Long live the king! The Part 3 jinx that plagued The Matrix, The Godfather and the original Star Wars can't contaminate The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. New Zealand director, producer and co-writer Peter Jackson does author J.R.R. Tolkien proud by turning his tome into a film epic by which all future film epics will be judged. King pops your eyes, excites your senses and brings you in as close as a whisper for scenes of startling emotion.
Many reviewers who resisted the two previous films (The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers) have come aboard to hail King, as if the series has only now kicked in. Bull. All three films are equal and indispensable to the tale being told.
There are missteps in King. Some of the computer-generated effects (the army of the dead, the exploding Mount Doom) look subpar. There's no heat in the romance between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the reluctant leader, and Arwen (Liv Tyler), his Elf love. And Jackson inexplicably fails to show us that moment when the spark of kingship first lights in Aragorn's eyes. We know Mortensen can play it — he's artful at blending heroism and humanity — but the moment seems to happen offscreen. I won't add to the clamor against the multiple endings (hell, they're in the book), but the rueful profundity the film needs for closure is spoiled by an orgy of hobbit hugging, with Frodo (Elijah Wood), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) jumping around in bed (the Village Voice called it "gayer than anything in Angels in America").
Still, Jackson's boldness rights all wrongs. He begins with a flashback showing how Gollum — the spindly, scary, schizoid, computer-generated villain, indelibly voiced by Andy Serkis — got to be Gollum. It was the ring ("my precious," he calls it) that turned him into a physical and moral wreck. Then Jackson picks up Gollum as he leads Frodo and his hobbit pal Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) to Mount Doom, where the ring was forged and where Frodo must destroy it to save Middle Earth. The treacherous Gollum has other plans. Serkis (who gets face time in the flashback) is a wicked wonder, making Gollum a creature to haunt your dreams. Computers helped to create the effect, but it's Serkis who gives Gollum life.
Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens deftly crisscross the film's many plot strands. All roads lead to Minas Tirith, the seven-tiered capital city of Gondor where "the great battle of our time," according to the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen at his most forceful and splendiferous), will hopefully distract the dark lord Sauron (now just one giant eye) from Frodo's mission.
The battle is one for the time capsule. It pits monstrouus Orcs, hulking elephants and flying dragons against the forces of Gondor, under the mad stewardship of Denethor (John Noble), and the riders of Rohan, led by King Theoden (Bernard Hill, giving the role Shakespearean gravity). Theoden's niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto, all fire and grace in the film's strongest female role) sneaks into battle disguised as a man and proves her mettle. Her love for Aragorn is unrequited, but she makes it palpable.
Jackson moves his camera over the fighting, catching the dwarf Gimli (Jonathan Rhys-Davies) and the archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) in amazing feats. And Aragorn leading the final charge with the cry "for Frodo" becomes the king we've all been waiting for.
This is a film in which ideas resonate as well as action. Gandalf's words to Pippin about death have a muscular poetry. And the bond between Frodo and loyal Sam, who saves Frodo from a giant spider (the film's scariest scene), cuts deep. Astin is the soul of the movie in a performance — true in every detail — that deserves Oscar attention. When Frodo, on the volcanic edge of Mount Doom, declares "I'm glad to be with you Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all days" — the flame of Sam's devotion shines in Astin's eyes. The scene seizes your heart. So does the movie.
To praise Jackson isn't enough. He's more than director, he's a miracle worker. After seven years, a $300 million budget and three films that add up to more than the sum of their parts, the Rings trilogy is more than a movie. It's a colossus on the march into screen legend.