Power And Majesty

Even as 'Return of the King' brings the brilliant `Rings' epic full circle, it rises, all on its own, to the realm of masterwork

December 16, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Forget all the talk that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won't receive the honors it deserves because it will be categorized as a fantasy. It immediately joins the number of immortal movies that transcend labels or genres, such as Greed or The Godfather or The Wizard of Oz. And as the final chapter of, essentially, a single 10-hour movie, it has a narrative beauty and a sublime ensemble performance that put it in a class by itself.

The director and co-writer, Peter Jackson, achieves the impact that D.W. Griffith won in the multiple climaxes of Intolerance - what the poet and critic James Agee compared to "the swinging together of tremendous gongs."

If you've followed The Lord of the Rings through The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, every scene sets off a soul-stirring resonance. And if you haven't kept pace with the trilogy, there can be no higher art or entertainment outing this season than catching up to the first two and then seeing The Return of the King.

In this third movie installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's three-book epic, what ups the voltage of the drama and our connection to the characters is how near they now come to catastrophe. The necessity to take righteous action even on the edge of doom: That's the true subject of this picture.

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the stalwart leader of men who is slow to assume his kingship, and Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the wizard who spans the worlds of men, elves, dwarves, hobbits and ents, continue to rally all free creatures against the evil Sauron. It's an intense pleasure to watch Mortensen and McKellen scale new peaks in their performances. Mortensen balances Aragorn's confidence and doubts on the fine blade of an elf-forged sword; his burgeoning authority gives his coronation a supremely satisfying rightness. And McKellen conjures for Gandalf an aura of wisdom-within-wisdom fit for a wizard who's experienced his own resurrection. He makes everyone else who's played such roles come off as a sorcerer's apprentice.

Sauron, so consumed with power-lust that he's become an ultra-potent all-seeing eye, has been raising a goblin army to sweep over Middle Earth and overthrow man's dominion. The victory of Aragorn and his forces at Helm's Deep in The Two Towers has heightened Sauron's speed and urgency. So has the villain's obsession with the Ruling Ring he devised and lost. Sauron knows the Ring is on the move, but he still doesn't know it's in the hands of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin).

Well, not in the hobbits' hands, exactly, but around Frodo's neck. Frodo alone accepted the burden of the Ring, and Sam has devoted himself to aiding Frodo in his quest for its destruction.

From the first film on, Frodo has realized that if he puts it on his finger he'll fall prey to the deadly forces of Sauron's shadow-world and be even more vulnerable to the Ring's seductive pull, which drains its owner's will while promising control over all others.

The Return of the King isn't just about good vs. evil. It's about doing the right thing when the choice could be suicidal - and waging war against corruption though you risk awakening corruption within yourself.

The genius of Tolkien is to place these challenges, along with the fate of his rich fantasy world, on the shoulders of the childlike hobbits. The matching genius of Jackson is to re-create their heart-sapping journey with an imaginative zest that never succumbs to bathos. Going up and down shadowy mountain paths and tunnels, Frodo and Sam make their way toward Sauron's kingdom, Mordor, with the dubious help of that hobbit turned bug-eyed cadaver, the Gollum formerly known as Smeagol (Andy Serkis) - a hopping, croaking example of the destruction the Ring wreaks on personality.

The movie starts with Smeagol-Gollum's origin story - the tale of how Smeagol killed his friend Deagol when Deagol found the Ring during an innocent fishing trip. Smeagol-Gollum is a marvel of 3-D animation because it melds seamlessly with Serkis' live-action interpretation. Serkis and company convey the agony underneath the glee of Smeagol's marriage to the Ruling Ring and his descent into Gollumhood. Sacrificing every normal pleasure to a hysterical urge to possess and then repossess the Ring, this frightful yet also frightened homunculus is a cousin of the figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Wood and Astin as Frodo and Sam do more than hold their own with this eye-catching critter: They summon superhuman acting resources to imbue their scenes with brink-of-tragedy weight and quicksilver sentiment.

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