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A stellar climax to a truly great cinematic experience,
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LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING should win the Oscar for best picture, and for three reasons: first, it was easily the best big-budget film of the year. The only films that I believe rival it in quality are small budget films: LOST IN TRANSLATION and AMERICAN SPLENDOUR. Sometimes independent films can pull upsets, but I really don't expect them to this year. Second, except for the independent films, there isn't a lot of competition this year, unlike the past two years. Many of the films that were expected to vie for the Oscar have been greeted with some fairly negative reviews, like COLD MOUNTAIN, or mild indifference, like THE LAST SAMURAI. One of the better-reviewed films of the fall, MASTER AND COMMANDER, is a very good adventure film that possesses no obvious advantages over THE RETURN OF THE KING. Third, the Academy has a tendency to correct past neglects. Sometimes this can lead to tragic results, such as 1940 when Jimmy Stewart received the Oscar for Best Actor for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, to atone for his having not received one in 1939 for MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. The tragedy lay in the fact that Stewart's best friend Henry Fonda therefore failed to win for his near legendary performance as Tom Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH, one of the greatest performances in the history of American cinema. But in 2004, I expect LORD OF THE RINGS to justly win not merely for the excellence of the third installment of the saga, but for the overall greatness of the three films.
The LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is unquestionably one of the most successful cinematic treatments of a beloved work of literature the movies have ever seen. I know there are purists who would not have been satisfied by any conceivable film version, and that there are others who are more justifiably bothered by the omission of Tom Bombadil or the schizophrenic treatment of Gollum, but I think anyone willing to cut the movie even the tiniest bit of slack should be able to grant to the great achievement that this movie turned out to be. Of course, ironically it was only the growth of CGI technology that made the filming of this fantasy of lost ancient past possible. Twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable that Treebeard could have been so satisfyingly come to life. Or Gollum. Or seeing hobbits, humans, elves, dwarves, wizards, and orcs all onscreen at the same time. I can honestly say that there was not a moment that I was consciously looking at special effects rather than balrogs or giant flying eagles or gigantic walking trees.
But all of this could be a kind of criticism--namely, that the success of the film depends merely on technology--if it weren't for the fact that the movie succeeds on multiple levels. The art design is the most memorable I can ever remember. I'll forever think of those beautiful pins for the capes that Frodo and Samwise wear all the way from Rivendale to Mordor. The makers of the film got more things right than they needed to, perfecting more detail than anyone could possibly have noticed. Without great acting, however, all of the technology and special effects and art and set design would be a royal place setting for junk, but fortunately the film was both marvelously cast and wonderfully acted. There might have been one or two casting decisions I might have questioned, but by and large the cast was stellar, a few so magnificently that it difficult now to see anyone else in that role. When the film was first announced, much of the debate was over who would portray Gandalf, and I remember some people being upset that not only was Sean Connery (the early favorite) not cast but an openly gay actor in the role instead. But it is now almost impossible to imagine anyone but Ian McKellan in the role. So many smaller roles made the film work, like David Wenham as Faramir (seen only a couple of years ago in the role of "Audrey" in MOULIN ROUGE), or Ian Holm as Bilbo, or Sean Bean as Boromir, or Cate Blanchett as Galadriel. The only weakness in the movie is one that probably couldn't be overcome (and one that Peter Jackson has acknowledged in interviews): Sauron. What can you do with a bad guy who is merely a giant flaming eyeball? Just not much potential to do much more than what they were able to do.
Peter Jackson deserves a special academy award for serving as the creative force that turned THE LORD OF THE RINGS into one of the great experiences in the history of cinema. Most of all, he deserves enormous credit for making all the technology subservient to the story, and not the other way around. The great battle for Minas Tirith might have devolved into a mere showcase for stellar special effects, like many moments in the past two STAR WARS films have, but not once did he lose touch with the human element, not there or at any other point.