And so all good things come to an end. For three years in a row, Peter Jackson has banished our winter sorrows with the individual installments of his Tolkien trilogy, effectively shifting the focus of our cinematic entanglement from the summer months to the end of the year. But now that his hit has been revealed in its entirety, what will be the lasting effects of his accomplishment?
Well, grand-scale fantasy filmmaking is back on the menu, laying down the gauntlet to George Lucas and Star Wars Episode III. Jackson has also shown that notions of risk and ambition don’t need to be confined to the low-budget, indie end of the spectrum; nor does California have an exclusive stranglehold on groundbreaking special effects.
And then there’s the DVD factor. Just as The Lord Of The Rings was upping the stakes in theatres, so too was its DVD release pattern defining what can (and should) be done on disc for major movies. In particular, the four-disc expanded editions appear to have affected the director’s thinking as to what he can get away with in his theatrical final cut. Hence the public grumbles from Christopher Lee about the non-appearance of Saruman in this final installment. While it might have been fair to give Lee a curtain call, Jackson quite rightly learns that it is Sauron, not Saruman, whose fiery eye encompasses all the narrative strands of the climax.
The Return Of The King marks the first time in the series when Jackson’s roots as a horror filmmaker creep through. As the orcs throw severed Gondorian heads to the other side of Minas Tirith’s walls, flesh-rotted ghosts draw swords together with Aragorn and giant spider Shelob stalks Frodo through dark, web-shrouded tunnels, the movie pushes the boundaries of its 12A certificate.
And so it should, since the look and tone have to necessarily grow grimmer as the Hobbits near Mount Doom and Mordor’s evil hand grips Middle-earth ever tighter.
Character nuances have been crafted over an unprecedented ten hours-plus of cinematic storytelling: from Strider lurking in the shadowy corner to Aragorn rallying the troops; from Merry and Pippin as bumbling fools to stout-hearted, pint-sized warriors. Only Legolas and Gimli appear to have regressed (in screen time for the least) to set-piece archer and comedy sidekick respectively. At least Andy Serkis is rewarded for his Gollum voicing with an early flashback that shows his true face on screen, as well as warning us that, under the ring’s influence, Smeagol can be as deadly as Gollum.
Jackson has kept the momentum of the saga rolling on and on though the conventionally ‘difficult’ middle part and ‘weak’ finale, conveying a climax to the story that’s cleaner and more affecting than what Tolkien managed on the book version. Some viewers might feel that the director sprinkles some cheese on his extended coda, adding at least one false ending too many (even if he does ignore the book’s Scouring of The Shire).
But those who have walked alongside these heroes every step of the path on such a long quest deserve the emotional pay-off as well as the action peaks, and they will be truly touched as the final credits roll. Yes, the Ring is dead. Long live King!