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Movie review: 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'

DVDs and MoviesEntertainmentMoviesPoetryHeroismArts and CultureViggo Mortensen

4 stars (out of 4)

One "Ring" - finally - rules them all.

In "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," a great mythic movie cycle gets the ending it deserves - and we can finally see this stunningly completed film trilogy for what it is: one of the major achievements of film history.

This is a movie that, purely and simply, has visions and excitement to blow us away once again. "The Return of the King" and the massive 10-hour complete film that it now concludes become together a supreme adventure fantasy epic, a staggering triumph, a movie to delight all ages, tastes and sexes - including that small part of the audience who still feel heroic fantasy with cute little hobbits, ornate language and bizarre supernatural beings is just not their cup of tea.

Sweeping us along on a vast cinematic landscape strewn with wonders - with elves and wizards, dwarves, knights and great mythological monsters - the picture drenches us in spectacles and marvels once again. Blasted and shaken by great blazing action scenes and then becalmed by a graceful, homeward journey and resolution, Peter Jackson's magnificent film of the J.R.R. Tolkien novels comes to a conclusion both profoundly moving and deeply satisfying.

Everything ends here: primarily Frodo Baggins' (Elijah Wood) quest to destroy the dangerous and magical ring of invisibility with the aid of good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the rest of their hardy fellowship - that stout band encompassing gruff-and-ready dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), sureshot elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and faithful hobbits Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan).

But also concluded, with stunning panache and entrancing detail, are the annihilating wars in Middle Earth between the dark forces and wizards of Mordor, Sauron and Saruman and the embattled peoples of Rohan and Gondor. Resolved also are the furious quest of the wild, schizophrenic Gollum/Smeagol (Andy Serkis) to steal back the ring before it can be cast into flames, the ascension to kinghood of the heroic adventurer Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the final return home of the hobbits and the sunset coda for Frodo and his once-heroic cousin Bilbo (Ian Holm).

And even though the "Rings" trilogy is, in many ways, a quintessential bright boy's tale, the "Ring" women, befitting modern post-feminist times, share in the glories. The movie's heroines remain beautiful and brave to the end - Aragorn's elfin ladylove Arwen (Liv Tyler), indomitable elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and sturdy human Eowyn (Miranda Otto), the king's niece of Rohan, earn a grand salute as well.

Again, Jackson , as before, has not skimped, working with his splendid team in those immense New Zealand landscapes to give us as much of Tolkien's vision as any filmmaker reasonably could. Yet "The Return of the King," almost 3½ three and a half hours in length, passes by like a windstorm, some onrushing dark torrent of violence and terror, followed by final enveloping sunshine. Though it's full of violence and grotesquerie - the marauding giant spider that attacks Frodo in a web-strewn cavern, the hideous army of melting-faced Orcs, and those climactic battles that resemble nightmarish exploding menageries with huge mastodons elephants, great-winged beasts and charging horses - it has a liberating wit and imagination.

In the novel trilogy, written mostly during World War II and the immediate post-war era, J.R.R. Tolkien created a modern myth spun to some degree from the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Europe and the blitz of London. Jackson has universalized that myth and brilliantly visualized and cinematically translated it, giving given it operatic grandeur and sublime imagination.

All of the characters register strongly, but three stand above the rest. Astin's Sam is a model of devotion. McKellen's Gandalf gives the movie even more gravitas, stature and believable nobility than Alec Guinness leant to the first "Star Wars." With his hawklike, kingly features and weathered wizard's mien, McKellen , yet another well-deserving aristocrat of British acting, seems a perfect Gandalf, a figure of near-Shakespearean visual eloquence. (with even a quasi-Shakespearean speech or two).

But the character who steals the picture, as he also did in did the movie "Two Towers" and the books, (but not the ring), is the Gollum, the skeletal, two-faced, relentless little being from whom Bilbo first stole the ring. Created by the actor Andy Serkis and the film's digital wizards, Gollum becomes the tale's most memorable figure: a symbol of the evil and ravaging appetite to which wealth and power (and especially the ring's transcendent gifts) can reduce us all. With his sibilant hiss of "Precious! Precious!" Serkis' Gollum becomes a warning. Heroes may prevail, but riches and power corrupt - and everyone in the film, including Frodo, has always been at risk.

One figure is controversially absent, the evil wizard Saruman, played by ace villain Christopher Lee, whose last seven-minute scene in "Towers" was kept for this film and then cut, and whose last scene in the book "King" was never scripted or filmed. It's an unfortunate absence, though we'll see that deleted scene, as always, in the collectors' DVD In the end, "The Lord of the Rings" in toto is one of the screen's most convincingly majestic epics. But it's also playful, a warm adventure, packed with emotion, tenderness and awe. I loved the first two episodes of the movie Ring cycle because they summoned up not just the literary traditions Tolkien mines so brilliantly, but because they shine out like some great summation of all the movie adventure classics we treasure in youth. When I left "King" finally, it was with real regret, finally ejected from a world I was loathe to lose. Like all great fantasies and epics, this one leaves you with the sense that its wonders are real, its dreams are palpable.

And now, through Jackson and his company - the movie's Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Galadriel, Gollum and all the rest - they are. And will be, always.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson, based on the novel by J. R. R. Tolkien; photographed by Andrew Lesnie; edited by Jamie Selkirk; production designed by Grant Major; music by Howard Shore; produced by Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne, Walsh. A New Line release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 3:21. MPAA rating: PG-13 (For intense epic battle scenes and frightening images).
Frodo Baggins.....Elijah Wood
Gandalf the Wizard.....Ian McKellen
Aragorn.....Viggo Mortensen
Arwen.....Liv Tyler
Galadriel.....Cate Blanchett
Sam.....Sean Astin
Boromir.....Sean Bean
Bilbo Baggins.....Ian Holm
Elrond.....Hugo Weaving
Gimli.....John Rhys-Davies
King Theoden of Rohan.....Bernard Hill

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