With "The Return of the King", the three "Lord of the Rings" films collectively cement themselves into the history books as the grandest fantasy epic ever committed to the medium. "Return of the King" closes the series on an exhilaratingly high note, bringing itself to the painful realizations smitten throughout J.R.R. Tolkein's original work. "Return of the King", moreso than its predecessors, legitimizes the fantasy film genre which has been in a woeful state for too long; this film may be the first to finally show that fantasy, like any other film genre, has the ability to emphasize and explore essential human values.
Bear with me for a second while I give you what is, believe it or not, a relatively bare bones idea of the plot behind "Return of the King". after a short flashback into the life of one of its characters, the film opens with hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis), their untrustworthy schizophrenic guide. They continue their trek closer towards Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring that contains all of the evils of the world. Gollum is even more desperately planning to steal the ring back for himself. He purposely begins to set the two hobbits against each other, planning to keep tensions between them high until they reach an unknown menace he is leading them to, one that he only identifies as "her".
Continents away from Mordor (the country where Mount Doom lies) is Rohan, where soldiers are celebrating a victory at Helm's Deep (if you have forgotten that event, revisit "The Two Towers"). Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are reunited with their friends Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Gandalf and Aragorn spend their time mostly worrying about Frodo and his quest, while Theoden, King of Rohan (Bernard Hill) and his niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) are racked with self-doubt about the worth of their places in life; they strain for some form of singularity and honor. The peace ends when Pippin looks into an orb recovered from the old stomping ground of Saruman (Christopher Lee in the first two films). The orb reveals himself to the Dark Lord Sauron, but also gives away a crucial part of the villain's plan: he is going to focus all his forces (including one badass named the Witch King of Angmar) on the human city of Minas Tirith in the country of Gondor.
Gandalf takes Pippin and rides quickly to the city, meeting the Steward of Gondor, Denethor (John Noble). He desperately tries to convince Denethor to rally the forces and call Rohan for aid. But there's a catch: Denethor is the father of Boromir (Sean Bean), who was killed in the first film, "Fellowship of the Ring". Boromir's death has driven him mad, giving him an unreasonable amount of paranoia as to the stability of his position (he is afraid that Aragorn will claim his birthright as king) and an unkind eye towards his other, less favored son Faramir (David Wenham), who will do anything to gain his father's respect.
Peter Jackson and the artists on this film's crew are masters at conveying an enormous amount of information in a miniscule amount of time. Each shot, it seems, is filled to the brim, and it shows that each department involved in the film did everything in their power to make every frame meaningful. Consider this: when Gandalf rides with Pippin through Minas Tirith, hearty exposition of the city is given in mere seconds while validating the incredible urgency of the moment. Or when Aragorn takes a road through the Paths of the Dead, where simply the look of the ghost-like creatures, whose faces seem to stretch and eyes sink into their heads when they talk, tells us why (frankly) it sucks to be them. When beacons are lit to inform Rohan of Gondor's need, both natural beauty, grandeur as well as the enormity of two at-odds countries coming together through an age-old system, is consumated. One could go on forever; the list of such overwhelmingly giant sequences is long.
This is to say nothing of the battle sequences, of which nothing can be compared (it is a bit of a cop-out to say that indeed, these are the best battles since the last "Rings" film). But what make these sequences such a success is not only the chess-like strategic precision in which Jackson makes his viewer aware of all that occurs within them. Jackson absolutely refuses to make the battle scenes some simple specimen to oogle at. Although the amazing visual effects top even those of a film whose visual brilliance I never thought could be bested ("Metropolis"), this does not degenerate into a showcase of cool. Jackson appreciates battle as a form of high drama; he fuses the plights of the characters into the fabric of these sequences in a way that has rarely, if ever, been done before. Thus, not only the intimate scenes are affecting, but the drama also flourishes through, not despite, the action.
And it is absolutely essential that he does so. For in all reality, "The Lord of the Rings" is an ensemble piece, through and through. It's a little unnerving to me when people talk about this story as the "classic struggle between good and evil"; a gross oversimplification. The supreme villain in these films merely acts as a catalyst for the conflict between the heroes. The film is above all concerned with its interpersonal relationships (which play out beautifully).
In this way the film remains truthful to the spirit, although not always the letter, of Tolkein. Jackson never forgets the essential questions of his source material. "King" is truly about those at whose expense peace is won. This does not always mean death, or the risking of lives on the battlefield. In fact, death is a position many of the characters are proud to occupy; when one major character falls, the feeling is one of melancholy pride, not push-button sadness. It is about those who, once all is said and done, can never really return home, who have irretrievably given up their freedom, love, or home for a future that is far from certain.
In this vein, special attention must be paid to the relationship between Sam and Frodo. Although it is hard to pick a standout in a cast full of standouts, it is Sean Astin who has the toughest job in "Return of the King". He does what can be harder than many multi-layered performances: he needs to embody absolutely pure emotions with very little complexities and do it in a way that is believable and involving. Astin goes above and beyond this call, giving the most moving performance in the entire film. With Astin, it is impossible not to feel the strong bond between the two hobbits. The foray into this relationship "King" takes is somewhat brave in a label-ready world. It is founded on absolute mutual love, but one that is neither sexual nor romantic. "King" asks its viewers to return to a less circumspect area of their minds and to understand this kind of love for what it is, not what it is most convinient to classify as.
"Return of the King" is one of the grand achievements of epic filmmaking, but there is no doubt that thinking about it leaves one a little disappointed. Not in the film itself, mind you, but in the fact that this soaring saga is very nearly finished (I say nearly because the third film will receive an extended edition DVD later in the year which I look forward to). With no "Rings" films to anticipate in the future, one can only hope that Hollywood will step up to the challenge they present; that more risks will be taken and vision will be allowed to triumph over executive decision. These films, with "Return of the King" being the finest of them, are to be the standard in which almost any large release will be compared to in the future.