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FIRST-PERSON: A flawed but opulent jewel

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”: This Ring is a flawed jewel. It suffers from the same problems found in the first and second installments. First, you must be somewhat versed in Tolkien ideology in order to clearly follow along. Concocted, otherworldly names of people, places and things are bandied about in nearly every line.

Reading the press notes, I flashed back to college exams I was ill-prepared for: As the shadow of Mordor grows across the land, Aragorn is revealed as the hidden heir to the ancient kings. Gandalf miraculously returns and defeats the evil wizard, Saruman. Sam leaves his master for the dead after a battle with the giant spider, Shelob; but Frodo is still alive — in the hands of the Orcs. And while the armies of the Dark Lord are massing — and the one ring comes ever closer to the Cracks of Doom.

You see what I mean?

Collectively, the three Lord of the Rings films tell the story of Frodo Baggins, who battles to save Middle Earth from the grip of evil. In their adventures across the treacherous landscape of Middle Earth, Frodo and friends attempt to rid the world of the One Ring — a ring that can only be destroyed by being thrown into a lake of fire.

I understand that scholars of Tolkien’s mythic anthology find ethereal messages contained in the books, as if Tolkien was providing Christianity in code. In the film versions, you can find a good versus evil theme. And I’ll grant there is an example of how good men can be tempted by evil. But I found the allegories overshadowed by one deafening battle after another, one gruesome and very frightening-looking ghoul after another, and a somber narrative that could have been told in 96 minutes rather than its three-hour, 20-minute length.

And that brings me to the next problem. At the end of the year, we can always expect the Hollywood heavyweights to bombard us with epics that come close and often extend beyond the three-hour mark. Okay, so we have come to expect that. But this one at 200 minutes just doesn’t seem to know how to end. Indeed, there are several endings.

To be fair to the filmmakers, they wanted to be true to the books and respectful to those familiar with every subplot. And although there are many changes, the overall feel is faithful to the book series. It is a difficult thing adapting a book to the screen. The screenwriters should be congratulated for their efforts, but if you haven’t studied the books, you may question from time to time, or in my case, scene to scene, just what on Middle Earth is going on.

Also troubling is the amount of violence in this film. Believe me, you’ll get no inkling of the film’s ferociousness from the family friendly merchandising tie-ins. But it is one of the most violent films I’ve seen in quite some time. Not much blood, but there’s torture, duels to the death, main characters are killed, nightmarish sequences pop up every time someone puts that ring on, and hordes of demonic-looking villains bent on eliminating our little band of wood imps.

And lastly, I never grew close to the film’s characters. Barely a scene goes by where someone’s eyes don’t pool up, yet I was unaffected. Because it all seemed fantastical, I was unable to sense any real emotional depth. Perhaps a great performance rather than an adequate one would have conveyed that sensation.

You have to be a fan of this genre to best appreciate this metaphor-laced action adventure. I freely admit that I do not share the enthusiasm that I’m sure many of my colleagues in criticism will lavish upon this production. But I also admit an admiration for the visual opulence director Peter Jackson has brought to the screen. Although it’s not my cup of tea, there is no question that it is epic storytelling and grandiose filmmaking. The visuals in every scene are breathtaking, often mesmerizing. Sir Ian McKellen is majestic in the role of Gandalf. And it is a film that luxuriates in the storytelling process.

What’s more, there are spiritual ideals that can be gleaned concerning faith, honor, loyalty and man’s struggle with his inner nature. Tolkien’s themes deal with friendship, mercy, self-sacrifice, nature versus industry and, finally, redemption. Where I found these ideas muted in the first installment, dwarfed by the action sequences, both the second and now this final chapter leave a more thoughtful impression.

As Jackson was quick to point out in an interview with this reviewer, “What we are trying to do, as we adapt ‘The Lord of the Rings’ into a film medium, is honor these themes. While you can never be totally faithful to a book, especially one over 1,000 pages, we have tried to incorporate the things that Tolkien cared about when he wrote the novel, and make them the fabric of the films.”

Actor John Rhys-Davies, who plays the courageous dwarf Gimli, added to Jackson’s explanation by saying, “Tolkien is aware of the presence of evil. Evil is a very unfashionable thing to talk about in our time. It makes everybody squirm. He’s also aware of the fact that civilizations can be lost. Tolkien knows that every hundred years or so, there comes a challenge to a generation where you can lose it all. Your way of life, your civilization. If you do not have unity, courage and a willingness to sacrifice yourself, you can lose it all.”

Rhys-Davies, gifted with a commanding voice and a thoughtful use of language, continues by merging his own assessment of our times with Tolkien’s goals. “Our civilization matters. We take it for granted. Tolkien reminds us that there are things worth fighting for.”

Buffs of the series should be delighted. And it will most likely satisfy most others. But it would help if you could first take J.R.R. Tolkien 101 before attending. And if you should attend, don’t exit until the end credits begin to appear, because just when you think it’s over, it isn’t.

PG-13 (constant violence and a few sequences that may be nightmarish for little ones, but no inappropriate language or sexuality; the opposing warriors look demonic, as does Gollum, a schizophrenic creature who leads Frodo throughout the film. Although the battles are fairly bloodless, they are intense and frequent — and do include brutalities such as decapitations).
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    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright