Side note: There is a reasonable argument to be made that any episode in a series has individual value that might not coincide with the bigger picture. Surely, Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R Tolkien’s famous fantasy novels each have their own merit. But shot simultaneously, overlapping stories that are separated in the books and a decade of being viewed in marathons or sequenced airing, the three films are now best reviewed as one. Which is why this review focuses on the movies, though credit to Tolkien, where appropriate, is given.
Packing eleven hours of film, the extended editions of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are long. Really long. almost painstakingly long. The story of Frodo and the Ring is a grand one, set in an extensive en elaborately described fantasy world. The details of Middle-Earth earn a careful, considerate treatment such as this one, but solely due to the effort Tolkien and Jackson put into its universe. Storywise, in a day and age when consumption is decisively quick, Frodo’s quest is too simple to take eleven hours.
The story is by far the trilogy’s weak point. There’s a quest which demands fulfillment but the why and how are omitted from the set-up. A mocking joke about why the eagles didn’t simply bring Frodo and/or the Ring to Mount Doom immediately goes an awful long way for such an elaborate tale. The Ring must be destroyed. Frodo (Elijah Wood) has to perform the task. He has to do it by foot. Much like a fairy tale that relies on plot points, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is about a great deal, but lacks principle character motivations and developments. Sauron is evil, plain and simple. There is no personality there, just darkness. He wants the Ring, despite not really needing it considering he raises a huge army and turns a powerful wizard dark without it. The orcs are expendable even if they show human characteristics when necessary. An honest moment in ‘The Two Towers’ when Faramir talks about the humanity of an opponent, only exists in the Extended Edition. The lack of depth to “evil” works to a certain extend. The heroes can kick some major orc-butt without ever having to feel bad about it. Evil comes up whenever the story tends to run dull. In Moria, on the way to Helm’s Deep or in a cave that leads to Mordor. The hurdles that Frodo and his companions have to overcome are random but exciting. It’s a good thing Sauron and Saruman didn’t have the tactics to hit Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith at the same, otherwise we’d have a vastly different story.
It’s abundantly clear that character is not important in the tale. What essentially is a long road movie, Frodo and Sam don’t emotionally richen through time. Sam is loyal and fierce and very much stays that way. Frodo doesn’t truly grow, he’s just manipulated by the Ring. In fact, as a character he’s so weak that he doesn’t even win his battle with the Ring. The real issue, however, is what happens on their journey from A to B. The beginning starts off fresh and promising. Almost getting caught on the road to crossing the river, being hunted by a distinct enemy ramps up the stakes. But after separating from the fellowship, not much happens to Frodo and Sam. They walk. For two entire movies, they walk through harsh landscapes dealing with the invisible burden of the Ring and with the questionable assistance of Gollum. Gollum is the storyline’s saving grace. Besides being completely animated in a way that still feels real after a decade of CGI smothering cinema, the creature is also the movies’ only complex character. His literal internal struggle between the weak but well-meaning Smeagol and the obsessed Gollum is interesting, but after a decent set-up in ‘The Two Towers’ it is all but abandoned in ‘Return of the King’, only to go out on a whiff. A similar struggle arose within Boromir but he dies too quickly to really have an impact.
The most obvious of transitions is that of Aragorn from ranger to king. It becomes clear he doubts himself at first and only reveals himself as the rightful king to convince the ghost army and to distract Sauron. Why he actually goes through with the coronation and how he concluded he is worthy is up for the viewer’s imagination. Though he does lead two armies to victory which makes this transition actually one of the sensible ones. That of Eowyn is too. As the most prominent female character in the films (let’s not get into Arwen’s role), she does fall in love twice. But that is second to overcoming her role as a caretaker and ultimately fighting amongst men. She even outperforms her male counterparts since through her personal strength and courage she finds the technicality of gender to defeat the Witch-king. Her change is a celebratory one and welcome in the shape of the story. That is less true for Gandalf and Frodo, both of whom change completely throughout the story, with one even replacing the last shade of grey in the story with an affirming white. The why is not explained and the how is not important. Gandalf would’ve been more valuable in the first film if his death sticks, but he simply had to come back to guide the human race to victory. In the land of Middle-Earth things just happen and this is the film version of those events.
Luckily what happens in Middle-Earth is pretty fun. There is a contagious sense of adventure that largely, though definitely not entirely, overshadows any questionable plot point. Plucked from his peaceful habitat, Frodo is a decent lead and Sam is a great sidekick. Their size in the epic scale of the environment they’re in just shows how out of water they really are. And with, in review, such low stakes it’s very easy to wish for a similar adventure. Tolkien also knows the safety of numbers. The Fellowship is an excellent starting point to launch the two hobbits on their way. There’s a steady ground in the first film, with the nine companions supporting each other. When the fellowship breaks up, the movies turn into a series. The separate story lines hardly interact and are not exactly equals in terms of excitement, but are adventurous all the same. Frodo and Sam travel mainly through wasteland with their biggest threat their own psychological state of mind and trust in each other. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas go through a whole lot more. Their adventures in Rohan are compelling, with both the quest to find Merry and Peppin and ridding the horse-lands of Saruman’s grip. The battle of Helm’s Deep is truly spectacular with a real sense of danger and military tactics. The scale of which is executed perfectly. It’s also chock-full of rare character beats, between Theodon giving up, Legolas failing to stop the dynamite and Gimli not being able to see over the wall. They are still very much defined by just their race and weapon of choice, but at least they’re actively present. One thing that deflates much of the excitement on revision is the tactic to bail out heroes at the last minute. Whether it is the Ent’s sudden realization that Isengard is indeed their problem, the riders of Rohan saving Helm’s Deep or, worst of all, the undead army saving Minas Tirith. Gandalf doesn’t die after sacrificing himself. Aragorn doesn’t die after falling off a cliff. Frodo doesn’t die after being stabbed by a poisonous spider. As a result, most of the action, an ingredient the trilogy relies heavy upon, doesn’t hold up in a review. There’s simply no way to experience the thrill of not knowing the outcome again. Which is different from knowing what’s coming and going through the excitement of genuinely hoping the outcome will have magically changed over time. A feat ‘Game of Thrones’ has perfected.
What does hold up is the look of it all. The absolutely stunning set decoration, the breathtaking locations of New Zealand and the legitimate stunts. There’s no question the crew executed on the highest level of modern filmmaking and produced an epic scaled franchise. Jackson doesn’t shy away from grand areal shots of locations, nor does he avoid showing the total chaos of battle. Every chance he gets he proudly shows off the size of this world, which only attributes the feeling of adventure. As does the “cool” factor of the stunts. The harmonious marriage of stunts and visual effects is so strong that it looks believable when Aragorn is stuck to a beast or when Legolas flies around a horse. Whatever part of the huge armies are computer generated certainly don’t show. If McKellan didn’t truly fall off a cliff with a dinosaur-sized demon, the shots are convincing enough. And without the ‘no animals harmed’ credit there would be some legitimate concern for all of the horses.
Another part which cannot be understated is the design. The comfort and peacefulness of the Shire echoes from the green hills to the colorful costumes and idealistic towns. From the faded beauty of the mines to the empty stature of the White City, from the elegant silky robes of the Elves to the proud armor of Gondor, everything is in perfect tune with the respectively mythological backstory. It even has a powerful, nearly majestic score to boot.
It’s the look of the day’s worth of film that makes it worth watching. That’s what makes the franchise a masterpiece. After the swords and sandals genre traded epic in for CGI violence in the following decade, ‘Lord of the Rings’ stands tall as a truly impressive work of art. The size of the production, not the budget or use of green screen, proofs this is the result of hard work and a unified vision. The story isn’t extensive and with it much of potential to pass the critical test of time is lost. But there is no denying Jackson’s adaption of the half-century old telling of Frodo and the Ring joins an elite group of epic movie sagas future generations can still enjoy. Even if its greatest asset is the attraction to its beautiful outside, much like that of a very precious piece of jewelry.