And thus, every adventure has to have its end. There’s good and bad endings, happy and sad, painful and hopeful. But this one here? Return of the King is operating on a level that I don’t think has ever been replicated. Jackson’s finale is many things, and finding the proper words to describe them all is a difficult challenge, but surely watching the great battle for Middle-earth should inspire one to attempt it. These films are all near and dear to my heart, but none moreso than the final chapter of the trilogy. The reasons are plentiful, but at its core, the magic this film pulls off is enough to make me weep, and that’s without thinking of the emotional depths that these characters are brought to. And that’s something that feels deeply lacking from many films today.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is the greatest trilogy of all time, nor do I think it’s a reach to claim these films, especially Return of the King, are the epitome of the epic blockbuster. When taking into account not only box office and cultural impact, but the level of critical achievement this film reached puts it above the rest of the competition by a considerable margin. And yet, this film manages to do something we rarely see any more in films of this magnitude. Yes, the battle for Minis Tirith is jaw dropping and will pump adrenaline into anybody watching. The final moments in Mordor at the Black Gate are pulse pounding and awe inspiring. Yet, so often does the action take a moment for the characters to reflect on what may, or may not be, coming next. Take Gandalf consoling Pippin in what may be their last stand. Or Éowyn being alongside Théoden for his final moments after a battle. And there’s even something as simple as a short exchange between Gimli and Legolas at the Black Gate that makes all the difference.
At the very core of all these films; beyond the spectacle, the sheer epic journey, the dazzling visuals, what are we left with? An utterly emotional impact that never fails to hit the mark directly where it intends. We’re talking Legolas level accuracy, and littered throughout this closing chapter of the trilogy are small moments that have the impact of a freight train. They never remove you from the action, but instead, only work to make the action feel that much more visceral. For if we don’t care about the characters battling for it all, why should we care about the battle itself? It feels like very few could pull off this balance so well, and it feels like a marvel that Jackson was able to pull it off. When you have a film that features literal war elephants being taken down in a massive battle, it makes you wonder just how it all stuck together. And that answer is nothing more than passion for the craft.
From the production design that feels like it truly wasn’t filmed on this planet, to a cast that exudes charisma, to a crew who no doubt poured blood, sweat, and tears into these films, it shows. But to say it merely shows is an understatement and a disservice. For nearly 12 hours, anybody in the world can get lost in all that Middle-earth has to offer, and more than anything, you can believe it. These are images ripped from the imagination of Tolkien, and expertly crafted for the world to see. But for the four and a half hours that make up Return of the King, I would argue that there’s more genuine and raw magic in here than more than a few careers put together. These films are the butt of a few jokes, but when you’re at the top, you can certainly take that heat. Some criticize the “multiple” endings, which to that I argue what could possibly be removed? Each coda only sends me further into an emotional wreck, and Aragorn’s closing moments are an all time line reading. They’re the final cherry on top of the best sundae you have ever had.
I annually rewatch these films, but this 4K release was truly a special one. It’s been a very weird year, but with these films having never looked better, it brought some semblance of normalcy. It also answered a question I’ve had for quite some time. I often wonder what the “next” Lord of the Rings will be. What will be that film, or saga, that comes along and redefines everything? The game changers that are far and few. Some were hoping Mortal Engines would rise up with Jackson as a producer (and for what it’s worth, I kind of enjoyed that film, or at least parts). Many are hailing the new Dune to be a top contender for the crown, although we have to wait and see. Still, I think at the end of the day, even if the films hailing comparison are phenomenal, the answer has been with us the whole time. There will never be another Lord of the Rings. The absolute mastery on display here is impossible to replicate, and these films will stand the test of time alongside the source material. For the years have only aged this trilogy like a fine wine, with each viewing becoming that much more impactful and never failing to elicit emotion. It’s always bittersweet to put these films back on the shelf, but the weight of the journey has been lifted. The adventure has ended, and so has this little trilogy of articles. I hope I gave my thoughts some semblance of justice over the course of this, but if not, I’ll end it with a simple statement that I’ll go to the grave with:
If this isn’t the greatest film of all time, then I truly don’t know what is.