The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring

(New Zealand/United States, 2001)

The Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers

(New Zealand/United States, 2002)

The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King

(New Zealand/United States, 2003)

The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Viewed as a single entity, Lord of the Rings trilogy marks a more impressive achievement than any of the movies alone. Combined, they offer the magic of discovery, the spectacle of epic battles, and the rush of emotion that comes with the final victory of good over evil. The tapestry is richer, the characters better realized, and the experience more immersive. The release of The Return of the King cemented this as nothing short of a cinematic milestone. Director Peter Jackson did not let things flag during the third installment - in fact, he ratcheted them up a notch. The Lord of the Rings has accelerated through the Top 100, indicating that the more complete it became, the better it looked. It stood at #98 when it was just The Fellowship of the Ring. When The Two Towers joined, it moved to #82. Now, with the trilogy complete, it is #20.

Every successful genre has its own definitive entry - a movie that energizes the public, satisfies the fans, and pleases the critics. Until 2001, one of the reasons fantasy has been regarded as the ugly stepchild of science fiction is because there has never been anything on the big screen to rival Star Wars. Oh, there have been fantasy movies, but most of them are silly and idiotic, like Willow and Dungeons & Dragons. Even the better ones - Excalibur, The Dragon Slayer, and the recent Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone come to mind - haven't been great. But, in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's milestone trilogy to the screen, Peter Jackson has finally given fantasy aficionados something to cheer about. I went into this movie with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, but left it exhilarated. Although it had been 20 years since I had last opened the books (I read them twice, at ages 12 and 14), many images remained fresh in my mind, and The Lord of the Rings matched them all. Almost everyone I have talked to, regardless of whether they have read the books or not, enjoyed the films. And, as the years go by, I expect that their importance will only grow.

Plot Summary (Possible Spoilers):
The Fellowship of the Ring begins in the quiet countryside of the Shire, where Bilbo Baggins of Bag End (Ian Holm), a hobbit, is celebrating his 111th birthday. In attendance, among other people, are Bilbo's young heir, Frodo (Elijah Wood), and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan). Gandalf informs Bilbo that the time has come for him to leave Bag End and go on a journey. To Frodo, he leaves his home and his most beloved possession, a magical ring that turns the wearer invisible. But this isn't just any magical ring - it is the One Ring, forged by the Dark Lord, Sauron, and capable of corrupting the wearer. Sauron's servants, the Ring Wraiths, are scouring Middle Earth for it, since, when it is returned to their master, nothing will be able to stop him. All of the world is about to be plunged into war, and the only way to stop the evil will be to destroy the ring by casting it into the fire where it was forged - in Mordor, on the Dark Lord's doorstep. That unenviable task falls to Frodo, the ring bearer. Frodo starts his journey in the company of three other hobbits - his faithful servant, Sam (Sean Astin), and his cousins, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Later, as the dangers mount and Frodo faces even greater challenges, others join his company: the humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), the wizard Gandalf, the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). Together, these nine individuals must face ring wraiths, orcs, and worse; travel through strange lands and the dreaded mines of Moria; and face mistrust within their fellowship.

The Two Towers essentially picks up where The Fellowship of the Ring concludes, albeit following a short flashback to the battle between the wizard Gandalf and the Balrog. In the first movie, when Gandalf tumbles from the bridge, we see him disappear into the abyss. Here, however, we follow him as he and the Balrog tumble endlessly downward, continuing their struggle along the way. In the wake of his victory over his foe, Gandalf is reborn as a white wizard, and returns to the world above to re-unite with his former companions. In the company of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, the wizard heads for the city of Rohan, where he hopes to convince the king, Theoden (Bernard Hill), that war is upon his kingdom. At the same time, Merry and Pippin, having escaped from their orc captors, flee into the forbidding Fanghorn Forest, where they encounter Treebeard the Ent (voice of John Rhys-Davies), a giant shepherd of trees who decides to protect the two diminutive interlopers. Meanwhile, to the East, Frodo and Sam find themselves lost on their way to Mount Doom. And, in addition to suffering from the physical difficulties of such an arduous journey, Frodo is beginning to show the strain of bearing the ring, with the Dark Lord Sauron's baleful glare constantly seeking him. The creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), who has been following the hobbits, attempts to steal the ring from Frodo, but is subdued and captured. Thereafter, he reluctantly agrees to serve as Frodo and Sam's guide and take them to Mordor.

The Return of the King opens where The Two Towers ended, with Frodo,Sam, and Gollum approaching the dark land of Mordor. Meanwhile, the company of Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, reunite with Pippin and Merry in the wake of the battle of Isengard. From there, the film follows two branches. The first tracks Frodo's progress as the increasingly haunted and weary ringbearer attempts to make his way to Mount Doom. Along the way, he is burdened by betrayal and paranoia, and must face a deadly giant spider called Shelob. Meanwhile, Gandalf and Pippin head to the city of Minas Tirith to warn them against a coming invasion, while Aragorn prepares to announce himself as Isildur's heir, the returned king of Gondor.

First and foremost, The Lord of the Rings is an adventure, and, in that, it is relentlessly successful. One does not need to have read the books to appreciate the movie. As long as one enjoys a well-crafted adventure yarn set against the backdrop of a mythical clash between good and evil, The Lord of the Rings will satisfy. Like all great movies of this sort, this one is characterized by tremendous action scenes punctuated by moments of rest and reflection. The Lord of the Rings emphasizes two themes: the importance of brotherhood and the need for true strength to come from within. In the final analysis, this movie stands as one of the most rousing examples of entertainment to reach multiplexes in a long time. At last, someone has figured out how to do an epic fantasy justice on the big screen. Combined, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King represent one of the most engrossing and engaging nine-hour segments of cinema I have ever enjoyed. This series seems poised to go down as one of the crowning achievements of cinema.

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Full Review (The Two Towers):
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Full Review (The Return of the King):
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