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The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

(2003) **** Pg-13
200 min. New Line. Director: Peter Jackson. Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin.

Peter Jackson opens The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King with the regarding of a worm. Pulling back and racking focus, Jackson reveals a hook. With the final part of a what amounts to a single, enormous adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's weighty tome The Lord of the Rings, Jackson playfully sets the stage for a story which riffs on the idea of bait: the strategic treachery which protects and, indeed, represents the larger-than-life golden Ring the characters covet and fear. On our third visit to Jackson's Lord of the Rings universe, we're hooked again.

Tolkien's story--as creatively but fairly rearranged by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philipa Boyens--continues with hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) hopefully bearing the Ring to Mount Doom, the only place the accursed object of greed may meet an end. Frodo's loyal companion Sam (Sean Astin) finds himself vying--for his master's trust--with the hideous and slippery Gollum (Andy Serkis, mostly digitized). As the hobbits crawl wearily toward destiny, kingly heir Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) rallies troops to defend man's seat of power at Minas Tirith and rout the Dark Lord Sauron's evil influence from Middle Earth. Thus the stage is set for mighty clashes which dwarf (no pun intended) the momentous battle of Helm's Deep from The Two Towers.

A mock-historical epic of the highest order, the Rings saga sets a new standard which puts previous diversions of the Gladiator school to shame. The unveiling of Minas Tirith marks the first in a series of breathtaking spectacles which compare, favorably, to the colorful vistas of Lucas's modern Star Wars films. The immersive power of the narrative handily binds the real to the unreal, like the great winged heralds--dragons and giant eagles--which shadow the wide-spanning battlegrounds, and a man-versus-spider fight that's Ray Harryhausen's wet dream. Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie employs dizzying angles, swooping helicopter shots, and great depth-of-field to take in the purposefully overwhelming mise en scène. The lavish special effects may not be entirely seamless next to gorgeous, real photography of iconic war images, like a sequence of troops trotting out of the city to face seemingly insurmountable odds, but both schools of imagery (and a potent soundscape) have an undeniable impact.

Such gritty resolve in the face of the odds is emblematized by the spit-and-vinegar hobbits, who courageously battle outsized foes for unconditional love of their world and each other. The Return of the King crystallizes these and other themes: unlikely cross-cultural tenderness (from Legolas and Gimli's Elf-dwarf friendship to Aragorn and Arwen's interspecies dating), ecological commitment, and carefully considered mortality as characters live up to (or die up to) various standards and legacies. In the epochal end, Jackson blissfully, unbearably takes us to the literal and figurative abyss faced by the long-suffering characters, for the ultimate theme is man's choice of good or evil, brotherhood or power.

As the earlier films resonated with 9/11 neuroses, The Return of the King seems to pulse with commentary on modern American warfare. Jackson implicitly suggests that every American--not only the heterosexual male--has the right to fight for loved ones (this shared notion makes an odd couple of Miranda Otto's female fighter Eowyn and Dominic Monaghan's hobbit Merry). Furthermore, in a powerfully rendered montage, Jackson layers a mournful ballad sung by Billy Boyd's Pippin over intercut images of the fat cat Steward of Gondor sloppily eating and young men racing across the field of battle to their noble deaths; as such, the craven Denethor (John Noble) shrinks in stature to the admirable, hands-dirty King Theoden (Bernard Hill). The series again resonates with tremendous, selfless heroism, but most shockingly, Jackson reminds us that even the cheery-by-nature hobbit can be a war veteran, ever changed, ever haunted by the unspeakable trauma of evils faced without and within.

Such outsized fantasy, earnest though it may be, does not appeal to all tastes and, I fear, may be too unconventional for traditionalist Oscar voters. Nevertheless, The Return of the King's triumph of story, design, and production invites and deserves grand praise, to be shared by a filmmaking team which includes invaluable conceptual designer Alan Lee, remarkable editor Jamie Selkirk, sweeping scorer Howard Shore, and an impeccable ensemble cast godfathered by Ian McKellen as Gandalf: to a one, the performances pack power and soul. In gratitude, Jackson offers up an emotional curtain call and a lingering but apt resolution before committing to the stinging words "the end."

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