Well, I went into this movie rather apprehensive since TTT had missed the mark in so many ways. As a devotee of the books it is obvious that this review will have a purist bias, but credit where credit is due; ROTK looks unbelievably spectacular. It was an absolute joy to watch the visuals.
Overall, however, the greatest `movie’ flaw I felt was the ponderously slow movement of the first, oh let’s say, two hours of the movie. But let me clarify, the pace of the first two hours was very appropriate, except perhaps the needless, time-wasting establishment of a wedge between Sam and Frodo, but I could feel growing concern while watching that not enough time would be left for the rest of the stuff to happen after Pelennor Fields. Sadly I was correct. After Frodo and Sam escape Cirith Ungol, and the Captains (use the term loosely)of the West decide to march on Mordor, in almost a blink of the eye the armies are at the Black Gates and Frodo and Sam are scrambling up the slopes of Orodruin. This was jarring; it destroyed tension and the way the battle unfolded deprived the army of the West the true measure of its heroism since the battle was not made officially hopeless by the revelations of the Mouth of Sauron.
Another flaw for me was the thin portrayal of Denethor. I understand it is difficult on screen to pack the character as densely as in the books, but his rather straightforward portrayal as a vindictive, impulsive madman was weak. There was little justification for his insanity in the story since the palantir was entirely omitted, nor was their justification for his doubting Rohan’s fealty. Rather than focus on more subtle reasons why Denethor despaired, they watered him down to the most simplistic of characters (next to Eomer) in the movies. The scene of him eating was childish dehumanizing, the scene of Gandalf hitting him onto the pyre and setting him ablaze was inappropriate, and needless to say the sight of the fiery Denethor-comet plunging earthwards was appallingly tacky cinema. This portrayal deprived Denethor of his true significance, that is to show what occurs when the person who could never turn to evil still cannot stand face it and succumbs to hopelessness. Rather than be saddened by his death, we are incorrectly led to believe, in the movie, that this man being dead is a somewhat good thing.
Perhaps the most awkward part of the movie was the rather unexpected twist that Arwen would die if Sauron were not overthrown, only then causing the Narsil to be re-forged. If this was the best the writers could come up with they may as well have just given the thing to Aragorn when he set out in the first place. Still, this was an endurable, though unlikely, development. Even having Elrond bring the sword to Aragorn could have worked, but it didn’t. The vibe was wrong. If ever there was a time for Elrond to tell Aragorn that he would only give his daughter to a King, this was the moment. But it was missed; Aragorn gets a lame pep talk and sent on his way. This whole device seemed cumbersome and involved a rather uncomfortable suspension of disbelief. I am not privy to all the plot developments and alterations during the ongoing production, but this felt like a rather hastily thrown together and not altogether well thought out way to get the sword to Aragorn.
One final quibble; the Seige of Minas Tirith was not dark enough! It was broad daylight the whole time! Talk about a mood killer, it is hard to cower in fear while Grond smashes down those (rather small) doors when the merry sun is shining. How did six thousand Rohirrim sneak up on an army that big and form up into battle-lines in broad daylight? So without that climax of the deepening and unconquerable shadow being suddenly hurled back by that spear of sunlight, and the cock-crow, and the horns, without that witch-king striding through the gate, without all hope dying inside you, it just was simply not the tear-inducing moment of euphoria that it should have been when those riders appeared. Maybe my expectations were too high? Maybe it should have been dark!!
The terrible mishandling of that brief and hopeless moment unsettled me so much it took me a few moments to get into the actual battle, though it was a tremendous job. The charge looked great, elephants looked great, a charge of Gondormen out of the city would have been nice but since the writers had botched that by copying what happened at Helm’s Deep we knew that wouldn’t happen. But hats off, it was a great idea to bring the Dead Army to the battle. It looked excellent, was only a mild change and was as effective as the book version. Great stuff that was! The centerpiece of Eowyn versus the Witch-King was also one of those moments where the book has literally come alive in front of you.
There is no sense jaw-wagging overlong about the tremendous visuals in the movie, we all know that it looks amazing. And I don’t want to come off overly negative. Thus it would only be fair to say that Sam and Frodo on Mount Doom was terrific. Both actors were magnificent. It indeed seems that the bond of friendship between the eight survivors of the Fellowship was the most successfully realized major theme in the book, followed a close second by the ability of the ring to enslave the mind of its bearer as much as its potential to enslave the world. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens wrote these parts excellently. The sight of Gollum with the ring in his hand was haunting. But I was most moved by the scene at the Grey Havens. Frodo’s wordless farewell was sublime filmmaking at its absolute finest. I thought this was some of the most skillfully handled stuff in the entire trilogy. It stood in stark contrast to the horrendously cheesy awakening-of-Frodo scene as each member of the Fellowship popped into the room, practically yelling out “Taa Daaaaaa!”
Like the other movies, purists like myself can only come to grips with changes after several viewings, and even then some of them will always stick in our craws. Omissions will always be regretted, though on most levels understood eventually. But serious alterations to the story are very difficult to accept. Average-lay-googlers who have not read the books would rightly call this film a tremendous work. It rests in a lofty place where few movies have ever successfully gone and presented it visually in such a way that I might seriously consider it the most spectacular film ever made. Thematically, it gets most of the most important stuff across, and most of that is well presented. It falls short of the book, in some respects by a huge margin, but on the whole I think I can view it as enjoyable, on some levels it causes me joy. I am tremendously happy that these movies were made, but happier still that I have the books to tell me how the story really went.