The Return of the King (2003)

Sean Astin as Sam and Elijah Wood as Frodo in “The Return of the King.”

Spectacular ‘King’ shall rule them all

The third in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Return of the King,” returns to theaters this weekend for a limited run. To mark the occassion, here is a reprint of my 2003 review of the film for The Patriot Ledger:

In the end there was one movie to rule them all. And as the best and the last of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Return of the King” reigns supreme.

Full of nail-biting battles, flawless special effects and more heart and poignancy than the previous two films combined, “Return of the King” is everything the third installment in the ballyhooed Matrix series wasn’t.

Even at a butt-tiring 200-plus minutes, “The Return of the King” is never boring, and quite often exhilarating. You simply never want it to end, and when it does, it’s like saying farewell to one of your dearest friends.

The mere thought that we’ve seen the last of Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf, Merry, Pippin and Gollum is almost too much. If we must say goodbye, though, it’s best to do it when all involved are at the top of their game.

That includes director Peter Jackson, who continues his cinematic magic with “Return of the King,” an ambitious epic that has all the charm and intimacy of a well-told bedtime story and all the mayhem and gore of a Stephen King thriller.

With his cast of thousands, both real and computer-generated, Jackson has accomplished something truly mammoth and remarkable, and if he isn’t handed an Oscar for his efforts come February, the electorate should be fed to a band of ravenous Orcs.

Know this for sure: Oscar or not, Jackson, and the suits at New Line Cinema will be laughing all the way to the bank. The haul should be substantial, too, possibly enough to absolve the debt of most third world nations.

It is us, however, who are most indebted. When Jackson’s three-part rendering of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic debuted two years ago, the world was in chaos, but “The Lord of the Rings” helped us through the grief of the Sept. 11 attacks with its cathartic reminder that the brave and true of heart will always triumph over evil.

That resonance continues with “The Return of the King,” as it rejoins the eight surviving members of the Fellowship as they close in on their quest to destroy the One Ring and restore peace to Middle-earth.

Everything from the battles to the special effects to the array of wonderfully surreal species of Orcs, Uruk-hai and giant mammoths are more mind-blowing than ever. Biggest of all is the film’s heart. Unlike its predecessors, this one leaves many a lump in the throat. And if you aren’t reaching for the Kleenex during the film’s prolonged epilogue, you must be dwelling in Mordor.

Not surprisingly the biggest tears flow for the smallest heroes: the much beloved Hobbits. Especially the undaunted and selfless Sam (Sean Astin in his best performance since “Rudy”), who moves heaven and earth to keep his fellow Hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Wood), focused as they make their way to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring and, in turn, its creator, the evil lord Sauron.

It’s a task growing more difficult with each step they take into the heart of Sauron’s darkness – a path pocked with the perils of giant spiders, slippery slopes and, of course, their duplicitous guide, Gollum (the amazing Andy Serkis).

Things also aren’t getting any easier for the would-be-king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his followers as their existence is increasingly threatened by Sauron’s menagerie of elephantine Mumakil, giant-winged Fell Beasts and the foulest of them all, the black-masked Witch-King.

All collide in the mother of all battles at the gates of the towering Minas Tirith and the surrounding Pelennor Fields. It’s a fight to the death so intense it makes the Battle of Helm’s Deep look like a mere skirmish.

In fact, it’s so breathtaking you believe the filmmakers can accomplish anything. Well, almost anything. There are a few occasions when “Return of the King” is less than regal. Among them: the introduction of a regiment of undead warriors that look all-too-much like the zombies from “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” and the short shrift Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh and Barrie M. Osborne pay to the romantic triangle involving Aragorn, the Elfin princess, Arwin (a luminous Liv Tyler), and the Rohan princess, Eowyn (Miranda Otto).

No matter, Otto herself more than compensates for any flaws with the fighting spirit she imbues in Eowyn, who ignores the wishes of her royal uncle, Theoden (Bernard Hill), and rides into battle to kick Orc butt as vigilantly as any man, elf, dwarf or hobbit beside her.

Per usual, the scenery is breathtaking and the cinematography vivid, as Jackson succeeds in creating a make-believe world that feels absolutely real. The attention to detail is meticulous, but it is the film’s largeness of scope and ideas that anoint this “King.”

It’s the sort of spectacle we haven’t seen since the Hollywood of old, and it leaves you wishing more studios shared New Line’s desire to achieve critical and commercial success on such a grand scale. I fear its kind shall never come again, so count your blessings that this magnificent trilogy exists, and will no doubt endure long past we’ve departed Middle-earth. So long live “The Fellowship,” long live “The Two Towers” and long live the “King.”

Movie review

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Rated: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images

Cast: Viggo, Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Miranda Otto, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Barrie M. Osborne

Runtime: 200 minutes

Where: In theaters for a limited run June 10

Grade: A

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