THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING Directed by Peter Jackson Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen
Well, it's back. The film event of the millennium--three superb films re-creating J.R.R. Tolkien's epic series of novels--reaches its climax with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. For the third December in a row, the year is capped with a robust cinematic retelling of the war of Middle-earth, as the hobbit Frodo (Wood) and his fellowship of humans, elves, dwarfs and the wizard Gandalf (McKellen) surge into battle against the dark power of Mordor's Lord Sauron.
The king in the story is the hunky human warrior Aragorn (Mortensen). But Jackson is the true lord of these Rings. The New Zealand auteur spent seven years on the trilogy, collaborating on the scripts with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. He chose and directed this perfect cast, orchestrated the smashing visual effects--Tolkien's bestiary on the march in fantastical realms. In Return, the giant trolls, four-tusked elephants and flying, screeching serpents of Mordor will amaze adults and may startle small children. The spider monster Shelob, creeping up on Frodo and mummifying him in a silken straitjacket, offers a delicious horror-movie frisson.
Viewers don't play this movie like a video game. They are seduced to live inside it. In one brilliant visualization, the hobbit Pippin (Billy Boyd) manages to light a bonfire at the top of Gondor to alert his distant comrades to a military victory. On a far hill, a second fire is lit, its flame echoed on farther mountaintops, on and on into the dawn. At last, it's wartime.
The Ring films, like Master and Commander, celebrate old-fashioned martial virtues: honor, duty, comradeship, sacrifice--soldiering on, under an immense, sapping burden. Though the trilogy percolates with bracing adventure, it is a testament to the long slog of any war. Pain streaks the faces of the film's stalwart warriors. They know the enormity of their foe and know that the child hobbit who bears the Ring is far from them--surely in peril, perhaps lost forever. At one point Aragorn asks Gandalf, "What does your heart tell you?" and in a little movie epiphany, the wizard's face briefly warms, brightens, and he says, "That Frodo is alive."
The boldly choreographed battles are really a diversion from the story's great drama: three little people--Frodo, his companion Sam (Sean Astin) and the ex-hobbit Gollum (Andy Serkis and a lot of CGI geniuses) on their way to Mount Doom with a mission to destroy the Ring. Cringing and crafty, Gollum is the rebellious servant, subverting Sam's selfless impulses, trying to twist allegiance of the pallid, ailing Frodo away from his friend. (So poignant are Gollum's turbid emotions, and so persuasively is this computer critter integrated with the live performers, that he deserves a special acting Oscar for Best ... Thing.) The devotion of Sam is inspiring. His plea to Frodo--"Don't go where I can't follow!"--makes him the film's real hero.