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Frodo (Elijah Wood, left) and the lovable, loyal Sam (Sean Astin) in Return of the King (courtesy photo)

The return of a king…

T hose who have already seen the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy may rightly be tired of the question they're hearing from their friends: "Is it great?" Tired not because they don't enjoy recounting the film's joys, but because their interrogators are insincere: Surely less than 10 percent of those who appreciate the first two films have any doubt they will take this one to heart. The trilogy, written and produced in one long, more or less continuous burst of creative energy, is so clearly cut from a single cloth that questions about a given chapter seem pointless. When was the last time you were ecstatic about the first two-thirds of a movie, only to hate that last? (Please, don't say Adaptation.)

The cohesiveness of this trilogy, compared to the heterogeneous Star Wars or Indiana Jones films, suggests viewing it as one work. It's not too early to bet that, come 2011, a great many lists of the decade's 10 best films will contain the simple, colon-free words "The Lord of the Rings." Not only is it difficult to imagine another fantasy film surpassing it in the next generation, it's awfully rare in any genre for a picture to be so true to its own heart, so skillful and imaginative in its execution, and so thoroughly satisfying as this one. Peter Jackson and his colleagues have created a movie for the ages.

As this chapter opens, Frodo and Sam are getting closer to the fiery mountain where they must dispose of the ring. Smeagol/Gollum, their untrustworthy guide, has made up his mind to betray them and take the ring for his own. Aragorn and company are defending the world of man from an unspeakable number of orcs and related beasts. Pippin and Merry, coming off a bender, are reunited with their friends and find ways (some noble, some unwise) to become a part of the action.

The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
Dir. Peter Jackson; writ. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens; feat. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving (PG-13)
Subplots unfurl quickly. Arwen wrestles with her decision to abandon the world of mortals, while the very mortal Eowyn proves that she has a fierce heart worthy of Aragorn, whether he belongs to another or not. Ancient allegiances are tested, forgotten ones reborn; filial loyalty is put through trials worthy of Greek tragedy. Smeagol's first encounter with the ring is shown in a flashback that points out just how strong Frodo has had to be to make it this far without giving in to the golden band's power. And enough blood is spilled to fill an ocean.

There come moments here, as in the previous films, when viewers who cherish life may catch themselves falling in love with war. It's a frightening thing, for those of us who are appalled at the military mindset of our government. But a little reflection on Jackson's scenes of martial glory reveals that the only soldier he ever honors is the one who has no other choice; Tolkien's armies are always outnumbered, always nearly certain of their death, always with reason for despair, and yet they fight. They are not superpowers spreading their influence, they are farmers defending their children and outsiders who help those who have nothing to offer in return. Jackson makes these battles as captivating as any face-to-face combat has ever been on screen; Tolkien makes his armies moral.

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Legolas (Orlando Bloom, left) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) on the battlefield (courtesy photo)

The movie is often thrilling beyond words, both on the battlefield and in the highly charged discussions that turn out to be Middle Earth history-in-the-making. For all the spectacle and grandeur, though, it's tempting to argue that the one thing to be cherished most in the series is Sean Astin's simple, unassuming Samwise Gamgee. (Some in the crowd will be saying "well, duh," while others throw up their hands in disbelief.) Sam is so indispensable to the quest that even Frodo's sweetest praise seems offensively meager; he is the humblest, bravest, most loyal, and most selfless person on screen (which is high praise considering the noble crew Tolkien created), and Astin as an actor brings all those virtues to his performance. If Sam doesn't make you cry a little, you may be an orc.

The saga ends with a long series of closures that may test the patience of some viewers, and still it omits some of the books' denouement; fans can rest easily, though, because Jackson's wind-up doesn't contradict Tolkien's, and in fact we may see more in the eventual "extended edition" that should hit DVD this time next year. It is sad to say goodbye to these characters, even allowing for the hope that Jackson may be able to revisit some of them in The Hobbit if legal rights issues are ever resolved. Hobbit or no, this is a piece of work that, like the books it is drawn from, will be worth revisiting year after year. •

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