Once again, the action picks up almost immediately where we left off last time. Frodo, Sam and Gollum are still on their weary way to Mordor to destroy the ring; Gandalf, Aragorn and company are still girding for the coming war between Orc and Man; the eye of the enemy still sees all. The narrative grows ever darker as time runs out, leading to the last stand at Minas Tirith and the final push up the slippery slopes of Mount Doom.
And also once again, director Peter Jackson acquits himself well and masters most of his material in The Return of the King, making it a fitting finale. What he somehow fails to do, though, is create a film that can stand wholly on its own. The Return of the King is part and parcel of what has come before, and therein lies both its greatest strengths and its greatest liabilities. The final film is the ending it needed to be, but still somehow less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it is unfair to penalize Jackson for the excellence of the first two episodes, but we have seen far to much of all of this -- the action, the emotion -- before. It seems possible, after all, that there can be too much of a good thing (about 45 minutes or so). There are moments of greatness -- the slow spiritual ascension of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) to the throne of Gondor, the genderless courage of Eowyn (Miranda Otto), the madness of Denethor the Steward (John Noble) -- but there is simply too much deja vu. The Return of the King is Jackson's long goodbye to his greatest effort.
Taking the long view, Jackson and his writing team successfully gerrymandered the borders of Tolkien's books to create these movies, proving themselves his spiritual children. And with their preternatural, singular vision, the Lord of the Rings cast and crew gave many of us our childhood heroes in living color. They got it right. And for that, we will always be grateful.