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3 out of 4 stars



The Lord of the Rings:

The Return of the King

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Directed by Peter Jackson

Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson

Starring Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Viggo Mortensen

Classification: 14A

Rating: ***

The Ring thing is back, with kings and eagles and flying dragons, and wraiths and mountain fortresses and at the heart of it, a couple of plucky little boy-men out to save the world. Arriving in theatres today on a wave of advance reviews so reverential ("labelling this a movie is almost an injustice") as to deter dissent. So let us bow down and pay tribute: A movie for our time, perhaps for all time, mostly a good time and definitely a long time, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is a really big experience -- almost 3½ hours of intimate and large-scale dramatics, Wagnerian dread and broadly painted pathos. As the Hungry for the Quest corporate tie-in with Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut suggests, it's very filling.

Laudations aside, The Return of the King is neither definitively better nor substantially different from the previous films in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers, which have collectively earned about $1.78-billion (U.S.) internationally. Shot simultaneously with the other two volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien's 1,000-page plus work, The Return of the King is the climax, and possesses the pleasure of seeing the strands of the narrative come together.

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Director Peter Jackson's realization of this monumental Celtic fantasy of an evil, all-powerful ring, and the solidarity of supernatural and human heroes to defeat marauding hordes of monstrous subhumans, ends with a bang (and then ends again with less of a bang, and then ends with a few more smaller bangs for about another 40 minutes until the movie fades out). Though Tolkien fans could hardly wish for a more dedicated or impassioned filmmaker to adapt the works, there remains the question of Tolkien's value. The movies don't dispel Edmund Wilson's criticism that The Lord of The Rings is essentially children's literature that got out of hand, so don't ask for adult subtlety or moral complexity. Just sit back and watch the dwarves and elves do their magic.

There's little point in seeing the movie without having either read Tolkien or seen the two previous films. Otherwise the Mordors and Gondors and Gandalfs and Gollums are likely to induce torpor. Jackson throws the audience directly into a flashback. We learn the back-story of Gollum (Andy Serkis), back when he was a regular hobbit, Smeagol, before he fell under the lure of the ring, and transformed into the emaciated pink homunculus.

Now Gollum serves as the volunteer guide for Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his friend Sam (Sean Astin) as they travel to Mount Doom, the place where the ring was made and where it must be destroyed to stop the evil wizard, Sauron, from destroying humankind. Frodo, exhausted and paranoid, is at his wit's end, while the treacherous Gollum works to undermine the friendship, lead the hobbits to their death and take back the ring. The computer-generated figure of Gollum, fighting a schizophrenic battle between his kindly human and demonic impulses in a series of soliloquies, emerged in the second film as the most compelling character in the story so far, the embodiment of Tolkien's theme of the need to reject the lust for power.

Apart from the computer-generated imagery and massive scale, Jackson relies on the cinematic innovation that D. W. Griffith first employed -- cross-cutting narratives. The intimate story of Frodo, Sam and Gollum's treacherous journey is set against the larger backdrop of the battle plans.

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang doesn't have long to celebrate its victory (at the end of The Two Towers). The white wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) end up at the soaring white castle at Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, where the steward Denethor (John Noble) has become so distraught over the death of his eldest son in battle that he has lost his wits, and his brash decisions destroy an army. Minas Tirith has become the place for the final showdown. "We come to it at last -- the great battle of our time," says Gandalf, as a vast army of Orcs head toward the city.

To help out in the great battle, King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) brings all the men he has and is joined by the future human king, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the coolly murderous warrior elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the bellicose dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). They are followed by his niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto), who has a thing for Aragorn, and who is hiding Pippin's friend Merry (Dominic Monaghan) under her cloak.

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Though Eowyn does have a chance to show her talent in battle, she's the only female figure who gets much presence here, and the love story remains one of Jackson's weaker elements. We never have much sense of the love triangle between Eowyn, Aragorn and the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler). In yet another plot strand, we see Arwen refuse a chance at immortality, in the hope she may survive long enough to see her love, Aragorn.

The final battle -- which reportedly involves a computer-generated army of 200,000 fighters -- includes screeching dragons, homely Orcs, trolls and giant elephants called Mumakil, along with the usual archers and cavalry in the hundreds of thousands. Fires belch, limbs fly and boulders are catapulted against the walls of the castle. The battle is vast, and undoubtedly required thousands of hours of matching puppetry, robotics and computer code, but it is not without tedium.

Back to narrative strand one, where Sam saves Frodo from a giant spider, they get captured and rescue themselves, all the time avoiding the "eye of Sauron," a glowing device on two towers that functions as supernatural radar. Set on its two giant legs of the towers, the "eye of Sauron" looks unmistakably like a big, angry vagina in the sky. (No doubt there's a good graduate-school thesis to be written about homo-erotic bonding and the fear of the feminine in The Lord of the Rings).

The highlights here are the creature Gollum, the haunted-house scares of the giant spider that attacks Frodo, the beauty of the Minas Tirith castle and the performance of Astin, who comes into his own as Frodo's best friend, the loyal and wronged Sam. Throughout, the casting remains astute.

There are also ideas that seem distinctly clumsy: Aragorn is compelled to seek the aid of a vast army of the dead to help in his human battle. This does not seem particularly sporting. The dead army, who look left over from Jackson's horror movie, The Frighteners, are utterly unconvincing -- a lot of gassy emanations that sport around the battlefield causing people to fall down. Finally, the love story between Aragorn and Arwen is barely perfunctory -- presumably because love doesn't encourage the kind of swooping aerial shots and massive computer-generated imagery in which Jackson excels.

Unlike the sixties' generation that embraced Tolkien and wore "Frodo Lives" buttons, Jackson prefers to make war than love. One could also ask, fairly, why the enemies are so uniformly dark-skinned and deformed, and the heroes blue-eyed and fair, and why the roles of women and children are so tangential, but that may be an argument more with Tolkien than Jackson.

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The real, barely suppressed love story seems to happen between the hobbits. There's an impassioned bedroom scene near the end where Frodo is recovering and Sam comes to visit him that actually evoked titters at an advance screening. Through the film's several conclusions, Jackson's trilogy winds down to a mournful close, partly an acknowledgment of the destruction of war ("Some wounds don't heal"), partly, it seems, the director's reluctance to say goodbye. The legions of die-hard fans know that goodbye is only for now -- the extended DVD box set awaits.

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