2003 – Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – 2003

OK.  This is one of the big ones – Maybe even the biggest one of all, because it is my opinion that this movie did not win the Best Picture award by itself. The Return of the King was the third movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers preceded it, and the award was for the three films together.  So, of course I had to watch the entire trilogy over again and not just the third installment that took home the Best Picture Oscar.

Of course, that being the case, that means it took around 12 hours of movie watching to complete the full epic.  The director’s cut of each film was roughly 4 hours long and if you are going to see the movies at all, you should really watch the director’s cut.  The films were shortened for their theatrical releases and were just fine, but the extended versions that were released on DVD simply enhanced the films into a more complete representation of the books from which they were made.

The original books were written by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.  They are considered by most literary scholars and authors of fantasy books to be the sires of the fantasy genre.  It is the grand-daddy of them all.  It is from this universe that Tolkien created that most modern fantasy fiction comes from.  And it was long said that a movie adaptation could not be done.  It was far too complex a story to be done well.  The technology required to do such a monumental epic justice had not yet been invented.  It would be far too expensive.  The only other film adaptations ever attempted were animated.  A live-action version simply could not be done.

But director Peter Jackson did the impossible.  He spent close to seven years of his life in creating the three films that took the world by storm.  The sheer scale of the production was staggering.  The number of people involved in the making of the movies was incredible.  The meticulous attention to detail drawn from the source material was obsessive and mind-boggling.  The cast of actors was incredibly talented and were put through their paces.  Some of them like Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies and Orlando Bloom were pushed to the limits of their skills as actors.  And they turned in some of the best performances of their careers.

Other actors like Cate Blanchett, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Karl Urban, Miranda Otto, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, John Noble, David Wenham, Christopher Lee, Brad Dourif and even Liv Tyler, daughter of rock legend Stephen Tyler, all did a fantastic job.

The casting could not have been more perfect.  Who but Ian McKellen could have played the role of Gandalf the Wizard as he did, with as much power and authority, and yet gentleness and compassion?  Who else could have played the iconic role of Aragorn with as much realism and enthusiasm?  Can you imagine anyone but Elijah Wood playing the role of Frodo Baggins, portraying the heights and depths of the unbelievable hardships that the character demanded?  If there was an Academy Award for casting, the team of casting directors would have had to win.

For anyone who has not seen any of the Lord of the Rings films, I will give a brief synopsis of the plot.  I will attempt to keep it short and just touch the highlights.  It will help in going over the performances of certain actors, the music, Peter Jackson’s directing choices, the cinematography, the costumes and the special effects.

In the distant past of the fictional land of Middle Earth, great magic rings of power were forged.  Three were made for the elves, 7 for the dwarves and 9 for mortal men.  But the evil demigod Sauron made one ring to rule over them all.  Into it, he poured his very life force so that even if his body was destroyed, he would live on through the ring.  And that is exactly what happened.  A man named Isildur killed him and took the One Ring.  But he lost it at the bottom of a river before being killed, himself.  There it lay for thousands of years.  Eventually it was found by a Halfling named Smeagol who found that it had the power to turn him invisible and prolong his life, though it also drove him insane and turned him into a fearsome and withered creature known as Gollum.  But eventually, after 500 years, he lost the Ring as well.

It was found by another Halfling, or Hobbit, named Bilbo Baggins.  He kept it for around 60 years whereupon he left it to his heir Frodo.  The good Wizard, Gandalf, learned of the Ring and its true nature of pure evil.  He sent Frodo and his gardener Sam to the house of Elrond the Elf.  Along the way, he meets Aragorn, the last of Isildur’s line, who becomes his protector.  He defends them against the ghostly shades of the Nine Riders, who are the bearers of the 9 Rings of mortal men, enslaved by the spirit of Sauron.

At Elrond’s home, a council is convened to determine the fate of the One Ring.  It is decided that Frodo must take the Ring to Mount Doom where the ring was forged, and destroy it.  As companions on his quest, Legolas the Elf, Gimli the Dwarf and Boromir the Human are chosen, along with Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and two more Hobbits, Merry and Pippin:  Nine companions against the nine evil wraiths.

Along the way, Gandalf battles a demon and is lost.  Boromir is slain by orcs, and Frodo and Sam are separated from the group.  As they continue toward Mount Doom they meet Gollum who desperately desires to once again possess the Ring.  He agrees to be their guide, waiting for his chance to take it back.  But the plot also follows the remaining members of the company as they play their parts in the wars that the living spirit of Sauron unleashes upon Middle Earth.  Aragorn turns out to be the rightful King of the Country of Gondor and Sauron’s main enemy.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Frodo and Sam go through unbelievable hardships and eventually make it to Mount Doom.  However, Frodo succumbs to the power of the One Ring.  Instead of destroying it, it possesses him.  All would be lost if not for Gollum.  In his desire to get the Ring, he bites it off of Frodo’s hand, along with the finger on which it sits.  They struggle and Gollum falls into a pit of lava with the Ring.  With the One Ring destroyed, the spirit of Sauron dies and Middle Earth is saved.  Aragorn is crowned King of the world.  All the elves, along with Gandalf (who didn’t really die), Bilbo and Frodo leave Middle Earth on a voyage across the sea to the Undying lands.  The end.

Of course, that is just the barest bones of the plot.  It is huge and epic, complex, and at times, not easy to follow.  There are dozens of supporting characters and hundreds of extras.  And the whole thing was spearheaded by the incredible talent and dedication of director, Peter Jackson.  He brought the gargantuan project to life and was the main force behind its success.  He gathered some of the best talent in the industry and produced a trilogy of films so ambitious in scope and scale, that few movies are their equal.

First, the cast.  The main mover and shaker behind the events that take place in the plot is Gandalf, masterfully played by Ian McKellen.  He had the perfect look and the right temperament.  The character was just the right combination of hardness, compassion, power and humor.  McKellen was 63 years old when filming took place and yet the physically demanding role was played with vitality and energy.

Elijah Wood was incredible as Frodo.  To watch him go from a happy-go-lucky country boy to a burnt-out shell of a man, battered and bruised, was so heartbreaking and yet believable.  Wood really turned in an unbelievably good performance.

Interesting note:  In the extra documentaries about the movies included with the DVDs Wood commented that some fans of the films actually wanted to know how Jackson digitally enhanced his eyes to make them appear so large.  In reality, there was no enhancement at all.  Elijah Woods’ eyes are actually as big as they appear.

Viggo Mortensen probably had the most physically demanding role in the entire film.  He was a warrior, plain and simple, often displaying super human strength and endurance.  From what I understand, he performed most of his own stunts whenever possible.  He got so into his part that he often stayed in character, even when the cameras were not rolling.  Mortensen was incredible and made the character both bad-assed and yet, at times, incredibly introverted and spiritual.  He played the hard ranger and the noble King with equal skill and talent.  He really understood the character and turned in an unforgettable performance.

Both John Rhys-Davies and Orlando Bloom were also perfectly cast as Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.  They were wonderful to watch, though I have to admit to one minor complaint that is easily forgivable.  The problem had to do with the writing.  Gimli and Legolas were often turned into the comic relief of the movie, especially in The Two Towers.  But I didn’t mind that much because when it was time for them to be serious, they remained true to the characters and kicked ass with the best of them.  There was just no need for Jackson to turn to fart jokes.

One actor I have not mentioned yet is Andy Serkis.  He had very little actual screen-time, and yet he was one of the most memorable parts of the entire trilogy.  He played the part of Gollum.  Gollum was a completely CGI character.  He was made possible by a technology called motion capture.  Serkis acted the part with the rest of the cast, dressed in a full-body suit covered in motion sensors.  Those sensors fed information to a computer that tracked his every movement, giving the digital animators a perfectly life-like template to work with.

The animation on Gollum was flawless and frighteningly realistic.  The facial expressions and simulation of real emotions were done so incredibly well, that you very easily forget that it is a CGI image.  He even stood up to close scrutiny whenever the character had a close-up.  The texturing of his skin, the perfectly blended lighting and the realistic movement made him blend in seamlessly with the live footage in which he was placed.  Nothing like Gollum had ever been done before.

The music was written by Howard Shore and was so incredible in scale and scope that he was able to turn it into a Lord of the Rings Symphony that is performed in classical concert halls.  It was grand and epic.  It was perfectly written and blended into the film.  It was small and minimalistic when it needed to be and yet large and powerful when it was supposed to be.  Shore’s talent and dedication to Jackson’s vision really came through.

Now, when it comes to Peter Jackson’s directing, the first word that comes to mind is genius.  But the second word I think of is demanding.  He demanded nothing but the best from every last person who worked for him.  After watching the entire 12 hour director’s cut trilogy, I watched only 2 of the documentaries included with the DVDs.  But in one of them I learned that the final theatrical cut of The Return of the King was completed only 2 days before the World Premier in New Zealand, where the entire movie was filmed.  The third installment of the trilogy had more special effect shots than the first two movies combined.  Jackson pushed his people to the wire and pushed himself at the same time.  I can’t even begin to imagine the number of hours spent by all the people involved in making these three movies.  The statistic would be staggering.

Jackson’s grand vision was truly inspired.  Many have called these three film Jackson’s masterpiece.  It is a description that is truly deserved.  Every little detail was adhered to and nothing was left to chance.  Jackson really gave us a spectacle on a grand scale that had never before been attempted.

Something else that I have to mention as being outstanding was the cinematography.  As I mentioned, all the filming was done in the beautiful country of New Zealand.  I don’t think the world was fully aware of what a stunningly gorgeous place New Zealand really is.  But Jackson made full use of all its splendors.  The open fields of green, the mountains, the snowy peaks and valleys of dark gray rock, the deep forests and winding rivers of surpassing perfection, the pristine sunrises and misty mornings, all gave Jackson a pallet of such colors and loveliness that the world was just shocked by the spectacle of the landscapes.

Next is the costumes and sets.  The film’s art design was something special.  For each race, the costumes, the set designs and the props were all intertwined.  It was all meticulously thought out and beautifully crafted by a company called WETA.   Each race had its own style, its own aesthetics.  The elves were clothed in long flowing robes made of expensive looking silks and velvets.  Their homes and dwellings were likewise designed with long curving lines and delicate patterns.  They wore tiaras that resembled their architecture.  Their water jugs and bows, their armor and swords, the helms and their hair all had the same intricate designs.  When you see anything Elven, you immediately know what it is and where it came from.  Their style resembled the trees which all Elves love.

The Dwarf, Gimli, had weapons and armor designed with harder, squatter lines and patterns, much like the dwarves themselves.  They contained more straight lines and starker angles.  Their styles resembled stone and faceted jewels.  It was all amazingly detailed and just made the movie that much more real.  The Humans of Edoras and the Humans of Gondor each had their own distinct styles which were adhered to.  And, of course, the Hobbits had a style that was distinctly… Hobbitish.  Even the Orcs and Goblins had their own individual styles that were distinct and realistic.

And finally, I have to mention the special effects.  The special effects were unlike anything the world had ever seen.  The men and women who made up the special effects team for the film were able to achieve spectacular effects that had never before been attempted.  They made use of optical illusions when crafting their sets in order to make size differences between the different races of Middle Earth, a technique called forced perspective.  They used size doubles for some shots.  They made use of incredibly detailed miniature models and props.  And, of course, they used computer generated animation.  Some might say that there were too many special effect shots, that after a while it just became gratuitous.  But the quality was so top-notch and realistic that I just kept wanting more.  The special effects teams really knew their craft and were able to realize the fantastic dreams of Jackson.  They really made his vision come to life.

The first two films were both nominated for Best Picture, thought they didn’t win.  But The Return of the King not only made up for these losses, it took the Oscars by storm.  It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and it won in every category for which it was nominated.  It won for Best Picture, Best Director (Jackson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score (Shore), Best Original Song, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Make-up, Best Sound Mixing and Best Film Editing.  It currently holds the record for the highest Academy Award sweep.

If I am looking at the trilogy as one complete film, I have to say that it was one of the most complex, the most monumental and the most phenomenal projects ever attempted.  It was well worth all the attention and awards it received.  I’d even go so far as to call it one of the greatest films ever made.  Well done, Mr. Jackson!

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