Directed by: Peter Jackson || Produced by: Peter Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne, Fran Walsh, Mark Ordesky, Tim Sanders
Written by: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair || Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler
Music by: Howard Shore || Cinematography by: Andrew Lesnie || Editing by: John Gilbert, Michael J. Horton, Jabez Olssen, Jamie Selkirk || Country: United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States || Language: English
Running Time: 558 minutes
When The Return of the King won the Academy Award for Best Picture, becoming the first fantasy film ever to do so, I felt a sense of vindication for Peter Jackson’s vision and the vision of his team. While winning Oscars isn’t everything in the movie business, it means an awful lot in the moment, and goes a long way toward immortalizing important films as soon as possible. King’s victory at the Oscars put a slick, finishing garnish on the LOTR franchise. It encapsulated the trilogy as arguably the greatest films of this generation, and also as unforgettable classics for the generations to come.
I originally outlined this review to focus on the final and most celebrated chapter in the Lord of the Rings franchise, but then I decided to rework and renovate it for the entire trilogy, because the films deserve to be reviewed as a single project. Like the original writing by J. R. R. Tolkein, this franchise tells a singular, massive, sprawling story, and was conceived as a connected work of narrative fiction from the start. Let’s appreciate it as such.
While an argument could be made for analyzing an equally leviathan franchise like Star Wars as a single story (plus a marred, blasphemous backstory that we all want to forget), I feel that reviewing each LOTR film separately is repetitive at best and a complete waste of time at worst. It is a single story, and it is one of the few franchise-greats that manages to hold its high quality throughout all of its theatrical releases. It never lets you down, and it never fails to amaze. It even manages to turn what was easily the most boring book in the series, The Tower Towers, into a tensely woven, action-packed melodrama. LOTR has few weaknesses, and those that do exist are far and few between. They are drowned out by the the awesomeness of everything else in its arsenal, like all film classics, and every attempt to nitpick at its minor errors is foolish and quite laughable.
While I still hold The Fellowship of the Ring to be the strongest of the three, King can’t be beat for its excitement and epic battle sequences. The siege of Minas Tirith is the centerpiece of this trilogy, and I believe it will go down as one of the all-time great action scenes in film history. The extraordinary cast returns for every act, of course, and everyone delivers from Ian McKellan’s masterful Gandalf to Viggo Mortenson’s heroic Aragorn, all the way to Elijah Wood’s self-sacrificing Frodo. J. R. R. Tolkein’s classic story is retold in beautiful imagery, music, and atmosphere.
The production of this trilogy cannot be underappreciated, given how massive production values and painstaking artistic craft were combined appropriately and successfully, with only one small mishap (Sauron’s “Lighthouse Eye”). Every detail is meticulously transcribed and lends to a believable Tolkein-world. The film serves as an excellent example of ambitious filmmaking vision combined with restraint, practicality, and nuanced production design to create an engrossing and immersive Middle-Earth experience. It is also an important showcase of nearly every filmmaking “trick” in the book, be it groundbreaking computer special FX or tried and true practical techniques. Everything in the universe, from the gorgeous landscape shots, the digital editing within every image, the slick CGI-molded creatures, the meticulous costume-design, the gorgeous makeup effects, the handcrafted arms and armor, the detailed miniatures, the large-scale “bigatures,” all the way down to the hairy, molded Hobbit feet — every single design for The Lord of the Rings works wonders and builds on every other effect to bring Tolkein’s vision to life.
Howard Shore’s beautiful soundtrack returns in every installment to complete one of the marquee film scores of the early 21st century, each time combining with the sweeping, action-packed vistas as well as the quieter, more intimate emotions that emanate from every character and each beautiful structure. Shore’s work on Jackson’s LOTR trilogy is one of the last memorable cinematic soundtracks of the golden age of film music.
The greatest strength of the film is perhaps its impeccably efficient screenplay, which is a huge compliment considering how strong everything else in the movie is, top to bottom. Fran Walsh and Philipa Boyens, along with Peter Jackson, took what worked from the novel and focused on what needed to shown. In many ways, an adapted screenplay like this from such a sprawling, massive story can be every bit as difficult and require all the painstaking care of an original script, if not much more. Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Jackson’s adaptation of LOTR is how it takes all the misconceptions that movies based on other source material, such as famous novels, are somehow inherently inferior, or are always doomed to fail if they deviate from the original concepts in any way, and throws that patronizing shit in the dumpster where it belongs.
The idea that adapted screenplays, including but not limited to beloved, classic novels, are always going to be inferior than the original author’s conception, is as much a fallacy now as it always has been. The Godfather (1972) proved that back in the ’70’s, and The Lord of the Rings proved that three years in a row in the early 2000’s. The dimwitted masses, as well as the nose-upturned snobs, need to come to their senses and realize that different mediums like literature (novels, comics, short stories, what have you) and film are not better or worse than each other — some are just older than others, and therefore tend to be considered more “mature” or “higher art,” for some reason. Different art mediums each have own strengths and weakness, or trade offs, so a story realized by one method is never guaranteed to be better or worse than any other method — it simply depends on how each particular design for every adaptation is done. The same story realized in one medium is always going to be at least somewhat different than if it were realized in another medium, yet that does mean one interpretation of the same material is automatically better or worse. It simply means they are different.
The Lord of the Rings is a magnificent artistic success in film every bit as much as Tolkein’s original work was in literature. Its visuals alone are proof of that. While audiences will always tend to be the most guarded with the stories that come first, the fact of the matter is that appreciators of art need to come to grips with the concept that every work of art starts afresh with clean slate. Every interpretation of a narrative has equal opportunity to fail or surpass the versions that came before it, and to deny this reality is to admit to some form of “art-prejudice.” A film franchise like LOTR illustrates as much human imagination and creativity as when Tolkein sat down under a tree one day and decided to write a story about short-statured folk with hairy feet. The fact that Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, and director Peter Jackson were able to analyze, break down, replicate, and yet also reinterpret and re-envision a story of the depth of the Lord of the Rings as a motion picture is astounding.
LOTR is most recognizable for its massive and expertly planned battle sequences, but as is always the case, the best and most important parts of an epic franchise are the quieter moments of character growth and bonds that are formed over the course of the whole story. Not only does every character grow and change like real people, but the ways that they interact, the haunting, beautiful monologues, and the infinitely quotable dialogue gives each role, both minor and major, something important to do and the chance to contribute something meaningful to the fantastic narrative that encompasses them all. Everybody has a part to play here, and everyone performs at the top of their game.
Great screenplays always bring out the best in actors, and nowhere else is this more true than in Jackson’s Rings trilogy. There are so many great characters, and so many unforgettable moments, that it’s impossible to list them all. The poignant lamenting of King Theodon at Helms Deep before the siege of Saruman, the heartfelt, emotional confessions of Gandalf and Frodo in Moria, the melancholic singing of Pippin as Faramir leads a suicide charge, and Aragorn’s inspiring speech before the last stand at the Black Gate — all of these moments and so many more are framed, lit, edited, and captured beautifully on camera, and will live on as classic scenes in this new age of cinema. The War of the Ring may be incredibly powerful when the blades clash, yet the film is at its most epic when the words are soft and the emotions are subtle.
At a technical level, Lord of the Rings gets almost everything right. The important trademark sections, as well as the artistic freedom the filmmakers injected, are paced so well and so tastefully that the 558 minutes (I kid you not) fly by in an instant. They leave you wanting more. Can a viewer really ask for more from a film than this, though — a film that orchestrates its battles and emotional drama like a conductor commands a symphony? There are very, very few stories that are better told. The characters are real, the emotions are real, and the epic, almost otherworldly feeling of adventure is real. Nothing in the script comes across as contrived or artificial or sloppily done (except for Sauron’s stupid eye). That is because virtually nothing is. The LOTR film trilogy as a whole is about as large-scale, epic and awe-inspiring as narrative journeys get. The Lord of the Rings is the stunning culmination of our generations’ Godfather (1972), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Aliens (1986), or Schindler’s List (1993). This trilogy of films will go on to be classics in the years ahead, and I cannot think of a better representation for the cinema of our time than The Lord of the Rings: It is this generation of cinema’s crowning achievement.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings demonstrates the sheer range of modern epic filmmaking, turning Tolkein’s overly dense nerd-Bible into an exciting, action-packed, and thought-provoking cinematic adventure for all ages. This film’s adapted screenplay is on par with The Godfather’s (1972) in terms of adaptation-efficiency and thematic prowess. Its ensemble cast is one of the strongest in cinematic history, lead by career-defining roles from Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen. Howard Shore’s score is a magnificent symphony as diverse and structured as the film’s versatile special FX.
— However… this trilogy flaunts one significant misstep: The Eye of Sauron has been turned into a lighthouse. So wait, these movies fucking suck!
— The Lord of the Rings receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? This film series proves that cinema is alive and well for the generations to come. The good ole days of filmmaking are right now.