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Entries in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [2003] (1)

Sunday
Dec162012

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Peter Jackson's Obsession for Men

I imagine most of you have already seen the Lord of the Rings movies and made up your minds about them. You know how technically stunning they are, how well-acted, and epic If you don't know those things, you're likely a J.R.R. Tolkien purist who thinks Peter Jackson butchered the classic novels by not including eeeeverything in his twelve-hour film opus.

Or maybe you're like me. Perhaps the thought of reading LOTR never crossed your mind. It took me months to crack the first chapter of Irvine Welsh's Scottish-slang-dense Trainspotting--you really think I'm going to give Elvish folk lyrics more than a skeptical glance? I've got things to do, people. I'm still trying to review Ed, for fuck's sake!

Ahem.

Or maybe you're like me. Perhaps the thought of reading LOTR never crossed your mind, and you went into these movies cold ten years ago. They didn't grab you, and you wondered what the big deal was. If that's the case, I implore you to get hold of the Extended Edition blu-rays and commit to giving all three films another shot (yes, even Fellowship).

I don't know what's changed in the last decade that's allowed me to appreciate Jackson's (and, I guess, Tolkien's) vision. Maybe I'm more patient with movies in general. Maybe fatherhood has softened my heart to the series' numerous messages about family, friendship, and faith.* Or maybe my friends weren't full of shit when they insisted that the hour-plus of new material integrated into the theatrical cuts really does make the films flow better and feel, oddly, shorter. Whatever the case, I truly love this series now.

A lot of that has to do with the final film, The Return of the King. Granted, one of my biggest initial complaints still holds true: each main characters' heroes' journey, if viewed linearly, doesn't deviate--at all--from the expectations of their archetypes. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) set out to destroy the One Ring of power in the fires of Mount Doom. They succeed. Exiled king Aragorn seeks redemption in his quest to help Frodo and his wizard buddy, Gandalf (Ian McKellen). He finds it. Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler*), long kept from being with Aragorn because of...y'know, I still don't understand that cockamamie storyline. Anyway, she gets her man.

This used to drive me crazy. Now I realize that the beauty of these arcs shouldn't be measured by how far ahead I can see their conclusions, but by the poetry and nobility of the characters' struggles. Every actor in this film oozes sincerity and, in the moment, makes us believe that the fate of their world is uncertain.

The emotional beats still didn't land for me, though, at least not all the time. Part of that has to do with that sincerity I just mentioned. As much as it allows us to accept the reality of Middle-earth, it also mires the entire trilogy in a single-note seriousness that lulls instead of compels. While I was thrilled to see the numerous battles for the lost kingdoms unfold, and found a sweetness in the bond between Theodin and his noble niece, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), I still felt like Jackson was keeping me at arm's length from his story's beating heart.

There was light in Fellowship, and a few moments of humor in Return of the King--thanks largely to the bromantic rivalry between dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom). But the last two movies so perfectly capture the land's impending darkness that I'd forgotten joy ever existed in the trilogy. So, when Theodin dies (Spoiler?), my reaction was more of a, "That sucks. I wonder how the castle walls are holding up against those orcs"--instead of a heartfelt, "Noooooo!"

The only character I could fully relate to, ironically, was Gollum (Andy Serkis), the wholly computer-generated cave dweller who joins Frodo and Sam. In the beginning of the film, we meet him in flashback as a hobbit (and as a human actor) and see his grim transformation from the moment he spies the One Ring. The deterioration from flesh-and-blood to withered unreality reminded me of a similar setup in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (in which the man who would become Pinhead also got a bit too curious with a shiny found object). As Gollum vacillates between helping his fellow travelers and trying to murder them, those grounding early scenes drove home Tolkien's/Jackson's message about the dark forces that drive men to greatness and/or madness.

Which brings me to an unexpected revelation I had towards the end of the movie: at no point in the series does a woman come into contact with the One Ring. Only men fall under its spell. I wonder if this was some kind of deliberate statement on the author's part (or a detail that Tolkien discussed in the books, which Jackson left out). It's interesting to think that all the problems in the world are caused by men's unchecked desires and insecurities; I don't necessarily agree with that, but it's fun to speculate about how Eowyn, for example, would have handled the burden of the quest--or, if in such a blatantly patriarchal society as Middle-earth, she'd have even been offered the chance.

I'm inclined to apologize for having so thoroughly and ignorantly disrespected these films for the past eleven years. But I won't. I'll simply let my embarrassment stand as a reminder that first impressions shouldn't always be allowed to remain lasting ones, and that all perception is merely a snapshot of emotion, education, and circumstance at a given point in history. Twelve years from now, I might revisit these again and decide that they're overwrought, boring, and merely pretty to look at. For now, though, I'm happy to say that I've gone on an amazing adventure of self-discovery and come out the other end a changed man.

This fantasy has sparked my dimmed imagination and once again granted me the power to dream.

Note: You may wonder why I haven't mentioned the film's universally criticized "multiple endings". Yes, the last half-hour or so of Return of the King is heavy with the weight of each character saying good-bye and moving on from their epic journey. The screen fades to black repeatedly, teasing our hopes for end credits after nearly four hours.

I didn't bring this up as a problem because I no longer see it as a problem. These scenes aren't nearly as exciting as the amazing battles that comprise most of the movie. But they're the most crucial because they bring Frodo Baggins' story full circle and fulfill Gandalf's Fellowship promise that he wouldn't be the same at the end of his quest. Frodo returns to the shire a changed man. He's essentially shell-shocked by horrors he'd never imagine within the peaceful, lazy confines of Hobbiton--and so, he can't stay.

Many of the film's final passages lead up to Frodo's exile from the land of children. He's a grown-up now, and must live in the land of wizards and men. Sam and the other fellowship hobbits, who've not been so corrupted by the Ring's dark influence, are allowed to remain innocent. Changed, yes, but innocent still.

*If not in a "higher power", then at least in those other two things.

**Maybe I would have cared about the Arwen storyline if Liv Tyler hadn't been so goddamned awful in the role. After Aragorn meets Eowyn in The Two Towers, I hoped to God he'd forget about that dead-eyed, monotone elf chick and get with a real woman. No luck there. Fortunately, Jackson and company had the courtesy to drown out most of Tyler's role in Return of the King via instrumental montage and a series of "meaningful looks" between Arwen and her beloved.