This final installment in Peter Jackson's filmed trilogy based on Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is a hard film to review properly because there's so much packed into the movie's 3.5 hours ... dang, where to begin?

Is it epic? This movie hearkens back to the vast old epics of the Golden Age of Hollywood like The Thief of Bagdad -- the silent, original Douglas Fairbanks version with its dashing hero and fabulous sets and thousands of extras. It gives the grand old movies a tip 'o the helmet ... and leaves them in the dust.

Is the movie perfect? No. Perfection lies in the eye of the beholder, and I'm sure every Tolkien fan who's held the books close to their hearts will have quibbles here and there ... just like they have with the first two movies. The movies on the screen are never as good as the movies in our minds.

Is this -- when combined with the first two movies -- possibly the best movie ever made?

Let me hear a "Hell, yeah!"

This is the stuff George Lucas thinks he can make. It delivers the goods we grew up craving after seeing the original Star Wars films as children ... only Jackson's trilogy won't suffer from adult viewing.

Take The Empire Strikes Back, my personal favorite of the originals. The battle on Hoth in which the huge Imperial Walkers attack the rebel base was the best scene ever, as far as 12-year-old me was concerned. And I kept watching the movie, again and again, until logic finally reared its ugly head: if the Empire could land machines of that size intact on the icy planet ... why weren't they just using mass driver weapons and burying the base under great huge chunks of rock? Why engage the rebels at all when they could just crush them from afar? The scene, I realized, had no solid reason for being there, other than to be exciting eye candy.

Flash forward 20 years to The Return of the King. In the battle for Minas Tirith, our heroes are attacked by the Haradrim riding the huge, elephantine mumakil. Watching Eowyn riding between the great beasts' legs and dodging crushing death gave me the kind of thrill that took me back to my 12-year-old self watching the Imperial Walkers for the first time. And Legolas' taking out the mumakil's riders and finally the beast itself left Luke Skywalker's grenade-throwing heroics in the snow.

And more important -- the presence of the mumakil and their Haradrim masters makes perfect sense within the world of the movie. Logic didn't have to be suspended for this battle to take place -- it had been set up all along.

The visuals in the movie are spectacular. Any individual element -- the made-by-real-smiths armor and weapons, the painstakingly sewn costumes, the careful, beautiful detailing of the sets, the CGI, the cinematography -- is a phenomenal cinematic achievment. But the awesome spectacle of the battles and the special effects never distances us from or buries the plight of the individual characters. In fact, the epic elements support and echo the small, individual struggles that are taking place in the story.

While the Minas Tirith battle raged, I was on the edge of my seat wondering if Pippin could reach Gandalf in time to save Faramir from being burned alive. And Denethor's dark madness was just as big and scary as any mumakil.

While we're talking about performances here, I thought going in that Aragorn -- the title character, really -- would be the moral center of the movie. I was wrong; this film's center is Samwise Gamgee. Sean Astin did a wonderful job, and I think he should certainly be nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar nomination, but like so many other rubber mask theater actors I fear he will be overlooked.

Jackson has done what Lucas and hundreds of directors before have often failed to do: given us kick-ass effects that took untold man hours and coordination and stunts and CGI, but never let all the eye candy distract him -- or us -- from the heart of the story.

On February 29, 2004, The Return of the King swept the Oscars: the movie won every last award for which it had been nominated, bringing home 11 Academy Awards (three to Jackson himself). This tied the record held by Ben Hur and Titanic -- in my book, Jackson's epic did Titanic one better because the big ship movie lost in some of its nominated categories. Pity RotK didn't get a nomination for sound editing or cinematography, else it might have broken the record.

It's a larger pity that none of the actors were nominated for awards, but the mere fact that a work of rubber mask theater stormed the Academy Awards is no small feat. This should pave the way for a lot more fantasy films, and while many of those are sure to be poor imitations, Jackson has raised the bar very high, and other directors are certain to try to reach his new standard.

Viggo Mortensen and company can at least console themselves that they won the Screen Actors Guild ensemble award this year for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Here is a list of the Oscars Return of the King took home to New Zealand:

  • ART DIRECTION: Grant Major (Art Direction); Dan Hennah and Alan Lee (Set Decoration)
  • COSTUME DESIGN: Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor
  • DIRECTING: Peter Jackson
  • FILM EDITING: Jamie Selkirk
  • MAKEUP: Richard Taylor, Peter King
  • MUSIC (SCORE): Howard Shore
  • MUSIC (SONG): "Into the West" Music and Lyric by Fran Walsh and Howard Shore and Annie Lennox
  • BEST PICTURE: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh
  • SOUND MIXING: Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges and Hammond Peek
  • VISUAL EFFECTS: Jim Rygiel, Joe Letteri, Randall William Cook and Alex Funke
  • WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY): Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson

December 2004 Update: The Extended Editon on DVD

I just wanted the extended edition of RotK, and as with the other extended editions, it's a better movie. In many ways, the restored scenes make it a much darker movie.

The CGI effects have been re-rendered -- not added and redone Lucas-style, but re-rendered to improve the look of the effects. They have better detail and depth now; the Spider Queen, in particular, is even more realistically grotesque, and I didn't think that was really possible.

Many fans had questioned why Saruman's scenes were cut from the theatrical release, and I think I know why. The theatrical release was already very, very long for theatre-goers with supersized sodas clutched in their hands at the start and aching bladders at the end. An intermission for all the films would have been good, but intermissions just don't exist in the cinema marketplace these days. So a 7 minute scene, while not very long itself, might have tipped the movie over the edge into "too long for one sitting" territory.

More to the point, though, is that the deleted Saruman scene, along with the other deleted scenes, is violent. Violent enough, I think, to perhaps cost the movie its rating. There's more to the opening sequence between Smeagol and Deagol, and it's more brutal and disturbing. Certainly more effective, but less appropriate for younger viewers.

One tone-crucial scene that's been restored is the confrontation with The Mouth of Sauron at the black gates of Mordor. The Mouth is played by Bruce Spence with some CGI help, and damn, he's creepy. He looks like something spawned by HR Geiger and Clive Barker. The Mouth makes the Fellowship believe that Frodo is dead -- so Aragorn's decision to attack Mordor anyhow completely changes in tone and meaning.

Some nicer scenes have been restored as well. There's the meeting of Faramir and Eowyn in the healing house, and some scenes between Merry and Eowyn on their way to war.

What isn't in the restoration? There's no funeral or memorial for Theoden, and there's no Scouring of the Shire. Ah well. I enjoyed what there was.