Directed by Peter Jackson, starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Andy Serkis, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Bernard Hill, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Miranda Otto and John Noble.
During his lengthy writing episodes, one can't help but wonder: did JRR Tolkien ever think of getting himself an editor? While his sprawling cult classics have become the stuff of teenage fascination and fanatical devotion, surely chopping out a few dozen pages here and there wouldn't have done any harm. Given the writer's penchant for countless characters and minute detail, 'Lord of the Rings' director Peter Jackson must have been either mad or a genius to take on this project. But, what could have been a horrible mess has gained the New Zealander all manner of accolades and more importantly, (to him) the respect of 'Tolkies' the world over.
Picking up after the battle of Helm's Deep, which closed 'The Two Towers' a year ago, this concluding chapter opens with a nightmarish prologue which draws you right back into the realms of Middle Earth. In a past life, Gollum, as a Hobbit-like creature called Smeagol, is out fishing one day with his friend. The pair come across a shiny gold ring at the bottom of the lake and as Smeagol peers for a closer look, his eyes darken. His single-minded greed is immediately all-consuming as he strangles his pal and takes possession of his "precious", which, as we all know, ends in tears.
Cut back to the present and Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) are continuing their treacherous journey to Mordor with the increasingly unstable and schizophrenic Gollum in tow. The dark power of the ring is sapping Frodo's strength and gradually his humanity too. Meanwhile, at Rohan, Aragorn (Mortensen) offers his services to King Theoden (Hill) in the impending war, joined by his fellow warriors, Gimli (Rhys-Davies) and Legolas (Bloom). Gandalf (McKellen) is forced to flee to Gondor with Pippin (Boyd) after the hobbit unwisely puts his hands on the Palantir, a device that links him to the evil Sauron's eye, thus making him appear to be the ring bearer and placing him in mortal danger.
In this post-modern and world-weary age, it is easy to sometimes take incredible technological feats for granted. But whether or not you have an interest in fantasy or sprawling battles, it is impossible not to draw breath at Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's vision. There are screeching, swooping birds and multi-trunked elephants carrying gnarled, hobnailed Orcs, giant spiders – all the more impressive when you discover the director has arachnophobia – gory action sequences, sweeping mountain vistas and astonishing set pieces. It is awe-inspiring and thrilling stuff.
Jackson draws flawless performances from his cast too. In particularly fine form is McKellen, doing some serious ass-kicking as the temporary leader of the broken forces of Gondor while the Orcs close in. Behind his flowing hair and wispy beard, his grave countenance but dancing eyes suggest that the actor is having the time of his life. Sean Astin gets to add more depth to the character of brave Sam who hoists his delirious pal over his shoulder and carries him the rest of the way to Mount Doom where the ring must be destroyed. As the bug-eyed Frodo, Elijah Wood is as slightly irritating but perfectly adequate as ever, cowering about the place while others wield swords and risk their lives to protect him.
Despite all the noble business of sword clinking, acts of honour and declarations of love, Jackson doesn't forget his sense of humour. Much comic relief is to be found in the growing hostility between Gollum and Sam. "The fat hobbit doesn't understand", spits the oddly-endearing little freak as he attempts to drive a rift between the faithful, big-footed friends. Gimli also gets some good lines. As Aragorn's decision to seek reserve forces in the Paths of the Dead pays off, the ballsy dwarf remarks: "They're very handy in a tight spot these lads, even if they're dead!" There's a nice feminist touch too where Eowyn (Otto) the niece of King Theoden, disguised as a warrior, single-handedly slays the deadliest of Sauron's forces, the Witch-King.
If any criticism can be made, it is on the film's conclusion. While 'The Return of the King' is always emotional or exhilarating throughout, the extra half-hour of winding down is somewhat anti-climactic and awkward. There are at least two moments where Jackson could have shouted "Cut!" and left the audience gasping and giddy. However, he cannot really be faulted for wanting to neatly tie up the strands of his beloved characters' tales and end on a philosophical, calm note.
So, fans can breathe a sigh of relief. In 'The Return of the King', this outstanding filmmaker has delivered a satisfying final instalment of the epic adventure and a hugely enjoyable movie to boot.