Here's the short review - too many oliphaunts, not enough Rohirrim.
The long review?
It's a difficult project Peter Jackson has tackled - he has to tell a story that is loved and cherished (and perhaps just a touch obsessed over) by thousands, and yet utterly unfamiliar to the larger audience whom he must attract to the movies for it to be successful. The smashing - no - incendiary - success of Fellowship and Two Towers allows him certain latitude in the last installment. Never the less, Tolkien's highly unorthodox story structure requires some major tinkering in order to flow in the medium of movies. But there are certain marks he has to hit - that simply can't be ignored, and with all that going on, not much room for outright invention.
I'm both troubled by what was outright invention, and entirely, immensely delighted by the high points he did hit. When Jackson sticks to Tolkien's material, the movie is perfect. I say perfect, and what I mean is - unblemished, True in the philosophical sense - gleaming with unmarred and untrammelled excellence. When Jackson deviates from Tolkien's material, the result is, in my opinion, too Hollywood, too blockbuster, and too ... well, elephantine!
But, the soaring heights of the perfection more than makes up for the clunkers. If you're like me, you've loved and adored "Lord of the Rings" for many years, and found yourself picking the book up time and again, sometimes to read all the way through, and sometimes just to scan the high points. Most of the high points that are truly inspiring are to be found in "Return of the King" and I had grave concerns that some of them had been robbed and taken out of place, and put in "The Two Towers" - which I felt was by far the weakest of the three. My fears were utterly unfounded.
First though, my complaints. The way Tolkien writes the story, Theoden King is killed on the field, and Eowyn is stricken by the Witch King even as she kills him. Eomer finds them both, and overwrought with rage and grief, says, "Eowyn, Eowyn!" he cried at last. "Eowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!" Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: 'Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!' And he rides in a berserk fury, and the Rohirrim sweep into the Southrons. Not in the movie though - nothing is made of this at all, and the Rohirrim just charge a bunch of Mumakil. One of the greatest, most heart-breaking, and emotionally stirring moments in the series is lost in favor of a bunch of gigantic elephants. The duels between Theoden and the Easterling Captain is also forgotten - all for the sake of those damned Oliphaunts. I didn't like them very much, and they were awfully easy to kill.
There's also lots of business in the siege of Minas Tirith that is skipped over - like the showdown at the gates between Gandalf and the Witch-King of Angmar. This is a brilliant and stirring moment of valor, where not only Gandalf but the men of Gondor prove their valor. Gone. There are no knight of Dol Amroth, or any of the Men of Westernesse - just the soldiers of Gondor, who make a poor accounting of themselves. The entire sequence with Aragorn in the Houses of Healing is gone, too - which wraps up the stories of both Eowyn and Faramir, and is pivotal in establishing Aragorn as not just a war captain, but also a King. Gone. Plenty of elephants though.
Denethor also gets cut down from a truly tragic figure, into a pathetic one. There's no mention made of the Palantir (and no final confrontation with Saruman, either..) - nothing to explain Denethor's despair. It's a shame,but my guess is that it's on the cutting room floor, and we'll see it in the extended version. There's also some weird business with Arwen that seems rushed and contrived - Elrond appears before the Paths of the Dead (meh?) and tells Aragorn she is dying because of the rising of Sauron's power. Aroo? That's the last we hear of it though. Puzzling.
My only other major complaint is that Aragorn appears from the South in the ships of Umbar, not with an army from the besieged cities of the South, but with the spectral host from the Paths of the Dead. The Armies of the Dead actually appear at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and save the day. Cheeseball! I know why Jackson did it, he streamlined the narrative down and skipped a step where he fights a battle in the South, and then appears in Gondor with the men he relieved. But still, the Armies of the Dead don't appear at Gondor, and I don't think it was a particularly stirring or exciting moment when the all rush off the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar... not nearly as thrilling as it would have been to have Aragorn and real men at his back, fighting bravely and spreading panic and discord amongst the hosts of Mordor. A pity, and in my opinion, a mis-step.
But now, on to what's right. The simplest answer to this is - Rohan, Rohan, Rohan
There are certain scenes that stand out in the imagination from reading Lord of the Rings. One that is burned indelibly in my mind since the first time I read the books when I was seven or eight years old, is the timely appearance of the Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pellenor Fields. When Theoden appears on the field, he stands straighter in his saddle then he had in many a long year, and calls out in a voice louder than any mortal man had before:
Arise, arise, Riders of the Theoden!
Fell deeds awake: fire and slaughter!
spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
a sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!
It's here where Tolkien's long career as a translator and scholar of ancient sagas is at it's clearest. It's here where his life's work comes into sharp focus. Peter Jackson has the good sense not to stand in the way of it - Tolkien is the master, and Jackson tells it almost precisely like Tolkien wrote it. I say without shame, that I wept when I saw this on the screen. I mean, serious tears and sobs, not just little tears in the eye. Lord of the Rings is I suppose, my most treasured piece of literature ever, and this moment - Theoden's call to war - is my favorite part in all the books. And Jackson nails it, and Bernhard Hill is magnificent. When the Riders of the Riddermark sweep into the armies of Mordor, it is a moment that I have always wanted to see, but has never been done before - a massive charge of heavy cavalry into a determined foe. Truly the Rohirrim scatter the armies of Mordor before them like chaff before the scythe. It is perfect. It is a grand-slam, out of the park, home run. It is, to me, the single finest moment in the history of film. In that few minutes of the movie, comes the payoff for all the years of waiting. My expectations for this battle-scene were sky-high, a life time's anticipation, really. And it absolutely meets and exceeds all my expectations. It is perfect.
There are other high-points as well - Eowyn's confrontation with the Witch-King nearly makes up for what a wimp she was in Two Towers. And the Eagles! The Eagles! Every time the eagles appear on the screen, I get excited, and they make a very timely appearance that I loved. Gollum is thoroughly fleshed out as a sympathetic figure. The movie begins with his back-story, and our last sight of Gollum is him holding his Precious up out of the lava in Mt. Doom to save it from ruin for just a second or two longer. In fact, Gollum leave's a greasy-stain on the magma that the Ring rests on for a second or two, before it sinks through and is destroyed, which I thought was apalling, funny, and appropriate all at once.
Shelob deserves some special notice, too. The effect is perfect - she is huge and looming and frightening. I can only imagine how squicked out someone with a real fear of spiders would be; and yet there's an awful and malignant intelligence in her face that is wholly laudable on the part of Weta Workshop's mastery. Perfect!
Sam gets some marvelous ass-kicking moments, some moments of pure pluck and bravery. I've always felt Sam was the greatest hero of the books, who does the most while expecting the least in return. I think it says a lot that the audience cheered and clapped when Sam marries Rosie Cotton, but there was nary a clap when Aragorn marries Arwen. Sam is redoubtable and loyal, even unto certain death, and utterly without thanks for doing it. The audience loves Sam, even when Frodo scorns him.
There's so much else to say - for instance, there's some excellent singing in this movie, and more evidence of Tolkien's love of poetry. And hey, Billy Boyd has a truly fine voice! When he sings for Denethor, it is haunting, beautiful, and a fantastic counterpoint to the battle that rages out on the Pelennor Fields.. Aragorn also sings at his coronation, and it oddly fits. There's much more to rave about. I could go all day! I'll need to see it a few more times, really.
Ultimately, I'm left torn over whether the Greatest. Movie. Ever. is "Fellowship" or "Return". Fellowship is, I think, more true to Tolkien's writings than either of the other two. But Return just hits some moments of beauty, despair, terror, and valor that wouldn't have been possible without the previous two works, and that really make movie history. I can't say which one I prefer yet. For those of you that know me, you know how much of a rave that is.
I'm seeing it again tonight, and I can't wait!