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Posted: Monday, December 22nd 2003 at 7:01am

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King ****

By by Bill Wilson
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Bill Wilson
A dear friend of mine who can carry frugality to extremes when necessary made no bones about his intentions with the final installment of "Lord of the Rings." Not only was he going to pay extra to see the film on an IMAX screen, he also elected to include his six year-old daughter in the viewing party. After all, "this is a classic."

Indeed, as a trilogy, Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" is a triumph. More so than the Indiana Jones films (excepting the first) and even the "Star Wars" trilogy (again, excepting the first), this triumverate was event moviemaking. As we spent our last three Christmases at the movies, we were all acutely aware that we were in the midst of something pretty amazing.

"Return of the King" really points out how unfair it is to judge these as individual films. While "The Two Towers" is probably my favorite of the three, and "Fellowship of the Ring" and "Return of the King" fall slightly short for me, this was a five star trilogy all the way. But unlike the aforementioned movie series, none of these three stand satisfactorily on their own. They are each but chapters in an epic tale of good versus evil that demand repeat viewing, and not necessarily in specific chunks.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) is beginning to show signs of serious wear as "Return" begins, and the food is running out. Smeagol (Andy Serkis) has pretty much gone over to the dark side, and is luring our heroes into a dire trap involving the most frightening giant spider ever conceived on film (yes, even worse than that hairpiece William Shatner wore in "Kingdom of the Spiders" in 1975).

Meanwhile, human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) again find themselves continually doing the dirty work --- leading dozens against thousands in mortal combat time and time again in fine fashion. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) has more screen time in this edition than in the two previous, and his regular presence is keenly appreciated.

Jackson again unleashes demons from hell in regular intervals, such as rampaging behemoth elephant creatures and bat-winged pantheons whose screeches render anyone in range of a Dolby sound system nearly deaf. The full house audience I was with was as uncomfortable in battle as I was, but that's really the point, isn't it? Indeed as our heroes rode into battle, the entire front row of our theater (Georgia 400) was rocking right alongside.

"The Return of the King" salutes the value of each individual member of the Fellowship, as every one of the original troop gets his moment in the sun. Surely you realize that good must ultimately triumph. No spoiler here, I hope. But perhaps the best master stroke of Peter Jackson is that in peace, we are allowed to linger awhile in the shire, and with our triumphant heroes, to share in their joys, and their tearful farewells. Like Sam, Merry, and Pippin, we aren't sure why Frodo, Gandalf and the ancient Bilbo have to say goodbye forever through joyful tears.

The film is again supernaturally well-paced, and three hours and twenty minutes inconceivably zip by before you can say, "Hey, whatever happened to Christopher Lee?" His demise, by the way, has apparently been saved for the DVD version next year!

That this film will doubtlessly get passed over for major Academy Awards due to its being fantasy in nature will point out to the true film connisseure the impotence of the institution. While "Master and Commander" was more enjoyable as an individual movie, "Return of the King" should take Best Picture honors as a tribute to these three groundbreaking films. As I stated in my review of "The Fellowship of the Ring" two years ago, the geeks finally have their Godfather trilogy. And I say that with affection, dear reader, for I am one.
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