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Review: A spectacular finish for 'Rings'

Trilogy goes out in triumph

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

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(CNN) -- It's here.

The long-awaited final installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is now in theaters. And yes, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" is spectacular.

One thing first: it's way too long. The film clocks in at three and a half hours, though representatives from New Line Cinema (a division of Time Warner, as is CNN) repeatedly insist that the running time is actually three hours, 28 minutes and 58 seconds. Methinks they doth protest too much.

But I digress. This third in the series of the "Rings" franchise is utterly breathtaking. Even J.R.R. Tolkien would be highly impressed.

In a very clever move, director Peter Jackson brings us full circle with the opening scenes of "Return of the King," showing a young Deagol fishing with his creepy brother Smeagol (the future Gollum). When Deagol is pulled underwater by a huge fish, he spots a half-submerged golden ring in the riverbed. Once again, we see the power of the ring as the two brothers fight for possession. The scene also re-establishes the power of the movie series: you'll find yourself refocused and drawn firmly back into the grip of this most excellent adventure.

Ring and Doom

In this last installment, we find Sauron's forces have attacked Gondor's capital, in a final effort to erase mankind. The kingdom is desperately in need of a leader, and slowly Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) begins fulfilling his destiny.

Battle after battle rages as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) tries to bring the fellowship together long enough to give Frodo (Elijah Woods) and Sam (Sean Astin) a chance to destroy the One Ring by throwing it into Mount Doom.

Gollum, who fought for the Ring with his brother, now challenges Frodo and others in "The Return of the King."

Meanwhile, Sam and Gollum (Andy Serkis) fight for Frodo's loyalty, as Frodo himself struggles against the power of the ring -- a ring still held firmly in place on a chain around his neck. Back and forth the battle for Middle-earth rages as wizards, hobbits, elves, humans and dwarves fight against Sauron's powers of evil.

As the story careens from one gigantic confrontation to another, one of Tolkien's main themes becomes more and more apparent: with determination, courage and faith, even the smallest of us can make a difference and change the world. It's this juxtaposition of the intimate relationships within the story, and the giant powerful forces creating the story, that gives "Return of the King" its brilliant combination of soaring cinematic climaxes and deeply felt moments of heart and soul.

The acting skills in the first two "Lord of the Rings" films went mostly unnoticed, but Wood and Astin both give award-winning performances as they struggle -- emotionally and physically -- towards their final goal.

A major triumph

Indeed, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a major triumph on many levels. One of the most important is the marriage of current technology and Tolkien's vivid imagination. Visually, these films could not have been made even a few years ago.

Peter Jackson (left), the director and screenplay co-writer of "Rings," has guided the trilogy with sure hands.

The other major element is the wondrous combination of one man's vision and the perfect subject matter. Jackson seems to have been born to bring Tolkien's mammoth literary masterpiece to the big screen. His achievement is monumental in its scope and scale. The Academy will be hard-pressed to give best director -- or best picture -- to anyone or anything other than Jackson and his magnificent movie.

Historically, the Academy has rarely rewarded fantasy films -- or, for that matter, blockbuster epics. But surely this year will be an exception. By honoring "The Return of the King," the the entire trilogy will also be rewarded. That would be entirely fitting, since these three movies are destined to take a major place in film history, and will be enjoyed by generations to come.

Oscar also likes to honor the business, and arguably, New Line Cinema has taken the biggest risk in film studio history by making "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. This $300 million gamble, involving the unprecedented step of filming all three movies at the same time, was a bold and gutsy move -- one that could have destroyed the small company. Instead, CEOs Robert Shaye and Michael Lynne have emerged as visionaries who staked their futures on the talents of Jackson -- never tested to this extreme -- and his unknown New Zealand special effects company.

They gambled and they won. All in all, "The Lord of the Rings" is the stuff that dreams are made of.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" opens nationwide on Wednesday, December 17, and is rated PG-13 with a running time of 3 hours, 28 minutes and 58 seconds.

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