Peter Jackson’s fond farewell to Middle-earth is the standard-bearer for epic-fantasy filmmaking and the best work in the director’s lauded filmography. The Return of the King is a reasonably faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s final Lord of the Rings (LOTR) novel of the same name. Make no mistake: Jackson’s sign-off is indulgent, but with more than nine hours of film leading up to it, its sentimentality is earned.
The final film in Peter Jackson’s original LOTR trilogy was rewarded with 11 Oscars (a record-tying feat). It won in all 11 categories it was nominated in (a record-breaking feat, shattering the previous record of nine held by Gigi and The Last Emperor). Not a bad awards haul for a movie that was also the highest-grossing film of 2003.
On the last leg of the journey to Mt. Doom, fiction’s lousiest tour guide, Gollum (Andy Serkis), sows discord between hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin). Paranoid about Sam’s desire for the One Ring and his reckless appetite for their remaining rations, Frodo sends Sam home. With all obstacles out of the way, Gollum leads Frodo into a trap where Shelob, a horse-sized spider, awaits.
Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) march toward the Black Gate to occupy the Eye of Sauron to buy time for Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, presumably, sneak into Mordor to destroy the One Ring. Aragorn soon realizes that their forces won’t be enough and stays back with Legolas and Gimli to gather a larger army. With the fate of all of Middle-earth on the line, Frodo must escape Shelob’s fangs and Aragorn must give his best Uncle Sam pitch to enlist some spectral troops.
With LOTR, Jackson brought horror elements to a mainstream blockbuster. The genre mash began in The Fellowship of the Ring with the desolate Mines of Moria, continued in The Two Towers with the murky Dead Marshes, and culminated in an undead army and a chilling battalion of Ringwraiths in The Return of the King.
The Return of the King clocks in at a series-high 201 minutes. The extended edition adds 51 minutes to an already-overwhelming runtime. Jackson’s reluctance to leave Middle-earth couldn’t be more clear—at least until the unfortunate Hobbit trilogy was released beginning in 2012. Despite the length, The Return of the King seldom drags. Editor Jamie Selkirk carefully distributes the action between characters in amenable chunks.
If Gandalf is the series’ brain, the Hobbits are the heart, and the Three Hunters (the heroic trio of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli) are the brawn, then composer Howard Shore is the body. I have praised Shore extensively in reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but without Shore, Jackson’s emotional swan song is a fisherman without a net.
As audiences learned in 2019, endings are important to epic fantasy stories. The Return of the King is a tender, exultant, and, ultimately, profoundly satisfying conclusion.