—Originally published 12.19.03
Back in the late-1990s, when details of director/writer Peter Jackson's plan to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved fantasy tale "The Lord of the Rings" for the big screen began surfacing, I was extremely skeptical; there was no way, I thought, anyone could make Tolkien's indelible images look better on screen than they already looked in my head, especially from some guy whose claim to fame was "The Frighteners."
Oh, me of little faith.
As he promised, Jackson saved the best for last. His final installment, "The Return of the King," is fabulous, a movie that should satisfy hardcore and casual fans alike. "King" cements the "Rings" trilogy as one of cinema's all-time greatest achievements, taking the heart-pounding action of last year's "The Two Towers" up another, oh, hundred notches without losing any of the emotional impact these characters began building in 2001's "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Jackson masterfully weaves Tolkien's complicated plotlines into a coherent whole, keeping us wanting more from each thread as he moves to another. He builds the tension for more than an hour before finally letting loose with possibly the greatest battle scene ever put to film. When evil Lord Sauron's hordes storm across the Pelennor Fields of Gondor to attack beautiful Minas Tirith, the camera drinks in mankind's final stronghold against the mounting doom of Middle-earth.
"Return of the King" also features the best CGI work I've ever seen, as Jackson's Weta special effects crew wrenches the crown from George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic as the ruler of all studio wizardry. The highlight, of course, is the conflicted creature Gollum, voiced to perfection by an Oscar-worthy Andy Serkis. When "Towers" was released, Gollum was hailed as the best CGI character ever; he looks even better now, moving with a mass and gravity similar characters in other movies don't convey (remember Jar Jar Binks?). And does anyone even remember that the pint-sized hobbits are actually fully-grown men "shrunk" via computer manipulation?
"King" picks up right where "Towers" left off, with Gollum leading the young hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) into Mordor to destroy Sauron's One Ring that would seal the death of all Middle-earth.
While Frodo and his fellow hobbits, which also include Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), were so much window dressing in the first two films, they step boldly to the forefront of the third chapter, showing grit and mettle that outsizes their tiny frames.
Sam is the most vibrant, a regular Joe who becomes a pivotal character in the fate of the world and the film's resolution. As the Ring's weight becomes too much for a haggard Frodo -- looking more and more like Gollum all the time -- Sam rises to the occasion and Astin shines in many moving scenes of love, friendship and brotherhood as Wood matches with his best performance of the three films.
Viggo Mortensen should have received an Oscar nod somewhere along the way for his brillance in portraying the troubled yet noble Aragorn, a reluctant heir to the throne of Gondor. Even though the film is named for his character, Mortensen likely won't be recognized for this year's turn, either, as he and most of the other main characters (such as Orlando Bloom's elf warrior Legolas and John Rhys-Davies' dwarf Gimli) take a backseat to the hobbits.
Only two get a significant boost: Ian McKellen's Gandalf and Miranda Otto's Eowyn. McKellen is (once again) magnificent in a role seemingly destined for him, as the white wizard rallies the men of Gondor to defend their homeland. Eowyn, the most prominent female character of the three movies, provides one of the trilogy's best moments, as well, on the field of battle.
Does Jackson have a few problems along the way? Sure. No movie is perfect. But the director's overall achievement is so spectacular, quibbling over minor details is pointless.
One of the most common criticisms of "King," however, is its multiple "endings," as the film winds to a close with several successive fadeout scenes. For those who disagree with Jackson's choices, go back to Tolkien's text -- the filmmaker had to condense more than 100 pages of denouement into about 15 minutes.
Tomorrow, after the stiffness of sitting for three and a half hours has worn off, you're going to wake up and wish Jackson had allowed you to roam even a few more minutes in Middle-earth.
Thankfully, we can still look forward to next fall's extended DVD.