Peter Jackson’s (as opposed to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original) Lord of the Rings has a special place in my heart. Having grown up with it, it’s one of the main reasons I love movies. Alas, as I’m growing older, I’m finding the grand spectacle of these movies that I relished as a kid almost off-puttingly self-indulgent when it’s not cathartic. That’s why The Fellowship of the Ring, the most joyous and wondrous of the trilogy, is my favorite of the trilogy while The Return of the King conflicts me the most.
Of the whole trilogy, Return of the King got the most recognition at the Academy Awards, tying with Ben-Hur and Titanic as the biggest Oscar winner in history. Return of the King aims to step up the excitement after the somewhat meandering, but still good, The Two Towers, but it does so to a fault. As the trilogy is essentially one long movie, Return of the King‘s essentially the action-packed third act of a normal movie stretched out to an exhausting three hours, with character development dispersed throughout. As the first two hours are filled with gargantuan, genre-defining battle sequences, the smaller, though still huge, climactic skirmish feels like a breath of fresh air.
That’s only one reason why the last hour is nothing short of satisfying. It feels like what Fellowship of the Ring should lead to. The scale may be smaller than what precedes it, but the stakes are higher than ever. It features some of the most powerful character moments of the trilogy, as well as the strongest use of the Christian symbolism inherent to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original text. The icing on the cake, for me personally, is the infamous twenty-minute epilogue that features at least five false endings and acts as the ultimate “How much did you really care about these characters?” test.
What that epilogue does is not only give me a noise-free chance to say goodbye to Middle-Earth but also brings me back to the joyous world established in Fellowship; there’s no other movie world I’d want to visit more, with the flutes of Howard Shore’s musical score touching my inner child more than any other movie theme. Even with my misgivings abouts its excesses, Return of the King carries such a legendary stigma in my mind that I can’t deem it anything less than one of the absolute greatest films I’ve ever seen.