You would be hard pressed to name a more iconic Fantasy film franchise other than The Lord of the Rings. Okay, sure, maybe Harry Potter – but fifteen years after its theatrical release on December 17, 2003, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King still boasts more Academy Awards than any Fantasy film in history. Even to this day, this epic conclusion to writer/producer/director Peter Jackson’s trilogy is tied for the record for most Academy Awards for a single film, and is still one of only two Fantasy films to claim an Oscar for Best Picture.
In truth, it is hard to believe that it has been fifteen years since The Return of the King graced the silver screen, and there are few movies before or since that are larger in scope or reach. One of the first films to gross over $1-billion at the box office, The Return of the King, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a whole, proved that High Fantasy movies deserved their seat at the table, too. Fantasy was once a genre that many turned up their noses at, but thanks to Peter Jackson’s trilogy, this diverse category was brought into the spotlight. But does it still hold up after all these years?
It is important to remember just how long this film is. With a theatrical runtime of 200 minutes, and an extended edition runtime clocking in at a whopping 263 minutes – that is nearly four and a half hours – it is easily the longest offering in the trilogy. Another thing to note is that all three films in the trilogy were written and filmed at the same time, something that had never truly been done before, and made this trilogy feel like one cohesive piece.
There is a lot of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale to cram into just a few hours, though even with such a massive runtime the film feels well-paced. Poignant, quiet moments between beloved characters like Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, and Aragorn are perfectly balanced with battles that are gargantuan and unforgettable.
These character-driven moments and clashes between armies are made all the more powerful by the incredible performances by this unforgettable ensemble cast, which includes Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchette, Orlando Bloom, and Ian McKellen to name just a few. It is rare when an ensemble meshes together in a way that feels so natural and believable. Even as the characters are separated by thousands of miles, viewers can still feel that connection between them, while those characters that are together make their relationships real in a way that is unforgettable. With so many interwoven storylines, it is a marvel that writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson balanced them all.
Speaking of unforgettable, scenes like the Battle of Gondor, backed by an award-winning score from Howard Shore, still have not been matched by any film since. Even now, these scenes do not feel dated thanks to the intricate and painstaking practical effects. Where more contemporary films might rely on CGI and digital effects to craft these scenes, Jackson opted for building highly-detailed set pieces and bringing in top-tier makeup artists to bring Tolkien’s classic story to life. Looking back, thanks to these practical effects, the film does not feel dated. In fact, even it it were released today, it would still be as deserving of all its accolades as it was fifteen years ago.
Thanks to painstaking attention detail in all facets of its production, The Return of the King still looks as incredible as it did fifteen years ago. A masterwork of storytelling, performance, design, and scoring, it is no wonder this film has remained beloved by critics and fans alike.