Forget all the talk that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King won't receive the honors it deserves because it will be categorized as a fantasy. It immediately joins the number of immortal movies that transcend labels or genres, such as Greed or The Godfather or The Wizard of Oz. And as the final chapter of, essentially, a single 10-hour movie, it has a narrative beauty and a sublime ensemble performance that put it in a class by itself.

The director and co-writer, Peter Jackson, achieves the impact that D.W. Griffith won in the multiple climaxes of Intolerance - what the poet and critic James Agee compared to "the swinging together of tremendous gongs."

If you've followed The Lord of the Rings through The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, every scene sets off a soul-stirring resonance. And if you haven't kept pace with the trilogy, there can be no higher art or entertainment outing this season than catching up to the first two and then seeing The Return of the King.

In this third movie installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's three-book epic, what ups the voltage of the drama and our connection to the characters is how near they now come to catastrophe. The necessity to take righteous action even on the edge of doom: That's the true subject of this picture.

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the stalwart leader of men who is slow to assume his kingship, and Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the wizard who spans the worlds of men, elves, dwarves, hobbits and ents, continue to rally all free creatures against the evil Sauron. It's an intense pleasure to watch Mortensen and McKellen scale new peaks in their performances. Mortensen balances Aragorn's confidence and doubts on the fine blade of an elf-forged sword; his burgeoning authority gives his coronation a supremely satisfying rightness. And McKellen conjures for Gandalf an aura of wisdom-within-wisdom fit for a wizard who's experienced his own resurrection. He makes everyone else who's played such roles come off as a sorcerer's apprentice.

Sauron, so consumed with power-lust that he's become an ultra-potent all-seeing eye, has been raising a goblin army to sweep over Middle Earth and overthrow man's dominion. The victory of Aragorn and his forces at Helm's Deep in The Two Towers has heightened Sauron's speed and urgency. So has the villain's obsession with the Ruling Ring he devised and lost. Sauron knows the Ring is on the move, but he still doesn't know it's in the hands of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin).

Well, not in the hobbits' hands, exactly, but around Frodo's neck. Frodo alone accepted the burden of the Ring, and Sam has devoted himself to aiding Frodo in his quest for its destruction.

From the first film on, Frodo has realized that if he puts it on his finger he'll fall prey to the deadly forces of Sauron's shadow-world and be even more vulnerable to the Ring's seductive pull, which drains its owner's will while promising control over all others.

The Return of the King isn't just about good vs. evil. It's about doing the right thing when the choice could be suicidal - and waging war against corruption though you risk awakening corruption within yourself.

The genius of Tolkien is to place these challenges, along with the fate of his rich fantasy world, on the shoulders of the childlike hobbits. The matching genius of Jackson is to re-create their heart-sapping journey with an imaginative zest that never succumbs to bathos. Going up and down shadowy mountain paths and tunnels, Frodo and Sam make their way toward Sauron's kingdom, Mordor, with the dubious help of that hobbit turned bug-eyed cadaver, the Gollum formerly known as Smeagol (Andy Serkis) - a hopping, croaking example of the destruction the Ring wreaks on personality.

The movie starts with Smeagol-Gollum's origin story - the tale of how Smeagol killed his friend Deagol when Deagol found the Ring during an innocent fishing trip. Smeagol-Gollum is a marvel of 3-D animation because it melds seamlessly with Serkis' live-action interpretation. Serkis and company convey the agony underneath the glee of Smeagol's marriage to the Ruling Ring and his descent into Gollumhood. Sacrificing every normal pleasure to a hysterical urge to possess and then repossess the Ring, this frightful yet also frightened homunculus is a cousin of the figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Wood and Astin as Frodo and Sam do more than hold their own with this eye-catching critter: They summon superhuman acting resources to imbue their scenes with brink-of-tragedy weight and quicksilver sentiment.

Wood pulls off the almost impossible feat of playing a character who is constantly losing character and keeping him plangent and unpredictable. You can read the profound volatility of the entire saga in the moody depths of his eyes. Astin is equally extraordinary. He brings a full spectrum of battling and tearful emotion to the movie's celebration of friendship in extremis - of seeing a comrade through to the bittersweet end despite the hard misunderstandings that crop up along the way.

John Rhys-Davies as the feisty dwarf Gimli and Orlando Bloom as that elegant fighting elf Legolas deftly illustrate friendship more socially and comically, as a bridge between species. And between the odysseys of Aragorn and Frodo lie a half-dozen other tales of crusade, courage and betrayal. Eowyn (Miranda Otto), niece of King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill), has an unrequited passion for Aragorn that merges with her determination that everyone, woman or hobbit, should fight for the people they love.

Denethor (John Noble), the steward of mankind's last stronghold city, Minas Tirith, grieves so bitterly over the death of his favorite son, Boromir (Sean Bean), that he sends his devoted surviving son, Faramir (David Wenham), on a suicide mission as if to punish him for not being Boromir.

Each episode within the larger chronicle unfolds with electric lucidity; as Jackson completes his grand tapestry, you feel a thrill or a pang every time he picks up an old thread or stitches in a fresh one. It's exciting to see Hill's Theoden muster the Riders of Rohan to the defense of Minas Tirith with the authority of a born ruler who has matured into a wise, decisive monarch. Yet his avidity for a just war is also tumultuously moving. It marks a complete reversal from the spiritually poisoned Theoden of The Two Towers, who, similar to Denethor, shunned his nephew Eomer (Karl Urban) after the death in battle of his son. In Jackson's inspired adaptation of Tolkien, the theme of family love turned inside out - and back again - registers with the same bone-deep penetration as the parables of aggression and possessiveness.

The first sight of Aragorn's true love, Arwen (Liv Tyler), the elf willing to give up immortality to marry him, is so full of melancholy and longing that it's mesmerizing. When she sees into a future that includes Aragorn playing with their child, her yearning instantaneously communicates the meaning of this portent. This whole organic epic creates a mesh of incident and affect so engulfing and so lyrical, you never think of a character's vision as anything so mundane as a flash-forward or a flashback.

The time leaps in this movie are emotionally transporting. When that most impulsive hobbit, Pippin (Billy Boyd), recalls how Boromir died protecting him and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), the audience experiences it exactly the way Pippin does - as a searing flash of memory. Second sight and memory loom large here; as in the book, how the characters view past and future helps determine their behavior in the present.

Tolkien-lovers and movie-lovers alike will be euphoric over Jackson's ability to construct a universe analogous yet distant to our own without over-explaining it. For example, when eagles swarm in to counter Sauron's flying serpents or gently swoop down to rescue a pair of hobbits, their appearance is breathtaking, both unexpected and inevitable in some alchemistic way.

Lovers of action and of drama will find themselves united in enthrallment over Jackson's handling of mammoth confrontations and carnage. Conscious that his picture is chock-full of perils and wonderments, Jackson eschews spectacle for its own sake. He concentrates on tracing the destinies of his characters amid the chaotic mayhem of apocalyptic battlefields. Once they enter the fray, he doesn't lose sight of Gimli or Legolas, Merry or Pippin, Theoden or Eowyn. And because these characters, fully realized as individuals, also stand for entire races, during the siege of Minas Tirith and the pitched warfare that follows, the audience feels as if every force on the planet is in play.

What's nonstop about the movie isn't its action, but its poetic feeling. Even when the jeopardy is at its fiercest, Jackson lets us savor the irony of a small ring determining the fate of Middle Earth, or appreciate the circle of life that Aragorn forms with his warriors to distract Sauron from Frodo.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is so replete with imagistic and literary treasures that it repays re-viewing. After seeing it, I felt as I did after seeing E.T. - that unless the distributor wants to pull it back, there's no reason for it ever to stop running.

The Return of the King

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Sean Astin and Ian McKellen

Directed by Peter Jackson

Released by New Line Cinema

Rated PG-13

Time 200 minutes

Sun Score ****

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