**Warning! Mild Spoilers Ahead!!**
Sequels are inherently difficult to make and review review, because on top of the usual expectations for a film, everyone has to deal with expectations created by the previous films. Return of the King faced expectations equal to those of any other film, and like the protagonists at Helm's Deep, fended them off and crushed them.
ROTK begins where "The Two Towers" concluded. As Gandalf said at the end of TTT, "The battle for Helm's Deep is over; the battle for Middle Earth has begun." Frodo & Sam are still moving toward Mordor; Merry & Pippin are hanging out w/ the Ents at Isengard; and the rest of the fellowship has defeated the Uruk-hai at Helm's Deep. With Saruman defeated, the focus now shifts east, where man must make a final stand against Sauron, while Frodo & Sam attempt to destroy the One Ring.
As opposed to the breakneck opening scenes of TTT, ROTK starts slowly, but the early character development in lieu of action sequences is equally enjoyable and enlightening. Thank goodness for the deliberate beginning though, because if the intensity of the latter two-thirds of the film lasted for the full running time, paramedics would have been required on site to assist with heart failures and burst blood vessels, inevitable side effects of the remarkable tension that director Peter Jackson creates.
Speaking of Jackson, let's hear it for him and his crew (pause for standing ovation).
That crew has once again created a mythical world without a trace of fictitiousness. Through the jaw-dropping visualization of massive battles, fortresses, monsters, and more, the cinematography and effects uphold and improve the standard set by the predecessors. Gollum now has more to work with as an "actor", and the digital whiz kids step up to the challenge, blending him into the shots perfectly, particularly in a brilliant reflection scene. More sweeping battle scenes and more gorgeous landscapes are among the stellar shots lensed by Andrew Lesnie. The first shot of Minas Tirith stands to be my movie moment of the year; it will absolutely take your breath away. But the beauty lies in the fact that you scarcely know the difference between beautiful reality and equally natural effects. Outside of a couple apparent blue-screen shots, I never once doubted the veracity of the world of Middle Earth. Considering the enormity of that task, those at WETA Workshop who dazzled us with their talent deserve every award they get over the next couple months.
On the musical front, Howard Shore is back as composer, and his work shines as never before. He provides grand and booming orchestral sounds when battles require them, yet still manages to evoke emotion without lapsing into melodrama during poignant scenes. Mixing and tweaking familiar themes with new melodies, Shore literally hits all the right notes. For the audience, picking out recognizable themes, such that of Rohan or the Fellowship, and hearing how Shore has kicked them into a minor key or altered those last two notes is a thrill. His score is a joy to listen to, both as it seamlessly meshes with the film and on its own. Perhaps there can be no higher compliment.
Also of note is the use of vocal music voiced by the actors themselves, a technique that is new to the theatrical releases of LOTR. Of the two songs, I must mention the first one, which is utilized to stunning maximum effect. In a remarkable scene reminiscent of The Godfather, the song is sung over a scene that cuts between a character who made a decision and the grim consequences of that choice. The music, pictures, and variations in film speed combine for one of the best scenes of the year.
None of the acting work stood out to me, and by that I mean no individual was head-and-shoulders above the rest. I could still make a legitimate Oscar case for at least four cast members (Astin, McKellen, Mortensen, Wood), which is a tribute to the overall strength of the ensemble cast. Everyone fits into and builds upon their roles so very well, and the camaraderie that I've seen glimpses of behind the scenes carries over wonderfully.
The acting serves as a means rather than an end. A la "Band of Brothers", the combined ten hours of film allow time for the characters to be developed and known, an advantage fully used in ROTK, which has more fulfilling scenes packed with emotion where we see decisions being made. Those scenes are what elevate this film to another level. On top of the nonpareil action sequences that shame other "epics", it has a human soul, one that comes to the fore in final act, when the friendships that have been established take center stage. To me, friendship is the core theme of LOTR, and thanks to the fabulous acting of all participants, that theme is displayed in all its glory in ROTK.
WARNING! THE NEXT PARAGRAPH DISCUSSES THE CLOSING SCENES!!
In an unusual but welcome departure from the cinematic norm, the denouement of ROTK lasts a good twenty minutes after the climax. Too many movies, like "Matrix Revolutions", wrap too quickly, leaving fates either unresolved or resolved, but sloppily and unsatisfactorily. Others, such as "Pirates of the Caribbean", do have an extended ending but don't require one and thus fill it with fluff. Here we find a perfect mean. Considering that Jackson and company have over ten hours of film and numerous character arcs to wrap up, twenty minutes is probably the minimum required to let the audience absorb all that has happened. After three or four possible end points, each of which concludes various stories, Sam returns to the Shire and enters his home, closing the door on both the camera and the trilogy. While the finish may seem odd, I consider it perfect. Sam has just come to the end of a fantastic adventure, a journey mirrored by that of the audience. The ending leaves each party back where they began, in a satisfying yet admittedly bittersweet manner. Like it or not, "I'm back."
END OF MAJOR SPOILERS.
Is this film perfect? Probably not. Sure, certain characters like Denehor could have been developed more. But while that knowledge would have been helpful, the time it would have taken to expound on those people likely would not have been worth the knowledge gained. There are a handful of other cardinal sins, such as scarcely showing the ultimate villain and Arwen's near random appearances. But most of those trace back to the original books, not to errors by Peter Jackson. The fact that the entire series works so well without fully disclosing many details speaks to the phenomenal power of Tolkien's books and superb work in Jackson's films. The bottom line is that nobody cares about the flaws because they're entranced by the literary and cinematic magic on display.
Bottom Line: ROTK, the greatest final film in a trilogy of all time (go ahead...name a better one) culminates the best overall film trilogy ever, ten hours of film that transcend the medium. As I told my brother as we reluctantly but contentedly departed the theater, we will never experience anything like this again. EVER. 10/10.
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