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For the past couple of weeks, a poster on the bus stop outside CityBeat world headquarters has been promoting The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Despite the locked case, it was stolen - twice. Probably the culprits were eBay-minded bandits, but I imagined instead fans so obsessed with the movie, they just had to have a souvenir. I could relate, because, as an adolescent geek, I was enchanted by J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy about a last stand against evil made in the mythical Middle-earth by Elves, Men, Dwarves, Wizards, and the bucolic, tiny Hobbits. Hobbits were simple creatures, but a big theme for Tolkien was that even the most insignificant or unlikely being could affect worldly events.
As a grown-up geek, I'm still obsessing over The Lord of the Rings. Only now it's a trilogy of movies by New Zealand director Peter Jackson - of which The Return of the King is the much-anticipated last. I have several mature observations about this film: Catapults are cool. Armies of the dead are cool. Battle-phants are cool. Giant spiders are cool. Gollum the CGI-beastie is still waaay cool. And ... Aragorn the king-to-be (Viggo Mortensen) and Legolas his elf buddy (Orlando Bloom) are still hot!
Ahem. And, happily, Hobbits are most emphatically cool. Here, the four who left their cozy Shire homeland in 2001's The Fellowship of the Ring come full-circle yet are indelibly changed. As Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) slog clandestinely toward fiery Mt. Doom to destroy the Ring, at once abetted and hindered by Gollum (Andy Serkis), they suffer horribly yet never waver, their ordeal reflecting the inner struggles of the other characters. Meanwhile, kinsmen Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are buffeted by those struggles.
Each Hobbit undergoes a transformation, as does almost every survivor of the first movie's Fellowship. Aragorn finally accepts his destiny as King. The xenophobic Dwarf, Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), finally accepts his unorthodox friendship with Legolas. And Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the powerful Wizard who was already reborn in last year's The Two Towers, finally steps back - even as he thunders about the stronghold of Minas Tirith on his horse, calling the shots while motivating the troops - and lets Men, poised to inherit the future of Middle-earth, show their stuff.
And show their stuff they do, to dazzlingly epic effect. Return is so epic, it runs just over 20 minutes longer than each of its predecessors. It seems to end five or 10 different times. Still, though I practically know the story by heart, it was surprisingly suspenseful, building to so many desperate climaxes, it needed the long coda to help viewers ramp down emotionally. For a movie that's about holding onto hope, it can be relentlessly dire - as telegraphed from the beginning, when a beguiling pastoral scene goes quickly awry.
Despite the outrageously cool battle sequences, smaller moments resonate most. The movie is a stream of tiny turning points that add up to triumph. Skillfully melding great and small, Jackson evokes the power of hope in an elegant depiction of signal beacons sequentially set ablaze, calling Men to defend Minas Tirith against demonic Orcs. In one lyrically tragic sequence, Jackson wipes away the last shreds of Pippin's innocence like the tear the Hobbit sheds after forlornly crooning a ballad for the city's mad steward, Denethor (John Noble), as the ruler stomach-turningly devours a meal, blood running Orc-like down his chin, while his son Faramir (David Wenham) dutifully leads a suicide mission to fulfil Denethor's insane whim.
Making small moments big captures Tolkien's sensibility, but, given how spectacularly larger events are portrayed, it's amazing the visuals didn't overwhelm the movie's actually quite simple messages: Never give up, you can't go back, stand together against tyranny, embrace your destiny, it's never too late for redemption.
It occasionally goes over the top. But it's still the thoroughly satisfying conclusion of an incredible cinematic chapter - the scope, the technological advances, the story, the performances.
Return is partly about valor in battle, but bravery comes from surprising places. By now we expect heroics from stalwart Sam, and he more than meets our expectations. When Merry and Eowyn (Miranda Otto), niece to the horsemen's king Theoden (the wonderful Bernard Hill), secretly ride to war, they are determined but terrified. Their shaky resolve contrasts sharply with the seasoned horsemen around them, yet even as Eowyn trembles, she doesn't flinch from her crucial stand, and Merry doesn't hesitate in playing his part.
The catharsis of such moments is as powerful as Tolkien originally made it, but that's almost a given by now. After all, the best thing about these movies is how the adaptations (screenplays by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson) have stayed emotionally true to Tolkien's tale. I have my nitpicky fan-girl issues, but the changes didn't ruin anything for me. Jackson brings the story to life so authentically, I had the same disoriented feeling when Return ended that I got after reading the books for hours on end: surprised not to actually be in Middle-earth. Again, by now the shock of seeing something previously visible only in my imagination so perfectly rendered on screen has worn off, but it remains astonishing that Jackson painted what Tolkien saw, so to speak, while making these vibrant canvases undeniably his own.
Still, Return's intricate whirl of a tale apparently doesn't require any detail-obsession. After the screening, I chattered excitedly to my date, who saw the previous LOTR films but never read the books: 'Wasn't it amazing when Theoden...'
'Who's that, now?'
'You know, the king of the horsemen? He leads the Rohirrim to Gondor to defend Minas Tirith?'
'You mean the guy with the goatee?'
'Uh...yeah.' I was puzzled. How could he enjoy this movie if he didn't know who was doing what to whom when, or where? My date, who quite enjoyed himself, shrugged. Jackson so firmly grasps the essence of Tolkien's story, he engages even the uninitiated. All those complicated names and places aren't stumbling blocks but instead add to the sense of reality. After all, Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the gang all live in Middle-earth; they'd naturally know its lore and lingo. But it isn't necessary for viewers to be quite that involved.
Of course, Jackson has the benefit of CGI to make such elements as the sweeping battle sequences feel real, but, again, the relatively smaller effects represent the film's biggest technical achievements. Creatures like Shelob, the spider, are so intricately executed, you don't even think about them being computer-generated. Gollum is probably the exception, if only because the CGI has been so discussed, it's impossible not to at least passingly recall he isn't real. Yet his soul is provided by Serkis, who should at least be considered for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. (If he can get past Astin.)
When Tolkien's trilogy was first published, some declared it an allegory of World War II, which he denied. Jackson's films likewise offer parallels with and lessons for our own darkening world, but to me the LOTR saga is about universal, enduring truths arrived at through the stirring deeds of beloved characters. As with most hard-won fights, the biggest joys, along with the most grievous losses, come at the end. But when Jackson's Return of the King was over, I felt sad. I wanted the story to go on. Which is exactly the way I felt after turning the final page of Tolkien's Return of the King, too.