This past December, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy helmed by Peter Jackson celebrated its 20th anniversary. For many fans around the world, this meant sitting down and rewatching the movies for the thousandth time picking out new Easter eggs and details they might have missed before. For me, it meant sitting down and watching this iconic and famous trilogy for the first time ever.
It’s not like I wasn’t allowed to watch The Lord of the Rings growing up, or that my family didn’t like it. In fact, I somehow inherited a Legolas poster from my brother that’s tucked away in storage. My mom owns the trilogy and enjoys it a lot, and I remember her watching The Fellowship of the Ring on DVD when I was a kid. But by the time I got old enough to watch and appreciate them, we just…didn’t, for whatever reason. I had seen bits and pieces of the trilogy over the years on TV, and because of the Internet, was aware of some of the big spoilers, key plot points, and even memes based on famous quotes from the films.
How I managed to go twenty-something years without watching them, I couldn’t tell you. There was really no excuse for it as an adult, other than making a choice not to seek them out. So when my roommates decided to rewatch the trilogy as they do each year, I decided to join them. To get the full experience, I watched the extended versions of all three films on Blu-ray. A combined 11 hours and 20 minutes, these movies are definitely a time investment, but absolutely worth it.
I was going to do a breakdown of impressions by movie, but all three of these movies are excellent, a truly impressive feat considering how many film sagas out there usually have at least one dud (see: the entire Twilight saga, Hunger Games Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and more. I could go on for a while). The Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, is incredibly polished from start to finish.
The Fellowship of the Ring does a great job at introducing our main characters and conflict, with a tragic sacrifice near the end that reinforces the stakes; meanwhile, The Two Towers (my personal favorite, but it’s pretty close) splits up the Fellowship group and showcases the trials and tribulations of each one amazingly, sprinkled with humor and epic action; and finally, The Return of the King is the culmination of the previous two films that builds to an amazingly epic and tense finale filled with twists and turns that kept me yelling at the TV constantly.
So instead of trying to cover each film at great length, I’m going to cover various categories from the story to the characters, to the music and practical effects.
It goes without saying that there will be spoilers ahead! I don’t doubt there are other people who haven’t seen the movies like I had, so if you would like to experience the films spoiler-free, you have been warned!
Blending Practical and CG Effects
One of the immediate things I noticed about Lord of the Rings is the clever utilization of practical effects, particularly on the Hobbits relative to Gandalf and Aragorn. Little tricks with the camera, staging, and the amazing costume and makeup design go a long way towards world-building. All three films were shot back-to-back in New Zealand, and the commitment of the crew to film so many scenes on-site is so appreciated to show how grand the world is, and just how FAR they have to go.
In the days before CGI was abused, and also at a time when it didn’t look especially good, Lord of the Rings straddles the line between practical effects and using CG sparingly. The fact that all of the Orcs are done with practical makeup, and each one has a unique face? It’s truly amazing! Gollum is the only character who is animated with motion capture CG, and while I can tell when I’m watching it that he’s not really there, it’s aged impressively well considering the effects are 20 years old now.
An Epic Tale
I love how seemingly simple the story of the Lord of the Rings is on the surface: Frodo must go on a journey to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring that can control them all. What makes this story so grand, though, is the sense of scale. I particularly thought this was effective in The Two Towers and The Return of the King when the Fellowship is split up into different groups, all fighting for different goals but contributing to the bigger picture.
I felt the journey of Frodo and Sam as they had to walk to Mordor, evading Orcs, running out of food, and the burden of the Ring on both of them; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli’s struggles to protect Helm’s Deep is an epic fight filled with gripping drama as one thing after another seems to go wrong; Gandalf and Pippin’s quest to warn Gondor of the oncoming threat and prepare them to fight is tense; Merry and Eowyn joining the fight where they could both very well die, but wanting to help in any way they could was epic and meaningful.
The trilogy balances the core journey with politics, alliances, and what it means to rule, particularly in Aragorn’s character arc. It’s easy to see how the political struggles in Rohan and Gondor inspired later franchises like Game of Thrones, and it’s never boring. The political intrigue is always compelling and incredibly engaging, especially as it relates to fighting back against Sauron’s growing forces.
An Excellent Soundtrack Accompanies The Lord of the Rings
The score for this trilogy is very distinct, and it’s so good. The music is perfect, from epic choirs singing battle chants to light-hearted melodies when we’re introduced to the Hobbits in the Shire. The use of music throughout all three films is excellent, and perhaps most notable is the scene where Pippin sings while Lord Denother eats food in the most disgusting way possible.
The utilization of singing in The Lord of the Rings is sparse but powerful, (unlike The Hobbit trilogy, where there were at least three songs in the first movie alone that were useless), and it’s absolutely beautiful here. I was floored. The cinematography of Pippin singing while the soldiers charge towards what is certain doom, the way Lord Denother eats his food so voraciously and uncaringly, the snap of the bones, the drip of red juice that looks like blood after the Orcs loose their arrows…it’s amazing.
The Fellowship is a Great Cast of Characters
The core members of the Fellowship of the Ring — Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, Gimli, and Boromir — are all fantastic characters that range from being deeply flawed to relieving tension through humor, or just generally being badasses all the time.
The actors play their roles incredibly well, with Elijah Wood able to play Frodo as soft-spoken and sweet one moment before going full-on tempted by the Ring and wildly possessive of it with just his eyes (I’ll talk more about Frodo’s character later: for now, let’s just say I appreciate what they do with him). Viggo Mortenson’s performance giving Aragorn a softer, more emotional side when he isn’t decapitating Orcs left and right like a badass is so well done. Aragorn’s arc from being reluctant to accept his bloodline and fate to a proud king who would risk his own life to protect the world of Men is amazing.
Legolas and Gimli’s rivalry and friendship are both humorous and heartfelt. Merry and Pippin’s transition from comic relief to more stoic, humble, and brave individuals over the course of the three movies is wonderful to watch unfold. Of course, I adore Sam and how he steps up in each movie. It’s so good.
Other side characters like Galadriel, Faramir, and Eowyn are good additions as well, contributing to the world-building. Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel is both beautiful and intimidating, and her narrations are deeply foreboding and add tension. Her gifts to the Fellowship contribute to their success throughout all three movies as well, which is a nice touch. In Faramir’s case, he’s overshadowed by Boromir in his father’s eyes, leading him to often act recklessly to “show his quality.” Meanwhile, Eowyn desires to fight alongside the men in combat but is told she can’t quite a few times before she finally rebels, orders be damned. And Arwen is…there, I guess? She might be the weakest link for me, but if that’s one of the few criticisms I have of the films, that’s not bad.
I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up Gollum’s character. The oscillation between his innocent, childlike personality as Smeagol, and his violent, aggressive tendencies as Gollum, conveyed through camera pans and quick cuts, really showcase how the Ring warped his mind. It makes sense that Frodo would want to sympathize with Smeagol and believe he could be redeemed, because if he can’t, what becomes of Frodo? Andy Serkis’ performance as Gollum is excellent and easily a highlight of the trilogy.
Too Many Endings, Or Is It Perfect?
Over the years, I had heard the jokes and seen the memes of how the Return of the King has “too many endings.” Having watched it now, I can’t say I understand why viewers felt that way? Return of the King is the conclusion of the entire trilogy, so it makes sense that all of the loose ends would be resolved. What did people expect? The trilogy would end with Frodo waking up in the Shire with his friends, without showing Aragorn’s coronation? Or end with Sam marrying Rosie, but not show Frodo writing their story in Bilbo’s book?
Maybe the multiple fade-outs threw people off, but I didn’t have a problem with them when I was watching it. In particular, the final scene with Frodo leaving Sam and his friends to go with Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins to the Undying Lands slapped me in the face with how incredibly bittersweet it was.
It also leads me to this: I appreciate Frodo’s journey and his portrayal as being more “weak-willed.” It might sound contradictory, and we made plenty of jokes about how he was such a “damsel in distress” but then the ending happened and I realized just how effective his portrayal was. Throughout the entire journey, Frodo is constantly having to fight the power and temptation the Ring has over him, and even tries to pass it off to others at times. But ultimately, he continues to carry the Ring because he has to. It’s a reminder that sometimes heroism isn’t always the bravest and badass thing in the world. Sometimes it’s full of moments of doubt, fear, and wishing things were different, but ultimately setting those feelings aside.
The journey greatly changes Frodo to the point that he doesn’t feel that he belongs in the Shire and has to leave. I was shocked by the ending, but when I thought about it more, I understood why Frodo felt so damaged and broken. The journey tormented him from day one, and if he was brave and courageous throughout it as he was in the books, I don’t know if I would have bought him leaving at the end. But because he was more meek and weak-willed in the films? I totally understood why he felt the way he did, and his decision to ultimately leave and heal in the Undying Lands.
And that’s not to say Frodo doesn’t have his moments. He definitely does, but the emphasis is on the Ring’s power and its ability to tempt anyone. Overall I don’t hate the filmmaker’s approach to downplaying his strengths a bit and showcasing how much Sam was there to support him. And let’s be honest, we all know Sam is the true hero of Return of the King.
For me, the ending reinforces just how painful the journey was. While many characters like Aragorn ultimately got a happy ending (but as we see from Elrond’s visions of the future, ultimately their happy ending will be taken away with time when Aragorn dies and Arwen is left to mourn his loss because she will outlive him), the Hobbits still feel a little out of place when they return home, and takes time for them to adjust (or in Frodo’s case, he never feels like he can). It shows that while they won, there were still sacrifices made along the way.
So many endings don’t often explore the burden the journey had on the protagonist, so I really appreciate that the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings takes its time to explore just how much of an impact it had on Frodo. It’s not a perfect ending tied up with a neat bow, and I really appreciate that about it.
In conclusion, I love The Lord of the Rings trilogy a lot, and I’m glad I watched the extended versions of the films. There wasn’t a single scene that was out of place or any moment when I thought “this should have been deleted.” It feels as though these movies were made to be huge and long epics, and if anything, watching the theatrical cuts at some point down the road will be bizarre to me. I’m looking forward to rewatching these films along with fans around the world, catching new details I know I missed and simply enjoying watching the epic journey unfold again.