The Two Towers saw fellowship mates--brave man Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) archer-elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) grand wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) comical dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies)--win a major battle against Dark Lord Sauron's orcs at Helm's Deep alongside noble King Theoden (Bernard Hill) of Rohan. But as we soon find out in The Return of the King that battle was nuthin' compared to what the good folks of Middle-earth are about to face. Sauron's force is growing more powerful and malevolent by the minute and the men joined by feisty Hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) are on the move to what they anticipate being their last stand at the Gondor city of Minas Tirith. Desperation fear and hope play out on the faces of the warriors who face impossible odds as they battle an endless sea of orcs flying dragons gargantuan many-horned elephants and catapult-heaving behemoths waging a merciless attack on the walled fortress. Meanwhile hapless Hobbits Sam (Sean Astin) and Ring-bearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) with the help/hindrance of conniving Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) continue their arduous quest to Mordor. Sam grows ever more distrustful of the underhanded creature (with just cause) but the awful and all-powerful Ring is clouding Frodo's judgment causing him to heed Gollum and doubt his stalwart Hobbit friend. Sam knows Frodo isn't himself carrying such a heavy burden so he refuses to waver in his sole duty to get Frodo to Mount Doom where he can cast the Ring into the lava rivers from whence it came and rid Middle-earth of Sauron's dark forces forever. Then and only then can Aragorn take his rightful place as heir to the ancient kings and rule the land in peace.
The trilogy's familiar characters have grown subtly deeper in The Return of the King. We've gotten to know these characters so well in their journeys of the previous two films that they've come to life in flesh bone and a computer-generated part or two far more even than in the fantastical novels. Strapping Mortensen turns Aragorn into a worthy king not just with heroic words (although he does give one heck of a Henry V speech to rally the troops) but also with immense courage in his convictions. Bloom's Legolas still the coolest elf ever (sorry Will Ferrell) and Rhys-Davies' Gimli finally put away their cultural differences and become true friends while the wise McKellen and perky Boyd have some poignant moments together preparing Minas Tirith for the great battle and saving Gondor ranger Faramir (David Wenham) from his insane father Denethor (John Noble). Miranda Otto as Rohan princess Eowyn shows some serious mettle on the battlefield kicking the bejeezus outta some nasty baddies. Frodo on the other hand is so tormented and feeble it's hard to watch at times but the soulful Wood plays it beautifully. Serkis' computer-generated Gollum remains as creepy and sad as ever but when he gets the Ring back for one brief shining moment the look of pure joy on that horribly distorted face is something to see. But there's no doubt about it; the true hero of this last installment is Astin's Sam. Turns out the trilogy is as much Sam's journey as Frodo's--if anything Sam is the one who changes most throughout the ordeal as his average Joe Hobbit becomes the story's heart and soul.
Just when you thought director Peter Jackson couldn't make his epic any bigger or better he completely outdoes himself with the spectacle that is The Return of the King. He is meticulous about this production's look and feel and he doesn't falter on a single detail. Witness the giant spider Shelob which Jackson says was inspired by his own arachnophobia--it shows. The battle scenes go far beyond anything ever seen on screen and take special effects wizardry to new heights with images of armies washing toward their opponents like waves. The monsters are even more terrifying: The piercing cries of the winged dragons deafen the men in agony and the elephantine creatures stomping the army of men and their horses like ants recall (and were obviously influenced by) George Lucas' plodding Imperial Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. (Watch Legolas bring one of those puppies down!) As in the past films Jackson intersperses all this heart-stopping action with small intimate moments of quiet contemplation taking as Gandalf puts it a deep breath before the last stand. Along with his trusted director of photography Andrew Lesnie Jackson gorgeously captures the panoramic grandeur of the New Zealand landscape especially in a scene where beacons are lit from mountaintop to mountaintop to let the men of Middle-earth know the war's on. If any criticism can be made it's in the last 30 minutes when the film lingers too long tying things up (and this is a three-and-a-half hour opus folks; pack a picnic). While the closing scenes are important Jackson seems to have trouble selecting which ending to use (mind you there are like 20 endings in the book so with four or so Jackson's still coming out ahead). Without question the New Zealand director should win the Oscar for this astonishing accomplishment. Maybe he'll melt it down to make a giant golden Ring.