Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 3:21 - Released 12/17/03

Thank goodness for Peter Jackson. I have to admit, I have been considering giving up movie criticism of late, mainly because of the lackluster quality of most movies, especially American movies, during the last few years. It’s not much fun writing movie reviews when you’ve gotten so tired of movies you don’t like any of them. But Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, including The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Two Towers, and particularly this final chapter, The Return Of The King, has once again resurrected my faith that movies can be great art; that they don’t all have to be silly, pointless action shoot-em-ups or sappy romantic trash, or disgusting gross-out comedies. With King, Jackson creates magic, literally and figuratively, with the supernatural events occurring on the screen and with the spell he holds over us all in the audience. His culmination of the wondrously epic story by J.R.R. Tolkien (adapted by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson himself) really does surpass even his previous two movies, although I thought that would be impossible; it really does live up to all the hype and gives us our money’s worth, even though we have to sit in the theater for nearly three and a half hours, not only finishing the great overarching story of Frodo and The One Ring, but resolving beautifully all the intertwining plots and sub-plots of Middle-Earth, tying up the loose ends of Aragorn and Arwen, of Legolas and Gimli, of Gollum, of Gandalf, and even good old Bilbo, who makes his final appearance.

The one exception is the controversial excision of the character Saruman from the final chapter; Saruman, the good wizard gone bad who was played so eloquently by Christopher Lee, apparently had a notable death scene which was originally intended, according to Jackson, for The Two Towers, but failed to make the cut. While Lee and his fans are perhaps justifiably disappointed with this decision (Lee himself is apparently a devoted LOTR fan who reads the books every year), it really doesn’t take away from the final product, as his character was sufficiently dispatched at the end of the second film, death scene or not. Jackson has of course promised that the scene, among others, will be featured on the inevitable video release, which will no doubt occur in the summer of 2004.

Although I will attempt to avoid spoiling the surprise plot elements in my summary of this film, I will assume that those reading have at least seen the previous two (or read the books), so I don’t have to explain the use of words like “hobbit” or “orc.” (If you don’t know what a hobbit is, you have no business reading this anyway.) If, however, you are simply ignorant of the events that take place in this final story, you may want to wait until you’ve seen the film to read this synopsis.

The film begins with a well-deserved look into the backstory of Sméagol, the pathetic, froglike character also known as Gollum, whose infatuation with the all-powerful Ring drives him to madness. While Gollum was hardly seen in Fellowship and presented only as a digitally animated character in Towers, here he is played, in flesh and blood, by Andy Serkis, whose voice and body movements (in a motion capture suit) have informed the character so perfectly up to now. We see Sméagol’s first discovery of the ring, his first desperate act connected with it, and his subsequent transformation from a gentle hobbit-like character into the vile creature he becomes as a result of his ownership of it. Serkis, whose visual absence from Towers did not affect his being lauded as one of the most important actors in that film, is allowed to do some real acting here, and his performance serves as the all-important link to our understanding of Gollum’s ultimate fate.

After this prologue, we return to the saga of the two hobbits Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood, Sean Astin), as they are led by Gollum through the realm of Mordor, where they must elude not only the innumerable army of orcs before them, but the omnipotent, all-seeing Eye of Sauron, the heart of evil, which is perched atop the tower of Barad-Dûr, constantly searching for the little gold ring which hangs on a chain around Frodo’s neck. The performances of these three actors in this unforgiving landscape are like a three-way contest for most superbly realized character; their interaction is crucial to our understanding of the forces working on them, and they all perform astoundingly. Wood’s Frodo is so many miles from the way he was when we first saw him in the opening scenes of the Shire back in Fellowship; the heavy emotional and psychological weight of the ring is revealed in his eyes as he drifts ever closer to Mount Doom, where he must destroy the ring and save the world, and ever closer to the psychotic delusional state in which Gollum exists, where the ring’s destruction is the last thing he desires. Astin’s Sam is the unerringly faithful companion of Frodo who sees Gollum’s treachery for what it is but is powerless to protect his friend from the immense psychological pressures exerted on him; who remains true even as Frodo is turned against him, and whose simple, dogged determination to do what’s right is really what finally saves the day. And Serkis’s Gollum, the complex creature whose emotional lack of control is tempered by the evil forces working through him; whose resolve to regain “his precious” belies his ignorance that he is really just a pitiful little pawn in Sauron’s immense power play.

While this story progresses toward its climax, we are privy to the workings of the immense armies that clash again and again on the landscape of Gondor, in scenes which are realized in such astounding splendor as to make us question whether our eyes are deceiving us, once again complementing the beautiful landscapes of New Zealand (Jackson’s home) with CGI creations that stagger the mind. Heading up the honorable but vastly outnumbered forces of good are Aragorn, the ranger descended from kings (Viggo Mortensen); Gandalf, the powerful-but-not-quite-omnipotent wizard (Ian McKellen); and Théoden, the reigning king of Rohan (Bernard Hill), who must put aside his age-old squabbles with other rulers and engage his prized army of horsemen against a multitude of orcs—those fearless, non-human fighting machines under the spell of Sauron. Also involved in these epic struggles are the remaining members of the Fellowship, including Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), who have become best friends despite their peoples’ long-held distrust for each other, and the other two hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), the best buddies from the Shire who are separated and forced to play their own parts in the greatest war against evil they could have ever dreamed of.

These actors all, of course, give excellent performances, surpassing, if that’s possible, their work in the previous films, as do other peripheral but important characters like Eowyn and Eomer (Miranda Otto, Karl Urban), the heirs of Rohan; Faramir (David Wenham), the rising protector of Minas Tirith; his father, Denethor (John Noble), the steward of the city of kings whose descent into madness almost derails the success of his compatriots; Arwen (Liv Tyler), the elf-princess who abandons her immortality for the love of Aragorn; Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the elvish lord of Rivendell; Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), his counterpart at Lothlorién . . . oh, there are too many good performances to count.

The work of this ensemble, guided by Jackson’s instinctual wisdom as a director, seen through the lens of Andrew Lesnie’s stunningly beautiful cinema, and accompanied by the ethereal, deliciously beautiful musical score of Howard Shore, has taken the story from the enjoyably fantastic foray into Middle-Earth that was Fellowship into a much more powerful and emotionally resonant epic, gradually moving us from surprised wonder to a truly heartfelt sense of caring, making passion leap within us at the immense power of this ultimate chapter, resulting in an astoundingly satisfying climax that will reawaken love in the coldest of hearts. And I should know.

This three-part chronicle, all filmed at once sometime back around the turn of the millennium before any of us knew about it (although some additional scenes were shot as recently as this year), will stand as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. Jackson and his company have set the bar so high for 21st-century filmmaking, it may be another millennium before it is surpassed. While the computer age has generated so many movies that put digital effects at the forefront and relegate acting and screenwriting to second- or third-rate status, Jackson knows that it is the creation of a fully developed world, filled with fully realized people, that makes us want to see what happens to them, to know what occurs in their hearts as well as in the physical world around them. Of course, due homage must be paid to Tolkien himself, whose astounding attention to detail not only in The Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, but in countless additional books and stories which fill in even more peripheral information about Middle-Earth, have been loved by enthusiasts for over 50 years. It was his amazing tales that have been reinvigorated by Jackson’s efforts, spawning a whole new generation of fans and resurrecting the phenomenon created so long ago in that genius mind. Lord Of The Rings is arguably the most famous and successful fantasy story of all time, and now it has a cinematic counterpart that lives up to it in every way. Bravo. *****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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