Spoilers My Scene-by-Scene Grades - Great movie, just highlighting ups and downs (mostly ups of course!)
Gandalf and the Balrog: A+
Ok, was this not the greatest action sequence you've ever seen in a movie? It's epic, thrilling, great special effects, and not in the least cheesy (which it could have been). I love the part where we switch to the wide shot of the pool far beneath Kazad-dum and even the Balrog looks tiny!
The first believable computer generated character...enough said.
Dead Marshes: A
I really thought that the scene where Frodo falls in the water and sees all the spirits was cool. It could've been bad or cheesy but instead it gave me a real sense of fright and disorientation.
Aragorn & Co. in persuit of orcs across Rohan: A-
Very good. I actually don't mind Gimli being an outlet for humor (because somehow his character still remains intact) but just one joke about his inability to keep up would have been enough here...minor point.
Fangorn (the forest): A
I always imagined the forest being old and dark but never quite this dense and narly (twisted) looking. It looked quite fantastical and whimsical. I like PJ's version better than my own! Great artwork here.
He looks good...a little stiff-jawed, but I guess that's how Ents are. I've heard people say he was too mean to Merry and Pippin when they first met. I would have to agree with this. I was almost afraid Merry and Pippin would get squeezed into hobbit juice there for a minute. JRD did a good job with the voice but I always imagined it to be a little softer and more good-natured, not so harsh and raspy. I'm not too worried though because I think we'll see more of Treebeard in the SE DVD.
The Ents and their attack: C+
Okay, is it just me or did the Entmoot look more like a football huddle in a little grassy area rather than a grand council of dozens of Ents in ceremonial conversation around a vast and beautiful clearing (Derndingle) in the midst of the forest (like it was supposed to be). The look of the other Ents was good. But I found the manner in which Treebeard and the rest of the Ents decide to attack Isengard probably the weakest point in the movie. Here we have just got done hearing Treebeard tell Merry and Pippin how "un-hasty" Ents are and then we jump to Treebeard making the most hasty decision in the entire movie: to attack Isengaurd after seeing a few dead trees without consulting the other Ents! The actual attack, however, was well done (except did you notice that the camera switched to Saruman like 5 times and all he was doing was moving back and forth on his little balcony).
Return of Gandalf: A
I actually liked the voice-over of Lee and McKellan here. In the book Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli hear Gandalf speak but still don't manage to figure out who it is until they see his face. How else would you get an audience to feel the same way? You can't do McKellan's voice alone because then everyone else will know it's Gandalf, so you do both!
Healing of Theoden: A-
Changed from the book a little. It's indoors instead of out and involves a far more drastic change in Theoden. But I didn't think it was overboard. The closest thing to a reference to religion as I think we'll come (I immediately thought of Christ's healing of people when I saw this scene...driving out demons and all...but that's just me).
Great acting by Brad D. here. Slimly, slithering, treacherous...some people say typical villian character...I say that's just the way he was in the book and that's how I want him!
Gates of the Morannon: A
Wow those are some big gates, huh? Nice touch with the trolls and all. The elven-cloak hiding scene was a bit extreme relative to how Tolkien describes them in the book, I guess PJ just wants to make it REAL clear to the audience about their capabilities.
Aragorn/Arwen/Elrond/Galadriel & Telepathy/love scenes/flashbacks: A-
Not much to say. Nice reminders and catch-ups here I suppose. I can see how Aragorn's dream with Arwen might have seemed a little too idealistic and routine to some. But I liked it. It reminded me of Beren and Luthien or Tuor and Idril. Ah yes, the good old days long past.
Flash-forward to Arwen mourning Aragorn: A+
WOW, now this is truly where PJ demonstrates that he can be a master artist when it comes to subtleties. The background detail and the statue figure of Aragorn all in grey stone and the black figure of Arwen, her garments rippling in the wind...so poetic! I can't say enough good stuff about this scene.
Warg attack and "dead" Aragorn: B+
A good action scene and a chance to meet some cool creatures I suppose. But darnit...wouldn't it have been way better if the wargs looked like menacing wolves rather than Heyena-Bears! Aragorn's death-trip (or fall I should say) was acceptable except I would've thought that Legolas or someone would've thought that landing in a river might mean Aragorn's still alive.
Helm's Deep: A
This was a solid scene and pretty true to the book...except for the elves. But you know what, I really liked this addition. Here we are in the grungy world of men and everyone is hurrying around preparing for battle and death and haven't bathed in weeks and in comes Haldir and his men all decked out in their cloaks and everything, ya! Now it's time for some real action...ladders go up by the dozens, elves shooting arrows everywhere, rocks blowing 100 feet in the air crushing orcs all over the place, even Gimli and Legolas get their little competition going! One FX scene that worried me a litle was when Theoden and Aragorn & Co. ride out of the Burg down the ramp and their horses are plowing over Uruk-Hai like they're dominos or something. Here comes Hasufel down the ramp and whoops!--there goes his darn sword-proof rear-end knocking over Uruk-Hai again. And okay, so maybe Gandalf wouldn't have ridden straight into a hundred pointy spears at full speed, but hey, is he the White Wizard or what? Sure he is and that means running into pointy spears without being hurt! Well, seriously, I think I've made too much of some miniscule points here...overall Helm's Deep is very nice.
Along with the decision of the Ents to attack, my least favorite thing about the movie. I don't know who played Faramir, but the look and acting were for the most part true to my vision of Faramir...I mean him being very stern and a high and mighty Gondorian prince and all...except for, oh I don't know, changing his entire character to a power-greedy Boromir clone! Faramir's strength as a character in the book stems, IMHO, from his being a contrasting figure to his brother. It lets us know that not all of the members of the House of Stewards are after the Ring for their own benefit despite the consequences. Also, it establishes Faramir's integrity for ROTK. In the movie Faramir says "Now, time to show my quality" or something like that when he discovers that the Ring is the "solution to all the riddles." Then what does he do? He obviously knows the right thing to do, otherwise he would not have said that, but nope, he knowingly does the wrong thing and plans to take the ring. At least Boromir BELIEVED he was doing the right thing! Well, at least Faramir comes to his senses in the end. I'll forgive PJ for this little escapade I suppose.
Setting Faramir's one almighty character flaw aside, the little detour to Osgiliath was actually pretty cool. I've heard some say that Frodo's offering of the ring to the wraith and all was dumb and unnecessary. First of all, I would probably forgive PJ for this because of the sheer awesomeness of this scene alone. I mean this is cool...we get to see the Nazgul up close and personal and the world on the brink of destruction as the ring could be snatched from Frodo any minute! Not to mention the mind-blowing special effects and cinematography here. But setting this aside, I still don't think it was a bad scene. If anything it gives us an idea of how much control the Ring has over Frodo, and it certainly does control him to a degree as we see from the book (ok so maybe PJ decided again to make it REAL clear to the audience what Tolkien does so subtely, but hey...).
Frodo/Sam/Gollum heading to Morgul Vale: A+
I think this was just masterfully executed. We get to hear Sam's whole thing about them being hereos and all. It really makes for a nice ending because we get to lighten up and look on the bright side if only for a moment before what is in my opinion Gollum's best part (along with his multiple personality scene) and his subtle cliffhanger reference to Shelob. Bumping Shelob to ROTK is really a good idea since there are only 3 chapters in ROTK dedicated to Frodo/Sam.
Don't let the few C's and B's above fool you...this was my favorite movie of all time (with of course you know which at a close second). I loved it and overall it rang very true to my personal vision and experience reading the books.