It's been said that every generation gets the "Hamlet" it deserves, and with this final installment, we may have just gotten the "Rings" trilogy that we deserve for our video game age: a feast for the eye but fast food for the ear, the brain, and the heart. Very much of a piece with its two predecessors, "Return" is stunning to behold in its dense, thunderous battle sequences and its more intimate images of the two Hobbits, grubby and exhausted, picking their way through inky, ash-choked landscapes. The realization of the degenerated Gollum remains an impressive achievement in CGI, as is the enormous spider that attacks Frodo and Sam in Cirith Ungol; computers also provide plenty of shock and awe for the sprawling Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
If only the script were as pitch-perfect! Apparently unwilling to trust their audience, let alone "the Book of the Century," Jackson and his co-adapters have surrendered to the temptations of Hollywood by adhering blindly to its dictates about conflict and jeopardy at the expense of character, subtlety, and the integrity of Tolkien's text. While it's obviously not possible to transfer a literary work to the screen without sacrifices and simplifications, Jackson and company have gone overboard in dumbing down not only the dialogue but Tolkien's ideas about mercy, chance, and fate that undergird the story. Scenes invented wholly for the movie crowd out gripping scenes already in the book. The script even goes to the ridiculous extreme of sowing conflict between Sam and Frodo, an unnecessary choice in a movie already stuffed to the seams with that biggest of all conflicts, war. The war material also has the effect of unbalancing the movie. The battle scenes in "Return," like those in "Towers," are lavished with so much time and attention that Frodo's quest with the Ring, the soul of the story and the trek upon which the fate of Middle-earth depends, gets tragically short-shrifted, creating unevenness in the film's rhythm and sabotaging what should be an emotional final farewell. Another victim of script stinginess is the Cirith Ungol passage, when Sam believes Frodo to be dead; instead of a scene of heart-searing grief, the movie offers but a bloodless precis in its place. It's almost a crime that such glorious visuals should be spent on such a Cliffs Notes version of the book.
Yet despite maddening liberties and narrative asymmetry, "Return" works well enough on its own terms of rousing, whistle-stop spectacle. Jackson's main accomplishment, once again, has been to conjure a vivid, almost tangible Middle-earth; as the conductor of an orchestra of filmmaking pros, he's proved enthusiastic and well-intentioned, if sometimes ham-handed and tone-deaf in script matters. The real success of this film trilogy, however, rests ultimately with the composer of the source material: the Oxford professor who wrote a modern myth so plangent and durable that not even current Hollywood fashions can subvert its enchanting, archetypal power. Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen and Sean Astin. Directed by Peter Jackson. Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson. Produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. A New Line release. Fantasy/Adventure. Rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images. Running time: 200 min