The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Lord of the Rings - The Motion Picture Trilogy

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakutulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

I'll never forget that night, when the lights dimmed and we heard the music and Galadriel began narrating in the elvish language, Sindarin. For the next three years, from the premiere of "The Fellowship of the Ring" to the release of the extended edition of "The Return of the King" on DVD, I was obsessed. I lived and breathed these movies and Tolkien's novels. As such, when I received the Extended Edition Trilogy on Blu-ray for Christmas, I was ecstatic. I figured it was time for a retrospective review of the Holy Trilogy.

I watched all three of them again and, what can I say? The passion was still there. Do I see more flaws in the trilogy now than I did several years ago? Of course. Does that diminish my love for these films, or their greatness? Not at all.

I decided to review "The Lord of the Rings" as one long, eleven and a half hour epic, as opposed to just three films. They were shot all at once, and I think I can do that. I will start with saying that, these movies whether as a whole of by themselves feel different than anything else I've ever watched. They are an experience. It is a journey, and you go on it with all of these characters, particularly our four leads.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is our protagonist. He is somewhat of a messianic character, but with a lot more character flaws. He goes on this journey to save the world, and he loses himself on that journey. That is far more powerful than the standard movie hero's journey, where everything turns out hunky dory at the end of the picture. Some times you can't go home again. What is the real price one must pay when one faces true evil? Thankfully, few of us will ever have to learn that lesson in real life. While I have heard some people accuse Frodo of being weak, I argue against that. He is stronger than most of us. He may not be able to wield a sword as well as a warrior, but there are different kinds of strength. No one but Frodo Baggins could have gotten as far as he had.

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the far more traditional hero for a tale such as this, and we go along with him as he embraces his destiny to become the King of Men. But what I like about Aragorn is that he is a supporting character in a story that he would be the hero in any other time it's been told. What is his most heroic moment? Drawing the Eye of the enemy away from our hero, and being prepared to sacrifice his life and the lives of his men to save the world.

Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) is, I've always felt, the true hero of the tale. He's not the ring bearer that Frodo is. He is not the destined king that Aragorn is. Sam is a humble gardener that follows Frodo into Hell on Earth. As Frodo himself points out, he wouldn't have gotten far without Sam. To me, what Sam symbolizes is that no one hero can or will triumph over hero all by himself. Defeating evil requires that we all do our part, whether it's a little or a lot. Sam did, well, a lot. Were it not for him, Frodo would have been eaten by Shelob and the One Ring would have returned to Sauron, and Sauron would have destroyed the world of men and dominated all life for the rest of eternity.

And then there is Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan), who serves the ever critical role of rallying us and teaching us to rise up and finally defeat Sauron. This was his task, like an angelic mentor. He can help us, and does help us, but ultimately he cannot win this war for us. Nor could he. But an angel in the body of an old wizard who is that father figure we all want to have. My favorite scene with Gandalf is not the one where he faces the Balrog, but when Frodo volunteers to take the Ring to Mount Doom. The look on his face says it all, like a father who's hearing that his son enlisted to go fight in a world war, wishing it didn't have to be, but knowing it has to be done.

The rest of the supporting characters are terrific. I really enjoyed John Rhys-Davies as Gimi, the dwarf. Orlando Bloom was adequate as Legolas, the elf (and on a personal note, the only role I ever enjoyed him in). Merry and Pippen (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) were great comic relief that really got to grow into courageous heroes as the story progressed. And what can I say about Sean Bean as Boromir? Some would say his was the finest performance in the entire trilogy, and I would be hard pressed to argue even though I think everyone was terrific. And that's only the Fellowship!

The characters the Fellowship meet along the way also make this movie. Hugo Weaving as Elrond, who so desperately wants to have hope in men. Cate Blanchett was radiant as Galadriel, the white lady of Lothlorien. Bernard Hill as Theoden, king of Rohan. Miranda Otto as Eowyn, Karl Urban as Eomir, David Wenham as Faramir. John Noble as Denethor. As far as I'm concerned, these people didn't just play these characters, they were these characters. Never, not once did I think I was looking at actors playing iconic characters. They were here, brought to life.

I should also address Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar. To this day, she seems to be controversial. But, I don't agree with any of the negative comments that Arwen has received. It was all right there in the appendices. Tolkien, himself has said in his letters that he wished he included her more in the story, which is why he wrote "The Tale of Arwen and Aragorn" in the appendices. Yes, I am aware they were originally going to be more radical with the character, but they didn't do it. The final product is what matters, not what they thought about doing while they were in development. I enjoyed Liv Tyler as Arwen, and I would not change a single thing they did with her. That scene where she has that flash forward to the death of Aragorn is just sublime.

But how can I forget Andy Serkis as Gollum. They nailed him, this was Gollum. He was the greatest special effect in the history of film when these movies debuted, and now, ten years later, he still looks terrific. While I have my issues with the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels, I think only Davy Jones comes close to topping him. Aside from that, no Autobot, no Decepticon, no alien in a galaxy far, far away comes close. Of course, we can thank Andy Serkis for his performance that propelled Gollum from just being a special effect to being a real flesh and blood person, on the screen. The details may have been added in post production, but this was a performance. And like everyone else, I never thought of the actor, or the CG team. As far as I was concerned, Gollum was there, being the hateful and yet pitiful creature we've all come to know and love.

This being my blog, I wasn't going to let this go without discussing the forces of evil. It's hard to do evil on this scale with a straight face and not come off as laughable. George Lucas tried it in "Revenge of the Sith" and his Emperor Palpatine was an over the top embarrassment. But here, we had some honest to Eru high octane nightmare fuel.

I loved all the orcs, goblins and Uruk-hai. No two looked alike. Any we spent even a small amount of time with were their own characters. They seemed like an actual savage, barbaric race. Never once did I feel like I was watching a legion of faceless bad guys. I was also really happy that these were actors and stuntmen in costume, as opposed to CGI creations. The foot soldiers of darkness get a thumb's up from me.

If I don't mention Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, I am afraid he might hurt me. As with everyone else, this was perfect casting. Saruman was a terrific villain, and served as a good face of evil throughout the first two movies, and the first twenty minutes of the third. As in the book, his greatest weapon was his voice. Well, who better to project a menacing, eloquent, charismatic voice than Christopher Lee?

The Balrog was a one scene wonder, but a great one. Now, I am usually not a fan of all CGI creations if they can be done any other way. The Balrog couldn't. And the moment it appeared, we were all in awe. If Hell exists and demons dwell in it, I am pretty sure this is what they look like. They created something primal here, and I loved every second of it.

Speaking of primal fears, you can't get more primal than Shelob. As if being a giant spider is bad enough, she is a cold, intelligent, force of evil. A killing machine from the darkest depths of your nightmares. If I hadn't gotten over my arachnophobia before this movie came out, Shelob might have been almost enough to bring it back. She certainly warranted the loudest reactions from the audience every time I watched these movies in theaters.

When I read the books, the Black Riders were always a powerful image. As such I was happy to see how these Nazgul, these Ringwraiths were executed on screen. Exactly as I always imagined them. From their black cloaks and horses, to their winged Fell Beasts. And the Witch King of Angmar? Were I a Dark Lord, I would want him as my lieutenant.

The theatrical release may have forgotten the Mouth of Sauron (Bruce Spence), but the extended editions didn't, and neither will I. His scene was short, but oh so sweet. I loved his design, and that helmet. I will admit, I always wanted to know more about this guy. I know Sauron had lots of humans (Black Numenorians, Easterlings, and Haradrim) serving him, but this was the only one we got to actually "speak to."

And finally...

Evil's greatest servant. The Maiar spirit, Sauron. The Dark Lord. The titular Lord of the Rings. Except for the prologue, Sauron spends all of these movies as an unseen character. But we don't need to see him, everyone is always talking about him. Everyone is always talking about what he's capable of. What he's doing. What he's going to do. And how much worse it will be should he recover the One Ring. And considering how well he's doing without the Ring, the thoughts of how much worse it can possibly get are best not to think about for fear of depression. When I hear the word "evil," Sauron is who I always think of first. Evil perfected. Evil personified. He is what all the worst dictators throughout history have wanted to be. Thank god he's a only a fictional character. Even when all we see of him manifested is the Great Eye, he never descends into cartoonish evil. You can really feel how dark and powerful he is, even when all we hear are whispers of his name. The One Ring itself is a character and a villain in this movie, but it is an extension of Sauron, and a constant reminder of his evil. 

But I can't just leave this with only brief summaries of the characters. How about that New Zealand countryside? Or, as I like to think of it: Middle Earth. Middle Earth is real and Peter Jackson and his crew found it and filmed it. The scenery is breathtaking. More beautiful than anything that can be created by man in a computer. Some time in my life, I plan to visit New Zealand. I am a big city urban guy, but if any countryside has caught me with its majestic beauty, it's New Zealand's.

I also appreciate all the miniatures of the cities, towers, and fortresses that were built. All the practical effects that were used in addition to CG. This series was the perfect marriage of the two techniques, and they still hold up today. As opposed to other productions that rely on CGI and CGI alone and look only like Playstation 2 games now.

The movies also captured the themes of the books perfectly. Hope, friendship, love and death. The classic story of good vs evil, and what must be sacrificed to defeat evil. It wasn't a Hollywood production, even if it was financed by Hollywood, and we're better off for that. War has cost, and that cost has to be painful. Otherwise it's not real. And even with elves, wizards, goblins, and trolls, your story still has to be real. You give me a hero and I'll show you someone who has sacrificed everything. That's what this story is about, and I thank Peter Jackson for not dumbing it down.

Is it perfect? No. There are some places in the films where I felt a little more restraint would have been appreciated. But I feel like I am looking for the flaws in the brush strokes of the Mona Lisa by saying that. No, it's not perfect. But this is as close as it comes. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be horrified, you'll feel joy. It is a true journey. If you haven't seen them before, what are you waiting for? If you haven't seen them in a while, see them again. But make it the Extended Editions. This is a world and a story that isn't just a casual view, but something you'll want to immerse yourself in as you take a trip to another world.


  1. Although, it's not perfect, this trilogy is probably the best film trilogy I've seen in my life.
    The only trilogies that come close to this quality are the Toy Story trilogy and maybe the Bourne trilogy. The former being the best trilogy in animation and the latter being the best trilogy in action films.

    I agree with everything you said about it. The Return of The King is my favorite movie of all time despite those million fake-out endings.

    I'm surprised Mr. Mortenson, Mr. Asten, or Mr. Serkis didn't get an Oscar for any of their performances.

    I hope the Hobbit films show Mr. Lucas how to do proper prequel films.

  2. "I agree with everything you said about it. The Return of The King is my favorite movie of all time despite those million fake-out endings"

    I really, really hate when people say this. There were no fake out endings, what we had here was dénouement. I think the reason a lot of people didn't get it was because Hollywood hardly ever delivers it. Usually they just climax and then everyone goes home.

  3. ANON> Heh, I wonder how you'd have felt if they'd left in the Scouring of the Shire. I've actually been on a huge Tolkien kick lately, rereading the the books and re-watching the Jackson films.

    I pretty much agree with everything Greg said here. The Jackson films are probably about as perfect a rendition of Middle-Earth as you'll ever get short of reading the books themselves.

    One thing I never really understood was the hate some purists have for Arwen's expanded role in the story. Pretty much 90% of everything she did in the movies was lifted straight out of the appendices. All Jackson and co. did was shuffle it into the main narrative.

    I am looking forward to "The Hobbit". Though weirdly enough, I'm actually kinda hoping it's not TOO much like the LoTR movies.

  4. ANON>"I hope the Hobbit films show Mr. Lucas how to do proper prequel films."

    I'm not really into Star Wars or LOTR that hugely, but in all fairness that comparison doesn't make a lot of sense.

  5. "I decided to review "The Lord of the Rings" as one long, eleven and a half hour epic, as opposed to just three films."

    That's the correct way to think of it. Tolkien himself said he didn't actually think of LotR as a trilogy, but a single novel in six parts. It was only printed as a trilogy for commercial reasons.

  6. JURGAN> And there was a paper shortage at the time, and releasing this one, huge book was problematic.

    I've got a beautiful hardcover collection of the three in a large box. The box features a painting of a Nazgul on a Fell Beast flying over Cirith Ungol towards Minas Tirith.