Peter Jackson saves his "A" game for this, the epic conclusion to his Lord of the Rings saga. Although I still prefer the small-scale adventure of the first film, Return of the King boasts a more stalwart plot than The Two Towers and Jackson's confidence at the helm is at its zenith.
In this final installment, Sauron releases the full wrath of his orc army against the kingdom of men. A major roadblock to his domination of Middle Earth is the multi-walled city Minas Tirith, which is presided over by its increasingly-nutbar steward Denethor. Anticipating the Dark Lord's strategy, the recently revived Gandalf the White and King Théoden of Rohan muster their combined forces to help defend Gondor's capital from the overwhelming tide of evil.
Meanwhile Aragorn finally accepts his destiny and the line of Kings is reborn. Along with stalwart companions Legolas and Gimli, he seeks out some unconventional allies to oppose the coming darkness. Despite this resolute allegiance of men, it soon becomes apparent that Sauron's army is limitless forces and ultimately the fate of Middle Earth is in the hands of our two hobbit heroes Frodo and Sam. The saga comes to a powerful climax as the two attempt to smuggle the One Ring into the heart of darkness and attempt to destroy it in the hellish furnace of Mount Doom.
This is truly a bravura finish to the series. One of the most stirring plot threads is explored in the relationship between Faramir and Denethor. In the original novel Denethor is a much more sympathetic figure but here he's positively mad with grief over the death of his beloved son Boromir and filled with contempt over Faramir's continued existence. John Noble really manages to wring the "ripe bastard" elements out of the script and pretty soon you're counting the minutes to see Denethor end up as kindling.
After Saruman's Uruk-Hai had their collective asses handed to them in previous film, you might be tempted to discount the threat level. But in Return of the King, Jackson and company do a great job conveying the extent of Sauron's power. During the film we're privy to hordes of orcs, head-flinging catapults, siege engines, evil corsairs, airborne Nazgul, a host of Southrons on giant war elephants, a battering ram so scary they gave it a name, armored trolls, the invincible Witch King and a giant spider that could eat John Goodman as an appetizer. Zionks!
Opposing all of this are our dauntless heroes. Ian McKellen's Gandalf becomes increasingly otherworldly, not unlike King Arthur's Merlin. Every once and awhile, you get the sense that he's catching glimpses of alternate realities and time lines not obvious on the material plane. His implied omniscience becomes a subtle reason for audience concern. After all, if even the mighty Gandalf is uncertain about the final outcome, things must really be dire!
Viggo Mortensen also completes an impressive character arc as he abandons his shadowy guise as a northern ranger and becomes Heir to the throne of Gondor. It's fun to watch his authority grow with each modest victory. By the time the grossly outnumbered army of men stage an Occupy Mordor rally, Mortensen effortlessly joins fellow nominees Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson in the "Best Movie Speech Given to Motivate Troops Who Are About to Die Horribly" category.
Peter Jackson and his omnipresent screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens use the minor characters to great effect, emphasizing the indomitable spirit of individuals that Sauron underestimates the most. Eowyn's unexpected stand against the Witch King in one of the best scenes of the entire trilogy. Although Miranda Otto's Eowyn is nearly apoplectic with terror she's still willing to risk everything to protect her people and her allies. And despite his diminutive stature, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) isn't willing to sit idly by and watch his friends sacrifice themselves. Ultimately, these modest decisions add up to an incremental ray of hope.
Of course, this is no more evident then in the quest of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin). After their schizophrenic guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) manages to plant a seed of discord between the two, Frodo abandons Sam and sets off by himself. Rather than acting spurned, Sam catches up to Frodo and prevents his master from becoming a Hobbit McNugget for one of Sauron's nastier housepets. Indeed, if there's such a thing as Time Magazine's "Hobbit of the Year" Mr. Gamgee is a shoo-in.
The final confrontation that occurs when Frodo and Sam are standing in the heart of Mount Doom is also brilliantly staged. Even though I'd read the books and knew what was going to happen, I still felt a genuine sense of tension as the One Ring made a final stab at self-preservation and Gollum re-surfaced as a wild card. Although Tolkien purists may balk, Jackson's cinematic interpretations do a fine job in wringing tension and drama out of the original texts.
My complains about the film are limited to a few minor quibbles. The green day-glo undead army that Aragorn conjures up looks like B-roll leftovers from The Frighteners. In fact, a lot of the CGI is pretty cartoonish, especially the notorious "Legolas Skywalker" sequence in which the elf archer takes down an oliphaunt single-handedly. But given the massive scale of the battles required for Return of the King, a surfeit of CGI was a necessary evil.
Now a lot of people also like to bitch about the "multiple endings" but really don't think a story this epic can just drop curtains like a traditional film. In fact, the extended conclusion really drives home the assertion that emotional wounds can take a lot longer to heal then physical ones. For a film that some may erroneously dismiss as pure escapist fantasy, I think Peter Jackson really succeeded at presenting the story as a metaphor for Tolkien's experiences in the first World War. Indeed, Return of the King has a lot to say about surviving war, even long after the swords have become ploughshares.
Taken together, The Lord of the Rings is still the high water mark of film fantasy. If you haven't seen these movies yet, then get on it! My advice: watch the Extended Editions if you can. Despite the intimidating run time, they story is more fleshed out, the pacing flows better than the "theatrical cuts" and all three movies are broken up over two discs, making for the perfect intermission.
Truly a staggering achievement in imaginative film, the Rings trilogy ranks right up there with the first two Star Wars films for me.