To find a film trilogy as consistent as Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings,” you’d have to go back to the 1930s, when Marcel Pagnol brought French cinema into the talkie era with “Marius,” “Fanny” and “Cesar,” or the 1950s, when Satyajit Ray created his luminous “Apu” trilogy.
Outside of theaters that play foreign films, it’s been harder to find that kind of quality. English-language trilogies tend to disintegrate as they reach the third installment. Take “Godfather III,” “Return of the Jedi” or the most recent “Matrix” debacle -– please.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which completes Jackson’s remarkable adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy, isn’t perfect. It seems to end about five different times and it tends to plod between peak moments, but it’s easily the most spectacular and suspenseful episode in the series.
Best supporting creatureIt also cleverly capitalizes on the success of Tolkien’s most entertaining villain, Gollum, by opening with an extended flashback sequence that shows how the river hobbit Smeagol was corrupted and transformed into the duplicitous Gollum. There’s even an inspired reprise of the character’s split-personality scene from “The Two Towers,” this time with Gollum speaking to his reflection in a stream.
And there’s just enough live-action footage of Andy Serkis playing Smeagol to establish beyond any doubt that the character is more than just a special-effects creation. Particularly splendid is Gollum's scene with the spider monster Shelob, who spins a web around the paralyzed Frodo (Elijah Wood). The supporting-actor Oscar nomination that was denied Serkis for “The Two Towers” seems more likely now.
As Gollum poisons the relationship between Frodo and Sam (the indispensable Sean Astin) on their journey to Mount Doom, Orc armies, monstrous elephants and flying dragons are massing. Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and others take up the task of defeating these legions, while Frodo concentrates on destroying the Ring that ruined Smeagol and acts like a drug on those who hold it.
A bounty of battlesThe movie’s big-screen lure is the operatic battle footage, which pays homage to nearly every great action epic ever made. There’s more than a hint of the battle on the ice in “Alexander Nevsky,” the attack on Valencia in “El Cid,” the catastrophic siege of Babylon in “Intolerance.” At the same time, Jackson re-invents these classic movie moments for a 21st century audience.
He doesn’t just borrow these scenes; he revitalizes them with better-than-ever visual effects and makes them serve his story purposes. This isn’t stealing; it’s an inspired celebration of the past. “Return of the King,” like Jackson’s pseudo-documentary about a non-existent silent-movie genius, “Forgotten Silver,” is a movie that’s in love with film history.
The finale of this 200-minute, intermission-less marathon may seem bewildering, especially to non-devotees. Following the intense climb to the top of lava-spewing Mount Doom -- which is brilliantly intercut with the best of the battle scenes -- the picture threatens to collapse in a series of stately, soporific courtships and farewells. If you’re not planning on a nap, you might want to make your exit at the three-hour mark.
John Hartl is the film critic for MSNBC.com