(Click here for Internet Movie Database entry)
Well, I'm back. I was feeling a little sad this morning when I got home at 1:30am. I have been waiting for these movies most of my life and now it's over. Ever since I first read the books at age 14, I have been dreaming about a movie version of The Lord of the Rings saga. They have been both thrilling and frustrating to watch.
I realized a couple of things while watching The Lord of the Rings marathon yesterday. First, you can't properly review these films until you have seen the extended versions. These aren't "director's cuts." The extended versions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers shouldn't be called extended. They are the movies as they should have been released in the theatres despite their length. The shorter theatre versions are constructed just to get the length down to a certain running time demanded by the studio. I quite enjoyed watching the first two parts of The Lord of the Rings in the theatre yesterday. The extra scenes are mostly ones that I was missing when I saw the theatre versions. They consist mostly of scenes that develop the characters rather than additional battle scenes. Unfortunately, the theatre version of The Return of the King suffers even more from not being "extended" than the first two movies. There's lots missing and worse, you notice these gaping holes while you are watching the movie. Some of these holes will certainly be filled in the extended version when it comes out next Christmas. Unfortunately, this short version of the new film is hard to watch and harder to review.
There are two kinds of people who read The Lord of the Rings, those who love it and are drawn into the complexity of Middle Earth, and those who find it deadly dull and boring. The second thing, that I realized yesterday, is that Peter Jackson, the director of all three films, must be in the latter category. He obviously felt that The Lord of the Rings needed to be jazzed up and made more exciting for the audience. So, Jackson has put in battles, lots of battles, even adding battles that were not in the book. But, it's in the characterizations that he really fails. The book is a story about people who feel strongly about defeating Sauron and destroying the ring. Sure, they are human, having normal fears and anxieties, but for the most part they the act on the courage of their convictions. This is too simple and boring for Peter Jackson, so time and again throughout the trilogy, he makes his characters start out wanting to do the wrong thing, then have a change of heart in order to do the right thing. The result is that the finely drawn characters of the book are dumbed down into a bunch of ditherers who don't know what they want.
The worst example of this, which carries over into the third movie, is the character of Aragorn. In the book, Aragorn has been working his whole life to be ready for this moment. Sure, he is tired and weighed down by the heavy burden of being the heir of Isildur, but he never considers laying down his burden. He has doubts about his abilities, but his sense of duty never wavers. Arwen has made her choice to be with Aragorn and give up her immortality. Elrond has accepted this but will allow Arwen to marry Aragorn only if he is the King of Gondor. In the movies, Aragorn has to be talked into even setting out from Rivendell. Arwen is convinced to leave for the Havens, and Elrond is adamant that the two should never marry under any circumstances. Each of these characters isforced to do a complete about face to get going in the right direction. Similar things happen with other characters such as Faramir.
The most egregious example of this kind of thing in The Return of the King, is when Gollum convinces Frodo to turn against Sam. Sam is ordered home. Frodo and Gollum go off together. This is beyond belief. In another example, Gondor and Rohan have been allies for hundreds of years and have always responded to requests for help. So it's weird in The Return of the King that Theoden is grousing about Gondor not helping him and Denethor won't even ask Rohan for help. It's too bad because there isn't anything more exciting for me in the book than the scene when the Red Arrow arrives. Instead, we get a bizarre scene where Pippin has to sneak up and light the beacon to call for Rohan's help. There's more but I don't want to bore you too much.
Ok, what about The Return of the King, itself? As I've mentioned already, the film suffers from being cut to a "reasonable" running time for the theatres. The action is very choppy. There are several times in the movie when a scene or scenes are clearly missing. After Helm's Deep, the main characters go to Isengard to be reunited with Merry and Pippin. They walk out to the tower of Orthanc and then they leave. No sign of Saruman. During the battle for Minas Tirith, Gandalf goes to the gate to help defend it, but the King of the Nazgul never shows up. Frodo and Sam leave Minas Morgul dressed in Orc gear. In their next scene, they are already at Mount Doom, wearing normal clothing. After the big battle for Minas Tirith, Eowyn and Faramir disappear until they are seen standing happily side by side at the coronation. Their love story in the houses of healing has disappeared completely. The funniest missing scene is just before the final battle before the gates of Mordor. Aragorn and Gandalf ride out to the gates. Then, in the next scene, they ride back. They were meant to talk to the emissary of Sauron at the gates, but that scene has been cut, so apparently they are just out for a joy ride. Many of these scenes will undoubtedly show up in the extended edition. But it is frustrating to watch it now, particularly near the end of the movie where Jackson is clearly trying to wrap things up as quickly as possible.
I have to say that the climax of the big battle before the gates of Minas Tirith is pretty flat when compared to the book. The excitement and surprise of the arrival of the riders of Rohan, "horns of the north wildly blowing", is taken away as they wait for the enemy to prepare for their attack. Jackson turns the Oliphants into Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back. He even has Legolas recreate the scene where Luke Skywalker hoists himself on top of one of the Walkers and destroys it. Then, in the silliest moment of the movie, the ships arrive with Aragorn and his reinforcements (also very exciting in the book) and we find that the reinforcements are the undead oathbreakers. Thousands of little green ghosts run all over the field like Ghostbusters gone nuts. The most bizarre scene, apart from the ghosts, is when Shadowfax, with Gandalf aboard, literally kicks Denethor onto his funeral pyre.
Like the two previous installments, The Return of the King looks very good and makes good use of special effects, particularly in the battle scenes. The cast is great and I like them a lot. And the creation of Middle Earth is stunning. Minas Tirith in particular looks really great. The only thing I can advise you about The Return of the King is to wait for the extended edition if you don't feel like you have to see it now. And maybe in the extended version, Peter Jackson will have the Ringwraiths sitting around agonizing about whether or not to destroy Gondor.