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Associated Press | December 11th 2003

Final 'Rings' Has Many Endings
by DAVID GERMAIN, AP Movie Writer

With "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," Peter Jackson delivers a decent ending to his fantasy trilogy — actually, about 12 endings.
Unable to settle on a finale among the many farewells and epilogues in J.R.R. Tolkien's text, director Jackson decided to use them all.

The result is an endless parade of false endings that will give you a great lower back workout as you rise from your theater seat thinking things are finally over, then settle back in for the next prolonged addendum.

This is the main flaw to an otherwise rousing, action-packed closing chapter that began with 2001's "The Fellowship of the Ring" and continued with last year's "The Two Towers." The nine-hour theatrical epic (more like 11 hours once the extended home-video version of all three flicks are out) winds up petering out in anticlimactic torpor.

Jackson does scale back greatly on the aftermath of the final good-against-evil battle, yet he preserves the main events to keep die-hard Tolkien fans happy.

So viewers are treated in some detail to such comparatively passive sequences as the survivors' return home; the ascension of human warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) to the throne and his wedding to Elf hottie Arwen (Liv Tyler); the mystical fate of runty Hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Bilbo (Ian Holm), woolly wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen ) and Elf top dogs Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving); and the domestic bliss of Frodo's Man Friday, Sam (Sean Astin).

That baggage makes "Return of the King" the longest of the trilogy by far, clocking in at 3 hours, 20 minutes.

There's far too much cool-down time for casual viewers but probably not enough to satisfy the hard-core Tolkien legions. So why not put Blanchett back in voice-over mode, let her narrate a Reader's Digest condensed montage of Jackson's interminable ending, and save the elongated conclusion for the extended home-video cut?

The movie opens with a flashback explaining how Smeagol (Andy Serkis) came to possess his "precious," the nasty ring of ultimate evil, and the first dark deeds that began transforming him into wizened computer-crafted fiend Gollum.

Then the action picks up where "Two Towers" left off, with Gollum plotting to regain his precious as Frodo and Sam trek toward Mount Doom, where they must destroy the ring to keep dark lord Sauron from enslaving Middle-earth.

Meantime, Aragorn, Gandalf and the gang square off against Sauron's plug-ugly minions.

If you're looking for bigger and better battles than the first two chapters, "Return of the King" comes through. Jackson and his New Zealand crew, which filmed all three movies simultaneously, pile computer-generated props, sets and creatures as high as a Nazgul's eye to create the colossal combat scenes.

Bat-faced orcs ride gargantuan elephants into battle against humans on horseback. The adversaries engage in a very cool catapult duel that brings mountains of broken castle stone down on the warriors. Aragorn and pals Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) charge into the fray at the head of a ghastly ghost army.

Frodo's battle with a giant spider — an encounter Tolkien placed at the end of "Two Towers" but which Jackson transplants to "Return of the King" — is one of the creepiest computer-animated sequences ever produced.

Like "Two Towers," "Return of the King" is more a bruising action movie than "Fellowship of the Ring," the best of the trilogy on the strength of the intimate interplay among its misfit heroes.

Hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) again play larger roles, but much of the original fellowship members are relegated to prancing in larger-than-life mode. Secondary characters step up to provide the final film's most intriguing interpersonal drama.

Faramir (David Wenham), brother of the slain Boromir (Sean Bean), vainly struggles to gain the respect of his contemptible father, Denethor (John Noble). (If you have the chance, first watch the extended version of "The Two Towers," which includes an engaging flashback that adds texture to Faramir and Boromir's relationship with dear old dad).

While Tyler's Arwen and Blanchett's Galadriel again are mere window-dressing, Miranda Otto's Eowyn soars to provide the most forceful female presence in the entire trilogy and arguably the strongest single moment in "Return of the King."

Christopher Lee's evil wizard Saruman unfortunately is absent, though no doubt he'll be back in the extended home-video version. Though the trilogy's done, Tolkien fans still can look forward to that precious longer cut next fall.