Good and evil, light and darkness, the quest for peace and the battle to attain it all come to a metaphysical fork in the road in the emotionally packed climax of filmmaker Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, a stunning, often mesmerizing finale to the director’s Rings trilogy. Remaining true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s trifurcated thousand-page tome, Jackson sweeps his audience into another mindbending experience and manages to evoke authentic emotion sans any garden-variety filmmaking manipulation (i.e too many crescendos in the soundtrack; grandiose fx aimed more to titillate than actually intrigue). The director further surprises by gracefully shifting gears—from the intense to the poetic—at all the proper junctures. He successfully gives birth to a more than satisfying ending to the epic that has held moviegoers in suspense for two years (LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring in 2001, followed by 2002’s LOTR: The Two Towers). In the end, Jackson’s troika of Rings will be both memorable and groundbreaking—the only other satisfying film trilogy, in my eyes, is the original Star Wars. (Matrix required Cliff Notes; The Godfather just went limp on its third outing.) The true lord of filmdom’s ring? It’s Peter Jackson.
I cannot find a thing wrong with this film, save perhaps the few occasions when the finer details of the characters and a few plot threads could have benefited from a little extra explanation. Did this take away from the actual moviegoing experience? Not at all. Believe me, it’s easy to hop aboard this cinematic ride and come out the other end not only thoroughly entertained but moved by King’s rich emotion. The acting is stellar. The special effects impress—just when you think Jackson and Co. have shown you everything, they manage to further intrigue by offering an entirely fresh package of fx goods. Everything—everything—gets wrapped up in this adventure and while it could be fun to dive into a quick rehash of the plot, the following offers a quick peek at the things that make King such a coup de theatre:
The Story Thus Far: The Lord of Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring introduced moviegoers to the world of Hobbits and a world on the brink of change after the Hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) becomes the unlikely bearer of a gold ring that, in the wrong hands, could destroy humankind. (Unlce Bilbo Baggins resurfaces in King.) The film’s sequel, The Two Towers found alliances separating—the wizard Gandalf, rebel Aragorn, Frodo buddy Sam—in the fight to save Middle-Earth. Ultimately, Frodo must carry the load and embarks to take the gold ring back to Mount Doom, where it was forged eons ago. It must be destroyed to save humankind. The battle of Helms Deep (Two Towers) holds back evil, but not for much longer.
Who’s the Villain? Sauron. He’s unleashed his evil forces on humankind.
Dynamite DNA: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) carries the “reluctant king” plight in this outing. Because he’d been hidden from his heritage, Aragorn morphed into a latter day spiritual bounty hunter (think post-modern Moses by way of Han Solo) who spent most of his life secretly fighting the evil forces of Sauron. In King, he seems destined to actually become one. Will he claim the empty throne of Gondor, the “great” kingdom of Men founded by his ancestors in the Second Age of Middle-Earth? Mortensen commands his role here. We not only believe him as Aragorn, we care. By the way, Gondor is now overseen by a steward, Denethor (John Noble), whose own grief over the loss of his son Boromir (Sean Bean) creates a rift between his other son, Faramir (David Wenham). Which brings us to …
Daddy Issues: The father-son angst operates at full steam in King. It receives a great deal of play in the film and becomes a bit heart-wrenching in the telling. Denethor milks his bitterness with the finesse of a Shire’d Hobbit under a goat Ultimately, he sends Faramir into a battle he cannot win. Through this, what Tolkien is saying, and what Jackson illuminates, is the notion that the actions of every father somehow come back and rest on the shoulders of his son. That does not exclude daughters, either. Quite similarly, the concept unfolds with Éowyn (Miranda Otto) and surrogate dad Théodon (Bernard Hill), the King of Rohan—he forbids the gutsy ´Éowyn to fight in the war. (Éowyn, we’re quickly reminded, feels that deep burning love for Aragorn; Théodon proved significant in Two Towers in that climactic, jaw-dropping Battle of Helm’s Deep.)
Who’s Your Hero? Speaking of Éowyn, the girl upstages her testosterone-fueled comrades, pulls out the Midevil “I am Women, Hear Me Roar” card, boldly heads into one of the film’s most intense climactic battles in disguise—with Hobbit Merry (Dominic Monaghan) in tow—and eventually finds herself staring down one of Sauron’s most suffocating evil apostles. Cheers to wrought-iron brassieres. Similarly, Merry, separated for the first time from buddy Pippin (Billy Boyd), surprises in scenes that find him frosting the evil cake that unlikely partner Éowyn has already cut into.
That’s What Friend’s Are For: Now that moviegoers realize Hobbits are a peaceful race, and that family and friends and loyalty come first, we’ve grown to appreciate the bonds these fellows share. We witnessed this, quite marvelously, between Frodo and Sam all the way through, but in Two Towers, Merry and Pippin’s ushering in of the Ents (the fabulous tree creatures) to take down Saruman’s (Christopher Lee) Tower of Isengard, proved that the power of friendship is, indeed, evil’s bigger foe. In King, the two Hobbits are forced to separate after Pippin places his hands on the Palantir (that obsidian ball Saruman always peered into). That mysterious ball links Pippin to Sauron’s eye and convinces the Dark One that the Hobbit is The Ringbearer. Not at all amused by this faux pas, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) ushers Pippin off to Gondor, and the city of Minis Tirith. This happens to be the place where Aragon’s ancestors fell from grace. (It’s fitting, too, that the film’s major battle takes place here, as if fate itself intended on bringing Aragon full circle.)
Hobbit-Forming: The film’s main plot thread, of course, centers around two other friends—Frodo and Sam, and whether the Hobbit Frodo will succeed in his mission to return the gold ring to the fires of Mount Doom. From the very beginning of the Rings trilogy, Frodo has been the unlikely ringbearer. In King, his journey has never been more intense. For starters, his tour guide to Mount Doom is schizoid Gollum (Andy Serkis). Previously in possession of the ring and a real witness to what personal havoc it can wreak, Gollum’s morphed into a walking poster child for its nasty aftereffects. (Actually, Gollum proves that if Lauren Bacall, Jeff Goldblum and Bette Davis had ever been capable of producing children together, this would be their crack-addicted love child. Gollum’s so Girl Interrupted, he steals every scene he occupies.) The film’s opening moments offer a Gollum of yore, when life was sweet—before the ring; before the madness. Now, his bulging eyes fixated on the Ring, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam closer to Mount Doom, but pits our favorite Hobbits—Frodo and Sam—against each other. Their friendship is constantly tested. As suspected, Gollum misleads Frodo and the result finds out hero at the clutches of one of Middle-Earth’s most frightening creatures—a giant spider dubbed Shelob.
(Artistic) Beauty in the Beasts: Richard Taylor, director of Weta, the FX company used in Rings, ushers in an impressive stable of creatures this round. In addition to the knuckle-clenching scenes of Shelob, we’ve got quite a bit to feast on visually: Fell Beasts, enormous, bat-like creatures ridden by the Nazgûl (undead spirits of corrupted Kings); The Witch-King, the commander of Sauron’s dark forces who leads the attack on Gondor; Men of the Mountain, the soul-trapped “walking dead”, cursed after not staying true to their oath to the last King of Gondor of assisting him in the fight against Sauron—Aragorn bravely enlists their help and the result delivers some the best sequences the film has to offer; Haradrim and Mûmakil, a race of spears- and bow-toting warriors who ride a giant beast called Oliphaunt (think massive elephant); 600,000 Orcs and 6,000 Rohan horsemen. All these creatures appear realistic. Even though we are watching an imaginary tale, the elaborate details found in these “beasts” are downright showstopping.
Legolas and Gimli: Just when you think Jackson (and Tolkien) may have shoved elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) aside, they’re both offered significant play. The duo assist Aragorn as he heads into the Mountain of Men; later they head to battle at the base of the city of Minis Tirith. (Watch for Bloom to steal the show. In one of the film’s outstanding sequences, he manages to outwit the Haradrim and the Oliphaunts. Nice.)
Love is All Around: Liv Tyler reprises her role as the elf Arwin here, but the surprise in her destiny, and how writers Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens create a sense of wonder and suspense around it and whether she and Aragorn will ever reunite, actually works.
Gandalf’s Still Great: Once again, McKellen simply embodies this magical, mystical character. His powerful performance anchors the film and the rush of energy streaming out of his thespian body mesmerizes. You sort of wish you had a Gandalf around back home.
Endings and Beginnings: The two grand moments that make the heart thump are a few of the film’s epic climaxes—scenes between Hobbits Frodo and Sam (and Gollum) at Mount Doom and the immense battle at Minis Tirith (downright amazing!). Expect some poignant surprises beyond this, too. Jackson handles Tolkien’s tome like a pro. Just when you think it’s over, it’s really just beginning.
Parting Thoughts: As my friend and I left the King screening, we ambled out into the December rain. We didn’t say much at first. Our minds were too full—of Middleearth, of passionate Hobbits, of men and women of honor, of the fight for what’s right, and of the film’s theme … that even the smallest person can change the course of the world, and that friendship and individual courage can fend off even the most devastating forces of darkness. Heavy? Yes. But after three years and more than nine hours of Rings, it’s hard not to wax a bit philosophical. And any director that can do that to a person, deserves a crown of his own.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
**** (out of four)
With Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies. Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. Special effects by Weta. Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Directed by Peter Jackson. PG-13 At local theaters.