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The Return of the King

After three hours and twenty some odd minutes, you scarcely notice that you've lost all feeling in your buttocks. Instead, a curious mixture of excitement, loss, and yes, a little bit of relief, flood through you as the final credits roll by, featuring lovingly detailed pencil sketches that will no doubt be available as lithographs from New Line Cinema's marketing machine.

Make no mistake. Such an event as the closure of The Lord of the Rings will be commemorated as commercially as possible. But it's easy to avoid all the ancillary hoopla if you can give yourself over to the spell of Peter Jackson's epic.

Out of the three films, Return of the King stands the most easily apart. (A couple of decades ago, in fact, ABC ran an animated version of just that book.) It's not just because all the storylines are reaching their conclusions, but because Jackson and his screenwriting partners Fran Walsh (also his wife) and Phillipa Boyens have framed this more directly with information only alluded to before. Not that anyone going into this film has any excuse for not having seen the first two, but it's nice to see the effort made.

Rather than a quick recap of what has gone before, the film opens far in the past with Smeagol (Andy Serkis) and his cousin Deagol fishing, two hobbits at peace with their world. That is, until a too-powerful fish drags Deagol down into the depths, where his eye catches a glinting golden ring.

It's the most direct look at the tragedy of the creature that would become Gollum. Perhaps inspired by the snubbing of Serkis by acting awards last year, the sequence allows us to see the actor beneath the CG, proving the computer tricks to be just one more tool in an actor's belt. When Serkis' real face dissolves into a generated one, it's the most natural thing in the world, and we never lose the man behind the mask.

But of course, this isn't just Gollum's story, though that does form the most personal of the tragedies. He serves as guide to Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) as they continue their perilous journey to destroy the One Ring before its creator, Sauron, can conquer all of Middle-Earth.
Standing against Sauron's armies are the rest of our heroes, uneasy in their triumph at Helm's Deep. The major conflict of The Two Towers is dispatched in a couple of lines of dialogue, so sorry, fans of Christopher Lee, Saruman has left the building. (Don't worry - he merely shifted dimensions and reincarnated as Count Dooku anyway.) There's no time to miss him, really, as Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) urges what's left of the Fellowship toward Minas Tirith, the throne of the Kingdom of Man.

More specifically, he makes certain that Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) knows he can run from his destiny no longer. It is time for him to ascend the throne and reunite mankind. (Please don't cry "spoiler" here - duh - look at the title.)

There are many twists and turns on Aragorn's way to the throne, and all play out with dazzling visuals that support the story without overpowering it. Jackson refuses to blow his wad all at once; each battle grows in intensity. If fighting orcs just don't do it for you, wait and see. Your patience will be rewarded with the flying nazghul. And if that's not enough, the huge elephantine beasts from the Eastern Lands should eventually quench your hunger.
That sequence does bear an unavoidable and slightly uncomfortable resemblance to the AT-AT battle in The Empire Strikes Back, but Jackson has far more inventiveness in dealing with these opponents, and also manages to keep it all on a human scale. Even if there aren't that many humans involved.

But it's not all huge battles and fields dripping with enchanted gore. Sharp-eared viewers know that Gollum had a trap in mind for his hobbit charges, and that trap involves the single best giant spider ever captured on film. Let us say no more about that, for already the heebie-jeebies are returning out of memory.

As before, the performances are earnest and meant to be so. Middle-Earth has no room for irony, though occasionally we can still see a mischievous twinkle in Gandalf's eye. The hobbits themselves finally transcend the strange homoerotic tension they evinced in The Two Towers;
credit to Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan as Pip and Merry for remembering that even adult hobbits, even battle-hardened, are still really just children by our standards, with a child's sense of honor, loyalty and friendship. On that note, only Astin has a real arc to play as Sam matures as much as any hobbit likely can.

The rest of the Fellowship have little to do beyond being heroic, though Orlando Bloom as the elven Legolas manages to eke out a small emotional moment with the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), hinting at an enmity between two races obliterated by their common need to stand against evil.

In the end, the movie does seem to bounce along to the credits, with no fewer than three resolutions. However, Jackson really didn't have a choice. He and his team are capturing the books, and this is the way Tolkien ended it. As it is, fans of the books will howl because one ending has been cut. Don't worry - it will probably make the Super-Platinum-Tiger-Dragon edition DVD.

It's a towering achievement. If you've come this far, you will be satisfied. But even better, you will be willing to sit through it all again - just not anytime soon. You've got to get blood flow back to your nether regions first.

And I don't mean Mordor.


Derek McCaw

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