Thursday, 12 September 2013

The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King

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).


Kevin B. said...

All your criticisms are justified, but honestly none of them bother me much while watching this film because the problems are outshone by all the epic awesomeness you also mention.

The Hobbit on the other hand, made all the same mistakes (poor pacing, writers thinking they know better than Tolkien, the unnecessary extra drama, overly reliant on CGI) only to a much higher degree and declined to add in the truly memorable scenes. The only scene I think is really good is the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollem.

Anonymous said...

"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)"

To be fair to them, the journey of the Fellowship was tough simply because they had to avoid Isengard so they couldn't take the direct route. When Elrond made his journey Saruman had already been defeated and his army destroyed therefore he didn't have that problem.

Gabriele C. said...

I think most of the EE-scenes were a nod to fan favourites, like Faramir and Eowyn in the Houses of Healing and the star-embroidered mantle. But yes, less pirates and more Imrahil would have been better, the Arwen storyline sucked (also, why did Liv Tyler change her voice to sound so unnatural?) and there were too many farewells.

I have my share of issues with the movies, but I like the visuals - esp. the landscape, most of the acting/cast, and the music, which is the reason I at least sorta enjoyed LOTR; something I can't say about GoT. I'm too much of a purist.

Adam Whitehead said...

Re: the journey, that is true, but wasn't when Elrond started his journey. It takes sixty days to get from Rivendell to Isengard (as Gandalf says in FELLOWSHIP when they first set out). If that was the case, Elrond would have had to have left Rivendell at best a few weeks after they did. He certainly couldn't have left during RotK or even TWO TOWERS for it to have made any kind of sense.

Unless the eagles gave him a lift... :)

Anonymous said...

It's still my favorite trilogy of all time, despite its flaws. I mean, has fantasy ever been done on such an epic scale? The pieces (acting, production design, music, creatures, makeup, cinematography, etc. etc.) are on a very high level overall. And for the same ticket price that you'll pay for a stupid Rom-Com. So, for those that can't appreciate it, i feel sorry for how you feel about 99% of the stuff you watch. It's like breaking up with a supermodel because she put on 5 pounds. It's still glorius!
Now, the Hobbit on the other hand, suffers from the same thing King Kong. Jackson's Carte Blanc card isn't serving him well. It's silly and doesn't have the deep embedded believability of LOTR. It's unrealisticly silly and cartoony, full of Keystone Cop humor and Jackson knows no brevity. Jackson should realize that if sequences were left out by even Tolkein, for the sake of smooth storytelling, then maybe he should have followed suit.

Roland said...

You forgot to mention the two worst scenes of the entire trilogy:

Legolas riding the Olifant and the Hobbits jumping in the bed after the ring was destroyed.
Just awful!

Ghost said...

"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"

Sorry but I am one who loved the first 2 films but hate the extended version of The Return of The King. I much prefer the normal version of the film.

Prankster said...

I actually really love the tense moment when Aragorn confronts the army of the dead after the battle of Pellennor, and for a moment it seems like he's going to follow Gimli's suggestion. But I think it's really cool, and exactly right, that Aragorn lets them go, even though Sauron hasn't been defeated. It's more or less a microcosm of the central theme of the story, the decision to use or not to use something "evil" to accomplish a greater good. The army of the undead aren't as tainted and evil as the ring, obviously, but they're a group of morally shady dead people, and more, if he kept them around, Aragorn would be breaking his word--which I think it's *crucial* that he doesn't do. It's what gives him the moral authority to rule afterwards. If he'd reneged, there might not have been any obvious consequences, but it would feel way too much like the kind of rationalization that would have let them say, "OK, we'll just use the ring once to beat Sauron, then I'll destroy it, totally." In Tolkien's world, that kind of moral slippery slope is exactly what wreaks havoc and turns goodies into baddies.

I actually can't help thinking that if Aragorn had kept the army under his thrall, they would have helped him defeat Sauron and then once he released them they would have torn him to pieces before they winked out of existence. They certainly looked pretty ticked off when Aragorn hesitated to give them their freedom.

Anonymous said...

I think it was probably a dark hour for fantasy when this movie was awarded the highest number of Oscars in history. Just a sort of aphorism coming through...

Anonymous said...

You can't say the portentous and pretentious "DEATH DEATH DEATH" was taken from the book, for example.

bibliotropic said...

Rewatching Return of the King after having watched Fringe makes me view Denethor in a whole new light... and I just can't take him seriously anymore. Though keeping both characters in mind does make me wince a little at the, "You will not take my son from me," line.

Anonymous said...

1 - With regards to CGI at Pelennor Fields, as you point out it would have been difficult to do *without* CGI, and I can't think of alternatives - many of the shots are still amazing. The long tracking shot of an Orc siege tower being destroyed by a catapult shot and splintering into a thousand pieces, as the camera does a 180 pull, is still breathtaking - even if I know it's CGI. The difference is that Star Wars Prequels attempted to use CGI as a showoff of "look at the CGI we can make", while the CGI in ROTK was attempting to fulfill story demands. Basically, yes, Helm's Deep was more intimate...and the Balin's Tomb fight in FOTR was even more intimate. They're a spectrum. Fundamentally, the larger the battle and scale, the less they'd be able to focus, and the more CGI would *have* to be used. I don't blame them for that.

2 - Condensing the Army of the Dead into Pelennor Fields was mildly annoying, but not too bad given that it isn't an invention but a condensation - just combining Pelargir and Minas Tirith into one action scene. I let it slide.

3 - Problems such as pretentious dialogue which were actually directly lifted from the book I let slide, because I wasn't the movie's fault.

4 - As you correctly point out, had they put the Scouring of the Shire BACK IN, there wouldn't have been 30 minutes of solid goodbyes, but 15 minutes followed by another narrative scene, then the final goodbyes. Removing the Scouring harmed that. Though I understand why they did - it would have been 20 minutes more footage to do properly, though I feel it robs some of the thematic significance (you REALLY can't go home again; Tolkien's childhood home of Birmingham was destroyed by industrialization).

3 - The forced attempts to shoehorn Arwen into the movie weren't just bad...they were half-realized. It's not just that they say "Arwen is dying"...they sort of...forget about it. I DO love Live Tyler's Arwen, just the scenes they got right - even having a vision of her son Eldarion was great (it could Plausibly happen). I even forgive teleporting Elrond. You see a problem was the whole idea that they wanted "tragic hero who grows" when Tolkien embraced the older mythic hero who doesn't grow, just that you the audience learn more about why he is the way he is.

--The Dragon Demands

Anonymous said...

4 - I honestly don't care about the theatrical cut's pacing, given that I and *hundreds of thousands of other people* consider the Extended Edition DVD to be the "real" movie.

5 - It took me some years to come to terms with some of the not-great scenes in the EE. It's a mixed bag of great scenes and lackluster scenes. The great scenes aren't just Saruman's Voice but other stuff.

Eventually what I realized is that, throughout the trilogy, they're a combination of great scenes simply cut for time, and not-great scenes which were nonetheless sort of interesting so they put them in *for the sake of the fans*. Like, we wouldn't judge deleted scenes from another movie that harshly...because they're deleted. Adding it back into the movie made it judged by higher standards.

So the Corsairs scene isn't that great but...I liked the costuming work. Gimli stepping on crunching skulls for way too long....annoying, until you judge it as more of a gag reel/blooper that they put in for fans at home to watch. I mean, other parts of the DVD have outright "blooper" scenes or alternate, behind the scenes takes. So I treasure the good Extended Scenes, and see the not great ones as just part of the overall Extended Edition DVD box set experience, like the production videos. I used to be really angry about this, but now, even in a "bad" scene, I just focus on little details like "how much work went into the costuming in this scene" etc.

Even in the theatrical cut, I'm shocked that Jackson let himself get so carried away as to have Denethor *run a marathon*, ON FIRE, to die. It's an okay visual but even non-book readers giggle at how implausible it was.

And what about the deleted scenes that we've never seen? The Eowyn/Faramir wedding?!?!?! Their Oscar-winning costume designer, when asked, openly said that she considered her best work on the ENTIRE trilogy - out of all of her Oscar-winning work - to be Eowyn's wedding gown. And *not a single photo of it has ever been released*. Little things like that. The lost Rivendell library scene. There's a whole list. They're like the "alternate lost Wizard of Oz scenes" for the 21st century.

Moreover I grit my teeth at the "Gollum fools half-delirious Frodo into sending Sam away"....I try to rationalize that Frodo was half-delirious, but even on the DVD, they explain that they just could not make the scene work, no matter how much they tried (in alternate takes, Frodo is outright *shouting* at Sam). These scenes don't work because they don't fit! but they kept least the used version isn't so bad.

But yeah, there's so much they got RIGHT that I forgive most of the rough edges.

--The Dragon Demands