The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/15/2013

I was already a little burned out on The Lord of the Rings before we began watching The Return of the King.  And it turned out that the kids were as well.  Not that they entirely realized it.

Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning finale is the longest of his trilogy and arguably actually the weakest.  It’s not just fatigue with the story and general tiresomeness of sitting through so many hours, but it’s not as compelling, it seems either.  His winning the Oscar for Best Picture for the film was more of a tip of the hat for the overall accomplishment of such a massive epic rendering relayed through the three films.  That seemed clear even at the time.  Besides, Hollywood loves commercial success.

In revisiting the series for the first time in a decade, my main thoughts are that the casting and designs are the best qualities of the films.  Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are quite a good pair as Frodo and Sam and their hobbit bromance.  Ian McKellen is great as Gandalf and everyone else is pretty good as whoever else they are.  And the digitally-enhanced New Zealand is very impressive and awesome.  Heck, even the orcs are lovingly repulsive.

The digital effects have aged okay.  As I’ve noted, there are some digital “camera shots” that I think look more dated than other effects.  I still stand by the statement that digital effects overall seem to age badly.  Gollum still reads pretty well, but I think it’s more to do with the character development in this.  The digital Gollum was a breakthrough in its day, but actor Andy Sirkis brought a lot of that to life in ways that will perhaps keep the film fresh for years to come.

But the finale was all about fatigue.  I asked Felix which film he liked most and he said that he thought The Two Towers (2002) was his favorite.  He couldn’t really say why, but I think that the Gollum character is a key part of the trilogy’s arc (at least the film trilogy) and he has his best moments in The Two Towers.  Both Felix and Clara enjoyed the series overall but focused a lot less throughout this one.  I think we’re all glad it’s over.

It was still very amusing and very “meta” for me and them as they viewed it through the influence of LEGO The Lord of the Rings video gaming, which added familiarity at a removed level, something I encountered only vicariously through them.

Maybe one day, they’ll read the books.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/07/2013

The kids wanted to watch The Lord of the Rings, march right through the series.  I warned them that these movies are all loooong.  At three hours, though, The Two Towers is much shy of the finale in length.

I hadn’t revisited the films since seeing them in the theater a decade ago on their initial release.  They are epic enough once.

The films are largely wonderfully cast and designed.  The worlds of Middle Earth and the characters find beautiful rendering in Peter Jackson’s films.

But here in 2013, we are dealing with Jackson’s hubristic The Hobbit (2012) series, pumped up as long as the whole The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while based on a much more slim volume.  So, some cynicism has arisen in my heart at Jackson, even in viewing this older films.

Not entirely fair.  But there you go.

The kids really enjoyed the film.  Gollum makes for an interesting and sympathetic hook.  Felix actually fell asleep for the last hour of the film and caught up watching it with Clara the next day.  She gladly sat through the ending again.  Still influenced by Felix’s playing of LEGO The Lord of the Rings.

We’re all ready to watch the finale next Saturday.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 08/31/2013

Inspired by his play on LEGO Lord of the Rings video game, Felix asked for us to queue up ye olde Peter Jackson trilogy, noting that Clara had never seen them.

The funny thing is that while neither child has read the books and Clara had indeed not seen the films, they frequently “recognized” scenes from the movie that were re-created for LEGO Lord of the Rings, scenes played out by LEGO versions of the cast in direct mimicry of the films.  Clara kept noting, “I remember this scene!”  Which, if you think about it, is truly bizarre.  But there you go.  It’s a weird mega-post-modern universe in which the generations of interpretation and reference transcend media like crazy in just this way.

Not that I have a problem with it.  I just think it’s kind of weird.

For me, I kind of tripped out that this film is from 2001 and thus 12 years old.  I’d written about it here before on its initial theatrical run, long before I would have watched it with Felix and before Clara was even a glimmer in my eye.

But the only real thing I felt this time around was annoyed again with some of the computerized camera shots, zooming around Mordor in fantastical flights that have no weight in reality and somehow nagged at me back in 2002 as it does now.  The effects don’t look as dated as they might except for the “camerawork” in those sequences (in my opinion).

Other than that, it’s freaking long (3 hours) and we’re queuing up the other films for coming weekends.  The kids enjoyed it.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 01/07/04 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

The biggest epic battle of this film was the one that most people probably had with their bladders while trying to endure the full three and a half hours of this, the final segment in the much ballyhooed trilogy. It’s long. Very long. Epic long. And even the ending is long.

Overall, this series of films was very satisfying and is quite an accomplishment, bringing an enormous beast of a story to the screen and managing all of the storylines and viewer-expectations, visual thrills, characters, and everything. On the whole and even in many of the details, it’s hard to fault director Peter Jackson, who has really pulled off something pretty amazing in this film series.

And on the whole, his accomplishment has been well-acknowledged and though there are nay-sayers out there, the overall general reception to this series of films is largely well-deserved and recognized. There’s virtually nothing to add to the litany of praise or even criticism of these films. All I can say is that I found them on the whole entertaining and pretty satisfying, which is by and far their primary goal.

I think I found the second of these films the most satisfying, for whatever reason. It’s been a year since I saw it and I can’t say exactly what was better/more pleasing about it. This third and final segment felt a little slow to get going and then culminated in climax after climax and denoument after denoument where I was eagerly awaiting the credit roll.

Ultimately, though, these films are part of a whole and would be interesting to see back to back, if one ever had the strength to endure such an undertaking. I mean, after all, put end to end and added with all the DVD additional footage and seen in total, this thing would outpace Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), which has been since its creation a joking comparison point for length in film (554 minutes).

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: 12/21/02 at Selma Theater, Selma, CA

This, the second installment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie series, seems stronger than its predecessor. The narrative is handled more capably throughout, with even the battle sequences seeming to have more narrative cohesion. Largely, the film is visually stunning. The digital art design transforms the amazing New Zealand filming locations into striking, vast backdrops to the epic story.

The film, like the first, relies of digital design and animation to render the major fantastical aspects of the story. The Ents, the tree creatures, were a personal favorite. They were simply very cool.

The other major animation feat was the character of Gollum. Performed during production by actor Andy Serkis, Gollum was later re-created as a fully digital being, though some of his movements were adapted via motion capture from the actor. As far as a technical feat, Gollum looks good but is still clearly an animated figure. In the narrative, however, Gollum is a key figure, perhaps the true center of the film’s “heart.” The audience is meant to emotionally connect with him and his role in the story which adds more significantly to his “realism” than his purely visual rendering. I thought that this was working pretty well, though the theater audience seemed to find some of his scenes funnier than I thought they were meant to read. Who knows, though?

Despite the varying races of creatures (elves, hobbits, dwarves, etc.), Middle Earth is a very Anglo-Saxon world, lacking in anyone who even looks remotely Mediterranean, eastern European, or much less any other part of the world. The original text is, of course, English, and much of the world is a very northern European vision of an imaginary historical period. I am not sure what to say about this, it just struck me.

Some things seem a little more silly this time around. The elves are so lovingly shot, their “beauty” is almost hysterical. The hobbits pairs seem even more homoerotic. The curmudgeonly rantings of the dwarf, Gimli, as comic relief, are more ham-fisted. And though most of the digital stuff was incredible, occasional shots looked a lot more of what they were.

That said, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is pretty much top-of-the-line digitally-enhanced cinematic fantasy, circa 2002. The experience of it is exciting and impressive, especially in the theater where images loom so much larger than life. It still strikes me as a story lacking in contemporary context, though the references to the rising armies of Sauron somehow resonated with the rising armies of George W. Bush. Even saying this sounds silly, but I noted it more than once.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Peter Jackson
viewed: Metreon, SF

Lord of the Rings or Fellowship of the Ring, part one of what will be a three year annual trilogy, turns out, rather unsurprisingly to be a pretty fun outing to the theater. It’s big screen entertainment that works.

That said, it’s not Citizen Kane.

I know that the AFI (American Film Institute) has marked it up as best film of the year. A lot of myopic people have called it something “mind-boggling”. It may take an Oscar, though I doubt it. Like that means fuck all.

But it is good adventure fare, digging into the literary bucket that literally invented genre upon sub-genre of fantasy books, films, games, etc. It still works. In some ways, it kind of amazes me in the way that it pushes Dungeons & Dragons gaming universes into the mainstream. It hardly seems like contemporary fare. Like, what about this film is really 21st century?

The imagining of the hobbit’s shire is like a projection through dreamy lenses of medieval England, in a pre-industrialized, pre-Rennaissance state. Yet it imagines it in a pristine, earthy form, in which peace and ease seem to be the way of life. Ugliness and evil are all personified in cartoonish forms. The bad guys are bad guys because they look scary. They are not cute like hobbits or beautiful like elves.

Of course, the threat to the hobbit’s shire is the core of the story. The eventual destruction of the Edenic world looms behind the motivation of Frodo and others of the “fellowship.” But it is a fantasy world, not one of “real”, literal world history. It’s an escapist vision of an ideal that never existed, though a concentrated yen for a time before the infiltration of technology.

How ironic then, that such fantasy now finds its most elaborate depiction via the latest special effects that all come straight out of a computer? (Actually, I think there was a lot of costume, make-up, and set design that was created by far more artisan filming means.) Some of the shots that really bugged me were the swooping cameras speeding along the heights and depths of the “evil world”. All these “fantasy shots”. Camera shots that are so clearly digital because they are absolutely impossible in the natural world, so dramatic, flying miles and miles all around a fully conceived digital landscape. It gives a new meaning to the idea of omniscient perspective.

I won’t belabor the point, because I am sure that this film and novel and world is over-analyzed as it is. And I am more of a casual passer-by. I read two of the books as a kid, but punked out in the final installment despite the impending finale. So, I look forward to the sequals, as the films seem to portray the books fairly literally, and will finally fill me in more fully.

I have liked Peter Jackson’s other films, namely, Heavenly Creatures, Dead Alive, and The Frighteners, the latter of which I thought was pretty under-rated fun, though maybe it was a little more Robert Zemeckis (who produced it) than Peter Jackson. I have never seen Bad Taste, so I am not a full-fledged inductee into his full oevre.

My final comment on this movie is that I found it a little too hectic in its pacing. I think it was trying to squeeze too much of a fairly long book into a pretty long movie. It wound up not having a great sense of “storytelling” as it tried to execute as many parts in its time-frame so to have left as little out as possible. Maybe this is an invariable trait of “adaptation”, but I felt that this was definitely a short-coming of the film.

All in all, though, I was pretty entertained. I am sure for some younger viewers, this series of films may turn out to be their “Star Wars“. Which is ironic, since Star Wars‘s latest incarnation is competing with a trilogy that both influenced and has been influenced by the first series of Lucas films.