The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition)

Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Viggo Mortensen, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, and Liv Tyler

The third installment in a trilogy is rarely the best because filmmakers are always trapped by the conventions of a trilogy.  They're trying to conclude the story and simultaneously outdo themselves.  Just look to Return of the Jedi, The Godfather: Part III, or Spider-Man 3 to get my point.  None of these films quite lived up to their predecessors because the directors were limited by one simple thing.  The story has to end.  It's the law of trilogies.  Few directors have defied this, but Peter Jackson joined these ranks when he released The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  The journey may end here, but it's one hell of a ride.  The Return of the King marks the completion of a trilogy of blockbuster masterpieces.

After the battle at Helm's Deep, Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Théoden (Bernard Hill), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) travel to meet Merry (Dominic Monaghan), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Treebeard (Rhys-Davies) at Isengard where the corrupt white wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) is being held in captivity.  There, Gandalf tries to get information from his former master on Sauron's plans.  He knows the enemy's attack is imminent, but he doesn't know where the hammer stroke will fall hardest.  They also find a palantir, one of the seeing eyes.  Upon returning to Edoras, the curious and mischievous Pippin takes a look at the palantir while everyone is sleeping.  He gets up close and personal with Sauron and learns of the forthcoming attack on Gondor's capital Minas Tirith, the white city.

As they prepare to confront the great battle of their time, all the members of the fellowship must go down their own paths.  Gandalf and Pippin go to Minas Tirith to convince Lord Denethor (John Noble) to rally the city's defenses.  Merry remains with Théoden and the Rohirrim as they prepare to answer Gondor's call for aid.  With Gimli and Legolas, Aragorn travels into the Paths of the Dead.  With Elrond (Hugo Weaving) having reformed Isildur's blade, Aragorn can take command of the Army of the Dead and lead them to Minas Tirith in battle.  Meanwhile, two little hobbits are wandering through the forest struggling to make their way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring.  As their traveling companion Gollum (Andy Serkis) begins to cloud Frodo's (Elijah Wood) judgment, Sam (Sean Astin) is wise to Gollum's act and sees that he's jeopardizing this vital quest.

In all of movie history, there is no grander film than Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  It's a film that accomplishes so much.  On the battlefield and in Frodo’s doomed quest, it takes the series full circle.  Fueled by apocalyptic chaos, the movie gives us warfare on a scale we've never witnessed on the big screen.  It gives us all the characters we know and love at their absolute best.  All the while, it brings the journey to a powerful conclusion.  With a runtime of four hours, The Return of the King has plenty of time to cover all of this, and much, much more.  After all, this movie is one of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time.

The Return of the King is a film that's all about bringing the journey full circle.  Everything that the prologue in The Fellowship of the Ring foreshadows comes to pass in this final installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  From the great battle of our time at Minas Tirith to the final struggle to throw the Ring of Power into the fiery chasms of Mount Doom from whence it came, the parallels are definitely there.  As in the Second Age, Sauron confronts a last alliance of the peoples of Middle Earth on the battlefield.  Granted, Elrond does not lead any Elves into battle since they've all gone to the Undying Lands.  The elves do help out at Helm’s Deep though in The Two Towers.

It's incredible to watch how Peter Jackson weaves this intricate story and brings it all back to the One Ring and its power to corrupt the heart of anyone bearing it.  Like Isildur, Frodo's heart is overtaken by a lust for infinite power.  Interestingly enough, the film itself even comes full circle because there's another person whose heart has been corrupted by the ring, Gollum/Sméagol.  Jackson really highlights the sad, miserable life of this character and the lengths to which he'll go in order to get the precious.  In highlighting this repeatedly throughout the film, he creates some powerful parallels.  Most notably, the intense struggle between Sméagol and Déagol (Thomas Robins) for the One Ring on the riverside centuries ago is an early glimpse of what's to transpire in Mount Doom between Frodo and Gollum.  The pity of Bilbo does indeed rule the fate of many.

While Jackson's first two films dabble in apocalyptic overtones, The Return of the King fully embraces its "end of the world" vibe.  The board is set, and the pieces are moving.  The battle at Minas Tirith could spell the end of Middle Earth as we know it.  At the end of all the chaos, either Sauron and his orcs or Gandalf and the world of men will be able to utter checkmate.  The tension is riding unbelievably high for this one.  Fear is in the air.  Jackson has created the perfect backdrop for war on an unimaginable scale and he uses it masterfully.  That being said, the battle at Minas Tirith is the greatest piece of cinematic warfare of all time.

I can't fathom what it takes to create something as massive as the Battle of Minas Tirith.  The visual effects team had to be working overtime on this flick.  The sheer scale of this battle with thousands and thousands of warriors is astounding.  To bring warfare of this magnitude to life, Peter Jackson had to push the technologies of the era to new heights.  On top of that, Jackson must create Minas Tirith, the city of kings, and then destroy it.  Jackson really gives the city a regal look.  It almost looks like one giant white crown, albeit this crown is eventually engulfed in flames.  Beyond this incredible feat, Jackson amazes us by placing the creatures of Middle Earth squarely on the battlefield — trolls, ghosts, and even elephaunts. 

Every actor steps up their game for The Return of the King.  Elijah Wood and Andy Serkis both give tormented performances as Frodo and Gollum respectively.  Both of their characters have been taken on a miserable journey and both their performances highlight their tragic realities.  Amongst our heroes, Viggo Mortensen gives a performance worthy of a king as his character Aragorn finally fulfills his destiny.  He transitions his character from an exile crept from the shadows to something much, much more as a leader.  As Gandalf the White, Ian McKellen is not so grandfatherly in this one.  While he still offers a few doses of wisdom, McKellen is delivering the fiery general that Gondor needs in its darkest hour.  Finally we have Sean Astin giving us a courageous yet emotive performance as the tough little hobbit Samwise Gamgee.

We have quite a few standouts amongst the film's supporting cast members as well.  Whether counting kills or having a drinking competition, John Rhys-Davies and Orlando Bloom seem to be having quite a bit of fun on screen as Gimli and Legolas respectively.  That translates to quite a bit of fun for us as well.  As Merry and Pippin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd don't deliver as many laughs as they have in previous installments.  Instead, they offer strong performances as their characters get more serious in confronting the great doom of their time. 

Miranda Otto kicks butt and takes names as Éowyn, and Karl Urban does the same as her brother Éomer.  For me though, the standout amongst the supporting cast has to be Bernard Hill as King Théoden.  He gives us a regal king who understands that Middle Earth stands upon the brink of chaos and destruction.  Despite death all around him, he rallies the Rohirrim and goes up against all odds to save the world.  Hill captures the essence of this character perfectly throughout the film and gives one hell of war speech at his character’s finest hour on the battlefield.

I could go on forever and ever about how awesome The Return of the King is.  Beyond the incredible visuals, epic warfare, and masterful storytelling, Jackson delivers some gorgeous cinematography and true terror in the form of the Witch King and the menacing giant spider Shelob.  More importantly, he gives us a fitting ending with the fellowship reunited and the journey complete.  This final installment goes where no other film has ever gone.  The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King gets a sober rating.  This is greatness personified on the big screen.