'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'


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“We come to it at last, the great battle of our time,” says Ian McKellen’s Gandalf.

In the moment, he is, with some exasperation, trying to prepare Pippin for what is to come. He has survived the captivity of Orcs, but an existential challenge from the formless source of pure evil, Sauron, and all his minions still lies ahead.

It is a classic calm-before-the-storm bit of dialogue delivered with the kind of gruff gravitas McKellen has cultivated over two-plus films to that point. It gets you, as a viewer, excited for the spectacle that awaits. Had Ferris Bueller delivered the line, he would have looked right in to the camera while saying it.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is, above all, a culmination. It is not exactly the first of its kind - a sci-fi / fantasy film told in three parts that gives its long suffering heroes a final triumph - but it does feel like the most of its kind - the most ambitious, the most grand and lush, the most satisfying.

It has epic battles, of course. There are terrifying creatures plucked from J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination and made tangible and believable by director Peter Jackson and his costume, makeup, and special effects teams. And I am happy to report that almost two decades on, all of those elements have aged wonderfully. There are also deeply personal struggles - from the reveal of just how Gollum became Gollum in the film’s opening to the final tussle to cast the One Ring in to the fires of Mount Doom. These are the truly timeless elements that will help these films maintain their special place among fans.

The spectacle and the personal investment in the characters are what combined to make the entire The Lord of the Rings series so beloved. In its very best moments, these elements come together in a single scene, as they do when Frodo is captured and then must escape a giant spider named Shelob to continue on his quest.

In some ways, all of this stuff seems much easier now than it did then. Yes, boys and girls, I am old enough to remember when these films first materialized in theaters. Though their release coincided with my college days and behavior that hindered my memory, I do remember a collective appreciation for what Peter Jackson was able to pull off. He made Middle Earth real, and he did it with breathtaking speed and continuity. He did not release The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, prove he had something financially and clumsily get Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and the rest of the gang back to New Zealand as soon as all their schedules would allow.

The world we live in now is dominated by Marvel Studios, which has turned what Jackson made seem miraculous in 2003 in to a tried-and-true, almost rote formula some 16 years later. For better or worse, we all now expect cinematic universes and a deep roster of characters that swoop in and out of a multi-film series nimbly. We expect our blockbusters to be intentionally serialized - to deliver a macro-story and a regular old story in the same package.

I think it is fair to argue that had Jackson not shown it was possible back in the early 2000s, then Marvel Studios would not have the ambition it does today. It might be making comic book movies, but it very well might not be making them in the exact manner it does now. That’s interesting because, of course, there were actual comic book movies coming out at the same time. The thing is, none of them foretold the multi-character, multi-faceted juggling act that would come to dominate the box office quite like Jackson’s jaunt in to Middle Earth.

Besides delivering something that seems to have pleased a very specific set of nerds, Jackson also seems to have delivered a template for pleasing a lot of different kinds of nerds as well. My mixed feelings on what that hath wrought are well documented, but focusing on that too much robs from the specific achievement here. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King made something that seemed impossible feel real. I can’t think of anything more important than that where film as a medium is concerned.