Grander in scale, in many ways, than the first two installments of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King hosts even more amazing action scenes than the earth-shaking battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers. But what really sets it apart from most action and fantasy films is its ability to simultaneously focus on the emotional and the epic. Frodo and Sam's journey to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, as epic as it may be, gains all of its weight from the friendship, love, and mutual respect shared by the two hobbits and evidenced in the bonds forged between the Fellowship members earlier in the trilogy. All of the events in the prior two films have been leading up to the conclusions in this one, and the many climaxes do not disappoint. Unfortunately, with the further divergence of the characters' paths in this installment, the filmmakers clearly struggled to keep a balance between them. The general pacing of the film is off in parts, too slow in the first hour, and too rushed later on. Many fans of the books may be frustrated by some of the decisions made in adapting the story; changes in plot and character motivations from book to screen are inevitable, but many cherished elements of the novel are missing or altered in ways that sometimes seem unneeded. Some characters, such as Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Éomer (Karl Urban), get pushed to the sidelines, only getting in a few lines here and there, and others, such as Éowyn (Miranda Otto), get hugely emotional scenes only to be essentially dropped from the story line for the rest of the picture. Aragorn (the king referred to in the title), though well-played by Viggo Mortensen, also misses out on characterization, with many of his most insightful moments missing from the film. Doubtlessly, some of these oversights will be smoothed over in the extended DVD edition of the film, which adds almost an hour more to the runtime.
Despite its flaws, The Return of the King has retained the most important element of the book: its spirit. Furthermore, the characters who are in the forefront of the story, as with the others, are wonderfully portrayed by the film's ensemble cast. Andy Serkis brilliantly takes Gollum on a downward spiral of greed, deception, and madness, and the CGI character animators have brought even more life to his appearance this time around. Elijah Wood is equally impressive in his portrayal of Frodo's deterioration, and Sean Astin, as his loyal friend and servant Sam, is heartbreakingly noble, becoming, in a way, the heart of the film. Ian McKellen, as Gandalf, continues his admirable portrayal of the wise wizard, while Billy Boyd adds depth to the newly courageous Pippin. Miranda Otto, as Éowyn, and Bernard Hill, as Théoden, deliver some of the most profound and moving moments in the film, and Liv Tyler continues her emotional portrayal of the conflicted elf Arwen. As the demented steward Denethor, John Noble brings added intensity and drama to the proceedings, and David Wenham is wonderfully subtle as his long-suffering son Faramir. But accolades must go to all involved in the making of this trilogy; it is continually impressive, from its breathtaking cinematography to its jaw-dropping special effects to its brilliant and heartfelt score. Overall, Peter Jackson has orchestrated this trilogy masterfully, and was certainly deserving of the Best Director Oscar he received. The Return of the King made history in many ways, but one of the most telling is that it became the first fantasy film to take home the Oscar for Best Picture. Surely, a large determining factor for that accomplishment was the authenticity with which the filmmakers told this story. The passion, detail, dedication, skill, and hard work that went into these films is clearly evident, and is not likely to be equaled any time soon.