In the third part of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, the burden of carrying the ring of power weighs more heavily on Frodo the closer he comes to his final destination. No doubt Peter Jackson, the director who took on the monster task of adapting Rings, knows how that feels by now. Released one per year for the last three years, Jackson's films have taken on more weight and created greater anticipation with each installment. The Fellowship Of The Ring proved that Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, were more than capable of bringing Tolkien to the screen with an eye toward large-scale spectacle as well as a respect for the original story, characters, and themes. The Two Towers did it one better. Ratcheting up the intensity on every level, it took the series to the same place as Tolkien's books: the realm of shared cultural myth. Jackson doesn't buckle under the burden of winding it down with The Return Of The King, either; in fact, he lets the weightiness define the film. As Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and the treacherous Gollum (a CGI Andy Serkis) progress toward destroying the ring, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the Fellowship's other surviving members mount a defense against the evil Sauron, every gesture conveys a significance emphasized by Jackson's slow, portentous approach. In the end, the director pays off the time viewers invested in the first two films with a climax that places equal emphasis on both Wood's personal struggle and an army-of-millions battle, with a denouement that gives a proper sendoff to characters who have become something like old friends. All in all, it's a fitting conclusion to the series, and yet there are disappointments built in. For one, Jackson has opted not to film Tolkien's downbeat "Scouring Of The Shire" epilogue. This is less a matter for purists than it sounds, since it leaves the central conflict as a grand clash between the easily identifiable forces of good and evil, while ignoring the persistence of evil in everyday life. A faint whiff of formula hits the air, as well, as Towers' speech-battle-lull rhythms kick in about halfway through. But these are quibbles, the kind of minor letdowns that can only be created by great expectations. In another instance of the production echoing the plot, The Return Of The King ultimately proves up to the series' increasingly difficult task: making movies that echo legends, making legends that reflect life, and reconciling it all with the fact that both legends and lives all eventually meet their ends.
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