Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, December 5, 2014

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

In certain nerd circles, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the most anticipated film ever made. It, perhaps, even out-hypes other nerd-culture touchstones like the old new “Star Wars” movie and maybe even the new new “Star Wars” movie. By that point in the “Rings” phenomenon, I was completely burned out on hobbits, elves, and orcs. I even skipped the movie in the theater, not seeing it until it cropped up on DVD. Even then, I think I fell asleep before it was over. Rewatching “Return of the King” for the purpose of this review, I realized this might be the first time I’ve ever actually seen the movie in its entirety, from start to finish.

Like “The Two Towers” before it, the film follows a large group of characters spread out over an epic story of good versus evil. Frodo and Sam, with Gollum in tow, continue towards Mount Doom, unaware that the creature is plotting to betray them. Gandalf and the other hobbits head into Gondor, the kingdom Aragon is the rightful heir to. Sauron’s forces march on the walled city, its current king reluctant to call for help from the neighboring kingdom of Rohan. Uncertain if their forces can stand alone, Aragon and the Fellowship head for help. With Frodo and Sam coming ever closer to Mount Doom, and destroying the Ring, the heroes have to sally forth to another battle.

As in the previous films, “The Return of the King” is most bogged down by its main subplot. Frodo and Sam’s ever-continuing march is the film’s biggest weakness. At story’s onset, Frodo is feeling the weight of the Ring more then ever. Gollum is obviously planning bad things. The film is open with this. The first scene in the movie is a flashback, showing the human Smeagol succumbing to the One Ring’s power, which transitions to him discussing his plans to betray the hobbits. Sam tries to warn Frodo about their traveling partner’s obvious treachery. Naturally, or else the movie would be over a lot sooner, Frodo fails to see what bad news Gollum is. The two hobbits even break up at one point, thanks to an especially silly plan the crawling critter employed. They go their separate ways before, surprise!, Frodo realizes his best bro was right all along. This plot point probably could have been avoided fairly easily but the movie has the excuse of Frodo being influenced by the Ring. The two hobbits’ unbreakable love for each other is highlighted twice. First, when Sam shows up to rescue Frodo just when it’s urgent. Secondly, when the two are at the foot of Mount Doom, when Frodo can no longer go on, Sam hefts him into his arms, carrying him further. For the record, I support LGBTQ rights for men, women, and hobbits. Not sure why I felt the need to disclose that…

Out of all the “Lord of the Rings” movies, “Return of the King” is the one most likely to remind viewers that Peter Jackson once directed horror movies. Gollum is leading Frodo into a trap, of course. At the base of the orc’s encampment, Shelob the giant spider waits. The sequence has Frodo stumbling around a dark cave, cobwebs lying everywhere. Shelob is certainly an intimidating presence, a tarantula on steroids but covered with ooey scars and bumps. Frodo seems to get out of trouble when he remembers a plot device Cate Blanchett gave him two movies ago. He still gets stung, setting up the umpteenth Frodo death tease, which he narrowly escapes through the actions of other characters. Later on, Aragon and friends are sent to recruit some reinforcements for the battle at Gondor. A plot point that mostly pops up out of nowhere has Aragon being the heir to the throne of Gondor, which gives him power of authority over a fleet of ghost knights. Okay, sure. Hey, here’s some wicked cool ghosts decked out in swords and armor and shit! Does that make sense? I'm not sure but the movie moves past it so fast that you hardly notice. And it’s a cool visual.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a “Lord of the Rings” movie without at least one mostly extraneous subplot. Upon arriving in Gondor, Gandalf and Pippin go to the current reigning king, a place holder for Aragon and the father of Boromir and Faramir. He’s not interested in giving up his current seat as king. He’s not even that interested in defending his kingdom from the incoming army of darkness. He’s pretty pissed that his son died and Faramir is pretty hung up on his dead brother being dad’s favorite. When the battle comes to the kingdom, Faramir seemingly perishes in battle. Pippin spies that he’s still alive but the king doesn’t want to hear that. Instead, he’s ready to immolate himself and his remaining son. And he would have gotten away with it too, if Gandalf hadn’t rode in on a white horse like a total bad ass and kicked the guy into the funeral pyre. What affect do these events have on the overall plot? Well, it leaves the throne clear for Aragon when the king is finally ready to return. Could this plot have been resolved in a much smoother fashion? Certainly and, considering the movie is three hours and twenty minutes long, it probably should have been cut altogether. (Though it does lead to that pretty nice sequence of Pippin singing before the war breaks out.)

And speaking of the war! “Return of the King” is the most combat heavy of all the “Rings” films. The film features two huge battle sequences that comprise most of the epic movie’s epic run time. The first begins with orcs and trolls bombarding the white walls of Gondor with big ass rocks. They only hold for so long until the monsters make it into the city, which leads to some fun sequences of trolls tossing people around. There are lots of monsters in the movie actually. Dragons swoop down over the city, tossing foes into the air, which is a sweet gag. The best monsters in the movie are the giant, four-tusked elephants with names very similar to but ultimately different from “elephants.” They make an impression, entering by swiping enemies out of the way with their giant trunks. The way the heroes deal with the oliphaunts makes for impressive spectacle too. Karl Urban tosses a spear into one’s head, taking down two at a time. Later, Legolas leaps onto one’s back, tearing the saddle off, sending the occupants to their deaths.

The most plot relevant monster is that the dragon-riding Witchking. After they weren’t featured much in the last movie, it’s nice to see one of the Ringwraiths get a prominent role. This leads to one of the most satisfying ass-kickings in the movie. Since the Aragon/Arwin love story takes focus again in this one, Miranda Otto’s Eowyn is given a second purpose in the plot. She sneaks to the front line, disguised as a man, to keep an eye on her dad. She winds up in front of the Witchking who, it just so happens, can’t be killed by any “man.” Cue Eowyn ripping off her helmet, letting down her hair, and stabbing the shit out of the bad guy. The action actually peaks there, to a degree. The heroes taking the fight to Sauron at the end, battling at the gates of Mordor, is cool but lacks any super-memorable moments, save from Gimli’s witty one-liners.

As a conclusion to the epic series, “Return of the King” is fairly satisfying. We get to see the inside of Mount Doom. Frodo and Sam stand at the lava’s edge before Gollum makes a dramatic re-entrance into the story. As is expected, Frodo is tempted by the ring one, Elijah Wood getting to try out the psycho eyes he has used plenty of times in his post-‘Rings” career. Gollum gets a suitable send-off, being reunited with his precious before taking a magnificent dive into Mount Doom. Sauron’s Omniscient Eyeball of Doom collapses, taking all of Mordor with him. Frodo and Sam accepted their mortality before a last-minute save from the eagles, who probably should have shown up by now.

You’d think, gee, that’s a good ending. But “Return of the King” continues, Frodo being reunited with all his friends and family while recovering from his injuries. Need some more closure? Here’s a scene of Aragon, reinstated as the king of Gondor, declaring the war over, marrying Arwin, and honoring the hobbits. That’s got to be the end, right? Nope. We flash forward to the Shire, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry returning to their home, happy to be back. Is it over? Nope! Frodo writes down his life story in a book and Sam gets married, starting a family. One more scene? Damn it, movie, I've got money in the meter. Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo, and the elves get on a boat, leaving Middle-earth. It’s a highly symbolic ending, representing the age of magic ending and the age of Man beginning. Our heroes share teary goodbyes and literally float off into the sunset. Yet “Return of the King” still doesn’t end, giving us one more moment of Sam reuniting with his family and returning to his simple hobbit home. Peter Jackson obviously loved the world of Middle-earth so much, he clearly didn’t want to leave it.

“Return of the King” is long so sitting through the whole thing is a bit of a chore. It’s long enough that I’m not interesting in ever watching the super-mega-extended cut. Its epic-ness was rewarded by the Academy giving it every Oscar it was nominated for, being the only fantasy film to ever take home Best Picture. Sure, it’s good, probably as good as any of the Middle-earth movies ever will be. Rewatching the trilogy has been a rewarding experience. At the end of the journey, as I'm sure these snarky reviews have revealed, I’m still only the most casual of “Rings” fans. Yet it's fair to say I appreciate this trilogy a little more. [7/10]

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