Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King (2003)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 12/17/03
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Miranda Otto, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm

The final outing in Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy is an exhausting journey, both physically and emotionally. Having narrowly defeated Sauron's forces at Helm's Deep and Isengard in "The Two Towers" (2002), our heroes dig in and prepare for Mordor's retaliation while Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) continue their quest to destroy the ring of power. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) also prove their worth by mustering their courage and taking up arms. The centerpiece is a mind blowing assault on the city of Minas Tirith, which makes the battle of Helm's Deep look tame in comparison. Unfortunately, the battle is so intense, overwhelming, and over the top, that I became disconnected from the film about two hours into it. (I think it was Legolas's oliphaunt assault that finally popped the bubble for me) The film also plays the despair angle heavily, making it a melodramatic six-tissue sobbing fest.

With "Return Of The King" being the only book in the trilogy that I never read and only having a passing familiarity with the animated "Return Of The King" (1983), I can't make any comments on the faithfulness of the film adaptation. I did notice a couple of glaring plot holes, which will no doubt be restored in the director's extended version, and I missed hearing the orcs sing "Where there's a whip, there's a way." (ah, childhood memories) Visually, the film is flawless. The cinematography and use of color is superb, and the camera movement and dramatic angles are mesmerizing. The visual effects are also astounding, and seamlessly complement the real actors. The city of Minas Tirith is amazing to behold, and the armies of Mordor are breathtaking. The giant spider Shelob is also noteworthy, which is impressive after having already seen giant spiders in "Eight Legged Freaks" (2002) and "Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets" (2002). What makes Shelob stand out is her movement. She actually moves and reacts like a real spider, which makes her all the more frightening. I never got that same sense of realism in the other films.

All of the actors are superb, but it's probably Sean Astin who steals the show with his amazingly heartfelt portrayal of Samwise Gamgee. Naturally, with a title like "Return Of The King", Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) has a larger role to play, while Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are effectively non-existent this time around. Merry and Pippin get much meatier roles in this installment and prove their worthy acting skills as well. Very good stuff. Peter Jackson has created an incredible body of work with this trilogy, maintaining a consistent look and feel that no other film series has matched, and raising the bar of cinematic excellence for all science fiction and fantasy films to come.