Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, a.k.a. LOTR: ROTK, is an adaptation of the final book of J.R.R. Tolkien's series, Lord of the Rings, one of the most famous fantasy series of all time. With ground-breaking special effects,a phenomenal production team, and hundreds of extras, Jackson's films set a new bar for fantasy films and, indeed, for filmmaking in general.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River and Seabiscuit. In addition to Best Picture, ROTK also won Best Art Direction - Set Decoration; Best Costume Design; Best Director; Best Editing; Best Makeup; Best Music (Original Score); Best Music (Original Song); Best Sound Mixing; Best Visual Effects and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). The film won in every category for which it was nominated.
When a series of movies is nominated for an Oscar, usually, the last film in the series is the one that will win, if any of them do. Why? Because that's when the full story can be evaluated. With that said, the Oscar win for ROTK can really be considered a win for all three films: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King.
I had originally watched all three films in the theater when they first came out. In preparation for writing this, I watched the director's extended cut of all three films, along with all of the extras and featurettes on my husband's special edition DVDs. Not only did this take a while, but the combined effect was so overwhelming that every time I thought of writing about it, I said, "Not today."
ROTK picks up where the previous film left off: with hobbits Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Wood) deep in enemy territory, following their weasly guide, Gollum/Smeagol (Andrew Serkis), towards Mt. Doom, where they hope to destroy the One Ring that, if captured by evil Lord Sauron, could mean a death sentence for all of Middle Earth.
Meanwhile, the other members of the original fellowship, fellow hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), human Aragorn (Mortensen) and wizard Gandalf (McKellen) pursue their own paths, each striving to save Middle Earth from a resurgent Sauron and his armies.
As a whole, the three films accomplish an amazing feat: a lush, vivid adaptation of a beloved literary work. While some changes were made to the original story in the script, and further changes emerged during the editing process, this trilogy stands as a lovingly faithful ode to Tolkien's work. To accomplish this, Jackson relied on literally hundreds of skilled filmmakers, all drawing from concept art created by Alan Lee and John Howe, both of whom have been renowned for their illustrations of the Tolkien series.
Standing alone, ROTK is a strong film, as well, containing epic battle scenes, dark introspection, and an exploration of the nature of courage. Of course, the film was never meant to stand alone, and the sacrifices and bravery of this movie are made all the more poignant by having seen the main characters, as well as a stable of secondary characters, in somewhat brighter times.
These films have it all: humor, drama, action, and romance, all bound by beautiful cinematography, heightened by elaborate costumes, painstakingly wrought sets and, of course, top-notch acting. In many ways, Jackson's trilogy marks a pinacle of Hollywood filmmaking. No matter how much money subsequent directors throw at the scene, it will be hard to recapture the unique blend of dedication, innovation, and, yes, fellowship, that produced these films.
Watching the extras, I was struck by the efforts of every level of the production team, from the Weta Workshop workers, who found creative ways to transform the New Zealand landscape into Tolkien's Middle Earth, to stoic actor Rhys-Davies, who endured daily applications of facial appliances that produced a painful allergic reaction around his eyes.
Much like Sam and Frodo overcame multiple obstacles in their quest to save Middle Earth, Jackson's team vaulted previously unsurpassed filmmaking thresholds. None of this would matter a bit if the resulting films hadn't offered much more than breathtaking visuals. Yet, the storytelling more than matches it, with the actors, in some cases (such as Astin) turning in the best work of their careers.
It's little surprise that ROTK swept the Oscars: few films could surpass the accomplishments of this trilogy. Like the characters in the trilogy, this filmmaking team led each other to victory, rising to new personal bests as they combined forces for a common goal.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
An epic can and should be more than the sum of its parts.