Peter Jackson's final installment in his "The Lord of the Rings" represents that filmmaking rarity -- a third part of a trilogy that is decisively the best of the lot. With epic conflict, staggering battles, striking landscapes and effects, and resolved character arcs all leading to a dramatic conclusion to more than nine hours of masterful storytelling, "King" is an urgently paced 200-minute film without an ounce of fat -- until unfortunate multiple endings that go on and on, as if Jackson couldn't bear to let go.

A “King” that earns its crown, Peter Jackson’s final installment in his monumental “The Lord of the Rings” represents that filmmaking rarity — a third part of a trilogy that is decisively the best of the lot. With epic conflict, staggering battles, striking landscapes and effects, and resolved character arcs all leading to a dramatic conclusion to more than nine hours of masterful storytelling, “The Return of the King” is an urgently paced 200-minute film without an ounce of fat — until unfortunate multiple endings that go on and on, as if Jackson couldn’t bear to let go. Again unlike other trilogy finales, this one will rank with its predecessors at the box office, where the first two entries have generated $1.786 billion internationally. Ancillary benefits from various versions and packaging will issue forth close to forever.

In the rarefied world of large-scaled cinematic triptychs, three in the modern era quickly come to mind that, initially at least, combined striking cinematic prowess with enormous public enthusiasm: “The Godfather,” “Star Wars” and “The Matrix.” In the first two instances, the second film was by general consensus the best and most adventurous, while the third was by far the weakest across the boards.

What Jackson and New Line so boldly did right was to shoot all three in one continuous stretch rather than start from scratch each time.

Of all the wonders associated with this trio of films — the literate, generally well structured overall script, the perfection of the New Zealand locations, the visionary scenic designs, the exceptional visual effects, the costumes, hair and armor, and the excellent cast — perhaps the most impressive feat of all has been Jackson’s ability to keep it all in his head through the years and deliver a cohesive work with a proper sense of balance and proportion.

Unlike his predecessors in the trilogy business, of course, Jackson had a ready-made three-part text to work from, one constructed to pay off in the climactic installment. And pay off it does, in ways guaranteed to satisfy the multitudes around the world who embraced the first two films, and even to impress non-card-carrying members of the massive Tolkien-Jackson cult.

Still, anyone who hasn’t seen the first two pics won’t have a clue what’s going on at the outset of “The Return of the King.” With much struggle behind him but the worst yet to come, Frodo (Elijah Wood) is increasingly feeling the weight of being the Ringbearer as he and his faithful friend Sam (Sean Astin) make their way toward Mount Doom, the place where the Ring was made and the only place it can be destroyed, thus thwarting Sauron’s attempt to destroy humankind.

“The days are growing darker,” Frodo observes amid distant volcanic eruptions, as he and Sam continue to be guided by the fretful Gollum (Andy Serkis), the deformed former Ringbearer whose intended treachery is superbly revealed in a schizophrenic soliloquy delivered to his reflection in the water.

Meanwhile, in Rohan, the flush of victory over Saruman’s forces in the Battle of Helm’s Deep at the end of “The Two Towers” doesn’t last long (defeated and trapped in the last film, Christopher Lee’s wonderfully realized character unfortunately doesn’t even appear here).

A faux pas by Pippin (Billy Boyd) provokes Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to remove him to Minas Tirith, the magnificent White City and capital of Gondor built on a soaring outcropping of rock. There, they find a kingdom in decline under a steward, Denethor (John Noble), so distraught over the death of his elder son that his rash decisions are not to be trusted.

Concluding that, “We come to it at last — the great battle of our time,” Gandalf can see that, “The board is set and the pieces are moving.” Indeed, it is clear that, to fight the renewed and gathering forces of monstrous Orcs heading toward Minas Tirith, all the representatives of Middle-earth will have to come together for humanity to have a chance.

To this end, King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) summons all the men he can to march to Minas Tirith, joined by warriors Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and followed eventually by his feisty niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and Pippin’s inseparable friend Merry (Dominic Monaghan). In Rivendell, Elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), refuses immortality to remain alive for the sake of her great love, Aragorn, although her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) despairs of her surviving long enough to justify the decision.

In a way new to the trilogy, the emotional momentum surges along with the physical action. After early ambivalence over his responsibility for the Ring, Frodo grows into the job; after long dodging his royal inheritance, Aragorn finally rises to the occasion; Sam, especially, emerges as a three-dimensional character of intense devotion to Frodo even after he has been tricked by the Iago-like Gollum and exiled by his closest friend; and the ineffectual Hobbits Pippin and Merry take on some size, figuratively if not literally.

The building sense of dread is palpable. With the belching Mount Doom and its all-powerful hovering Eye in the distance, humankind and Orcs alike traverse an already stark landscape that will shortly become scorched. Dreadful giant screeching dragons, called Fell Beasts, flap down out the sky to pluck hapless soldiers off their feet and horses. And the Orcs are assisted by yet more monsters, including Hulk-like Trolls and towering, long-tusked mastodons known as Mumakil, that strike terror and make resistance seem futile.

With these forces massing to decide the fate of civilization, Gandalf tries to buy time for Frodo to plunge the Ring into the lava at Mount Doom. To greater effect than he has at any point in the three films, Jackson cuts among different sets of activity, the most spectacular being the battle and the most emotionally intense being Frodo’s painful, inch-by-inch journey.

The trip, which requires perilous climbing up slippery twisting stairs, is marked by the Gollum’s frequent attempts to make off with the Ring and by the most frightening episode in the entire trilogy — Frodo’s and, subsequently, Sam’s face-offs with an enormous Spider named Shelob. The incredibly detailed and life-like arachnid succeeds in stinging Frodo, and rapidly wraps him like a mummy. Sword-in-hand, Sam then engages the beast, and the angles at which the struggle is shot are enormously impactful and unusual for shots involving so many digital and special effects. Few will watch this scene without drawing back in the theater seat.

Frodo’s eventual arrival at the bowels of Mount Doom is charged not only with physical but a sort of spiritual agony that triggers hesitation of nearly fateful consequences.

The siege of Minas Tirith may well be the mother of all cinematic battles; certainly no pre-CGI war film ever featured a scene involving upwards of 200,000 soldiers. But that’s how many Orcs maraud the city, and the details are extraordinary: the huge stones catapulted at the fortifications from mobile towers; the fire-breathing dragon battering ram that crashes through the main gates; the earth-shaking Mumakil that raze all before them with scythe-like tusks and carry dozens of men; the gradual movement of the battle from the ground to the upper levels of the exquisitely designed citadel. All of “The Lord of the Rings” has been building to this, and it delivers entirely.

There are a few nits to be picked. With the forces of humankind vastly outnumbered, Aragorn is forced to seek the help of innumerable “dead” but still loyal soldiers to help out against the Orcs. Even in a work of fantasy and myth, this device just doesn’t wash, a circumstance not helped by the fact that the unconvincing effects used to represent them on the battlefield make them look like a bunch of green ghosts dashing across the field.

The Arwen/Elrond side has never seemed well integrated into the rest of the action, and still doesn’t. But more egregious is the succession of endings, a couple of which seem so ideal that people will no doubt be rising from their seats to leave, only to be plunked back for more rounding out of the fates of yet more characters. Better that some of these had been saved for the inevitable Expanded Edition DVD of “The Return of the King,” rather than dissipating the power of the trilogy in its waning moments.

All the outstanding technical and craft achievements that have been duly honored in the previous installments are at least equaled and sometimes trumped here, especially in regard to how involved the creatures are this time. There has been no let-up in creativity, only intensification.

Similarly, certain members of the cast take advantage of the fresh dramatic opportunities to deepen their characterizations. This is certainly true of Wood, who makes Frodo’s new levels of terror, responsibility and pain keenly felt. (At certain feminized moments and from particular angles, he oddly resembles a diminutive Uma Thurman.) Often seeming a bumbling tag-along up until now, Astin comes into his own as Sam here in a big way, investing the young man with mature emotions and an unbreakable bond with friends. Serkis gets to expand the remarkable Gollum with unexpected complexity. And Hill verges on magnificence, as he transforms his initially depressed King of Rohan into a character of nearly Shakespearean stature.

So Jackson has done it. After seven years of work, the young New Zealander has pulled off one of the most ambitious and phenomenally successful dream projects of all time, a complete visual rendering of a 1,000-page literary classic beloved by countless readers internationally, a set of films that satisfies the Tolkien purists and, when all is said and done, will generate well upwards of $3 billion in all markets.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Wingnut Films production. Produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh. Executive producers, Mark Ordesky, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Robert Shaye, Michael Lynne. Co-producers, Rick Porras, Jamie Selkirk. Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Arriflex widescreen), Andrew Lesnie; editors, Jamie Selkirk, Annie Collins; music, Howard Shore; production designer, Grant Major; supervising art director, Dan Hennah; art directors, Joe Bleakley, Phil Ivey, Simon Bright; set decorators, Hennah, Alan Lee; costume designers, Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor; sound (SDDS/Dolby EX/DTS), Hammond Peek; supervising sound editor-co-designer, Ethan Van der Ryn; supervising sound editor, Michael Hopkins; sound designer, David Farmer; visual effects supervisor, Jim Rygiel; digital visual effects, Weta Digital Ltd.; special makeup, creatures, armor and miniatures, Taylor/Weta Workshop; makeup and hair designers, Peter Owen, Peter King; conceptual designers, Alan Lee, John Howe; assistant director, Carolynne Cunningham; second unit directors, John Mahaffie, Geoff Murphy; second unit camera, Allen Guilford, Richard Bluck, John Cavill, Nigel Bluck, Simon Raby, Alun Bollinger; stunt coordinator, George Marshall Ruge; casting, John Hubbard, Amy Maclean (U.K.), Victoria Burrows (U.S.), Liz Mullane (New Zealand), Ann Robinson (Australia). Reviewed at Clarity screening room, Beverly Hills, Dec. 1, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 200 MIN.

With

Frodo - Elijah Wood Gandalf - Ian McKellen Arwen - Liv Tyler Aragorn - Viggo Mortensen Sam - Sean Astin Galadriel - Cate Blanchett Gimli - John Rhys-Davies Theoden - Bernard Hill Pippin - Billy Boyd Merry - Dominic Monaghan Legolas - Orlando Bloom Elrond - Hugo Weaving Eowyn - Miranda Otto Faramir - David Wenham Eomer - Karl Urban Denethor - John Noble Gollum/Smeagol - Andy Serkis Bilbo - Ian Holm Boromir - Sean Bean Witchking/Gothmog - Lawrence Makoare King of the Dead - Paul Norell Celeborn - Marton Csokas

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