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The decision is in. The finale in Peter Jackson’s massive Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King delivers, and Jackson saved the best for last. It does take a bit of time for the movie to get its bearings, as if the climatic battle of The Two Towers had left Jackson and company in a daze, but once it gets going, The Return of the King is endlessly spectacular.
The Return of the King opens with the origin of Gollum (Andy Serkis, the only time in the series he appears in the flesh and not as a CGI character), who murders his cousin Deagol when Deagol fishes the Ring of the villainous Sauron from a river bed. The film moves to the present with the sniveling, skeletal Gollum continuing to lead hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) to Mount Doom where they hope to destroy the ring. Amid the ruins of Isengard, Pippin (Billy Boyd) finds the Palantir, a kind of crystal ball linked to Sauron, which causes some havoc. Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) takes Pippin with him to Minas Tirith, capital of Gondor, to keep him from more mischief. Faramir (David Wenham) battles orcs storming the city of Osgiliath while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) tries to talk King Theoden (Bernard Hill) of Rohan into aiding Gondor.
If this doesn’t make a bit of sense, then seeing the first two films is an absolute prerequisite to seeing this one because Peter Jackson doesn’t make the slightest effort to accommodate newcomers. This first section of Return of the King falls prey to the same problems the first two films had. The action is continually pitched at too shrill a level, leaving characterization as an afterthought. Still, as in the other two films, Middle Earth comes to vivid life with more of Jackson’s stunning aerial shots. This, however, leaves the movie feeling more like a gorgeous picture book simply highlighting moments from the epic tale. It is a flaw that Jackson repairs in the extended DVD versions of both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. He also avoids the problem in the last three-quarters of Return of the King. Once Pippin ignites a fiery beacon at Minas Tirith that spreads over a mountain range until Aragorn catches sight of it in Edoras, The Return of the King hits its stride and never looks back.
Gollum feeds Frodo doubts about loyal Sam as they ascend the steep stairs at Cirith Ungol. At the top, the two hobbits must do battle with giant spider Shelob. Gandalf takes command of Minas Tirith, overriding the authority of Denethor (John Noble), the Steward of Gondor who fears that Aragorn’s return means the supplanting of his power. Aragorn, elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) seek aid from an undead army. Against orders, Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and Merry slip onto the field of battle and take on Nazgul witch king, Gothmog (Lawrence Makoare). Along with Gollum, Eowyn surprisingly proves to be the most fully realized character in the entire series. Peter Jackson deftly interweaves the numerous lines of action.
Minas Tirith, only glimpsed in the other films, takes center stage here, and what a stage it is. Though mostly computer generated, its spiraling walls of concentric circles rising ever higher is a marvel for the eyes. Add to that clashing armies numbering in the tens of thousands, giant mastodons, shadowy Nazgul flying on winged beasts, and catapults tossing debris the size of small cities, and this is simply a war scene on a scale never before seen in the movies. Period.
Ian McKellan sees a welcome return to more prominent screen time as Gandalf after barely appearing in The Two Towers, but all the characters get their moments here. Immortal elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), envisions a son in her future, an element not in the books, but a thoughtful argument by Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens against her doomed romance with mortal Aragorn. Legolas gets another over-the-top action scene nicely undercut by a well-timed joke from Gimli. Gollum remains funny, pitiful, and treacherous all at the same time.
The Return of the King has a 20-minute epilogue with five different sequences and so five different opportunities to end the movie. Out of all of these, only the last one is really unneeded. The long winding down, absent in most films, is a nice way to go out after 9 hours (or 11 if one counts added footage) of ever escalating story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of cinema’s most ambitious undertakings with studio New Line gambling its very existence on the films. Peter Jackson has delivered both artistically and financially for them and the books’ many fans. If anything, the movies are that rarity–films that are better than the books on which they are based.