Caution: Potential spoilers ahead. If you’re freaky about that sort of thing, you’ve probably already seen the movie anyway, but if not, proceed with caution.
In almost all ways, Return of the King is a magnificent movie. We saw it with a group of friends on opening night, in a theater packed to the gills with boisterous fans. We were down front, and although I would have preferred seats where I didn’t have to turn my head to see the entire screen, it’s an awful lot of fun to be surrounded by that much excitement.
As in The Two Towers, ROTK’s narrative follows a number of simultaneous stories, but the narratives are stitched together well, to create a tension that rises and falls right up to the conclusion—at least the conlusion of the ring’s story, which is followed by twenty minutes of epilogue.
The films tell a story that’s faithful to the spirit of the original, despite the true fanboys’ continued gripes about the role of Arwen this and the Houses of Healing. That’s not to say that hard-core fans won’t be pleased, or that the movie is free from noticeable flaws: While plenty of the movie is truly—sometimes absurdly—spectacular, some scenes fall a little flat. Still, that the movie captures the grandeur of Minas Tirith and the penultimate, cataclysmic battle, as well as smaller moments in the lives of its many characters is a testament to the care with which the film was made.
Gandalf’s ride into Minas Tirith is brilliant, conveying the grandeur of the city and the gravity of Gandalf’s purpose. The technicians who built the scale model of the city were madmen, every one; sane people could not be so singleminded as to sculpt those walls and litter them with the level of detail that is visible as the camera pans from terrace to terrace, cutting between wheeling views of the city and tight shots of Gandalf and Pippin atop an impossibly fast horse galloping around steep, tight paths. It’s almost ridiculous, how stunning the scene is.
[ As an aside, the film’s landscapes, a mix of New Zealand countryside and matte backgrounds (combined so seamlessly, who can tell the difference?) are utterly gorgeous. The photographers are really, really good. During one sweeping shot of some impossibly pretty grassland, my ecologist wife turned to me and whispered, “We’ve got to go there.” ]
The film is full of spectacle on that scale, spectacle that would seem excessive if not for the fact that it’s just done so damn well and is built upon characters whose very lives are rather spectacular. The charge of the horsemen of Rohan into battle is another scene so thunderous and chilling that you can’t help but be carried away.
Maybe because of this grandeur, the film is better at showing the depth of its characters in small, quiet moments in the middle of raging war than when the same characters are safe at the movie’s conclusion. Save for one scene back home in a pub, for example, the hobbits’ affection for one another seems less, well, affected, when they are surrounded by doubt and fear. Aragorn similarly seems more comfortable (and believable) as reluctant heir than as king. Resolving a ten-hour epic film must be hard, especially when story contains so many threads and characters. If Return of the King has a significant storytelling flaw, it seems to be that the nobility and care of its characters is best expressed during conflict, and that makes the final scenes, the tying up the story’s loose ends, a little too self-conscious, with too many lingering close-ups on Frodo’s face used as shorthand for emotional resolution. Still, when the movie finally concludes with the hobbits for the most part in their humble starting points, it feels like the right kind of ending, and the preceding scenes feel like the right kind of resolution, if not shown in quite a satisfactory way.
That’s a minor flaw in a great movie. In the end, it’s easy to appreciate the conclusion to the Lord of the Rings films both as a technical achievement—seven-some years of filming, massive editing tasks, eye-popping special effects—as well as a moving, exciting spectacle. If you have nearly four hours free, give it a try, but smuggle in your own Junior Mints, because they’re four bucks a pop at the concession.