[Screen It]

(2003) (Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen) (PG-13)

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Action/Fantasy: Various beings of Middle Earth battle forces of evil as they continue on their quest to transport a powerful and dangerous ring to its place of origin so that it can be destroyed.
In this final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the former hobbit Smeagol turned psychotic Gollum (voice of ANDY SERKIS) is still leading hobbits Frodo Baggins (ELIJAH WOOD) and Sam (SEAN ASTIN) toward Mount Doom. It is there where Frodo, the bearer of the powerful and evil ring, hopes to destroy it. Unbeknownst to him, Gollum, a former ring bearer, has plans of his own.

Meanwhile, after fellow hobbit Pippin (BILLY BOYD) activates a device that convinces the Dark Lord that he's the ring bearer, wizard Gandalf (IAN McKELLEN) realizes he must take him to safety. Accordingly, they travel to Gondor where they meet Lord Denethor (JOHN NOBLE), the father of Faramir (DAVID WENHAM) and his late brother Boromir, and unsuccessful caretaker of the throne.

Things don't look good for him or his people as hordes of Orcs, under the control of the Dark Lord, are approaching and sure to defeat them. Accordingly, King Theoden (BERNARD HILL) has agreed to send help to Gondor. With Aragorn (VIGGO MORTENSEN), elf Legolas (ORLANDO BLOOM) and dwarf Gimli (JOHN RHYS-DAVIES) off to find ghostly reinforcements, the King, his nephew Eomer (KARL URBAN) and their army set off on their long journey.

Theoden's niece, Eowyn (MIRANDA OTTO), however, isn't pleased that she's been ordered to stay behind. Accordingly, she dons a disguise, grabs Pippin's best friend Merry (DOMINIC MONAGHAN) and joins the forces. Meanwhile, Aragorn's elf lover, Arwen (LIV TYLER), decides to live as a mortal rather than be immortal with her father, Elrond (HUGO WEAVING), a point that doesn't sit well with him.

With the various forces set to battle the Orcs and a powerful being known as the Witch-king, Frodo and Sam try to avoid Gollum's devious plans so that they can destroy the ring once and for all.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Unless one is referring to an animated feature, it's somewhat of a sad statement when the most interesting character among a large and otherwise impressive cast is one that's been spit out by a computer. That's not an indictment of the performers but rather a week script that's on display once again in the last installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

Like the first two films, this one is long on spectacle and special effects but comes up rather short in the story department. Yes, there are hordes of characters in multiple storylines. Yet, what may have worked rather well in novel form comes up lacking on the screen.

While diehard fans will obviously argue to the contrary, not one bit of the drama (not including the battle or action scenes) engaged me in the slightest. Purists, aficionados and the psychotically obsessed will probably cheer the completion of the Fellowship's goal and culmination of the individual threads and overall story, but I could have cared less.

All of which brings us back to the most interesting element the film has to offer, and that's Gollum. Voiced and physically created by Andy Serkis and then refashioned in digital form, the demented little fellow is a fascinating cinematic creation and far more complex and interesting than his flesh and blood counterparts.

Thus, when the film starts with a prologue of sorts showing the character's history - rather than the shot but jettisoned footage of Christopher Lee's Saruman character (that reportedly will reappear on DVD) - my hopes were buoyed. Perhaps, I thought, the last installment of this overlong and over-hyped trilogy would focus mostly on him. Of course, and considering the setup from the first two films, I knew that wouldn't come true, but one can hope.

Thus, while the Gollum character gets some significant screen time in the subplot featuring Sean Austin and Elijah Wood who's grateful for the paycheck but probably happy no longer to sport the perpetual, wide-eyed and distressed look, the film spend more time wrapping up its various loose ends.

I understand that the film is the last installment of the trilogy and thus has to continue its various story threads. Yet, as a standalone picture (which is how it should be judged to some degree), it often feels like leftovers that have been heated and spiced up to make them seem tastier than the last time around.

Returning director Peter Jackson - who works from a screenplay he penned with Fran Walsh ("The Frighteners," "Heavenly Creatures") and Philippa Boyens (the first two "LOTR" films) -- obviously knows how to stage the various battle scenes, some of which admittedly are visually spectacular. Yet, the long, drawn out and often boring drama -- and the occasionally contrived, melodramatic and stilted dialogue that accompanies it -makes the first hour - of nearly three and a half total -- feel like watching C-SPAN.

Regardless of whether they're faithful to the source material, many scenes could have been trimmed or cut altogether, resulting in a shorter and more butt-friendly running time. That, of course, may have endangered the film's "epic" status.

In direct relation but not surprisingly, the battle scenes are bigger, louder and more elaborately conceived and executed than in the first two films. They're certainly glorious pieces of eye candy and are often exciting to behold. Methinks, however, that they're so over the top and visually busy that they confuse critics and moviegoers into thinking that they're watching cinematic masterpieces.

Had the accompanying drama and characters been better written and more engaging, that might have been the case. They're not, however, resulting in the same sort of experience of watching the past two "Star Wars" films (exciting visuals, but boring and drawn out melodrama).

Other than a few exceptions, the majority of the cast from the previous film returns and delivers performances right on par with the last time around. Most striking are Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen in the bigger roles, but the likes of Liv Tyler and especially Cate Blanchett are once again shortchanged when it comes to screen time and/or interesting characteristics.

With Lee MIA, however, they fare much better than the villains do individually or collectively. Sure, there are various Orc "infantrymen," a huge spider (straight out of "Harry Potter") and a literally faceless character known as the "Witch-king." None, however, suitably creates an antagonist for the heroes to conquer and vanquish. Instead, the big bad guy is represented by a huge, floating "eye" in the sky (and nobody even gets the change to toss dirt or poke him there).

In conclusion, if you loved the first two films, you'll undoubtedly feel the same way about the finale. On the other hand, if you still don't understand what all of the fuss has been about, this release won't change your mind. However, it will likely have you wishing that as much attention and care were applied to the other characters and story as has obviously been to the fascinating Gollum.

Bigger, louder and unfortunately longer than its predecessors, with a denouement that seems like it will never end, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is far from the masterpiece many will say it is. Yet, it has enough visual panache to earn a recommendation in the form of a 6 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed December 1, 2003 / Posted December 17, 2003

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