As a child I always thought there were two camps of fandom. You were either a Star Wars guy, or a Lord of the Rings guy. I did like Star Wars, but truly nothing captured my imagination like Peter Jackson’s revered trilogy. The Goblin-infested Mines of Moria, the mechanical landscapes of Isengard, and the sweeping vistas of Minis Tirith left me grinning ear to ear each time I watched the films. No fantasy setting has grasped my attention in the same way since, and I’m relatively confident to say I doubt it will again.
The impeccable direction from Jackson meant that even as I revisit these films for the first time in years, they elicit that sense of childlike admiration while still appeasing all of my film critic tendencies – if I want to so boldly label myself that.
Within the first ten minutes of the film you know exactly what’s happening, exactly what kind of world we are in, who’s who and where places are. It’s a genuine masterful feat to have managed to briskly yet efficiently introduce the audience to such a vast and deeply fantasy-based world. While in these watches I am picking up new details in the story and characters, as a child I never had any confusion about the who’s, what’s, why’s, when’s and where’s.
The starting script in Fellowship, written by Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, feels like a neat yet firmly packed story, effortlessly filled with perfect story beats and dialogue, accompanied by the simmering level of book-inspired details under the surface. While never having read the books, I felt the heft of the page in every image, each interaction, all the throwaway references. Knowing that there are masses of lore going into each scene, and a staggering level of preparedness going into these films, I was eagerly looking out my dad’s old copies to start my literary adventure to Middle Earth, the second the final credits rolled.
Then to mention the casting. The casting! Almost each have their own level of iconic status, yet unlike how Johnny Depp is Jack Sparrow, they manage to steep themselves in the characters so well that I don’t see Will Turner as Legolas, or Magneto as Gandalf or even Charlie from Lost as Merry. They feel like deadly specific castings, each with their own level of individuality, from their personalities, down to the inflections in their vocal delivery.
Just for a second, I want to talk about how incredible these movies look. Through practical sets, gorgeous cinematography, and some truly head-scratching CGI. There are moments you can see slight ageing elements of the visual effects but for the most part they are more convincing than most modern blockbuster. Yet I think part of that impressiveness is because they were smart about when they wanted to use CGI – which was essentially when it wouldn’t be possible to do it practically. Each use of CGI felt purposeful, rather than a way to cut costs and save time during production. What WETA were able to achieve visually was remarkable, and it is no surprise that they are the company still hitting all the stops, twenty years later.
So not to essentially produce a puff piece on these films, I do want to impart some form of criticism since I suppose no film is truly perfect. I couldn’t help but feel less engaged during the middle child of the trilogy The Two Towers, which exchanges Elvish cities and Dwarven mines for non-descript fields and man-built castles not too dissimilar from those in our own past. Whether this be deliberate due to the more mundane aspects of men in these films or just being more concerned with setting up the majesty of the third film, revisiting left me eager to get on to the “good stuff”. I don’t want you to think I dislike this film. Far from it. But when I think of Fellowship or Return of the King there is hardly a scene I would skip, and there are certainly scenes I would skip in The Two Towers… OK… it’s the Ents.
Moving forward, the most notable change in these viewings was that I finally decided to commit myself to the extended cuts, which I inexcusably had not watched, despite owning the extended box set for a good few years now. Watching a trilogy I have seen countless times before to then be treated to new scenes was immensely satisfying. And whereas the extended cuts of The Hobbit (which I may get into in another review) only add in the odd shot, or fun little scene here or there, these were story beats that actually improved the story, made sense of some of the seemingly forgotten story threads, or gave context for those to come. And when it came to the infamous never-ending conclusion of Return of the King, I was grateful for each extra second, rather than wondering when the credits would roll.
No doubt my opinion of The Lord of the Rings is very much influenced by the powers of nostalgia. These films made up my childhood, to the point I would often run through my garden with a toy sword in hand slaying orcs, using a broomstick at my noble stead. Yet coming back all these years later to not just find it still holds the quality, but it actually improved as I began to pick up the subtler details and story threads I had missed as a child, shows that the pedigree of this trilogy supersedes any rose-tinted glasses or unfortunate ageing. The Lord of the Rings is timeless. A classic tale of good and evil. And one that will stay with me for the rest of my life.