In my review of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), I mentioned my love of the 1977 cartoon version of The Hobbit. At least that is how I remember feeling about it. I had not seen it in roughly fifteen years when The Fellowship of the Ring premiered, but my enthusiasm for the story to which this new film was basically a sequel to carried me to the theater all the same. Despite being utterly bored, I kept going back for the next two installments of the Middle Earth saga. They never got better for me, particularly today’s film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), but I continued watching them for the same reason given me once by the old man I live with when I asked why we still send people into space: “Because it’s there.” I bring this up because I wish I could remember them better from when I saw them all those years ago so I did not have to watch them all over again in order to refresh my memory.
I reviewed The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) about five months ago. I think I recall Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), along with fellow hobbit Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) and the creature Smeagol (Andy Serkis), headed towards Mordor in order to destroy the all powerful One Ring. That is where we pick up The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I still do not understand what is so special about this stupid piece of jewelry, but everybody else in the story seems to, so whatever. Search me, though, for why Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his pals, the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), are at the Kingdom of Rohan. Okay, technically they arrive there after we see them first picking up the hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) after the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the previous film. I remember that, at least. They are hanging out in Rohan with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) when they learn of some new threat to men, this time against the all important(?) Kingdom of Gondor. King Théoden (Bernard Hill) of Rohan is initially hesitant to lead his army to meet the orc invaders because there are so many and he sees nothing but doom. But Gandalf decides to ride to Gondor with Pippin, who did a bad magic thing with an eye-thingy and is now in magical time out, for some reason. Once there, he discovers that the person tasked with running the place until the title event can occur, Faramir (David Wenham), is off his rocker with grief over the loss of his favorite son Boromir (Sean Bean). Remember that event? Not if you are only watching this installment because that happened two movies ago. Gandalf is able to get the signal fires lit that are meant to alert other nations of men when there is a threat they all need to unite against. Actually, he uses Pippin to accomplish this task, but why he cannot simply wave his magic wand, or staff, and conjure the flames is beyond me. Anyway, this is the sign needed by Rohan to march to Gondor’s aid. Along the way, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli go a separate way when the Elf king Elrond (Hugo Weaving) shows up with a powerful sword meant to belong to the true ruler of Gondor, which is Aragorn apparently. They use this weapon to rally a ghost army to help defend Gondor. How immaterial beings are supposed to do anything against tangible flesh and bone is beyond me, but whatever. All these groups come together for big Lord of the Rings battle version 4.7, the end result being that Gondor is saved. Unfortunately, the story is not over yet as we still have Frodo and company struggling their way to Mordor to dispose of the ring. Sensing they need to distract the giant eye in the sky Sauron, the one pulling the strings of the massive orc army, Aragorn leads whoever is left out to distract them while Frodo and Samwise finally toss the ring into the heart of the volcano. This topples Sauron and his orcs because the script (or, more accurately I suppose, Tolkien) says so. Proceeding these travails, Aragorn is finally, officially crowned. Mysteriously, despite the title, this is not the end of the film. Instead, we watch the four hobbits return to their homes at the Shire, get back to their lives for a few years, and then Frodo and Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) sail away with he elves and Gandalf to some island somewhere. It has a name, but oh well.
Because it had been nearly twenty years (incredibly) since I saw The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I remembered the last part of the film after Aragorn becomes king as being much longer. That was probably because it felt like it was eight hours long when I first watched it. Still, and this is one of two criticisms I level at this film, but why did we need everything that happened in the last half hour or so? The title is The Return of the King, the king returned, end the film. On the same token, why did Frodo and Bilbo have to leave with the elves, which I guess is the reason we see the rest of this . . . stuff. I have asked people who actually enjoy these movies, and they gave me a reason that I frankly do not remember. Something about it being in the book. I have watched them all again relatively recently and I still do not know the answer. The last negative aspect of the film, and this is something that can be said about all of them, is what is the big, stinkin’ deal about Gandalf. I began noticing this in The Two Towers, and it is confirmed by The Return of the King: Gandalf is just a guy. The most magical thing he does in this last movie is shine a flashlight in the eyes of some dragons. But he only does it once. Hey, Gandy, would it not be a good time to repeat that trick when those same dragons are attacking the castle you are trying to defend?! The man knows how to wield a sword, he seems to have a certain strength of character, but otherwise he could be anybody. Yet everyone in Middle Earth looks to him as this paragon of power and wisdom. I do not get it.
There is one little nugget in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King that this Catholic could appreciate. When Gandalf and Pippin are about to face the last orc assault, Pippin turns to the “wizard” and admits that he is afraid to die. Now, I am not here to tell you that practicing Catholics do not fear death. Few people actually want to die, Catholic or not. Still, Gandalf gives the hobbit a bit of useful encouragement that is good for anyone to remember: death is a path we must all take. Anything that is that inevitable is scary. But God gave us Jesus who conquered death. Viewing our unavoidable demise in this light takes the edge of panic off it. Gandalf also reminds Pippin that there is another shore to be found when we meet our end. Since Tolkien himself was a Catholic, I am guessing that this is an allusion to Heaven. In any case, it reinforces that when our earthly life ends, eternity begins. What we do in this life can help determine our fate in the next one. Heavenly rewards are part of standing up to injustice (or orcs, I suppose) instead of lying down and letting it affect others.
That is about as nice as I can be about The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, or any of the others in the franchise. This movies is three and a half hours long, so if my reviews have not deterred you then maybe will the run time. That is a lot of time to invest. The typical person gets between six to eight hours of sleep a night, so that is almost a quarter of the time you are awake! And that is only one of these films! I will credit director Peter Jackson for wanting to make a faithful rendering of J.R.R. Tolkien’s sweeping fantasy epic. When you love a book so much, it is hard to choose what to leave in and what to cut. I have to believe, though, that not everything we see in these films is completely necessary to the plot.