Review: Revisiting ‘Return of the King’ 20 years later with the extended cut

The final entry into The Lord of the Rings franchise, The Return Of The King, is arguably not only the greatest conclusion to a trilogy but also one of the greatest films ever made. Yet, when it comes to film trilogies, for there even to be a third film means the massive success and profitability of either the first or both prior films and the series has demanded that a third. People love the stories and characters and want to know what happens next. But if history has taught us anything, from franchises like The Matrix, The Godfather, and Star Wars, sticking the landing on a trilogy is an almost impossible task. 

Well, twenty years ago, Peter Jackson accepted the task and stuck the landing. Fortunately for him, he had filmed almost the entirety of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy all at once. He then just had a few reshoots to fill in any gaps he deemed necessary for the final product. On December 17, 2003, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was released in theaters to great success. 

The only film to make a clean sweep at the Oscars

For me, The Fellowship barely edges out Return as far as my favorite of the series, probably simply because of its release date. I had it available to watch and could enjoy it for two more years during my formative film period. And although I prefer the nighttime battle of Helm’s Deep, with it’s grit and grime over Return’s battle for Minas Tirith, there is just no denying how incredible Return Of The King is. It is the only film in history to make a clean sweep at the Oscars, winning all eleven of the awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture. When one ponders what movie would or could be the greatest film of all time,  Return Of The King certainly should make the shortlist.

The story of Return of the King

The grand finale in the series opens with a backstory on the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) and how he was originally Sméagol, a very similar creature to a hobbit. It begins with a close-up shot of a worm being pinched between two fingers. As the camera focuses on Sméagol behind the squirming creature, he is about to attach the worm to a hook. He and his cousin are on a boat, and they are out fishing. After his cousin is pulled out of the boat and into the water by a fish, he spots a gold ring on the bottom of the river. Leaving the fishing pole, he grabs the ring and returns to the surface. 

After seeing the ring that his cousin has procured from the river, Sméagol immediately becomes taken with the shiny object. After a struggle with his cousin, his lust for this ring drives Sméagol to murder, the desire for the ring forcing his hands to clench around his cousin’s throat. As the ring slowly puts a wedge between his mind and his sanity, we watch as Sméagol gradually becomes the creature Gollum, a loathsome thing whose obsession with the ring enslaves him to its influence, corruption, and power. We see his normal human eyes roll back in his head, and Gollum’s big, bulging eyes flicker open as he looks at the ring in his hand, and we hear his snake-like hissing voice utter, “My precious.

Frodo and Sam go into Mordor

After learning his backstory, we catch up with Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) as they work their way through the mountain passes, crawling with orcs and other vile inhabitants, into the land of Mordor. Side note: if you have arachnophobia, this won’t be one of your favorite parts from these movies. Eventually, we leave the two hobbits to catch up with Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as they visit the tower of Orthanc, post the battle of Helm’s Deep from the previous film. 

The wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) is holed up in the tower since the tree people, known as the Ents came in and took control. Gandalf and Saruman do not mince words. Saruman tells Gandalf that he has seen the war that Sauron is getting close to unleashing on Middle Earth, and it will come soon. The armies  of darkness will launch an attack against Gondor, culminating in a battle for the city of Minas Tirith.

In the second act, the film eventually splits into three parts. Frodo and Sam continue their journey toward Mount Doom while Gandalf struggles to defend the city of Minas Tirith against Sauron’s invading evil hordes. Finally, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli travel into some haunted mountains where Aragorn attempts to become the king that Gondor and all the free peoples of Middle Earth need him to become.

Otherworldly direction by Peter Jackson

We, and by we, I mean me, can say with concrete proof that Peter Jackson’s direction of The Return Of The King and his direction of the whole trilogy is otherworldly. I say otherworldly, no pun intended because his ability to take us to this other world of Middle Earth is unparalleled. This medieval alternate reality filled with its various civilizations of elves, hobbits, dwarfs, and a myriad of other creatures is as completely immersive as any you can ever hope to find on a cinema screen. 

Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor made the costumes for Return of the King. Their design exhibits impeccable craftsmanship. Their craftsmanship is only matched by their creativity; complete with cloaks, weapons, staffs, jewelry, and an innumerable amount of ornaments that only add to the ability of this series to swallow us whole. The production design is staggering. New Zealand’s stunning landscapes served as the backdrop for Return of the King. The black gate of Mordor, Minas Tirith, and other cities, scenes, and landscapes are exactly how you picture them when you read the books, and they envelop one completely. 

Return of the King astounds on a technical level, too

I cannot scratch the surface of all the technical aspects in which this film astounds. The original score by Howard Shore is nothing short of iconic. The acting work by this excellent ensemble cast is mind-boggling, just in the sheer absurdity of its size. Some might have issues with the pacing and length with its almost three-and-a-half-hour runtime. Also, as the film concludes, it takes almost forty-five minutes to wind down to the credits as we say our goodbyes. But for people who loved the books, know these characters, and appreciate everything Peter Jackson did for them, they cannot get enough. I not only love the extended editions of all the films, but if Jackson ever released six-hour versions of each film, I’d welcome as much time as he’d let me spend in Middle Earth.

Final thoughts on Return of the King

General audiences and critics alike can appreciate the depth of this world and just how much love and care Jackson poured into its onscreen adaptation. For my money, The Return Of The King is a film I’ll be returning to time and time again, and among the pantheon of films out there, this one is surely a King.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is now streaming

 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is now streaming. Watch it however you like to check out your streaming movies.

Looking for more fantasy reviews? Check out our fantasy review category for the latest, including Elliott Wishnefsky’s review of the new TV series Percy Jackson and the Olympians.