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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (Screenshot)

The Return Of The King was the last time a blockbuster could be weird, personal, and Best Picture

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (Screenshot)
Graphic: Allison Corr

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

“Fantasy is the one genre that’s never been done especially well,” Peter Jackson told The Los Angeles Times. “After 100 years of cinema, there’s not a lot of new ground for storytelling. We can all point to great musicals or horror films, but no one’s ever really nailed fantasy. So that’s the challenge. I want to see if I can pull it off.”

When the director of Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles, and Dead Alive made these claims, it was 1998, and the Times was reporting that he and New Line Cinema had a wildly ambitious plan to make a three-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings novels, filming all three parts of the trilogy simultaneously over the course of a year. Jackson’s basic thesis is debatable, and it ignores things like The Wizard Of Oz, The Princess Bride, and The NeverEnding Story, as well as virtually everything that Hayao Miyazaki ever made. But the point stands. He was trying to do something that nobody had ever done before: a stirring and straight-faced fantasy adventure, told on a Lawrence Of Arabia scale. And Jackson pulled it off.

Imagine the confidence. Peter Jackson was 36 years old in 1998. He’d only made one Hollywood movie: The Frighteners, a fascinating but messy genre-salad vision that came out a couple of weeks after Independence Day and got obliterated at the box office. Before that, in New Zealand, Jackson had made three splattery, slapsticky low-budget films and one dark, acclaimed drama. Jackson had cast Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures, her first film, which might’ve given him some juice in the year after Titanic, but he’d never proven himself as a sure-bet filmmaker—one worth hundreds of millions of a studio’s money. And yet New Line still staked its entire existence on Jackson’s take on the Tolkien epic that had proven resistant to adaptation for decades. Smart move.

Two completed attempts to put Lord Of The Rings on the screen preceded Jackson’s, but both were animated: a Ralph Bakshi film that covered The Fellowship Of The Ring and some of The Two Towers in 1978, and a TV version of The Return Of The King—which was not a sequel to Bakshi’s film, but rather a follow-up to Rankin-Bass’ take on The Hobbit—two years later. Neither was considered a success, though Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings was what introduced Jackson to the story. Tolkien had sold the rights in the late ’60s, and other directors had considered live-action versions. But before the advent of digital effects, the whole otherworldly spectacle of Middle Earth was too much for anyone to take on. “This is really the first time you could visualize Tolkien’s imagination on film,” Jackson said in 1998. “The technology has really existed only in the past two or three years.”

Jackson knew about technology. For his early horror films, he’d made his gore the old-fashioned way, with supermarket products. But Jackson had started working with the New Zealand special-effects company Weta Workshop, and he’d seen what the company could do. (The Frighteners includes a nasty CGI ghoul that looks a whole lot like the Ringwraiths in his Tolkien films.) In convincing New Line to make The Lord Of The Rings, Jackson’s demo reel was just as important as his script. The studio had picked up the project after Miramax balked at the budget for a proposed two-part adaptation; New Line exceeded Jackson’s expectations by suggesting he do it in three films. (Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein still got executive producer credits, and it always sucks to see their names fade up, especially when you’re not expecting them.)

It’s still fun to think about how hard The Fellowship Of The Ring hit when it came out around Christmas of 2001. I’d never been a Tolkien guy. Once, at the urging of a girl I’d been seeing, I made it part of the way through the first book, but it lost me once Tom Bombadil showed up. I just was not on that wavelength. But Jackson’s movie immersed me immediately. I couldn’t believe that I was watching something that vast and majestic and cool. Driving home from the theater, I remember rhapsodizing about what I’d just seen, wishing it had existed when I’d been a kid. I bought in. Jackson just crumbled your resistance.

Watching the Lord Of The Rings series now, it’s remarkable how sincere it is. Since he shot all three movies at once, Jackson didn’t have to focus-group the later installments, building them around what the studio might’ve decided that audiences responded to. Instead, he plays everything straight, letting every moment breathe, giving the feeling of awe a chance to sink in. There’s no Han Solo figure in The Lord Of The Rings, nobody responding to all the pomp with a cocked eyebrow. Instead, the funniest character in the whole trilogy is Gimli, the gung-ho dwarf warrior who pops because he’s extremely psyched about all the cool shit he gets to do. To this day, people are making entire novelty death metal concept albums in Gimli’s honor. He deserves it.

Through all three films, Jackson never does anything to pander to or insult the audience’s intelligence. Instead, he maintains his tonal control. He lets his camera lovingly pan over vast mountain vistas or pause to take in the sight of two armies rushing toward each other. He fully invests in the deep awkwardness of Tolkien’s dialogue. He brings in great Shakespearean actors like Ian McKellen to give the story the weight and gravity it needs. Jackson renders his elaborate digital effects with cleanliness and concrete form, never giving the all-too-common impression that you’re just watching a pixelated mess onscreen. And he taps into the emotional beats of his slightly ridiculous characters, granting them their dignity.

The first two Lord Of The Rings movies were rare things: blockbusters, made in the atomizing internet age, and yet still, by vast mass consensus, beloved. They made tons of money. They got great reviews. They were Best Picture nominees at the Oscars. By the time the third movie came out, the hype was deafening. Everything was perfectly lined up for it to absolutely crush at the box office. When big films get that kind of setup, they almost always disappoint. The Return Of The King did not. I walked out of that theater buzzing, and so did just about everyone else.

In a lot of ways, The Return Of The King is the least satisfying part of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The Fellowship Of The Ring felt like it was inventing a whole new cinematic grammar. The Two Towers had sweeping, visceral battle scenes that surpassed anything else that anyone was putting onscreen at the time. The Return Of The King, on the other hand, might luxuriate a little too deeply in its world. Certain elements—Sam’s pep talks to Frodo, for instance—begin to feel repetitive. Without Christopher Lee’s Saruman, the villain becomes a giant flaming eye, which does not make for the most compelling character. And then there’s the matter of a three-and-a-half-hour movie with something like 40 minutes of endings and goodbyes. I have a visceral memory of my friend loudly grunting with frustration every time the end credits stubbornly refused to appear.

The biggest problem, I realized upon rewatching, is that Jackson never quite gets me to care about any of those characters. Frodo’s perilous journey and Sam’s steadfast friendship made sense in the abstract. The arc of Aragorn’s long hero’s journey hits all the necessary turning points. Gandalf gets in some really good bits, and the part where he tells Pippin about how death is just another step on the journey is genuinely comforting. But watching the film, I always felt like I was watching tropes and archetypes, not people. (It probably doesn’t help that Frodo, the ostensible hero, remains a passive figure throughout, spending the entire movie in a numb and pallid shuffle.)

And yet The Return Of The King rules. Certain scenes will always give me goosebumps: the montage of beacons catching fire on cloudy mountaintops, the shots of Gandalf entering Minas Tirith, the sight of entire armies screaming for death as they ride into battle. Sam’s streak of action hero moments—killing a giant spider, single-handedly raiding an orc fortress, carrying Frodo up a mountain, squaring off with Gollum—should be absolutely absurd, but Sean Astin’s all-heart determination sells it. Viggo Mortensen looks great while giving locker-room-at-halftime speeches. The whole thing works.

My favorite parts of The Return Of The King are the ones where Peter Jackson reminds you that he’s a horror-film director—the Sam Raimi angry-zooming-camera trick from Evil Dead 2, the Nazgûl chopping off limbs, the way the spider’s lair looks like a haunted house. The whole scene with the giant spider is some real top-shelf creepy shit; I love the way the score disappears as Shelob silently stalks Frodo. And when Frodo gets stung, Jackson even goes back to his supermarket-gore roots: Elijah Wood got the foaming-at-the-mouth effect by chomping down on a tab of Alka-Seltzer. There had just been some cool giant spiders in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets a year earlier, but the entire Shelob sequence casts enough of a spell that it’s not even fair to compare the two movies.

In fact, it’s generally not fair to compare the Lord Of The Rings films with the early Harry Potter movies, even though they existed in the same genre and came out around the same time. The Harry Potter adaptations were product, and even at their best, they never let you forget that. The Lord Of The Rings pictures were product, too, but you could forget that while you were watching them. You could lose yourself in them. That’s the difference between a Peter Jackson and a Chris Columbus.

The Return Of The King isn’t a masterpiece, but it hits its marks so satisfyingly that the world received it as one anyway. Famously, The Return Of The King was nominated for 11 Oscars, and it won all of them—tying Ben-Hur and Titanic, two epics of similar scope, for the biggest Oscar-night haul of all time. Peter Jackson himself won three Oscars. His wife and production partner Fran Walsh also won three—for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Song, an award she shared with Howard Shore and Annie Lennox. The Return Of The King also beasted out in the technical categories, but—maybe tellingly—it didn’t get a single acting nomination. The individual performances weren’t what resonated. It was the totality of the thing.

The Return Of The King would be the last time, at least to date, that the Academy would heap all its laurels on the biggest movie of the year. In the years since The Return Of The King had its big night, a few of the Best Picture winners—The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, Argo—have been genuine hits. But none of them has been a vast four-quadrant sensation on the level of Jackson’s film. The rest of the movies that appear in this column won’t win Best Picture, and most of them won’t be nominated. After the Oscars snubbed The Dark Knight in the most important category, the Academy changed its rules in an effort to better recognize blockbusters, and it still hasn’t happened. Instead, there’s been a split between the prestige fare that Hollywood congratulates itself for making and the mass entertainment that it cranks out to keep the lights on.

It’s not just pure snobbery that keeps the Academy from recognizing things like Avengers: Endgame or The Last Jedi. It’s also a healthy skepticism toward the increasingly static, checklist routines that have come to dominate franchise filmmaking. That process hadn’t fully ossified yet in 2003. The Return Of The King was allowed to be weird and personal. So were The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, two perverse and counterintuitive storytelling experiments that still made a ton of money. (Both The Matrix Reloaded and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines, another big hit that year, had endings that suggested that apocalypse is inevitable and humans can’t do anything to stave it off—a weird message for big summer tentpoles.) Even Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl, a theme-park-ride adaptation that spawned an increasingly dire franchise, was built on a lead performance so intoxicatingly loopy that it earned Johnny Depp a Best Actor nomination. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen anymore.

It’s not that the big franchise movies of 2003 are better than the ones coming out today. Plenty of the 2003 hits, after all, are genuinely bad. But there’s a sense of freedom and possibility in the 2003 movies that seems just about absent these days. Maybe the pandemic will alter stakes and change things. Or maybe we were just lucky that, for a brief window in film history, a New Zealand splatter auteur got to make a colossal three-movie epic about hobbits and orcs, and that he knocked it out of the park.

The contender: Technically, thanks to re-releases, Finding Nemo has just barely skated past The Return Of The King and become the highest-grossing film of 2003. It might also be the best. Finding Nemo tells a fantastically simple and moving father-son story, and it does it with great action sequences and fast-paced jokes and a lightly hallucinatory sense of atmosphere. I love it.

Next time: Shrek 2 conquers the box office, and blockbuster-level fantasy filmmaking falls right off a fucking cliff.