Return of the schmaltz 

A review of Lord of the Rings: The King Returns

Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King (R)

It's that time of year again folks: egg nog, yule logs, and trouble in Mordor. The final installment of Peter Jackson's epic to end all epics, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King is upon us and the word from this embedded Middle Earth reporter is not good.

Just as many a nostalgic Gen X'r couldn't come to grips with the atrocity that was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, so will Tolkienistas defend this film to their last breath (or until they finally manage to kiss a girl).

Make no mistake, the visual majesty of Jackson's saga is as grandiose as we've come to expect from his previous installments. There's no shortage of astonishing battle scenes, an Orc body count to rival Gallipoli, and enough marching armies of darkness to warm the corpse of Leni Reifenstahl.

The storylines are as follows: A travel-weary Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continue their ring-toss trek into Mordor. Leading them is the ring of power's favorite schizo crack whore, Gollum (Andy Serkis), who busies himself turning Frodo against Sam as part of his plan to recapture his "precioussss."

Meanwhile, the Dwarf, Elf, Man threesome of Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), restlessly await the ensuing battle for the kingdom of Minis Tirith, ruled by the milquetoast Denethor (John Noble).

The first act of The Return of The King is devoted to building up to the final showdown, which as we're repeatedly informed by wizard and man alike, is "the battle of our time." As Lord Sauron's army of Orcs (boulder-hurling giants), and gynormous pachyderms assemble outside the kingdom of Minis Tirith, Aragorn is dubbed King of Arathorn by elf cappo Elrond. With a newly forged sword he ventures to summon an oozing neon green army of the undead that sweeps into battle like something out of a liquid detergent commercial.

Creating the build-up to battle, and crafting a pervasive sense of dread are where Jackson excels. As in the previous Rings films, Jackson exploits computer graphic images and his native New Zealand landscape to ensconce us in a world that's viable, enchanting and firmly set on its impeding conflagration. Helping him is the magisterial performance of Ian McKellen as Gandalf, the only cast member who makes the nauseatingly prophetic dialogue the least bit plausible.

Due to its David Lean-esque running time, visual enchantment soon gives way to ennui. Trust that Jackson, who should get some special E-for-effort Oscar, will test your devotion to computer graphic beasts, gratuitous battle scenes and dialogue mawkish enough to make daytime television look like some sort of social realist experiment.

Don't know about you, but there are only so many stoic lines like "We ride to Minis Tirith and to war!" that I can stomach. While the exploration of power as inherent corruption is undeniably compelling when played out between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum, are we really expected to snuggle up to the concept of a fated monarchy?

What pushes The Return of the King into the realm of the laughable -- and mark my words, it will be the equivalent of Mystery Science Theater fodder when the hoopla has died down -- is a four-part soft focus denouement. Apparently, Jackson couldn't settle on an ending, so he opted for all of the above and it reeks of a burgeoning postpartum depression. Most of this insufferable ending, it should be noted, is in slow motion, with unbearably goofy shots of the reunited hobbit foursome of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin (who when assembled look like a burlap-clad boy band) frolicking in delight.

Even those not prone to detecting homoeroticism, have observed the gooey scenes between both pairs of hobbits inducing expectations of halfling-on-halfling make-out sessions.

While this review has no doubt peed on more than a few Christmas parades, it's written firm in the conviction that fans of the previous films might be a little let down, but by no means disappointed. They'll get what they expect, and a lot of it. Skeptics conscripted into the theaters, however, should consider bringing along a spare ass, because like the soul of the ring bearer, yours will be hardened beyond measure.

-- John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

(See Noel Black's rebuttal, page 36)

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