There and Back Again, Day 3: The Return of the King
Join RT's editors as they complete their quest to watch all three Lord of the Rings extended editions back-to-back -- with the final chapter, Return of the King.
And so it ends. Having journeyed through The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, almost always conscious and (for legal purposes) resoundingly sober, we now arrive at the final -- and most epic -- chapter, The Return of the King. Will the extended edition yield another four-hundred endings? Has Gollum's lost boogaloo on the cliffs of Mount Doom been restored to the film? To Mordor we go...
Luke: I know some of us balked at the notion of an extended Return of the King -- wasn't the theatrical cut, with its endless endings (in the book, by the way) enough? Well I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Unlike the Two Towers, and even more than Fellowship, I ate up every extended moment in the longer Return of the King. In fact, not only would I say it's my new favorite, it also -- finally -- elevated everything to that rousing level that I thought had been missing before. One thing I loved about the books was the feeling of dread that ran through the story, the idea that the world was ephemeral and about to be swallowed up by darkness at any moment. Return of the King captured that for me; it was like a series of climaxes where everyone's fate was balancing on the precipice. And everything comes into its own here, too -- visually, Jackson is less indebted to the "Spielberg face" and finds his own classical groove, and the characters (even Merry and Pippin, who bordered on annoying for me at earlier points) all pull their weight.
Tim: I totally agree. The first two chapters are undoubtedly visually masterful, and the story is propulsive, but I found the characters to be archetypes rather than great characters -- sturdy archetypes, to be sure, but more defined by their quest than by distinctive personalities or emotional weight. However, The Return of the King is where the trilogy finally achieves the magisterial power I'd been waiting for. It's able to juggle its multiple plot strands with greater ease; the characters feel more fleshed out, and there's an apocalyptic urgency to just about everything, from Frodo's precarious climb to Aragorn's tense meeting with the King of the Dead (for me, the scene where Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli escape from an avalanche of skulls is one of my favorites in a franchise overstuffed with astonishing set pieces -- it's the type of nightmarish threat that would make Indiana Jones wake up in a cold sweat).
Ryan: Tim, you took the words right out of my mouth regarding the scene where Aragorn and Co. confront the undead army. That entire sequence, though relatively short, is one of my favorites. In fact, the first half of Return of the King had me well engaged, what with its "rally the troops" vibe; it's one of those common filmic themes that tend to excite me.
Having said that, though, I might disagree with your assertion that the film did a better job of balancing the various story threads, especially in the extended version; the film does cut back and forth between Gandalf at Minas Tirith and the forces of Rohan pretty effectively, but during the long middle stretch, Sam and Frodo are only visited sporadically. In fact, it seemed as though the quest to destroy the ring was far less important here than the large scale battles being fought elsewhere. The difference, at least for me, was that, while I found Sam and Frodo's journey with Gollum the most compelling in the previous film, they were decidedly much less interesting in this one, so I didn't mind that they disappeared from the story for long stretches. Plus, there were so many great moments peppered throughout that I remained wholly engaged.
Luke: Maybe that's because Frodo was unconscious for a lot of it? I see what you're saying though. I don't think the quest to destroy the Ring was any less interesting for me, it's just that everything else rose to the same level of engagement. Events here were just so much more vivid to me. (Granted, I was awake this time, too). Like, when Denethor asks Pippin to sing, and the melancholy hobbit ballad, set against scenes of battle, is intercut with those wonderful closeups of Denethor crunching and slurping on his food. The way Jackson shoots the Nazgűl (some excellent blood-curdling sound design work, by the way) against the ashen skies. Or one of my favorite mini-moments -- when Sauron's grisly emissary greets the heroes at the gate, and Aragorn cocks his head quizzically at the sight of the creature's grotesque mouth and voice -- a great, subtle bit of playing from Viggo Mortensen. Also, credit where it's due: Has anyone given a more compelling monotone performance than Orlando Bloom here?
Ryan: Well, considering his role up to now has primarily consisted of firing arrows and periodically uttering vaguely ominous lines like, "A red sun rises. Blood has been spilled this night," sure, I'll grant you that. By the way, the scene with Sauron's emissary at the gates of Mordor was cut from the theatrical version, and it's actually one of the choices I agreed with. It wasn't bad, but it also wasn't necessary, and I might argue that the bizarrely comical quality of his twitchy smile felt a little out of place in that moment.
Luke: Oh, I didn't realize that. It was indeed comical, I guess which is why I enjoyed it.
Ryan: And while I'm speaking of scenes that were wisely omitted, what on Middle-earth was with that whirlwind romance between Faramir and Eowyn? They'd met, what, twice? I'll grant that even when I originally saw RotK, the strange sexual tension between Aragorn and Eowyn, and Aragorn's eventual rejection of her affections, left me a little sad for Eowyn and a little angry with Aragorn. I mean, is it just me, or was he totally leading her on from the moment they met? But even with that in mind, Jackson's attempt to give Eowyn her happy ending by bringing her and Faramir together was poorly executed, and I'm glad that never made it into the theatrical cut.
Luke: Eowyn was totally playing all those dudes off of each other in an elaborate move to assert her proto-feminist agenda and take the glory by cutting down the black rider on the battlefield. And the chumps fell right into her trap. In seriousness, though, I agree the love triangles were one of the weakest elements of the series. Marks for the effort to make these elements accessible for a modern audience, but they didn't quite sit with the way the other stuff was operating dramatically. But the arthouse spinoff feature, Eowyn and Aragon Take Broth, would make a lovely extra on the 145-disc set one day. In fact, I've ordered a copy for you Ryan, just in time for Christmas. Another spinoff movie that I would love to see -- and Peter Jackson could go back to his Meet the Feebles sensibility to make it -- would be a knockabout buddy comedy set in the ranks of the Orc army. Seriously, those guys are so pent up and angry seemingly all the time, I found myself laughing at their filthy antics and wondering if there were moments during the day where they were just hanging out, playing cards and talking about their crappy paychecks. There'd be some quality slobbering and slapstick in that movie, and I'm always in for that on film. Get Guillermo del Toro on it.
Join us on Monday when we return with our thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.