Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Peter Jackson)


Many things trouble me about the Lord of the Rings films: the endless and repetitive battle scenes, the senselessness of the story, the hyperactive but directionless pacing, the terrible acting, the excruciating seriousness, the length (200 minutes in the case of part three). But what I think probably is most mystifying about the films’ reputation is the appalling respect given to the special effects, which are uniformly abysmal. Don’t misunderstand: the look of the movies is good enough, in fact one of their few virtues, but the expensive computer additions are an instantly outdated abomination. Special effects from movies made in 1939 (The Wizard of Oz) or 1968 (2001: A Space Odyssey) look infinitely better than nearly all CG. This isn’t a problem limited to LOTR at all, but it’s probably the quickest example to give. The best bit of writing on this comes from Michael Barrier, to whom I’ll give the floor for a moment…

A glance over film history will show that there’s nothing to prevent a film from making a lot of money, and even winning awards, just a few years before it turns into a dated embarrassment. Computer-animated films are particularly susceptible to such a fate because improvements in the technology will illuminate shortcomings in earlier films — and very often those films will turn out to have offered nothing but technological razzle-dazzle. I will be surprised if any of the films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are still watchable twenty years from now, but I’m absolutely certain that Return of the King — a computer-animated film, for all practical purposes, despite the wooden acting by the ostensible humans in its cast — will be an exasperating bore.

I agree, except that it’s an exasperating bore now! The Return of the King is most definitely the worst of the three Lord of the Rings films, and not just because its special effects are the most abundant and ludicrous. By this point, the story (which is insipid and could easily have been told in a single two-hour movie) has established a certain routine, which is never really elaborated upon; it’s more of the same, all the way, only this time the battles are a little bigger, the dangers are a little greater, and the people are a little stupider. All in all, it’s a waste of the filmmakers’ time and yours. The ending points this out directly; the entire premise of the series is essentially that something must be done. At the end, that very thing is done. There’s no excuse for the nine hours between. And the ending is a quiet copout, merely aloof after it finishes being ridiculous.

The third film does contain the one piece of actual good cinema in the entire series, in which Elijah Wood is stuck in a cave and confronted by a giant spider; this is, to my mind, the only sequence in the nine hours of Lord of the Rings worth preserving for any reason. [Please note: I wrote that years ago and on seeing the film a second time, I’m mystified as to what I found so interesting about that scene, but we’re counting this as a toss-up and leaving the relevant sentence.] Don’t worry, though; any sense of spirited fun you get is easily canceled out by the moment when, yo, this curly-haired kid from all the movies, Chaz or whatever his name is, he just started singing, y’all, while the battle lines are forming in this one part. Singing. But that scene made a lot of people cry, you know, and I vividly remember a coworker at the time of this flick’s release — a coworker whose taste in movies did not exactly run toward the idiosyncratic — recounting to me how transfixed she was through the entire narrative, and how turned on she was by Elijah Wood. Even she admitted the thing was too damn long, though.

My point is, though, that people really do care about this and I’m in the extreme minority on this entire matter, borne out probably by the fact (and I probably already mentioned this when reviewing The Fellowship of the Ring, and I apologize) that I couldn’t even make it through The Hobbit. What is there to say, really, except “it’s not for me.” I still think of Peter Jackson’s armload of Oscars as a victory because I think it’s an event any time a film that isn’t a straight drama gets that far… but this is so, so, so far out of my league. I can’t follow the story at all, and the CG really does look just atrocious. But I’m not the one to ask, y’know? Still, that the three LOTR movies are so highly regarded and commercially successful serves to give the lie to continued widespread complaints that “ghetto genres” fantasy and science fiction are shunned in this or any industry. If this is as mainstream as fantasy gets, and it is, I hate to imagine how bad the rest is.

[Originally posted in 2007, with a few updates.]

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