This is it. The end -- or nearly the end, with the extended edition DVD coming; perhaps the not-quite-final fade-out -- of director Peter Jackson's arduous quest to bring the fabled Lord of the Rings to the screen. The Return of the King, the last installment in J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy trilogy, and thus the last of Jackson’s film adaptations, brings all the long story's storylines to their head and all the many characters to their fates.
Aragorn, forgotten heir to the throne of Gondor, returns by haunted paths to defend his kingdom from obliteration by the enemy, the Dark Lord Sauron; Gandalf the White, ancient wizard and foe of Sauron, comes to Gondor's chief city, Minas Tirith, to bring hope to its people and lead its defense; and ordinary diminuitive hobbits Frodo and Sam creep into Sauron's land of Mordor to destroy the One Ring, the key to his power... with the treacherous Gollum as their guide. If Sam and Frodo fail to destroy the Ring, Sauron's power will continue to grow, beyond the ability of even Aragorn and Gandalf to resist; but Gollum, who loves the Ring alone in all the world, will do any vile thing to keep his precious safe.
The war of the ring
Like The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, The Return of the King is long and draining, full of thunderous, desperate action punctuated by interludes of wonder and questioning. The action starts off slow and simple, showing Gollum as he was when he first found the Ring and how it made him so wretched. Then it brings us back to the present: Gollum leads Frodo and Sam into a horrific trap. Rangers of Gondor battle waves of vicious orcs for the ruined city of Osgiliath at Gondor's border. Aragorn, with friends Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf, enters a haunted mountain to hold an army of ghosts to their long-broken oaths. Arwen, the elf who pledged her love and life to Aragorn, decides once and for all whether to leave Middle-earth and live forever, or remain with Aragorn knowing she eventually will join him in death. And so on.
Jackson's gift for the grit of violence and seamless computer-generated special effects make for huge, visceral action. Gigantic elephantine mumakil crush everything in their path; terrifying black-robed ringwraiths ride overhead on screeching, slimy, winged serpents; lumbering trolls hammer on doors and Gondor's soldiers with terrific noise and impact.
The emotional action is less consistent. The journey of Frodo and Sam is most intense. The Ring and Gollum's machinations divide them, making Sam seem an enemy in Frodo's eyes, but friendship and forgiveness sustain them into the bitter end (and beyond). Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam) pull it off perfectly. Gollum's own journey is just as fascinating, beginning murderously and ending -- well, that's telling. Voice actor Andy Serkis deserves no end of praise for bringing Gollum to life.
We saw Arwen's (Liv Tyler) journey mostly finished in flashbacks in The Two Towers, so it only gets a cursory wrapping-up here; unfortunately there's no real sense of what makes her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) tick and how he finally feels about her choice. Eowyn's (Miranda Otto) story -- she was introduced in The Two Towers as a young Rohirrim beauty who looks to Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) for hope and love -- moves in fits and starts, a 30-second conversation here, a moment's glance there, until her fateful confrontation with -- well, that's telling, too. She comes away a hero, but not as achingly as in the book.
But Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd) shine. The young hobbits, left behind when Frodo and Sam went off on their own to find Mount Doom, then rescued from orcs by the treelike ents, go from irrepressible happiness in the aftermath of the battle for Isengard to all the terror and despair of a lost war, and their heartfelt friendship makes the risks palpable.
When it comes to the story, reviewing The Return of the King is a hard thing for a long-time fan. Those who've never read the books can easily discuss the movie on its own merits; we who've read the books over and over again can't help but think of the movie in terms of what it left out.
Even at three hours and 20 minutes, the longest theatrical release of the trilogy, The Return of the King feels rushed, glossing over the resolution of many plots as momentum builds toward the final showdown with Sauron. The key points are told: Frodo and the Ring, Aragorn and Gandalf and Gondor. But equally interesting characters like Eowyn, Faramir, and Saruman, whose development was important enough to the story to get them screen time in the other movies, get short shrift here.
And there are endless points where a hardcore fan would have done this or that differently to keep it more true to the book. Most of the time the filmmakers' choices make sense from a moviemaking point of view; some storylines that work beautifully in print would just take too much time to play out on screen, especially in a movie this long. But some changes that seem to do nothing to advance the plot will make hardcore fans groan with disappointment: Not only do we miss seeing our favorite moments on screen, but we don't get to share that magic and wonder with others.
But leave that alone for now. As its own entity, The Return of the King is a sweeping, crashing piece of heroic cinema. There really are too many interesting characters to see them each get a satisfying finale, but most of them do figure into the climax of the story and its slow unwinding. We see why the films kept returning to Eowyn, for instance (it wasn't just to hammer home how Aragorn's manly intensity), and we see what Gandalf meant about mercy, and none of us knowing all ends, and even a creature like Gollum still having some part to play, for good or for ill.
I do have complaints about this movie, but mainly for what I wanted to see but didn't. Seen for itself, The Return of the King stuns, moves, and amazes, a masterpiece of action and effects and a testament to the strength and vulnerability of love.
Click "Next" for a bonus feature: What they did right and what they did wrong. 'Ware spoilers!