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The End of the Ring

"The Return of the King" is a flawed, disappointing end to Peter Jackson's exceptional Lord of the Rings trilogy.

11:00 PM, Dec 16, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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BACK IN 2001, in the golden age of cinema, when studios routinely put out classics like "A Beautiful Mind," "Moulin Rouge," and "I Am Sam," Hollywood observers dismissed the Academy of Motion Pictures' snub of "The Fellowship of the Ring" with a wave of the hand. "Oh don't worry," the sophisticates sighed, "Peter Jackson will win for 'Return of the King' so that the trilogy can be recognized all in one shot."

It was a fine sentiment, except for one small detail: Suppose the Academy had taken the same approach towards "The Godfather"?

Which isn't to say that "Return of the King," the final installment of Peter Jackson's brilliant Lord of the Rings, is "The Godfather Part III." That wouldn't be entirely fair. But it would be uncomfortably close to the mark.

ONE NEED NOT BE an anti-Jackson confederate to come to this sad and disappointing conclusion (please see here and here and here before you threaten to smite me with your +3 Sword of Blathrug).

It is worth saying, again, that the first chapter in the trilogy, "The Fellowship of the Ring," is a masterpiece, not merely of the genre but of the form. It compares favorably with every epic film since "Lawrence of Arabia," and now that the initial gloss has worn off and it's mostly broken in, it would not be absurd to sneak "The Fellowship of the Ring" into your list of the top 15 or 20 films, all time. A marvel of pacing, economy, dexterity, and grit, "Fellowship" is beautiful, inspiring, and ennobling; it is very nearly a perfect movie.

The same cannot quite be said for "The Two Towers." The second chapter in the trilogy has two noticeable flaws. For starters, its comic relief is foisted entirely onto a single character, and crudely so. Worse is that for the first time the writing team (comprised of Fran Walsh, Stephen Sinclair, Philippa Boyens, and director Peter Jackson) made a ghastly decision to change a key supporting character, the result of which is to wreck a rewarding subplot from the original Tolkien.

(A note on Faramir: The Jackson adaptation of Lord of the Rings is wonderfully faithful to Tolkien's work in spirit, if not in actual letter. The lone exception is Jackson's treatment of Faramir, the judicious, steely son of Denethor. In the film this valiant character is turned into a weak, compromised hot-head, the very opposite of how Tolkien drew him. This will be of little concern to well-adjusted viewers, the kind who live on their own and go out on Saturday nights, but to others, the disservice Jackson does Faramir is nigh unforgivable.)

Still, "The Two Towers" is an exceptional effort, marked by a sturdy narrative structure, an invigorating moral purpose, and beautiful work from the director, cast, and crew. A small step down from "Fellowship," "The Two Towers" was, nonetheless, the movie of the year, and would be judged so most years.

While making these two films Jackson juggled a number of chainsaws. In a universe filled with strange names and language, the dialogue is never obtrusive and often comfortable and wry. The large cast of characters is well drawn and deftly showcased. Most impressive is the pacing, by turns leisurely, urgent, and taut--in short, perfect, despite the fact that each movie runs in excess of three hours. Jackson was able to cover hundreds of pages of text without either rushing or bogging down. It may seem strange to call a pair of three-hour movies lean, but that is exactly what they are.

WITH "RETURN OF THE KING" Jackson's juggling act falls apart and the chainsaws which he had kept so nimbly under control gouge and mar his final chapter.

The movie opens with a flashback. Smeagol is fishing with his brother Deagol when they find a gold ring in a river bed. In a fight over the ring, Smeagol kills Deagol and then slowly transforms into the creature Gollum.

Moving to the present, Aragorn (played by Viggo Mortensen) sets out for Gondor to make a last stand against Sauron's army. He enlists the help of Theoden (Bernard Hill), the king of Rohan, who brings his cavalry to the fight. Meanwhile, Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continue the trek to Mount Doom on their mission to destroy the ring.

Along the way there are some rousing moments: Theoden's call to arms is one of the great rallying speeches in recent memory and his niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) makes a stirring, heroic stand; in one sequence, Faramir is shown leading a suicide charge while the only sound is Pippin's soft singing, as he serenades Faramir's bilious father.