All hail The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King! I can't think of another film trilogy that ends in such glory, or another monumental work of sustained storytelling that surges ahead with so much inventiveness and ardor. The conclusion of Peter Jackson's masterwork is passionate and literate, detailed and expansive, and it's conceived with a risk-taking flair for old-fashioned movie magic at its most precious, a rarity now that CGI prowess has fallen into the hands of run-of-the-mill studio ring-chasers.
And now that I have your attention, here's why, specifically, the concluding episode of this fantasy epic is so good.
• The narrative soars, sweeping us up exactly where we were deposited at the end of ''The Two Towers,'' with confidence that if we've come this far, we're willing to follow without need of a remedial recap. As its title suggests, the times are climactic as the J.R.R. Tolkien saga resumes: The Ring-toting Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his devoted hobbit friend Sam (Sean Astin) are picking their way toward Mount Doom with the help/hindrance of the tormented Gollum (Andy Serkis + digital sorcery). The various constituencies of Middle-earth -- including the men of Rohan and their king Théoden (Bernard Hill), the Ranger-with-potential Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the archer-elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the hearty dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) -- are plucking up courage, at the urging of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), to take a desperate stand against the monstrous orcs who fight on behalf of the evil Sauron. And very human emotions of fear, despair, madness, sorrow, rage, distrust, defiance, and hope are playing out against an onslaught of fantastical monsters of discord. ''The Return of the King'' begins in midair, and never loses loft.
• The characters deepen. Perhaps because the actors themselves have spent so much time in the skins (real or, in the case of the amazing creation Gollum, computer-generated) of their Middle-earth counterparts, shadings and subtleties of personality emerge that refresh our love of these fairy-tale players.
Dashing leaders Aragorn and Théoden become more soulful. The squabbly partnership between Legolas and Gimli softens. Théoden's niece, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), discovers reserves of battlefield bravery. Backbench hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) have some nice moments as stand-ins for the kind of unspectacular folks most of us in the audience are. And most profoundly of all, the balance of heroism shifts between Frodo and Sam -- the hobbit with greatness thrust on him, and the theoretically less remarkable, decent hobbit by his side -- so that in an accretion of revelatory acts, we realize that it's Sam whose saga this really is. Wood is a marvelously human-style study in second thoughts; Astin is, quite simply, the average Joe star of the show.
• The discipline of the production never falters. The battle scenes are stupendous, as one would expect or hope: Flapping dragonlike beasts, stomping elephantine-via-''Star Wars'' behemoths, and a nightmare giant of a spider do their worst, and 200,000 orcs assemble for an attack. But Jackson puts each creature and each stirring speech there for a reason. (He doesn't linger, either, when a smoldering look will do, whether between Mortensen and Liv Tyler as Aragorn's beloved Arwen, or between Gandalf and the heavens.) And as he has done throughout, the director paces scenes of action, intimacy, and even panoramic, geographical grandeur (as when the fires blaze in sequence on mountain peaks, alerting the populace that the time of battle has arrived) with the control of a superb choreographer.
• The stakes matter. I'm certain that henceforth in its long life ahead as a great movie classic, the entire ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy will pick up the vibrations of whatever unease, instability, and longing are in the air -- of enemy threatening enemy, neighbor fearing neighbor, alliances forming and dissolving as alliances do in this real world. Perhaps the meaning of it will change as future audiences translate the parable to suit future times. The point is, it's impossible to watch ''The Return of the King,'' or to listen to the delicate passages and ringing declarations shaped by screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson from Tolkien's text, without also feeling that real world pressing in. And that's a triumph, first of Tolkien's relevance, and second of this production's valor in holding so inventively true to the author's vision.More Action/Adventure Movies