Curiously, the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection includes all three Lord of the Rings films. Despite the fact that there are several other films in the collection that come from multi-movie franchises, LOTR is the only such franchise that gets more than one entry.
Prior to re-watching them for this review, I had only seen these movies once, and not in a theater. I wanted to see them due to their cultural significance, so I asked for and received the Extended Editions for Christmas 2004 or 2005. I watched them once over the course of a four-day weekend, thought they were ok, but never felt the need to revisit them.
Now, nearly 20 years later, let’s see if the non-extended versions are perhaps more compelling.
Fellowship of the Ring (2001): Even the standard version is nearly three hours, and consists of some interesting world-building and backstory, followed by two-and-a-half hours of “we go here, we get some condensed lore, we fight, repeat.” It’s all fine, but—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—it falls victim to the “book problem” of somehow seeming rushed and truncated in spots despite being three hours long. That’s not a great combination. Some of the effects look a little dated now, but the makeup and costumes are still fantastic. Overall, it’s decent, but Merry and Pip seem to exist purely to do stupid, annoying things that create contrived peril. I remember thinking when I watched it the first time that I would have been mildly annoyed seeing it in a theater and having to wait a year to see them actually broach the border of Mordor.
The Two Towers (2002): This one is more of a glorified side-quest. I’m sure that’s a heresy to Tokienists, but the main story basically treads water the entire film. We ended the last episode with Frodo and Sam outside the perimeter of Mordor, and, over the course of three hours, they never make it inside. Admittedly, the Battle of Helm’s Deep is darn impressive, but it takes two full hours to get there. Treebeard’s remarks about the ents’ slow pace and deliberate speech patterns almost seems like a meta commentary on the film itself. I think this movie’s 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes owes in large measure to the fact that people were so dazzled by the spectacle of it in 2002. And I understand that. But, whereas the first film has the benefit of setting up the story, and the third has the virtue of resolution, this film seems borderline unnecessary, if nonetheless impressive technically for the time. Again, it’s fine, but I find it less interesting than the first film.
Return of the King (2003): If The Two Towers is too heavy on set-up, then The Return of the King makes that all worth it. This is a very good movie that knocks down most of the dominoes from the first two films. The battle scenes are spectacular, and, I think, largely the reason why this movie won Best Picture. I have two quibbles. First, despite its length, the non-extended version we get here leaves out two crucial scenes (among several omissions). First, the death of Saruman, who is killed by a betrayed Wormtongue (who, in turn, is killed). Second, one of the best scenes in the whole trilogy in my opinion, the confrontation with the Mouth of Sauron. These scenes only total about five minutes, and I think they would have added a great deal to the experience. This is especially true for the closure of Saruman’s story, which was so critical to the first two movies. The second quibble (and one that makes the first particularly curious) is the inclusion of about seven different scenes at the very end of the film, any of which could have been the ending to the movie. It comes across almost comically upon repeat viewing, and makes the omission of the other two scenes a bit frustrating. Notwithstanding all of that, this is probably the best version of this kind of movie that could exist.
Bottom line: I get why fans love them, and the payoff of Return of the King is probably worth the six-hour time investment of the first two. You get the sense that, even with almost 10 hours with which to work, Peter Jackson had to omit a lot of content. This feels especially true for Liv Tyler’s character. But, as I’ve said a thousand times, some form of that challenge is almost always an issue with book adaptations. From a technical standpoint, Lord of the Rings is a remarkable achievement, and one that largely holds up in that regard two decades later. I have little desire to see the Hobbit movies, and even less desire to read the books, but these films (which are really one story) are a worthwhile watch, if an unusually time-consuming one.