The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Peter Jackson
Running time: 203 minutes
Language: English
Opens Feb. 14
[See Japan Times movie listings]

It’s February, so we must be in Middle Earth. The annual magical mystery tour through Tolkien’s fantastic realm has become a fondly anticipated ritual, and we’ll miss it when it’s gone. No other blockbuster has delivered the goods so consistently when it comes to jaw-dropping, eye-popping spectacle, sustaining its mood and mystery while keeping the naff bits to a minimum. Certainly not the underwhelming “Matrix” sequels.

“The Return of the King,” the final installment in director Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, almost needs no review. If you liked, or disliked, either of the first two films, this one offers more of the same, with the emphasis on the “more.” Suffice to say that Jackson really pulls out all the stops. There are masked witch kings flying on serpentine Fell Beasts, plucking warriors off the battlements of the besieged city of Minas Tirith and hurling them to their doom; Shelob, a giant spider silently stalking Frodo and Sam as they slip through slimy tunnels into the barren land of Mordor; literally hundreds of slavering, leprous Orcs, each one a throwaway wonder of makeup and art design in itself. And then there is Gollum, emblematic of the “Ring” films, a wondrous mix of spectral digital wizardry and tangibly fleshy performance.

Gollum’s hissy fit — “We wantsss it, we needsss it!” — could apply to our own cravings for a film that took seven years to make. (Stop a moment and really let that register.) This may be Jackson’s most enduring contribution to cinema: The idea that extended, multi-installment, 10-hour-plus narratives can be realized in the context of the movies. Sure, there have been TV mini-series, but always with far less lavish production quality. And, yes, there have always been sequels, but it’s Jackson who has trailblazed the notion of filming one long story, cohesive from the outset, and releasing it in installments. It wasn’t so long ago that pundits were wondering whether interest could be sustained for the follow-on films; now everyone’s rushing to join in. (With “Kill Bill” being the weakest trend-hopper: Its two parts together aren’t even as long as “The Return of the King.”)

Without a doubt, “The Return of the King” will sweep up the awards this year (those Golden Globes for Best Film and Best Director were just the start), but you’ll certainly hear some detractors as well. Skeptics will point to the hokey bits, like Tolkien’s anachronistic dialogue or the twee Hobbit merrymaking. More damning is that the second and final “Ring” films can make you feel like you’re sitting through the 100 Years War. And, amid all the wonders, you can also find the occasional “too CG”-looking special effect, like the plasma-green spectral warriors that appear to be straight out of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

In my more Gollum-like moments, I find myself arguing with myself over the same points. But not for long. “Return” is essentially a “belief” movie: Choose to believe in it, and it will take you away. Hold back, and you’ll be stuck in a smelly old wardrobe while the rest of us are off in Narnia (oops, that’s next year). Those of you who have already surrendered to the intoxication of Jackson’s world will no doubt already have your tickets in hand. For those who are still wavering, I offer the following Top 10 Reasons To Go See “The Return of the King”:

10) It doesn’t have any car chases, “buddy cops,” product placement or hyper-edited wire stunts set to rap-metal.

9) It has Ogres, and none of them are Mike Myers.

8) Because 14-year-old girls from Florida will send me death threats via e-mail if I were to write anything even remotely negative about Orlando Bloom, or a movie he’s in, or the fact that . . . he’s, like, totally gay! (Ha ha, c’mon, try me!)

7) You can watch it a dozen times and still not be able to figure out how they assembled several hundred horsemen for the Battle of Pelennor Fields and shot over several weeks, without leaving a trace of horse dung on the screen . . . or maybe the WETA SFX crew used the same poop-scooper software Jean-Pierre Jeunet used in “Amelie” to wipe the streets of Paris clean — a similarly remarkable feat.

6) To see if Frodo can get rid of his ring faster than Britney ditched hers. With a running time of around 10 hours for the “Lord” trilogy, though, Ms. Spears may retain her record.

5) Because Peter Jackson is probably the hottest director in the world right now, and he still doesn’t bother to comb his hair.

4) To watch the hardcore Tolkien fans (you know, the ones who have runic Elvish fonts on their computers and download digitally doctored dirty pics of Xena) have epileptic fits when they see Gandalf bop the Steward of Gondor with his staff, or one of the many other instances where Jackson has dared to tamper with the original.

3) Because even though Jackson tacked on about six endings, none of them are as painfully twee and kitsch as the Ewok disco par-tay that closed the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

2) After 6 1/2 hours of the first two films, you’ve really got to find out whether or not Frodo drops the Ring in the Crack of Doom. I mean, who knows? Maybe he just says, “Screw this,” and pawns it to a Haradim trader for a fistful of pipe-weed and a ride on a Mumakil mammoth.

1) To find out the real secret of the “Ring” trilogy: Are they or aren’t they? Frodo and Sam are the closest a blockbuster movie has ever come to outing its male buddies. Frodo leans back in his companion’s arms and sighs, “Oh, Sam Gamgee” and . . . wait for it.

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