All hail the king

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Seven thousand years ago, the magician’s trick of disappearing in a cloud of smoke was more labor-intensive.

Seven thousand years ago, the magician’s trick of disappearing in a cloud of smoke was more labor-intensive.

Rated 5.0

Until this week, the answer to the question “What is the greatest film series ever produced?” might’ve been Star Wars, even considering the Jar Jar factor. Although that series won’t conclude until 2005, the Lord of the Rings trilogy comes to a more than satisfying conclusion with The Return of the King. The series is officially one of the greatest film achievements of all time and certainly tops in the fantasy genre. It kicks Star Wars to the curb.

Beginning with a fascinating look at the origins of Gollum (Andy Serkis) and ending with a sweet coda that stands as a heartwarming goodbye to a group of beloved characters, the film scores on every level. Those who were impressed with the nighttime Battle of Helm’s Deep in Two Towers will have to shove their eyes back in their heads and rehydrate with gallons of water after gawking and drooling over the daytime Battle of the Pelennor Fields. There has never been an action scene as thrilling and technologically fascinating as this one.

Featuring the famed, fire-breathing battering ram and the elephantine Mumakil creatures that sweep armies aside with their trunks, the Pelennor Fields scene is fuel for heart palpitations. When elf warrior Legolas (Orlando Bloom) takes down a Mumakil in much the same way that Luke Skywalker disabled an Imperial Walker in The Empire Strikes Back, it is overwhelming movie goodness.

As for Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) journey, he and fellow Hobbit Sam (Sean Astin) afford their own compelling drama and action as they finish the final leg of their treacherous journey. As they approach Mount Doom, the psychologically troubled guide Gollum leads them astray, into the lair of a disgusting, giant spider capable of very bad things. The much-anticipated spider sequence, which actually appeared in the Two Towers novel, is frightening stuff, perfectly realized.

While Viggo Mortensen (as the man who would be King Aragon), Ian McKellen (as Gandalf) and Wood all distinguish themselves magnificently, perhaps the film’s greatest acting achievement goes to Astin as the heroic Samwise Gamgee. Astin has shown chops in the past (loved him in Rudy), but nothing he’s done compares to his triumph when his character must cope with fierce loyalty-to-Frodo tests.

Oscars are deserved all around for what has been accomplished with Return of the King. Peter Jackson should be a lock, a goddamn lock, for Best Director. With this series, he has directed the finest fantasy films of our time, better than Spielberg and Lucas, and it should be duly noted. While nobody has taken an acting Oscar for this series as of yet, Astin should be in the running, along with Mortensen, McKellen and Wood. Throw in Serkis’ crafty work as the CGI Gollum, and it would be an all-LOTR Supporting Actor category.

I read the trilogy a long, long time ago. Going into the film series, I knew I loved the books, but remembered few names, locations and specific plot points. Director Peter Jackson helped me recall why I eschewed Pacman and Van Halen records on rainy Sunday afternoons to read the series from beginning to end. His films are as engaging as the novels themselves, and I’m grateful the series wasn’t approached as a live-action cinematic event until technology allowed it to happen on such a tremendous scale.

So thanks to Peter Jackson and everybody involved with putting these films together. They are so masterful, I feel privileged to have lived in a time when I could view them. If I write reviews until I’m 90, I doubt I could give higher praise.