Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings really did get better with each successive film in the trilogy. Ten years ago I ventured into theaters, despite my aversion to the fantasy genre, to see The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. I was bored with and disliked both (the first more than the second), so I skipped the third one. Revisiting the first two with the recently released standalone Blu-rays of the extended editions, my opinions had softened somewhat. I still don’t believe these films need to be so freaking long, but the second one proved to be much more exciting and involving than I remembered.
The trilogy was highly decorated, with each winning a plethora of awards, but The Return of the King positively cleaned house. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it managed to win every single one, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. While I understand the Academy was basically awarding the entire three-film saga, it’s still odd to me to name any movie Best Picture that can’t stand on its own. Understanding and enjoying Return is totally dependent upon having seen the two films that came before.
That said, this is a massively impressive film that easily provides the most rewarding viewing experience of the three. From Andy Serkis’ appearance during a flashback as Sméagol, the man who would eventually become Gollum, to the final encounter between Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum at Mount Doom, this is the film that finally won me over. Yes, at 263 minutes it’s still kind of insanely long. But even though this is by far the lengthiest extended edition, it doesn’t feel like it. The action set pieces are mind-blowing, outdoing even those from the first two films. The interplay between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum had deepened by this point, with Frodo nearing the mental limit of exposure to the ring’s power. Gollum constantly tries to undermine Sam in order to turn Frodo against him, which he eventually does.