- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

A stirring conclusion to a prodigious movie epic, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” closes the cinematic book on Peter Jackson’s imposing three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological saga with splendid cliffhanging and heroic flourishes.

The longest of the trilogy’s theatrical releases at 210 minutes, “Return” expands the total cinematic immersion in middle earth, the author’s endangered region of Celtic-Nordic-Teutonic-Arthurian antiquity, to almost 9 hours.

It will be difficult to surpass Mr. Jackson’s achievement as the guiding creative intermediary between a famous set of books and their faithfully sustained and often enraptured realization on the screen. The source material had a jinxed reputation before Mr. Jackson persuaded executives at New Line Cinema that shooting three epic movies in succession might be a practical venture. Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman had given up on live-action projects. Ralph Bakshi had shortchanged an eager public with a dreary animated digest in the 1970s.

Advances in special-effects technology made several kinds of fantastic illusion newly feasible for Mr. Jackson, notably the visualization of beasts and barbaric hordes and characters as damnably strange as the emaciated goblin Gollum, whose schizophrenic derangement reaches a suitably infernal resolution during the finale of “Return.”

Mr. Jackson also has an extraordinary flair for adventure spectacle and fantasy. His aptitude for eerie, extravagant, visionary stylization was evident in such early features as “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners.” With the Tolkien novels, he has sustained a prolonged fairy tale that looks sumptuous yet remains tense and haunted.

Evidently familiar with monumental, overreaching films of the past, Mr. Jackson evokes images and moods from such spectacles as Fritz Lang’s “Nibelungen” saga (a two-part epic of the early 1920s) and Sergei Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and “Ivan the Terrible.” His own epic sets new pictorial and melodramatic standards for anyone attracted to similar forms of spectacle.

In “Return” the tenacious heroes endure their final ordeals. The hobbits Frodo and Sam (Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, respectively) carry the insidious Ring of Power, forged by a demonic evil-eye wizard called Sauron, to its only safe repository, the lava pits of volcanic Mount Doom.

Simultaneously, combative worthies rally to the defense of Minas Tirith, the towering, spiraling, cliff-side capital of the kingdom of Gondor. Companions separated by subplots in “The Two Towers” are reunited for a titanic battle on the plain beneath the citadel.

Viggo Mortensen, as the reluctant hereditary prince Aragorn, is now prepared to accept his destiny as the title character; he boldly goes among the dead to recruit a ghost army that helps turn the tide. Orlando Bloom, as the dazzling elfin archer Legolas, gets a fabulous virtuoso battle sequence while climbing and disarming one of the fearsome pachyderms deployed by the enemy.

The hobbits Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan, respectively) do themselves proud as squires to the virtuous wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a warrior princess, Eowen (Miranda Otto), whose crush on Aragorn is usefully sublimated in feats of valor, notably a timely sword thrust into the maw of an overconfident fiend.

Tightly and deftly constructed despite its exceptional running time, “Return” recaptures the sort of interwoven momentum that seemed to flag a bit during “The Two Towers,” which needed to keep tabs on a trio of fragmented groups and lost Gandalf during most of the tale. The crises approaching Mount Doom and Minas Tirith seem admirably interlocked now. The huge set-piece battle is also better orchestrated than its precursor in “Two Towers.” The one conspicuous omission is the failure to depict the captivity of Christopher Lee as the evil wizard Sarumon.

There are seven or eight farewell episodes after the heroes achieve their goals. Any one might serve as an excellent fade-out. Although Mr. Jackson is transposing scenes from the novel faithfully, one gets the impression that it’s also difficult for him to accept the inevitability of a title card that reads, “The End.” This project has preoccupied him for seven years. Happily, the results justify the dedication. Among other forms of recognition, Peter Jackson richly deserves a final Oscar coronation.

****TITLE: “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

RATING: PG-13 (Sustained ominous atmosphere; graphic violence with gruesome illustrative details, concentrated in depictions of massive battles in legendary settings)

CREDITS: Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Mr. Jackson, based on novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie. Production design by Grant Major. Costume design by Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor. Special makeup, creatures, armor and miniatures supervised by Mr. Taylor. Visual-effects supervisor: Jim Rygiel. Music by Howard Shore

RUNNING TIME: About 210 minutes


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