By the time hobbit hero Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) finally -- finally! -- struggles to the top of Mount Doom, where at the climax of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" he must cast into its volcanic fires the malevolently omnipotent Ring that has been slowly consuming his psyche for three movies now, many of the nit-picky things that have gotten on my nerves throughout all the "Lord of the Rings" flicks had come to a head.
So many times now has Frodo's whiney, obsequious traveling companion Samwise Gamgee (Sean Austin) begun boo-hoo-hooing that I started rooting for him to be chucked into the lava along with the jewelry. One too many times has a lucky coincidence saved our hero, as when in this picture he's captured by the demonic, bad-tempered Orcs, only to be rescued moments later when his two guards -- the only two guards in an entire tower it seems -- are conveniently distracted by fighting with each other.
And once too often has director Peter Jackson assumed that the previous installments will be fresh in minds of the audience. That's a pretty safe bet for his fan base, but for the unobsessed, "Return of the King" -- like "The Two Towers" before it -- has many what-did-I-miss? moments. For example, in one of two climactic battle scenes, a never-identified army of fearsome face-painted foes riding atop gigantic elephants appears on the flank of the protagonists' battalion, prompting the question, "Who the heck are these guys?" (Apparently they were in the second movie too, but pardon me for not having seen it since last year.)
Please don't take these gripes to mean I don't appreciate the grand, often enthralling, unprecedented and cinematically spectacular achievement that this culminating chapter represents in the most ambitious movie trilogy in history. Author J.R.R. Tolkien's antediluvian spirit is very much in evidence in "Return of the King," even as Jackson takes a few liberties here and there. The film's final showdown between the armies of good and evil seems a little skimpier than the battles from 2002's episode (too many special effects shots at a distance and too few combatants in close-ups), but what these scenes lack in number, the actors make up for in powerful and emotional performances that surpass all expectations. I was genuinely overcome when tender but indomitable girl-warrior Eowyn (Miranda Otto in the movie's stand-out performance) bids farewell to her mortally wounded regal uncle (Bernard Hill) as the closing moments of a momentous war still rage around her.
Without question "Return of the King" lives up to its predecessors, which were each flawed in similar but surmountable ways as well ("Fellowship of the Ring" had no ending, "The Two Towers" had no beginning and no ending). But I was hoping that once the story was complete, the cumulative 10-hour epic would have collectively bowled me over, and that just didn't happen.
This final "Rings" chapter follows diminutive, furry-footed hobbits Frodo and Sam -- and their duplicitous, Ring-coveting, emaciated, hobgoblin guide Gollum (that incredible, unparalleled CGI creation of Jim Rygiel's special effects artists and actor Andy Serkis) -- into the dark land of Mordor, where they must face more Orcs, even more petrifying monsters (Rygiel's team has also created a giant spider so realistic it may induce nightmares) and their own mounting sense of self-defeat.
At the same time, Gandalf the White Wizard (Ian McKellen, once again lending his cross-over gravitas to the fantasy genre) joins valiant human warrior Aragorn (the grave and compelling Viggo Mortensen) and dauntless Elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) as they help lead a last-stand defense of Minas Tirith, the breathtaking cliff-built capital of Gondor, the once and future kingdom where Aragorn is sovereign-designate -- much to the displeasure of Denethor (John Noble), the power-mad steward of the throne.
As ememy-mounted dragons screech overhead, terrorizing the city, and its protectors find themselves having to use the rubble of damaged buildings in their catapults, the battle takes on mythical proportions when Aragorn arrives with a militia of ghosts -- spirits of cursed soldiers that failed to defend his ancestors when the armies of Sauron (the unseen evil that permeates the "Rings" saga) overran Middle Earth generations before.
Just how they arrive is another of the film's dubious, unexplained developments: The phantoms apparently left their foreboding, high-mountain cavern tomb and somehow intercepted and seized an armada of approaching enemy ships at sea -- but all this takes place off-screen, before they mount a surprise attack by disembarking from a river dock held by the Orcs near Minas Tirith. Once they show up, the battle is over so rapidly it's almost as if a scene were missing.
Similar circumstantial shorthand takes place again later when in the time it takes Aragorn to make a rally-the-troops speech as he leads an assault on Mordor, an exhausted, demoralized Frodo and Sam have climbed the entirety of Mount Doom to reach the final challenge of their quest.
This was one more in a minor litany of frustrating imperfections that chips away at the otherwise incomparable virtuosity of the "Lord of the Rings" films -- the sum of which is still nothing short of colossal. But while Peter Jackson's remarkable vision, and his capacity for bringing it to life in this finale and the in trilogy as a whole, are unquestionably worthy of very high praise, I never got the mind-blowing "Wow!" I'd wanted from these movies. I enjoyed all three, but now that it's all said and done, I'm still no more a fan than I was three years ago.
Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
Run time: 201 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 17th December 2003
Box Office USA: $377.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $1.1B
Distributed by: New Line Cinema
Production compaines: New Line Cinema, WingNut Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Fresh: 240 Rotten: 14
IMDB: 8.9 / 10
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, Ian McKellen as Gandalf the White, Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, Liv Tyler as Arwen Evenstar, Orlando Bloom as Legolas, John Rhys-Davies as Gimli & Treebeard (Voice), Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee, Billy Boyd as Peregrin 'Pippin' Took, Dominic Monaghan as Meriadoc 'Merry' Brandybuck, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Bernard Hill as Théoden, King of Rohan, Andy Serkis as Gollum, Miranda Otto as Éowyn, David Wenham as Faramir, Karl Urban as Éomer, John Noble as Denethor, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Lawrence Makoare as Gothmog & Witchking of Angmar, Paul Norell as King of the Dead, Thomas Robins as Deagol, Sarah McLeod as Rosie Cotton, Sean Bean as Boromir, Marton Csokas as Celeborn