If you thought the battle at Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers” was spectacular, wait until you see the magnitude of the conflict at Pelennor Fields in “The Return of the King.”
Pelennor Fields makes Helm’s Deep look like a thumb war, and that’s typical of this third and final filmed installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Director Peter Jackson actually managed to hold his wad for the last leg to save Middle-Earth.
Running 3 hours 20 minutes, “Return” finds the broken fellowship right where “Towers” left it. Merry and Pippin are kicking back at Isengard, where they joined Treebeard and the Ents at the end of “Towers” to destroy Saruman’s stronghold. They welcome Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, fresh from routing Sauron’s evil forces at Helm’s Deep.
Frodo and Sam are still headed for Mordor and the cracks of Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring that Frodo bears with increasing hardship. The hobbit pair is led by Gollum, who says he knows the safest way in. But the trio retains its uneasy partnership, as Sam suspects that Gollum is really interested in obtaining the One Ring.
In fact, that’s how “Return” begins: with a flashback to how the hobbit Smeagol lusted for the ring found by Deagol and was willing to kill for it. This sequence, reminiscent of the Cain-Abel story, is superb—and a signal of the cinematic mastery to come.
“Return” strikes the most resonant narrative and emotional chords of all three films. This is partly due to the fact that “Return” offers the resolution demanded of any tale, but especially one of this epic scope. And for those who have followed the films only (not the books), “Return” introduces few new characters, allowing the strands of earlier friends and foes to thicken.
The performances remain compelling, and the writing, aside from a couple of canned exchanges, is good. The computer-generated Gollum, based on the performance of Andy Serkis, is even better here than in “Towers.”
“Return” is grounded by Minas Tirith, the Gondorian capital that is magnificently hewn of stone. Minas Tirith is central to “the great battle of our time,” as Gandalf says of the struggle for Middle-Earth.
Minas Tirith is a breath-taking realization of Tolkien’s vision, and one capable of transporting audiences to a fantastical place.
With the members of the fellowship following their own destinies, “Return” gels in a compelling fashion. If the film has a weakness, however, it’s the multiple endings that Jackson keeps piling on.
It’s easy to understand why Jackson opted to follow one good-bye sequence with another; after 10 or so hours of a filmic journey, not to mention a rabid fan base, a leaner conclusion might seem cheap. But this longer one seems over-extended, and it rails against the emotional wallop it might otherwise have packed.
“Return,” however, is certainly sturdy enough to withstand that criticism. When the credits roll, one doesn’t leave Middle-Earth easily.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson
Cast: Frodo: Elijah Wood; Sam: Sean Astin; Gollum: Andy Serkis; Aragorn: Viggo Mortensen; Gandalf: Ian McKellen; Merry: Dominic Monaghan; Pippin: Billy Boyd; Legolas: Orlando Bloom; Gimli: John Rhys-Davies; Theoden: Bernard Hill; Eomer: Karl Urban; Eowyn: Miranda Otto; Arwen: Liv Tyler.
Visit the movie’s official Web site.