Alls Well in the Shire

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King opens in tight close-up on the rather awe-uninspiring image of a single, squirming earthworm pinched tightly in the fingers of a distinctly hobbity fisherman. The fisherman is Smagol, which is to say the schizophrenic antihero Gollum before a certain misbegotten ring forever altered his fate. The sequence that follows, finally detailing for us the various stages of devolution between Smagol and Gollum—both portrayed by the dazzling Andy Serkis—is one of the most assured and lyrical in a trilogy of films that has provided no shortage of memorable set pieces. But more important, I'd say, is the opening image itself, definitive of the sustained interplay between things intimate and grand, organic and computer-generated, that has allowed Peter Jackson's unprecedentedly ambitious undertaking to emerge as the most buoyant and sentient large-scale Hollywood fantasy in recent memory—maybe ever.

The Return of the King is, of course, where it all comes together—where, as the title suggests, the erstwhile Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) finally ascends to his rightful place on the throne of Gondor (a sort of Zion with better fashion sense). Where, long before that can happen, there is the matter of the ring, still being toted to the hellfire of Mount Doom by the noble Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his tireless traveling companion, Sam (Sean Astin), under the suspect navigation of Gollum. Where there is also the matter of the growing, Third Reich–esque Orc army, little deterred by its watery defeat at the end of The Two Towers. And where there is much, much more: battle scenes that equal or exceed anything that Jackson has previously staged; new characters, including a giant, agile spider that is perhaps the most terrifying arachnid ever to appear in a movie; and expanded roles for Bernard Hill, as the august King Thoden, and for Astin, who has been blessed with one of the cinema's great sidekick roles and who inhabits it with beautifully realized second-banana deference.

At 200 minutes, The Return of the King is both the longest film in the series and the most confidently paced, striking an ideal balance of combat and camaraderie—of those tender, character-building scenes that give the series its heart, and of those torrential combat engagements that give it its warrior soul—not quite present even in the extended, home-video versions of the first two films. Spoilsports will continue to claim that they're not "Middle-Earth people," failing to see that the powers of the films lies not in their elaborate otherworldly trappings, but in their eternal mythic resonance. (Middle-Earth might just as soon be the Middle Ages or the Middle East.) Others will find more defensible reason to fault Jackson—and even I might concede that, of the movie's eight or 10 "final scenes," there are two or three that should have found their way to the cutting-room floor. But the overall thrust of the film is so persuasive that such concerns end up seeming hardly worth the bother. After two years of waiting patiently to find out how this thing ends, the deep satisfaction of The Return of the King is in surrendering ourselves to the finale, in letting Jackson's superb storytelling (with due credit to co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) surround us like a blazing campfire tale—which it does, gloriously.

In the annals of movie trilogies, few have managed to seem more essential than opportunistic. By the time George Lucas and Francis Coppola—and, more recently, the Wachowskis—arrived at the end of their famous franchises, it felt as though they had run out of things to say, as though their Part 3's were motivated more by financial than artistic considerations.) And so, The Lord of the Rings stands nearly without precedent among modern movie trilogies, not only in its conception but in the fact that the films themselves really have gotten better, deeper, more enthralling as they've gone along.As it draws to its volcanic, Wagnerian close, what surprises most about The Return of the King is how it begins to affect us emotionally in ways that we had no reason to expect a Lord of the Rings picture ever would. At which point, I was reminded of that lovely scene between Sam and Frodo that ended The Two Towers, wherein Sam wistfully pondered: "I wonder if we'll ever be put into songs or tales. I wonder if people will ever say, 'Let's hear about Frodo and the ring.'" Well, this much is for sure: There will be songs sung and tales told about these movies for many generations to come. About how a wily Kiwi named Peter Jackson talked a Hollywood studio into risking hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that he would make on his home turf, far away from executives' prying eyes. And about how, at a moment when there are so many indications that the classic achievements of the American film industry are long since past, he returned with one—or rather, three—for the ages.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King was directed by Peter Jackson and written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien. Now playing countywide.

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