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Monday, March 17, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)

Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellan, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom

Each of the three Lord of the Rings films are distinct and strong enough in their own rights as films, but taken together you get a story that is epic in every sense of the word, a visual and narrative experience that is almost beyond imagining. The films transcend the boundaries of genre, becoming not simply a standard for fantasy films, but a standard for filmmaking period. They aren’t perfect films to be sure, but even their flaws are lovable when considered as part of the overall experience of watching this story unfold.

The story centers on a group of heroes determined to destroy the one Ring that could rule all of Middle Earth. The Fellowship of the Ring sees the group formed and, at the end, separated; The Two Towers charts their parallel journeys as the dark forces grow stronger, threatening to become unstoppable; and The Return of the King finds them back together again and triumphing over evil. The usual tropes of the genre are present here, but they’re also given a twist. For example, instead of one hero who must battle the exterior forces of evil and the interior forces of self-doubt in order to realize his destiny, here we have two such heroes. Frodo (Elijah Wood) is the hobbit who must travel across the darkest spots of Middle Earth in order to save it, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the man who must accept the destiny he has always tried to avoid, and become the ruler who will unite the kingdoms of Middle Earth. Their journeys are equally compelling, each offering a different take of the idea of heroism. The supporting characters are compelling as well, from the hobbit sidekick Sam (Sean Astin) to the Elvin princess Arwin (Liv Tyler), and of course the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan).

Much has been made of the special effects in the films, and rightly so. What is presented here is CGI at it’s most breathtaking. While I often find CGI distracting and overused, here I find it fully engrossing because it’s done so well and fits so seamlessly into the world where the story takes place. There are many great examples across all three films, but the best use of CGI is in the creation and portrayal of Gollum (Andy Serkis). This is a character so fully realized, so completely fleshed out and three dimensional (both literally and figuratively) that you can watch the films and forget that this is an animated character. Admittedly I’m biased because just about anything involving Gollum qualifies as a favourite moment of mine from the films, and because I’m one of the people who thought Andy Serkis should have been able to get a Best Supporting Actor nomination (what he does here goes so far beyond voice-work and it’s s shame he couldn’t get more recognition for it). One of the most visually and psychologically powerful scenes from the films comes in The Two Towers when Gollum and his other/better side Smeagol confront each other. Smeagol is the side that is still somewhat human, Gollum is the side that has been destroyed by his obsession with the ring, and the interplay of the two – both of whom are separate and distinct characters – is fascinating to watch. And even though Smeagol “wins,” there remains that darker undercurrent, the danger of Gollum (the Gollum in all the characters which represents greed and lust for power, and which we occasionally see peeking out of Frodo) that runs through all three films.

This is a story of amazing scope and action and features some amazing battle sequences, but the power of the films isn’t simply and solely in the sword play. There are moments in these films that are incredibly moving and which lie at the heart of the story. Some of my favourites include the scene in Return of the King where Pip (Billy Boyd) sings a mournful ballad to a king, whose only surviving son has ridden into battle on a suicide mission in order to please him; Sam’s determination in the end to ensure that Frodo realizes his goal, even if he has to carry him on his back; the arrival of Gandalf on the horizon when the battle for Helm’s Deep seems lost; and the scene in The Two Towers where Arwin and her father discuss her future with Aragorn, and he describes to her a life that will only result in heartache for her when Aragorn inevitably dies while her own life will carry on. But she sees the future herself and won’t be swayed. There is death, “but there is also life.”

Like the vast majority of films, these ones have their flaws. To me the most glaring is the off-screen defeat and comeuppance of Saruman (Christopher Lee) which takes place between the end of The Two Towers and the beginning of The Return of the King, but I know other people who think that about the only thing wrong with any of the films is that fact that Return of the King has about eight different endings. However, regardless of these and other minor quibbles, the trilogy can be seen as nothing less than a masterpiece of technical and artistic achievement. Few filmmakers have ever dared to aspire to the lofty heights to which director Peter Jackson soars with these films.

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