Jackson, the first film, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, was a huge hit from the get go; its popularity led to New Line allowing him to film more scenes  and add effects for the second and third films, making them even more visually impressive than the first.  By the time THE RETURN OF THE KING was released in 2003, its success was guaranteed, and it would go on to make $357,000,000; the overall budget for all three films was around $300,000.  It would also get 14 Academy Award nominations, winning 11 in all, tying it with TITANIC and BEN HUR for most overall wins.

As the film opens, Frodo (Elijah Wood)  Sam (Sean Astin) and the treacherous Gollum (Andy Serkis) are making their way to Mordor to destroy the evil Sauron's  ring of power that Frodo is carrying.  Meanwhile, their friends Aragorn (Vigo Mortinsen) and Gandalf (Ian McCellen) work to defend the castle of Gondor from the orc hordes of Sauron.

Elijah Wood & Scott Astin

Jackson has often referred to all three films singularly as "the film", and if one watches all three films together in a marathon viewing, you can see his point.  The three films really do function as one big movie, and if the scope of the films grows, with more characters and settings, along with big battles leading to even bigger ones, it seems like a natural progression.  And Jackson gets so much of it right, from the casting to the effects, that the films have gone beyond just being hits of their era to timeless movies that new generations of fans will gladly grab on to, not unlike George Lucas's original STAR WARS trilogy. And like Lucas, Jackson really created a lived in, detailed fantasy world.  And the effects not only looked great, they created real characters, like Gollum and Tree Beard.  In finding the right actors for the films, Jackson went with the right performers instead of trying to find big name stars, and every role rings true; you're never reminded that these are actors responding  to green screens and computer generated monsters. From Ian McKellen's wise Gandalf to the likable comic relief of Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd), the film is fully of immediately recognizable and likable characters.   And while the dialogue occasionally seems a bit stilted, ("So passes Denethor, son of Ecthelion.") the actors clearly respect the material and play it straight, with good results.

The battle of  Gondor

Of all the various subplots and characters that run through all three films, the one that really holds the story together is the charming relationship between Wood's troubled Frodo and Astin's ever faithful Sam; yes, in movies full of epic battles and monsters, the real heart and soul of the story lies in the sweetness of these two unlikely heroes.  Astin seems to almost radiate goodness and decency as Sam, and over the course of the three movies we will see him follow Frodo anywhere, bravely fighting off orcs and (in one of the most exciting moments of the entire series) a horrifying giant spider; if the script gives Sam  one too many speeches about how much he loves and misses the Shire, Astin delivers them well enough to never lose the audience's affection.  And at one point, when Frodo wrongly believes Gollum over Sam,  and pushes Sam away, it's probably the most moving moment of any of the films.

While I have much praise for the films overall, looked at individually, THE RETURN OF THE KING is my least favorite.  THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has some charming scenes in the Shire and introduces the main characters nicely, along with having the memorable image of the demonic balrog creature.  THE TWO TOWERS brings in the wonderfully pathetic character of Gollum, along with the lovable tree like ent creatures.  And while all three films have their slow moments (too much time is given to the dull love story between Aragorn and the pallid elven woman Arwen [Liv Tyler]), the third really drags towards the end, with one fake ending after another. Even the film's final image, that of a small round door being shut, seems like a lame way to end a big epic tale. And while the big battle of Gondor  in THE RETURN OF THE KING is exciting, it pales in comparison to the great battle of Helm's Deep in THE TWO TOWERS.  Also, Christopher Lee's wonderful villan Saurmon is sorely missed in the third film, with the glowing eye of Sauron making far less of an impression.  (Oddly, the extended DVD version of THE RETURN OF THE KING has a nice scene early on where we see the final fate of Sauron, which was strangely cut from the theatrical version.  Why Jackson cut this effective scene when he had so much more he should have cut seems unbelievable to me).  Also, even as a child reading the original book, I have a problem with Frodo and Sam disguising themselves as orcs so easily while travelling in Mordor (the hideous orcs make great villans, but just how dumb are they?). Still, THE RETURN OF THE KING has a lot of great things in it, from Sam's aforementioned run in with a giant spider, to the gloriously shot final moments of Gollum as he slides into lava while still grasping at the ring.  So it's still a good ending to the story, false endings and all.


Even if THE RETURN OF THE KING is the least of THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, it's perfectly understandable that the Academy wanted to reward Jackson's work on all three films by naming it best picture.  And while other, quality, smaller scaled films like AMERICAN SPLENDOR and LOST IN TRANSLATION were also released in 2003, given that it was the last chance to reward Jackson's epic, I'm certainly not going to argue with the Academy on this one.