As has become our custom, we went out to see Return of the King with the Burrahobbits opening night. Very seldom is a motion picture or artist's conception better than my visual imagination (I have a wonderful visual imagination, couple with an almost total inability to draw it out--). Return of the King was that rarity. I found Minas Tirith so beautiful that tears came to my eyes. There were so many other things that were so beautifully realized it is hard to count them all. The long shot of Arwen riding across the bridge to Rivendell is one. Andy Serkis in the flesh as Smeagol, and the transition scenes making his devolution into the wretched Gollum quite chillingly believable was another. There are so many others. Shelob was believable, but less terrifying than I might have thought, whereas Sauron's assault on Pippin through the Palantir of Orthanc was far more so than I expected. The army of the dead Oathbreakers was more scary because they moved with speed—something not usually associated with the undead. Gollum's blissful fixation on the Ring, even as he falls to his death clutching it, was perfect. Watch the frantic and expressive movements of the Great Eye as Barad-Dud crumbles under it. Frodo and Sam looked authentically worn out as they approached Mount Doom—subtle details like the chafing around Frodo's neck from the 'weight' of the Ring are just so impressive.
Of course there are quibbles. The computer army generators get carried away for effect: the armies you see on screen are way too big and far exceed the numbers declared. Think of it—a group only ten wide and ten deep is a hundred. Ten of those are a thousand. Thus you can see that the army of Saruman that marched on Helm's Deep had vastly more than ten thousand figures in it. The force that assails Mina Tirith would have to number in the hundreds of thousands, yet they are put to flight by Rohan's alleged six thousand, who, on screen, appear nearly as numerous as the orc horde.
Legolas' one-elf assault on the rampaging oliphaunt was pure showing off, and I would have preferred to have cut that a few seconds to give us an expanded version of the death of Theoden and the Nazgul King—keeping in Eowyn's speech that begins, "Back, foul dwimmerlaik!" and Angmar's reply, "I will bear you down to the Houses of Darkness--." Especially since Legolas could have achieved the same result with an arrow to the eye, and Eowyn accomplished the same thing with a swift double hamstring. I also wanted to see Merry screwing up his courage to strike the Witch-King. His sudden attack from behind (echoed by Sam's attack on the orc menacing Frodo in Cirith Ungol) tends to reinforce the role-playing game stereotype of hobbits as sneaky backstabbers. We may get some of this in the extended version, since the film's producer, Barrie M. Osborne, is quoted in today's Milwaukee Journal describing the demise of Saruman, the Houses of Healing, and the scene where Eomer discovers the fallen Eowyn on the battlefield, so there is hope.