The Best Picture Project — The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King.jpgDirected by Peter Jackson

Screenplay by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkein

Starring Viggo Mortenson, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Dominic Monahan, Billy Boyd, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Bernard Hill, Hugo Weaving, Miranda Otto and Andy Serkis

In the six years I’ve been running this Project, I’ve never began with any sort of disclaimer, mostly because I’ve had nothing to disclaim.  Today, that ends:

Given The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (TLOTR:TROTK) is the third in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, it kind of makes sense that, rather than watching TLOTR:TROTK on its own, it should be seen only as part of the whole.  In other words, watching the final 1/3 of the trilogy, without taking on the first 2/3, renders any assessment of the film a bit suspect.  But, while that might make sense I have three points to make that also make perfect sense:

  • The Lord of the Rings movies were released apart from one another, as separate entities, and not as a continuous movie. Though they may have told one continuous story, they were not told in one continuous movie, ergo, I don’t have to view them as one continuous movie.
  • Given TLOTR:TROTK was released as its own movie, there is an implicit requirement the film stand on its own and should not rely on anything gleaned from the first two movies; i.e. if the movie requires something extra-textual, such as a refresher of the first two movies, to be understood or enjoyed, it is a failure. To be blunt – it lives and dies on its own merits and nothing else and therefore, it would be dishonest if I actually watched the other movies.
  • The three movies together are nine hours long and I’m a busy man and have no time for nine hour movies.[1]

So, with that in mind, I offer this disclaimer:  I did not watch either of the first two Lord of the Rings movies on my way to diving into the TLOTR:TROTK.  In fact, it was probably a decade or so since I last saw any of these movies at all, which meant that, aside from the general notion that the film involved a ring carried from point A to point B, I had no memory of the finer details of how it got there, when it got there, or why.

In other words, I believed the movie should live and die on its own merits, and my own actions, or non-actions, guaranteed it.[2]

End of disclaimer.


So, the plot of the first two movies in the series were pretty simple, as I recall – a hobbit and some friends carry an evil ring towards a far off volcano, into which it will be thrown, so as to destroy the evil power within it.  Along the way the friends peel off into their own adventures, involving themselves in side-stories of kingdoms under siege and the moral battle of good and evil, play out.

The third movie, then, really upends the narrative of the first two and goes in a wildly different direction – the hobbit takes the ring to the volcano, where it is destroyed.  Along the way his friends engage in other adventures of kingdoms are under siege and the moral battle of good and evil plays out.  And then, at the end, a king returns.  Hence, the title of the film.


So you remember that dialog in Pulp Fiction, between Jules Winfield and Vincent Vega about the pilot for the TV show Mia Wallace’s was in?  Fox Force Five?  About how Jules explains that when they’re deciding on what shows to make they make a pilot and some pilots become shows and some become nothing?   And her’s was one of the ones that became nothing?  Well, to borrow a phrase—

“Some movies hold up, and some movies don’t – and this movie don’t.”

Where to begin?

  • The digital effects are not great and barely hold up. Some people might cry to the heavens I’m being unfair, and I should just enjoy the spectacle of it, or accept the movie’s a fantasy and cut it some slack, but I just can’t.  Perhaps if this was a different movie, and the digital effects were just one piece of the pie, I might look the other way.  But the effects here are the whole point and when they can hardly stand on their own, that’s a problem.  And honestly, the visual effects left me underwhelmed.
  • The action scenes are too frantic, are confusing in that both goods and bads look similar – dirty – meaning I had no idea in a lot of instances exactly what was happening.
  • The film has no real stakes. Look, in order for the story to have any meaning, and the violence to actually hurt, we have to believe a major character can die, or that failure is a viable option – if one of them can bite it, or fail, there’s drama.  But we all know that none of the leads will be hurt in any meaningful way, nor will they fail in the quest with the ring,[3] and when you know that, what’s the point of watching these long, drawn-out battles?[4]  Or following the ring to the volcano?
  • The length. Did I tell you the film is three hours long?  Well, if I did, I was wrong – it’s actually almost three and a half hours long.  Which is easily 90 minutes too long, in my humble opinion.

Oh, and…

Will It Ever End

When I saw this in the theater, lo these many moons ago, I came to the same conclusion as most everybody else – aside from being too long, the film had too many endings.  There were three, to be exact, which was at least two too many.  But while the extra endings make the movie feel endless, the truth is that by the time it got to them, it already had felt endless.[5]

Here’s the truth – when I watched the movie for this installment, I had to tackle it in two chunks.  The first 80 minutes was cleared in one sitting, the remaining 120 in another.  The sad thing?  When I stopped after the first 80 minutes, I looked to see how much was left and was incredulous to find another 120 minutes waiting for me.  It was all I could do to actually pick it up again and finish – but I knew you’d be disappointed if I didn’t, so I bit the bullet.  The real sad thing about it?  That 120 minutes actually felt like 240.

To be fair, the movie doesn’t have to be this way – it can be a lot more efficient.  My advice to the at-home-viewer?  A bit of on-the-spot editing.  After the hobbits more or less chuck the ring into the volcano, they stumble out and are eventually saved by Gandalf, riding a giant eagle.  At this point, the film as we know it has ended, and instead of suffering through the remaining 30 minutes, just shut it down.  You won’t miss a thing.

You Had To Be There

The hard reality of this movie, like many of the movies I’ve seen for this Project, is it was definitely a product of a time and place.  It seemed big and important then and was a cultural touchstone.  I even bought into the hype.

Fifteen years on, my appreciation has waned to the point I think I can see it as big, but flawed.  Overstuffed and a bit undercooked.  And I suspect most others appreciation has faded as well – there has to be a reason why I see no shortage of used DVDs of the trilogy at recycle shops whenever I poke my head in.

Look, for what these films are, and what this film is, it’s good.  The Lord of the Rings does what it does and does an ‘okay’ job at it.  But it will never again be more than ‘okay’ for me.  Certainly, this could be a case of, “it’s just not for me”, which it never really was.  I tried to read the books, and could not crack them.  In the same way that I found Dune a slog – I actually finished that one, sorry to say, but have little memory of it – and could not get beyond 75 pages of the first Game of Thrones book, nor could I really get going on the series.  But as much as it’s not for me, I also find the Lord of the Rings movies something that hyped me into submission and, free of the hype, it no longer has the goods.

Does It Stand On Its Own

If you read the disclaimer and everything that came before this line, you know TLOTR:TROTK does not stand on its own.  At best, it wobbles.  At worst, it falls down.  There are simply too many plot threads, too many characters and too much going on to follow any of it without a refresher course in the first two movies.  Out of context, it was confusing and aggravating and completely un-engaging.  In context, I suspect it’s 9 hours long.


Did the music remind anybody else of Titanic, or was it just me?  At first I was convinced this was because James Horner did both films, but he actually didn’t – Howard Shore did the Lord of the Rings films.  I don’t really have anything else to say about this other than, they sounded the same.

Random Observations

There is a lot of crying in this movie – male crying.  The ladies barely shed a tear, but the men can’t stop.  Sam Gamgee is the worst, with Merry just behind.[6]  If the sight of men crying was meant to move me to feel some sympathy and gravity in the situation – you know, because things must be real bad if the men are crying – it failed.  It only made me real annoyed by the drama queens.

And what’s with the laughing at films end – there is unmotivated laughing from just about everybody.  You know, they all show up, have a look at one another, and start laughing.  Not to a joke, or a funny face, just laughing.  Sure, I get they’re happy they won and want to party, but when all they actually do is at one another and laugh for no apparent reason it doesn’t read as celebratory – it reads as deranged.

Everything I Touch Turns To Gold

This film won a shitload of Oscars – 11 in all, tying it with Ben-Hur and Titanic for most all time.  There are two impressive things buried in that fact:

  • It got to eleven Oscars without the benefit of a single acting nod; and,
  • It won every Oscar it was up for, giving it the highest total Oscar wins in a clean sweep

If We’re Honest

This movie isn’t really Best Picture worthy.  It was given the award in the same was Scorsese won for The Departed and Newman for The Color of Money – it’s an award given for the body of work, rather than this thing in particular.  Or, in this case, an award for having done these three hugely profitable movies back-to-back-to-back and not making them into piles of steaming dog shit.  It’s all very valedictory and more an Oscar for working hardest, not necessarily being best.

On that note, the best movie of 2003?  This is a bit of a tough answer.  I liked Lost In Translation, another Best Picture nominee, but haven’t seen it in a few years, and am hardly passionate about it.  Elsewhere is American Splendor, which is very droll and does interesting things with the art form.  Finding Nemo speaks to me as a father, though it’s maybe a bit longish.  Girl With The Pearl Earring is an overlooked gem.  Oldboy has a great first half, but ultimately fizzles through the second.  All that being said, I guess it leaves me to say Pirates of the Carribean: Curse of the Black Pearl.  Sure, the sequels might all suck, but strip those away and go back to the source and – for better or worse – I’m pretty sure you’ll find one of the enduring films of the last thirty years.

See Also—

See the rest of The Best Picture Project here.

See the companion series, the Also Rans Project, here.

Also, be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

[1] Though I did find time for the 7 ½ hour OJ: Made in America, which was fantastic.

[2] At least, guaranteed it for me.

[3] How do I know this?  Well, nobody spends the money to make three giant movies, each about three hours long, where the end of the trilogy turns out to be a bummer.  If they did, the audience would revolt.

[4] To be honest, at some point I wandered off from the movie during a battle scene and left the DVD running; when I came back, I’d missed nothing.

[5] Did I mention it was three and a half hours long?

[6] For my money, Merry is an ugly crier.

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