Director: Peter Jackson Cast: Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Liv Tyler, Karl Urban, Cate Blanchett Duration: 3 hrs. 30 min.
Interviews with a Lord of the Rings cast member follow a pattern. After tales of fun, suffering, commitment, uprooted homes, punctured lives, consummate friendships, intimate bonding and unrivalled achievements, they progress to the point whereupon you realise they're talking about their life on a film set. It's more compulsive telling than reading, but, with wizards going white after just one film and every hobbit enduring crippling fatigue from waking, walking and eventually talking, it's clear that what you see on the screen sprouted from an ordeal which they pursued without risk of credit or payment. And it's contagious, with even Uma Thurman admitting to achieve no less whilst training for Kill Bill ("I had to arrive at nine, and leave at five!") though, of course, it's always a personally uplifting experience and from such hardship she, her id, and hobbits, grew from within. If this seems the pinnacle of credence then consider this: what's most amazing is that even if you digest every morsel of hype and still not sympathise with hobbits, shed tears for Thurman's schedule, or even be curious whether the cuddly characters from Middle Earth eventually triumph (be honest, you were never in any doubt) you still won't be put off as nobody cares who survives whatever as long as it looks stupendous. And what raises Peter Jackson's Tolkien odyssey above and beyond its marketing campaign is that, unlike many epics from the Hollywood stable, every drop of spilt stage-blood was worth it.
The first hurdle was smartly overcome - the dehobbitisation of Gollum from Andy Serkis into the disturbing pixel-puddle removed the first reintroduction of characters, and those that followed were subtle - brief mentions of shires and simple life, demise of fellowship, evil of Sauron. The consistency between the films is hardly less impressive. Although though they were shot in one bash, unlike Lucas's dreary Star Wars prequels, the Tolkien volumes betray no attempt at grandeur; here each film sets new standards for "long" yet avoids the usual "inexorably dull" epithet that crowns most oeuvres over three hours. It's just too enveloping, the twee Shire and gloriously gothic Rivendell provoking a misty, nostalgic Pre-Raphaelite orgy which anyone in possession of an aesthetic sense would be in no rush to leave. So much can be accredited to Jackson, but it requires ludicrous logistics and harmonisation of intent to produce so solid a visualisation of Middle-Earth which ensures that, for most audiences, the films are still too short.
The story in the books, and so in the film, ploughs through swathes of anarchic violence but as the whole point was to catalogue the melancholic waste of war, Jackson's crew knew they couldn't just supply the usual Arnie treatment. If there needed to be the iron fist approach, then it has been clothed in the finest velvet armed with the most delicate manners, just so there is a greater depth to fall once the armies of Mordor make some headway towards Gondor.
As with the first two behemoths, The Return of the King has impeccable effects, and the balance between the visual artistry and the accompanying sounds are wholly convincing: the first sighting of the Witch King of Angmar astride his scaly pet was an exemplary piece of united media, and duly quite terrifying. There is plenty of spectacle, more so than any film or anything else, yet despite the shock-and-awe direction (Mr Rumsfeld take note) the gung-ho attitude is denied until walls fall and humans are culled, and a couple of Gothic acres (doubtlessly due for redevelopment) are timely rescued by Orlando Bloom - and even he's made to look like his sister.
But despite the slick craftwork, there are problems and I'm simply surprised they had to be so evident: Saruman was denied an appearance, robbing the film of its only genuine villain even if solely for the purpose of tidy moralising; instead eagles appear in a cosy deus ex machina cameo, a sort of Middle-Earth RAC dutifully rescuing broken hobbits but declining to offer a lift to Mount Doom in the first place.
Additionally, Princess Eowin may not technically be a man but if she's going to slay a fiend of the undead then she ought to make less of the flimsy technicality that allows for this, and not instead blow it up into a conquest for feminism; Howard Shore's orchestral score has been impressive throughout and inserting the blandest excuse yet for a song seems too similar to the cause of Hitchcock and Herrmann's divorce during Torn Curtain: the concerns of gutless producers, a cheap ruse scantily clad in robes of "inspired by the movie" tripe. This end-credit ditty was totally unnecessary, completely detrimental, and entirely forgettable.
Perhaps it's a prudish view, but I've always found tonsil-tennis an act of lust more than love. And certainly more deserving of a private dart-for-the-bedroom than a tender demonstration of affection, and in front of the coronation procession to boot. But no, the war's won, and evidently for some producers one climax just isn't enough. Also there's no need for Annie Lennox.
It's fair to say that, however you look at it, no no-one could have predicted the next Hollywood epic would have come from New Zealand. Any murmurs otherwise are best regarded as post-horse-bolting propaganda and suitably ignored. The problem for those heralding the rebirth of our own film industry, nestling between Shepperton and Pinewood, is that Hollywood is no longer the true competition. Whereas Borehamwood could promise advantages of price and quality to rival any LA appeal, Auckland has even created its own government minister to deal with the influx of Lord of the Rings-spun interest. Ridley Scott can't compete, and the Yanks can but sit back and finance more away-games.
Nevertheless whatever you hear or read about the culmination of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the achievements or missed opportunities that preoccupy the minds of critics, it's worth considering one thing: few creations can justly demand audiences to wait two years for their happy
DVD Extras: The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision. A Filmmakers' Journey: The Return of the King. National Geographic special. 6 featurettes including 'Aragorn's Destiny'. Theatrical trailers. TV spots. The Lord of the Rings Super Trailer. EA video game preview.