THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING directed by Peter Jackson, written by Jackson, Philippa Boyens and Frances Walsh from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, produced by Jackson, Walsh and Barrie M. Osborne, with Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen and Bernard Hill. 200 minutes. A New Line Production. An Alliance Atlantis release. For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 84. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Return of the King, the final instalment in Peter Jackson's monumental adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, is the New York Film Critics Circle's choice for picture of the year. Jackson has also won the Toronto Film Critics Association's best-director prize. It's being touted as an Oscar frontrunner and hailed by some people a growing number of people as the best film in the series. This makes me a dissenting voice. The film certainly isn't a disappointment in a Matrix Revolutions "oh my god, this sucks" way, nor does it suffer in the flagrantly horrid "bring on the teddy bears" way that Return Of The Jedi does.
But Jackson got so caught up in the battle for Minas Tirith, the capitol of Gondor, the last stand of men against the forces of Sauron (or second-last stand, as it turns out in both novel and movie), that he was forced by time constraints to start hacking at the movie's character scenes.
He got so caught up in what he could do - digitally created armies, gigantic elephants, that sort of thing - that he forgot what he should do, which is to invest the emotional thrust of the story in the characters.
I don't stand with the Tolkien purists on the films. I didn't get all upset when they announced early on that the character Tom Bombadil wasn't being included in The Fellowship Of The Ring, or that they weren't filming the chapter The Scouring Of The Shire for The Return Of The King. It never bothered me that they started collapsing and eliminating secondary characters. (For instance, Liv Tyler's Arwen rescues Frodo in Fellowship instead of Glorfindel, who appears once in the novels.)
However, and this may be because I have the extended editions of the movies on DVD, I got used to Jackson hitting the emotional beats of the story in the right places; I expect them. So when in The Return Of The King Jackson gives short shrift to the final scene between Eowyn and Theoden in the field of battle, loses the Houses Of Healing scenes entirely and gives a bizarre treatment of Denethor's madness, it's puzzling and disappointing.
When Jackson misses one of the novel's most strikingly cinematic moments, the arrival of Aragorn at Minas Tirith and the uncloaking of the white ships to strike terror into the armies of Mordor, I can only think that after seven years he's getting very, very tired.
And the film, at three hours and 20 minutes, is very long.
I went back last weekend to re-watch The Fellowship Of The Ring, just to see if I'd been deluding myself about how good it is, and it holds up magnificently. It has the easiest narrative line of the three films and the most satisfying dramatic structure. It's not all over the place, with three and four different sets of characters, as are The Two Towers and The Return Of The King.
This isn't to say that The Return Of The King is a bad film. Far from it. The performers are rock-solid, as they should be by now, and the Rohan scenes between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Theoden (Bernard Hill) are stirring in the best way. (Is New Line promoting Hill for supporting actor, or just the regulars? He deserves the nod.)
The third film's most spectacularly impressive effect isn't the battle, which we'll get to in a moment, but the introduction of Minas Tirith. By now we know how a lot of the effects are achieved; we've seen the documentaries, the shots of the enormous miniatures (which Jackson calls bigatures). When Gandalf and Pippin arrive in the city, climbing the terraces up the side of a mountain, Andrew Lesnie's camera is everywhere - over, under, sideways and down - and no matter how hard you look, you can't see the seams. It's a flawlessly executed piece of illusion, the more so because we know the magician's tricks.
Perhaps I'm whining, but I was bored by the battle.
The biggest difference between this scene and the Helm's Deep battle in The Two Towers is that Helm's Deep took place at night, and darkness covers a lot of the problems that can develop in digital effects.
The battle before Minas Tirith takes place in daylight, and after a while you're very conscious that you're looking at pixels rather than people, much as when Neo battles a hundred Elronds - sorry, I mean Agent Smiths - in The Matrix Reloaded. The Army of the Dead look like some kind of phosphorescent foam whenever they're in the background of the battle.
As with The Two Towers, I'm waiting for the extended edition before making my final call on The Return Of The King. Despite Jackson's protests that the extended editions aren't the director's cuts, it's increasingly obvious that they're the films he wants to make, and in both instances they're superior to the theatrical cuts.
Word on the Web is that Jackson's preferred cut runs 250 minutes. That would be something to see.