Thursday, December 17, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (2003)

Elijah Wood in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Release Date: December 17, 2003
Director: Peter Jackson
Written By: J.R.R. Tolkien (Novel), Fran Walsh & Phillipa Boyens & Peter Jackson (Screenplay)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen
Genre: Action, Drama, Fantasy
Running Time: 201 minutes

Oscar Wins: 11
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Make-Up
-Best Original Score
-Best Original Song
-Best Sound Mixing
-Best Visual Effects

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Lost in Translation
-Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
-Mystic River

And the winner is...

In an era where most popular films are associated with franchises, director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings series may be among the most beloved. It isn't just because of the characters, but also because of its status as revolutionary cinema. Even if it isn't the first trilogy to have each film be nominated for Best Picture (The Godfather beats it), it is one that captures a perfect crossing between blockbuster culture and critical acclamation. Add in the fact that the films, in their final extended forms, equal about 12 hours and the feat is even more impressive. There haven't been too many franchises like it, and that is a testament to the craft by which it was made. It popularized fantasy films and turned J.R.R. Tolkien's characters into beloved cornerstones of pop culture. There hasn't been a franchise like it, and that's just more than personal opinion.

The story begins much like how all films of this nature are made. When he was 17 years old, Jackson saw the Ralph Bakshi animated version of The Lord of the Rings, which inspired him to read the book on a 12 hour train ride. The passion survived well into his adult  years and upon finishing his 1995 film The Frighteners, he began his quest to get the movie made. There was a lot of talk, first with Harvey Weinstein and then later Universal - the latter of whom was keen on him doing a King Kong remake first. After much deliberation, the final deal came that he would direct all three of Tolkien's books in "The Lord of the Rings" series. It started in 1999 and would run through 2002. This would become the first franchise to have its films be done simultaneously (the second would be Jackson's work on The Hobbit trilogy).

It would be difficult to sparse through the production history between The Return of the King and the first two entries: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. While each one was shot around the same time and with occasional overlap, they each were given their clear focus. Jackson filmed the three films in New Zealand with help from his special effects company WETA. Along with this, he also had three different editors to work on each entry. He had Jamie Selkirk work on the final one, as he believed that he would be most focused while working. Also likely due to this being the final film in the series, Jackson has claimed that it was the easiest to film. The stories of the franchise's development has been well documented on its extended edition DVDs (and would be too lofty to be covered in full here).

Among this entry's bigger highlights is the presence of a dead oliphaunt carcass, which is said to be the biggest prop in film history, even though Jackson claims that he wanted it to be bigger. He also designed the evil spider Shelob after Jackson's own arachnophobia, based on a New Zealand funnel web spider. They were also intimidated about making it look convincing due to a similar creature that appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. During the filming of the Shelob scene, Elijah Wood went through several struggles. He was wrapped in a cocoon that he claimed felt like a giant condom and was even stabbed with a prop that landed him in the hospital. He claimed that his excuse was "appendicitis." While it wasn't true then, it would become a real condition that Wood had. 

Behind the scenes, composer Howard Shore was required to record seven minutes of score a day in order to keep up with the lengthy time of the film. Likewise, the song "Into the West" was inspired by Cameron Duncan's struggle with cancer. Billy Boyd appeared in the film to be singing a different song largely based on an experience where the crew went to karaoke and were smitten by his voice. Due to the production overlapping with several other duties, the film was still in production as its release was happening. The final scene to be shot involved the "You bow to no one" scene. While Viggo Mortensen's participation wasn't necessary, he still showed up to watch it happen. Even then, many more scenes were shot for the extended editions well after the film had been released. Jackson would joke that he enjoyed being able to still direct a film that had already won Oscars.

Much like the previous two entries, the film was insanely successful upon its release. On its opening weekend, the film grossed $250 million. The film's many achievements during this time included becoming the second film to gross a billion dollars, following Titanic a few years prior. The franchise was also one of very few in which each subsequent sequel outgrossed the previous entry. Thanks to its three films (and later helped by The Hobbit movies), it became one of the highest grossing franchises in history. Considering how much of an achievement it was considered by the critics and film world, the film's impact was immediately felt and the accumulation of the three films equaled an astounding measure for cinema. It even caused debates on if it was the new "perfect" trilogy, which many genre fans considered only Star Wars to have prior.

In a shocking move, The Return of the King batted 100% at The Oscars the following year. It was the only film with more than 10 nominations to do so (Titanic had more, but lost a few). It also beat other Best Picture winners that batted 100% (The Last Emperor and Gigi, both with nine wins). It is also the longest title for a Best Picture winner. It ties with Ben-Hur and Titanic for most wins in general. It also was the first time that a third entry in a franchise won (The Godfather Part III was the first third entry to be nominated), and Jackson's work as a whole put the franchise as the most nominated in history with 30 (The Godfather would be closest with 28). It is also the highest winning film to not have any acting nominations. It is also one of very few fantasy films to win the category.

The impact of the franchise long exceeded its initial box office. On home video, the extended editions paved the way for the golden age of special features. With exhaustive behind the scenes featurettes, it became the blueprint by which most later DVD releases would follow. The film also helped to spark interest in New Zealand tourism (a quarter of the country's population even attended the premiere there). It popularized the fantasy genre in general, allowing films like The Chronicles of Narnia to be released. In general, it raised interest in Tolkien literature and the characters became part of the lexicon, especially Gollum; of whom was one of the first major motion screen capture characters in cinema (the performer, Andy Serkis, would become well regarded for this technique). Jackson would finally get to make that King Kong remake for Universal, though with more mixed reviews. Also, Jackson got to make The Hobbit films, which were also not as acclaimed. While there have been major blockbusters since to be nominated for Best Picture (Avatar being noteworthy), this is the last crowd pleasing, big movie to win.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a film that doesn't need any introductions to its legacy. Despite being ridiculed for its epic length, it was a film that promised a new standard for the big budgeted blockbuster. Even if few of the actors have had substantial careers since, the films that Jackson made reflected a certain advancement in technology that still feels mighty impressive and shows the dedication that an artist can have while working on something with insane details. As a whole, the series is a beautiful achievement that transcends the negative attitudes that "major blockbuster" has in the years to follow. It is something that managed to throw in emotion as well as spectacle, and not make 3.5 hour films feel like an exhaustive chore. He may not have revitalized the epic entirely, but Jackson's work definitely gave us hope for what entertainment can be in an age where technology is able to compliment instead of distract from the visual.

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