Conventional wisdom holds that this is the year for The Lord of the Rings, Oscar-wise. While the first two installments, 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring and last year's The Two Towers, each received multiple Academy Award nominations, neither won in any of the major categories. With the third and final chapter, The Return of the King, the series has a good chance of rectifying that, as Academy members may see the last installment as a chance to award the films collectively.
If that's true, King will deserve all the accolades it gets. It's a fantastic film, even if it's not quite as good as Towers, but it's miles ahead of the pseudo-epic, Oscar-bait movies such as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Last Samurai. Director Peter Jackson has taken J.R.R. Tolkien's classic novels and created more than simply a wonderful adaptation: He's put together perhaps the greatest adventure-movie trilogy of all time. King is a worthy capper to the series, although at almost three and a half hours, it overstays its welcome a bit, especially with at least five endings.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Rings series, this is obviously not the place to start. The first two are available in super-mega-extended versions on DVD, and they're more than worth seeing. The rest of us remember that hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his best buddy/potential homoerotic love interest Sam (Sean Astin) are on a quest to destroy the evil ring of power and keep it from getting in the hands of bad guy Sauron, who's out to take over Middle Earth and generally make life very unpleasant for everyone involved.
While Frodo and Sam infiltrate Sauron's lair, led by the untrustworthy Smeagol (a.k.a. Gollum, and played by a CGI-covered Andy Serkis), human heir-to-the-throne Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the king whose return the title refers to, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and an army of thousands are hard at work keeping Sauron's evil forces from overrunning their homes. There are several other plot threads at work here, too, including heroic arcs for Frodo's hobbit friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), the star-crossed love between Aragorn and elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), and proto-feminist princess Eowyn (Miranda Otto), who sneaks onto the battlefield despite her father's wishes. With so much to keep track of, it's no wonder Jackson cut Christopher Lee's evil wizard Saruman.
Even with that, it's actually still a bit much to follow, unlike the three discrete plots that defined Towers. But, Jackson brings the elements together nicely as the story builds to its climax, providing satisfying development and conclusions for nearly every one of his characters. If anything, there is a feeling of inevitability to this chapter, as it's obvious to anyone, whether they've read Tolkien's books or not, that good will triumph over evil. The king will, of course, return: It's in the title. In that sense, King lacks the depth of Towers, which was necessarily darker and allowed more time for smaller character moments.
King has plenty to recommend it, though, from the flashback detailing Smeagol's origins (in which we get to see Serkis in the flesh), to the spectacular, all-white city of Minas Tirith, to the awesome giant spider that gets into a bit of a tussle with Frodo, to the army of the undead that turns the tide in the battle with Sauron. Then there are the battles, every one of them better than anything Tom or Russell's gotten into on-screen this year. Although nothing quite matches Towers' battle of Helm's Deep, the defense of Minas Tirith, complete with fascinating mystical creatures resembling elephants and dragons, is an absolute marvel.
Jackson's actors never get lost amidst the special effects, either, and Mortensen and McKellen are the standouts in the universally wonderful cast. Mortensen is every bit the king-to-be, and McKellen inhabits Gandalf with a majesty few other actors could match. Recognition should also go to Astin, who imbues the ever-faithful Sam with a sweetness that makes him the film's heart.
The entire Rings trilogy is really a stunning achievement, working the magic of making the old adventure story of good vs. evil into compelling, spectacular filmmaking. What Jackson has done is not only make great movies, but also truly enriched the culture, tapping into what made Tolkien's novels such enduring classics and building on them to make new classics in a different medium. Whatever small flaws it may have, King is the ideal culmination of that cultural project, the final touch of an undeniable masterwork.