Wed, Dec
24
2003

The Twenty-First Century's First Masterpiece

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With the success of Return of the King, the whole Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is nothing less than a masterpiece, especially when you consider the quality, the epic spectacle, the technical wizardry, attention to detail and sheer creative enthusiasm employed by all the people involved in this production. That's not to say that the movie is perfect -- even masterpieces have flaws -- but director Peter Jackson has successfully filmed a series of books that I'd considered unfilmable, and he has managed to stay true to the spirit of JRR Tolkien as well as creating over eleven hours of sheer, unabashed entertainment.

I'd been holding my breath for a long time, waiting for this venture to come crashing down on its head. Excited by the hype in spite of myself back in December 2001, I was delighted that Fellowship of the Ring exceeded by expectations. Since then, after showing that Tolkien's books could be filmed, Peter Jackson's challenge was to show that the intensity and the sheer sense of "Oh, my God, it's JRR TOLKIEN on screen!" could be sustained through the next two flicks. He had his work cut out for him in The Two Towers, which is structurally unsuited for a direct transfer to film, but he made it through. Though I realized he had the advantage of Return of the King's shattering climaxes, I still held my breath. If anything were to go seriously wrong in the final three hours, the whole Lord of the Rings movie trilogy would be marred. Fortunately, everything held up, and the result is one of the greatest achievements in filmmaking, ever.

Whereas Peter Jackson had to play with the narrative of The Two Towers to make it work on film (coming dangerously close to breaking the spirit of Tolkien's work), he sticks close to Tolkien's narrative in the Return of the King. The rescue of Arwen from the appendix gets only a few minutes of treatment, contrasting to its prominence in The Two Towers, and very little else has been added. Indeed, in my opinion, the greatest flaw of Return of the King is not the stuff added, but the stuff taken away. I believe that there is a four hour movie packed into this three hour, twenty minute frame. At least twenty minutes is missing between the victory at Pelenor Fields and Frodo's arrival at Mount Doom, including much of the grueling march over Mordor and the sad scene where Sam has to abandon his cooking equipment. In Gondor, Faramir and Eowyn never meet onscreen, and their romance in the Houses of Healing is completely forgotten. The loss of these key scenes makes the first half of the last hour seem rushed, and I am looking forward to the Return of the King extended DVD release restoring the flow of the narrative here. Tolkien purists will be furious that the Scouring of the Shire has been completely abandoned and unfilmed, with no rescue on the DVD planned, but Jackson was able to remove this without disrupting the flow of the movie.

Movie goers unfamiliar with Tolkien's works will tell you that this movie takes its time in ending, and there are two fades to black as well as two fades to white in the final scenes which each feel very much like the end of the movie. They don't understand Tolkien's vision and the absolute necessity for Peter Jackson to follow it, here. If we can't have the Scouring of the Shire, we must have the Grey Havens, illustrating Tolkien's point that, though heros may survive, they don't necessarily get to come home. Life goes on beyond "The End", and it isn't always happy.

The movie ends on the last line of the books (Sam: "Well... I'm back"). Though it takes his time getting there, Peter Jackson could do nothing less if he hoped to truly stay true to the spirit of Tolkien's work.


Quibbles

Please be aware that some very specific spoilers follow

  • Theoden questions why Rohan should come to Gondor's aid when, except for Aragorn himself, no one from Gondor came to Rohan's aid. Then, after the signal-towers are lit, Theoden renders assistance. What brought about his change of heart? I'm thinking some of those scenes are missing, and will be restored in the extended DVD.
  • They always have Legolas jumping onto things in order to show his superhuman sense of balance, and when Legolas leaps onto mythical creatures such as a troll or a mamaluk, the act always exceeds the ability of the computer effects designers to make it real. Although Legolas' superhuman feat in this movie is better drawn than his leap from the cave troll in Fellowship, it's still the one of the very few points in the film where I realize that I'm watching a special effect.
  • Moving the eye of Sauron at the top of the Dark Tower was risky, at best, although the lighthouse effect nicely captures the moment when the eye fixes on Frodo. That should have been the extent of it, however. When the eye shifted around as the Dark Tower collapsed, the unfortunate effect was to give Sauron the appearance of going "Woah! Woah!! Wooooooaaaahhh!!!", dampening an otherwise stellar moment int he movie.
  • The orcs in the tower where Frodo is taken prisoner self-destruct way too easily, making it comically easily for Sam to rescue Frodo, even though he still had to kill four orcs in order to do it (yay Samwise Gamgee!). This is probably the result of the twenty minutes-or-so being cut out of the movie around this point. When the Return of the King's extended DVD release restores this lost material, I expect that much of the tension and the dark atmosphere will be returned.
  • When the ground in Mordor collapses, destroying everything up to the Army of the West, I was sort of reminded of the cartoon where Sylvester chases Tweedy up a tree, and then starts sawing off the branch where Tweedy has taken refuge. The saw cuts through and the tree collapses, leaving Tweedy's branch suspended in mid-air. How convenient. But necessary. I'm just waiting for Rebecca to comment on this as another example of "Jacksonian overkill" akin to the flooding of Isengard but I think it is an example of the film having to tell the story in a different way. Consider, in the books, when the ring is destroyed, the Nazgul vanish in puffs of smoke. The orcs head for the hills. And the Southrons and the Easterlings all either throw down their weapons and surrender, or regroup to fight a last, desperate battle. Great stuff on the page, but how are you going to film that? Better to take the ground out from beneath their feet.
  • Not really a quibble, but I was able to insert humourous, beneath-my-breath comments to a couple of scenes in this movie. For instance, when Elrond comes to Aragorn to hand him Anduril and give him news of Arwen's decision, I half-expected Elrond to say, "this is from Arwen," and kiss Aragorn, followed by "and this is from me," and punch him in the nose. Likewise, when Aragorn rides up to the Black Gates and calls out the Dark Lord, I had to chuckle. What's he going to do if the gates don't open? "Sauron's mother wears combat books!"? "Sauron's eye is a cheap special effect!"?
  • Though he only has seven minutes of screen-time in the material cut from this movie, and though he doesn't get a Scouring of the Shire, Saruman is sorely missed. The movie functions surprisingly well without him, however.

Triumphs

  • All of the performances are letter perfect, and Peter Jackson identifies all of the high-points of the third book and includes them in the movie, including Eowyn's defeat of the Witch King, Frodo stumbling up to Minas Morgul, and Sam picking up a defeated Frodo and carrying him the rest of the way up Mount Doom. Peter Jackson also left time for nice character moments; the relationship between Gandalf and Pippin is wonderful, and is especially well shown when Gandalf reacts to Pippen being hurt by the Palantir.
  • Gollum continues to be Oscar-worthy, and the book series' other iconic special-effect, Shelob, is a match (though there is no actor behind it). Terrifyingly well-rendered, its best moment comes when it sneaks after Frodo silently. When something that big can move that quietly, you know you're in trouble. The whole audience reacted when Shelob struck. Jackson's interpretation honours both Tolkien and the illustrations of art directors John Howe and Alan Lee.
  • Gollum's character continues to develop through this story. The flashback to his murder of Deagol was well done and established the movie's credentials right away. You never really lose sympathy for the guy, either, even during the final confrontation at Mount Doom. I was actually somewhat happy for him to see his happiness as he finally held the ring. Speaking of the destruction of the ring, kudos to Jackson for drawing parallels between Sam and Frodo and Elrond and Isildur as Frodo struggles to finally give up the ring.
  • There are money shots galore, drawing heavily on the works of John Howe and Alan Lee, from our first real sight of Minas Tirith to the opening of the Black Gates, to the arrival of the eagles. Jackson's decision to pay homage to specific illustrations in the most famous editions of the books recalls a movie my father talks about featuring the Battle of Waterloo, wherein the director had the action freeze into frames rendering specific famous paintings now hanging in the British museum. Jackson's little moments of pure artistry are of this calibre.
  • And last, but not least, the Battle of Pelenor Fields, especially the moment when the riders of Rohan arrive. Erin said it best when she said that she's been impressed by battle sequences before, but never moved by them, until now. The moment when Theoden rallies the riders into what is to be a hopeless battle was, to my mind, the high point of all three movies. Tears came to my eyes as the phalanx of riders rode into the Mordorian flank. In fact, it somewhat jarred with the deeply-cool appearance of the Mamaluks.

Oscar Predictions

To honour the achievement of all three movies, I expect Return of the King to win many of the technical awards as well as Best Picture and Best Director. Anything less would show the voters of the Academy to be utter fools whose bias against fantasy blind them to world-class literature and world-class filmmaking. I don't expect there to be any victories in the acting side of things, however, not because there were no Oscar-worthy performances, but because there were too many. Who should get the nod for Best Actor? To nominate Elijah Wood (Frodo) and not Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn) or vice-versa would be a crime, but to nominate both splits the Lord of the Rings vote and ensures that someone like Tom Cruise comes up the middle. Likewise, who should get Best Supporting Actor, Sean Astin (Samwise) or Ian McKellen (Gandalf)? Both are worthy. Miranda Otto (Eowyn) is probably the character most deserving of the Best Supporting Actress award, but The Lord of the Rings is such a boys-club story that there are few opportunities for female characters to appear, much less fluorish. Kate Blanchett wasn't in the movie long enough to get a Best Actress nod, and not to sound harsh but Liv Tyler doesn't deserve it.


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