The War of the Ring is in full swing. The armies of Rohan have defeated those of the renegade wizard Saruman at Helm's Deep, but now Sauron's main armies have been unleashed against the great kingdom of Gondor. Denethor, Steward of Gondor, has been driven to distraction by grief so it falls to Gandalf to arrange the defence of the kingdom and its capital city, Minas Tirith. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam have been guided into Mordor by Gollum and face the final leg of their journey to Mount Doom. But first they must brave the pass of Cirith Ungol, and an ancient terror that dwells in the mountain caves.
The Return of the King concludes the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. On release it was one of the most-lauded movies of all time, receiving eleven Oscars which tied it with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the record, and becoming the second-highest grossing movie in history. However, critical reappraisals of the film over the past decade have been more mixed.
On the positive side, much of the craftsmanship, attention to detail and acting skills of the first two movies have carried over into this one. The actors all do good work (even if Viggo Mortensen as 'King' Aragorn is distinctly less convincing than his depiction of Strider the Ranger) and are bolstered by the addition of John 'Walter Bishop from Fringe' Noble as Denethor. Denethor isn't very well-written, but Noble gives his heart and soul in the role and manages to sell it, inconsistencies, unconvincing-flaming-death-plunges, warts and all. The effects are impressive, with the miniature work on Minas Tirith and its combination with CGI and physical sets being breathtaking. The CGI for Gollum has been upgraded as well, improving upon the already near-flawless work on the second film. There's some genuine power to iconic scenes from the book as they are realised in the film: the Ride of the Rohirrim is amazing, the battle with Shelob (which could have looked very silly) is extremely well-done, the lighting of the beacons is inspiring and Sean Astin's work as Sam on the slopes of Mount Doom is highly impressive. The decision to cast Andy Serkis as the pre-Ring Gollum is also inspired, and the resulting prequel sequence for the movie is tremendously effective.
But, for all of its high points, the film suffers in several areas. The most notable is pacing. The three-and-a-half hour cinematic cut is simply too long, with too many climaxes. The novel averts this problem by inserting the thematically vital Scouring of the Shire sequence into the midst of the ending, giving the Hobbits a crisis they need to overcome by themselves before matters are fully resolved. The absence of the Scouring, though understandable for time and budgetary reasons, weakens the ending of the story on screen and makes the final sequence of goodbyes and farewells somewhat interminable. Something that should have definitely been cut is the 'dying Arwen' storyline, which is utterly nonsensical, doesn't make any sense and leeches the life out of the film whenever it appears. Whilst it was nice of the film-makers to try to involve Arwen more in the storyline, it is so badly-handled they really shouldn't have bothered. This also leads to the bizarre scene in which Elrond teleports to Rohan (making something of a mockery of the extremely tough journey everyone has endured, if he can just replicate it in a few days with ease) and gives Aragorn his sword, which he could have just done before they left Rivendell as in the book. These problems can be boiled down to the producers not trusting Tolkien and the book and instead inserting lots more fake drama and jeopardy into the storyline in an unnecessary attempt to spice things up when things are tense enough and the stakes high enough already.
Another problem is an overreliance on CGI and effects. The Return of the King features a startling three times as many effects shots as The Fellowship of the Ring and this leads to, at times, the film starting to slide into the Star Wars prequel trilogy problem of things looking too fake and unconvincing. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields is visually impressive and it would be difficult to do it without CGI, but there's too many shots where it's obvious the actors are waving swords in front of greenscreens. This fakery lets down the battle a little, and renders it less impressive overall than the much more tightly-orchestrated Battle of Helm's Deep from the previous film. There's also the decision to use the Army of the Dead to save the day at the Pelennor Fields, which is a cheap and easy way of resolving the situation but also a nonsensical one: in the book the Army can be used once and once only, and vanishes after Aragorn uses it to seize the fleet at Pelargir. In the film it can be used until Aragorn says so, and it's hard to argue with Gimli's suggestion they carry on using it until Sauron is defeated (what's a few more days to an army that's been cursed for a thousand years?). The dumbing-down from the book in an apparent attempt to avoid having to cast Prince Imrahil and use Gondor's actual army is bizarre, as that would not have been particularly time-consuming anyway.
Ultimately, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (***½) does not have so many problems that those who loved the first two films will hate this one and some of those problems (the increased use of portentous and pretentious dialogue, for example) are taken straight from the book. But The Return of the King remains the weakest link in the trilogy, where self-indulgence - particularly with regards to length, spectacle and effects - are allowed on a few too many occasions to override the storytelling and characters. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray), and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).
Note on the Extended Edition: As with its predecessors, The Return of the King was re-released a year after its original release with new material added. In this case there is about 45 minutes of new scenes. Some of these scenes are actually very good, with the final confrontation with Saruman being something that should never have been cut out in the first place. However, too many scenes go over information we already know, add little to the narrative and in a few cases are excruciatingly awful. The scene where Aragorn seizes the pirate ships is badly-acted, badly-written and appallingly self-indulgent (the crew of the pirate ship is made up of behind-the-scenes crewmembers). Even Jackson on the commentary admits it isn't every good, which makes it a bit odd that they put it back. The less also said about the 'billion skull rockslide', the better. The biggest problem is that, Saruman scene aside, the Extended Edition does not add anything essential to the film and drags its already overlong run time to well over the four hour mark. Accordingly, the Extended Edition (***) is in this case not the definitive version and should only be watched if you are a completionist. It is also available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).