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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King   A+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
Cast: Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Bernard Hill, Billy Boyd, Ian Holm, Miranda Otto, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Karl Urban, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis.

Review by Rob Vaux

"Such a little thing," Boromir said as he held the Ring in his hands, but he was wrong. Wrong about it, and wrong about the trio of films which tell its tale. Wrong about the creative minds that moved heaven and earth to bring them to us. Wrong about the final results surrounding him on the screen. This is not a little thing. This is not another throwaway event picture. This is not Batman, this is not Jurassic Park, this is not Titanic. This is something rare and wondrous, something whose like may never appear again. I've seen the Angels win the World Series. I've seen the wedding of my only sibling. And now I've seen The Return of the King. I think I can die with no regrets.

The conclusion to Peter Jackson's towering adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic contains few surprises. We've already seen what his team has produced in the first two entries, and the third leg is everything we could expect or hope for. With the groundwork laid by Fellowship and The Two Towers, The Return of the King sits back and reaps the benefits, delivering an awe-inspiring climax to the saga of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his quest to destroy the Ring of Power. Jackson pulls out all the stops here, both in terms of visual spectacle and in the characters that give it so much weight. The former is mind-boggling, even in light of what's come before: cavernous tombs populated by an army of ghosts; the city of Minas Tirith, last hope for an embattled humanity; the legions of Sauron, who lay siege to the city in one of the greatest battle sequences ever conceived; and a queen bitch of a giant spider guaranteed to rattle even the most jaded horror fan. The Return of the King unveils these treasures with exquisite pacing, allowing us to retain our sense of wonder without numbing us to the sights on-screen. Jackson and his effects team at WETA have outdone themselves, and in a year filled with eye candy, no other movie can hope to match the visions on display here.

As with the first two films, however, the effects always come second to the underlying story. The Return of the King seeks to tie in all of the remaining threads, providing a closure that matches the power and drama that has come before it. Once again, the action is divided between Frodo -- struggling through the last terrible stretch of his journey to Mount Doom -- and the remainder of the fellowship, who reunite around Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in defense of Middle-earth's free kingdoms. Mortensen's "ranger from the North" has long resisted his royal birthright, and now, as he finally acknowledges that responsibility, the shadows threaten to consume it all. Sauron has unleashed his minions en masse, hoping to overwhelm the forces of light before Aragorn can rally them to his side. Jackson uses that central frame to address the various lingering character arcs, such as Eowyn's (Miranda Otto) embrace of her Girl Power destiny or the fact that Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) are still keeping score. Aided by fine turns from the entire cast, Jackson never misses a beat, balancing each element until its invariably satisfying conclusion. Only filmmaking this sharp could make so many figures so emotionally involving without losing track of a one.

But though they occupy plenty of screen time, theirs is the auxiliary part of this story. The lion's share belongs to Frodo, for whom they are all fighting and whose resistance to the Ring's pull is finally beginning to buckle. His companions mirror the twin halves of his fragmenting self -- faithful servant Sam (Sean Astin), hiding an indomitable will beneath eternal optimism, and the wretched Gollum (Andy Serkis), slave of the Ring whose guidance towards Mount Doom is laced with treachery. Wood gives a heartbreaking effort as a good-willed spirit pushed to the brink of despair, but it's Astin and Serkis who truly shine. Sam, normally relegated to Man Friday duties, must now take up the slack for his faltering master, and Astin complements his always-sympathetic performance with some deep reservoirs of heroism. Serkis has long been a talking point for these films, but his CGI-rendered Gollum remains no less irresistible here as the better angels of his nature give way to blackest villainy. Yet we never lose sight of the tragedy at Gollum's core. The film's opening features an effects-free Serkis charting his character's slow descent into monstrosity, and he retains our pity even as he plots a horrifying end for Frodo and Sam. Together, the two actors adroitly personify the battle for Frodo's soul, punctuated by fierce verbal confrontations that give voice to The Return of the King's most important dramatic conceits. The fiery conclusion to their struggle (perfectly realized from Tolkien's text) stands as one of the great moments in modern storytelling.

The only cloud amid all of this is the absence of Christopher Lee, whose wicked Saruman deserves at least a curtain call (as does his pawn Grima Wormtongue, played by Brad Dourif). Presumably, they'll make an appearance in the extended DVD, but that's no reason to leave them out here. We're already in for 200 minutes; five more wouldn't kill us. Another supposed letdown, however, proves to be anything but. Early critics have cited a meandering quality to the last 30 minutes, believing that Jackson fails to wrap things up adequately. That misses the point a bit. Not only does he considerably streamline the ending of the book, but more importantly, he retains a key theme that adds new poignancy to the saga as a whole. Tolkien understood that great struggle has an equally great cost, which irrevocably marks those who pay it. Wounds linger, scars fail to heal, and even in triumph, some things are lost which cannot be regained. Jackson develops this into a beautiful denouement, capturing the iconic moments of the book and allowing us to reflect on the 10-plus hours that preceded it. The Lord of the Rings is about more than whether the good guys win; truncating the ending would have done it a grave disservice.

Thankfully, the people at the helm are smarter than that. It's easy to take The Return of the King's accomplishments for granted, so accustomed have we become to the high standards of its predecessors. One look at The Matrix Revolutions shows you how wrong this could have gone. But disappointment has no place here and fans of the series can rest easy knowing they're in capable hands. The Return of the King is every inch the finale this saga deserves, cementing its place as one of the seminal cinematic achievements of our time. To Jackson, Fran Walsh, Barrie Osborne, and the thousands of artists and craftsman who gave their talents to this project, the only thing left to say is thank you. Thank you. Thank you so, so much.

Review published 12.17.2003.

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