Stand aside George Lucas, Frances Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg — director Peter Jackson has just completed the third and final film in his epic “Lord of the Rings” series, and it blows away every movie trilogy that has come before it.
That’s a bold proclamation to make, but “The Return of the King” is truly the crown on top of an unprecedented achievement in film history. This final episode in J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga of good and evil, along with its predecessors, is like nothing that has been put on the screen before. It’s definitely for an audience already invested in the six plus hours of the two previous films, but the initiated will not be disappointed in its unfaltering Shakespearean grandeur.
In this final installment, while the evil Sauron’s forces are ominously pressing toward Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor, Frodo (Elijah Wood) struggles toward the festering Mount Doom with his loyal companion Samwise (Sean Astin) — and the untrustworthy Gollum — at his side, to destroy the One Ring that threatens the very existence of Middle Earth. Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) attempts to rally Gondor’s beleaguered army with the help of King Theoden of Rohan, but long without a king, Gondor is failing under the hand of its increasingly delusional steward. Now is the time that Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must finally rise to his destiny as a descendent of the great kings of Gondor and reclaim his ancestral kingdom.
As with the previous films, “The Return of the King” takes some liberties with the literary plot line (some elements of the second book show up here, and others of the third are entirely left out), but the spirit of the literary characters and their archetypal journeys remain intact. Initially the film seems slow to rise to the occasion, but it’s really just purposefully building toward a finale of Wagnerian proportions. The sweeping landscapes and supernatural effects are even more fine tuned in this edition; both the Army of the Dead’s ghostly rampage and the giant spider Shelob will give even the most jaded film buff pause.
There will be plenty of arguing for years to come as to the cinematic merits of the three “Lord of the Rings” films over the sacred cows that the “Star Wars” and “Godfather” series have become in the minds of film critics. The essential difference is that the both the latter trilogies fell frustratingly short in their third acts. “The Return of the King” is not only is a tremendously fulfilling final chapter, it elevates and accentuates the strengths of the preceding films.
But what is the most striking and lasting impression this series leaves with the viewer is Tolkien’s vision of a world in turmoil. Written as the horrors of World War II raged and then faded around him, his epic allegory resonates just as powerfully today. “The Lord of the Rings” may exist in a mythological world, but Tolkien intended Middle Earth to reflect the triumphs and tragedies of our own humanity. Jackson’s ultimate accomplishment is in reinvigorating Tolkien’s fable for an entire new generation — and perhaps for those to come.