Peter Jackson's capper to the Tolkien trilogy ends with a bang. Then another. Then another. And just when you think the orc or ogre or troll or uruk-hai is finally dead, a newer, bigger, uglier model suddenly appears, to be dispatched with still another bangpreferably by means of rock, mace, sword, or staff. After three hours and 20 minutes of this, viewers will feel similarly pummeled yet exhilarated by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (which opens Wednesday, Dec. 17, at the Cinerama and other theaters). It manages to cram in even more battles, more effects, more orcs, more flying dinosaurs (or whatever they're called), more giant multitusked elephants, more of everything than the first two films. It starts to verge on the ridiculous with its constant barrage of close rescues, narrow escapes, and lucky sword strikes. Return needs an intermissionas much to relieve the eyes and ears as the bladder.
Yet this is a movie that succeeds by sheer scale, inevitability, and weightmuch like those battle elephants. Jackson slices the elephantine narrative into digestible bites, alternating between the intimate (the foot journey of Frodo, Sam, and treacherous Gollum) and the spectacular (the siege of Gondor's capital, Minas Tirith, which looks like Mount St. Michel marbleized and relocated to the Alps). It's not a perfect remedy to Tolkien's bulk and bagginessthere are too many cliffs, too much hangingbut nothing else I've seen this year has such exciting dynamic range.
I love the way Jackson will suddenly pull back from a cozy confab between hungry, bickering hobbits to a plain full of massed armies in neat phalanxes, battle lines, andin one breathtaking final showdowna heroic circle within an encircling orc swarm. A magical beacon-lighting sequence atop New Zealand's snowy peaks has the thrilling effect not just of sounding an alarm across Middle-earth, but of making you believe in the place as well. Individually, Return may not be the best film of the year, but the three LOTR titles together are indisputably the greatest film achievement of the last three years; and for that, Jackson certainly deserves the Oscar as best director.
THE HEART OF this movie belongs to faithful Sam (Sean Astin) as he cares for the increasingly zombified Frodo (Elijah Wood), while they lug the cursed ring to the volcano in the middle of orc country. Unlike The Two Towers, we don't have to waste time with hobbits Merry and Pippin riding in the branches of Treebeard (limited here to a brief cameo before being made into laminated furniture for IKEA, I hope). There's more of future king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and his entirely unconvincing love triangle with a warrior princess babe (Miranda Otto) and an elf princess babe (Liv Tyler). The former gets to prove her girl-power mettle on the battlefield ("I . . . am . . . no . . . man!" Chop!); the latter gets to . . . um, pine wistfully for Aragorn off-camera until appearing for her final gauzy kiss. (Note to aspiring actresses: Always go for the role that involves the gun, battle-ax, or broadsword.) Middle-earth remains essentially a man's world.
THIS NEWS JUST IN: The rival kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor still can't get along, resulting in a lot of dull, confusing palace intrigue and succession drama. The chief offender is Lord Denethor (John Noble), treacherous regent of Minas Tirith, who's mysteriously intent on sandbagging the fellowship's cause. Is he under some wizard's evil spell? No, more like Freud's: He's ruled by an insane hatred for his son, Faramir. This over-the-top touch of psychology and scenery chewing is entirely at odds with the rest of Return and should have ended up on the cutting-room flooralong with a half-hour's worth of interminable hugs and good-byes lit by endless sunsets at the movie's end. (Here's an opportunity for Jackson to make the DVD version shorter for once.)
Jackson's CGI crew does such splendid work with its giant ogres and oversized spiders that you can't quite believe the fellowship could prevail against them. The superpachyderms and flying dinos fall too easily (all it takes is a hobbit with a penknife, it seems). Shelob, the arachnid-on-steroids that Gollum springs on Sam and Frodo, will freak out viewers under 12and quite a few of their parents. In a fight, I'd like my chances better against the giant, vaginal eye (aka the evil wizard Sauron), with eight fewer legs and no body to contend with.
As a director, Jackson seems most energized in the battle scenes: Rohan horsemen charging and slicing through orcs (showing fear for once); elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) single-handedly dispatching an elephant; giant rival catapults lobbing great hunks of masonry across thousands of yards, camera following every inch of the flight. In one such instance, Jackson shows his underlying affection for those bloodthirsty orcs, as the one I will call the Elephant Manowing to his cauliflower-headorders his troops to remain perfectly still despite the rain of giant stones. Steady . . . steady . . . then with one chunk looming above him, like a bit of broken mesa above Wile E. Coyote, he adroitly steps out of the way.
In Towers, Jackson gave speech to the orcs; here he gives them style. The dirty little secret to the entire franchise is that despite the fellowship's cheery bouts of feasting, singing, pipe smoking, and hugging, orcs really have more fun. Life for them is one long, boisterous bar fight. It's not just that there's no place for them when peace finally comes to Middle-earth; they wouldn't want to stay anyhow.
AMID ITS ENJOYABLE excess, there are a few unfortunate omissions in Return from the earlier installments, such as the delicious human villainy of Christopher Lee and Brad Dourif in Towers. Fortunately, CGI Gollum (voiced and pre-acted so brilliantly by Andy Serkis) gets the screen time he deserves, plus a prelapsarian prologue that shows how the ring brought violence to idyllic Middle-earth. We get to see a kind of Gollum-Sm顧ol fashion makeover in reverse: Over the centuries, he withers from plump hobbit to pickled fetus. You know he has to perish along with his precious ring, but he does so with a smile on his shriveled face. I'll miss that sneaky little bastard.
The heroes aren't as dull as in the Matrix movies, but they're nobody you'd want to go out with for beers, either. (Of course, with the orcs, a fight over the bar tab means a fight to the death.) Wood is required to be ill and catatonic for most of the movie, then reverts to cherub-cheeked health. Mortensen looks great until he opens his mouth. His big moment ("Stand, men of the West!") is meant to recall Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech; instead he comes across like Kenneth Branagh's stunned understudy stumbling in from the wings. Ian McKellen can't be accused of phoning it in as Gandalf, but his character peaked in the Fellowship-to-Towers transformation from Gray to White; here, he's just a wizard among warriors. As for those boring elves (Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and company), oh how they would've benefited from the addition of Will Ferrell.
THOUGH CONSTANTLY ridiculed by Gollum as the "fat hobbit," Astin really comes off best; it's no accident that Jackson ends the film with him. Steadfast, sensible Sam's got none of the glamour of Aragorn or Legolas, none of the gravitas of Frodo or Gandalf; in short, he most resembles the average chubby moviegoers in the audience who will gorge themselves on Return's sheer, enthralling monumentality. Like us, like him, the film could stand to lose a little weight. But what a pleasure it is to loosen your belt a notch, lean back, and watch a picture that truly answers the great filmgoing imperativegive me more.