The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Monday, February 16, 2004
MANY HAPPY RETURNS: I'm probably the last American to see The Return of the King. The other people in the theater sure seemed to have watched it already, which is presumably why they spent the time talking to each other instead. Ordinarily that sort of thing bothers me, but this time their voices kept me awake during the dull stretches, like the scene where someone was going on about the genealogy of some sword or, more generally, the entire final 30 or 40 minutes of the picture.

But I enjoyed myself, mostly; this is surely the best of Peter Jackson's three Tolkien movies. It has suspense and horror, lively battle scenes, and, at times, a genuine sense of grandeur, as opposed to the boring high-fantasy pomposity that bogged down so much of the last two installments. But just before the hobbits destroy the ring -- I trust I'm not giving anything away when I mention that the hobbits finally destroy the ring, since anyone who didn't know that already won't understand what "the hobbits destroy the ring" means anyway -- our feet start to sink in the mire. There's an interminable speech to some troops, and an interminable speech about carrying burdens, and much noisy, "soaring," "inspiring" music; and then, when they finally do get rid of the damn ring, the movie still keeps dragging on and on.

Now, the book goes on a while after the climax too, but that's because events are actually happening in it. In fact, that's when we get to the best part of the trilogy: when the hobbits come home to the Shire and discover it's been turned into an industrial police state. But Jackson, heretofore unable to remove virtually anything from his source material, has for some reason excised this episode. Instead he gives us one false ending after another, several of them set in a Shire that's all blarney and no texture. (The Shire was the most interesting part of Tolkien's Middle Earth; it's the least interesting part of Jackson's.)

Other criticisms? Like the
first two films, The Return of the King is cursed with bland heroes. Elijah Woods' Frodo remains a boring bundle of emo, and Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn seems concerned mostly with his ability to walk while looking manly. Much better is Andy Serkis as Gollum; and Jackson has the good sense to frame his story so that Serkis, not Wood, emerges as the protagonist. But by the time all those endings have played out you'll be lucky if you even remember Gollum was in the movie.

But why carp? Lord knows there's a lot worse out there. A week ago, for instance, I finally got to see the much-praised 1945 short The House I Live In, in which a young Frank Sinatra stumbles on a bunch of kids about to beat up a Jew and lectures them on tolerance. We need to get past our petty bigotries and work together, he says, and then he illustrates the point with a tale about a Christian soldier and a Jewish soldier who team up to kill -- this is a quote -- "the Japs." He caps his case by singing Abel Meeropol's ode to American diversity, "The House I Live In," but leaves out the verse preaching brotherhood between blacks and whites.

Naturally, the film won a Special Oscar for advancing the cause of tolerance.

posted by Jesse 9:43 PM
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