Hail to the king

'Return of the King' towers over trilogy

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"We've come to it at last," declares Gandalf (Ian McKellen), "the great battle of our time."

Indeed we have.

After seven years of writing, directing and producing "The Lord of the Rings," visionary filmmaker Peter Jackson finally brings down the curtain on the greatest piece of cinematic fantasy yet attempted. "The Return of the King" is the most ambitious AND most flawed of the series. Yet to judge it as anything but a roaring success would be disingenuous.

If nothing else, "Rings" proves superior to every other celluloid franchise (from "Star Wars" to "The Matrix") in one aspect: cohesion. The tomes of J.R.R. Tolkein were shot simultaneously by Jackson, and the result is a 9 hour and 18-minute trilogy that feels like a singular movie. There are no apparent discrepancies (such as a character being portrayed by a different actor) between each picture that might break the spell.

There is not much point in encapsulating the plot, as it is so splintered and involves so many individuals. Suffice to say, at various points all four hobbits are separated for the first time. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are engaged in destroying the ring in the volcanic fires that forged it. The others, along with the rest of the human/elf/dwarf contingent, prepare for the ultimate confrontation with the dark forces of Mordor.

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Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King *** 1/2

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Visionary filmmaker Peter Jackson finally brings down the curtain on the greatest piece of cinematic fantasy yet attempted. "Return of the King" is the most ambitious AND most flawed of the series -- especially in regards to an interminable epilogue. Yet its visual craftsmanship and emotional impact is undeniable.

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As Gandalf summarizes, "The board is set, and the pieces are moving."

What "Return of the King" -- and the whole series for that matter -- does best is balance the big with the small. Sure, the sweeping clash between Sauron's loathsome legions and the entrenched alliance at the fortress of Minas Tirith emerges as the climactic centerpiece of the whole epic. When the mammoth, tusked "oliphants" stomp into the charging horsemen of Rohan, it is the ultimate jaw-dropping sequence in an endeavor filled with jaw-dropping sequences.

But it is also the small moments -- the emotional conversations, the close-ups of an actor's face, the internalized struggles of those like the bi-polar creature Gollum -- that impress just as much as the CGI-composed hordes. Most easy to overlook is the mounting paranoia embodying the ring -- what one person describes as "a sleepless malice" -- that ties so many of the characters together. The item itself is the true villain; Sauron may have the power to crush an army, but only the ring has the ability to morally corrupt everyone it touches.

Even with this attention to detail, the movie's obsession with delivering the mother of all battles results in a few characters being given short shrift. What becomes of Saruman (Christopher Lee) after his citadel Isengard is overrun? Why is the romantic triangle with Eowyn (Miranda Otto), Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) dismissed after so much time spent building it up?

These are the sins of omission, yet "The Return of the King" does contain some of the trilogy's worst scenes of inclusion. Most of these come during an interminable epilogue that suggests Jackson had trouble saying goodbye to the material.

This is exemplified during Frodo's bedside awakening and reunion with his Fellowship friends. The soft-filtered sequence wants to be like the "you were there" coda in "The Wizard of Oz," but it comes across more like a homoerotic daydream -- or at least an ill-conceived curtain call.

Unfortunately, that is one of numerous spots where the viewer assumes the film will end, only to be greeted with one more segment of dwindling merit. Jackson's effort seems to be in competition with Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" for the most number of unnecessary epilogues. The New Zealander edges all competition once he hits double digits.

Most of these drawbacks could be cured through editing. Given Jackson's fondness for longer DVD versions, there is strong reason to suspect a superior edition to this initial theatrical release will appear in the near future.

But for now, there is still a tinge of disappointment about this third installment. Discounting the visual aspects -- which are incontestable -- those who anticipated that this film simply MUST be the best of the three will have a hard time supporting that argument.

The question, however, is how much of the disappointment is because the movie is imperfect or merely because the series is over?

Despite the fact that good triumphs over evil, there is a real sadness at the picture's end. This is most reflected in the outlook of one of the hobbits, who realizes that his immersion into the glorious, mystical worlds beyond the shire have made him uninterested in returning home.

Like this brave, diminutive soul, the viewer also recognizes that the greatest sense of satisfaction comes while being on the journey, not after the journey's end.

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