There are two stories being told in Return of the King, the last chapter of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. One is about a hero who must save the world by inspiring hope in men's souls. The other is about a hero who must preserve his own soul in order to rescue the world.
As related in the trilogy's first two installments, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a hobbit charged with destroying a ring of great power -- and greater evil. The ring must be brought to Mordor, where lies the volcano where it was first forged -- and where rules Sauron, the evil overlord who requires the ring to conquer Middle Earth. Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a reluctant descendent of kings, must unite the nations threatened by Sauron under one banner. As in the earlier films, he has two constant allies -- the elf Legolas and the dwarf Gimli -- who serve mainly to dispatch orcs and provide comic relief. (Pondering the merits of a desperate battle plan, Gimli summarizes: "Certainty of death ... small chance of success ... what are we waiting for?") Frodo, too, is joined by two companions: His trustworthy hobbit companion Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), and the bad angel on his other shoulder -- the pitiful Gollum (a digitally altered Andy Serkis), who has been warped by his own ownership of the ring.
Like its predecessors, Return of the King is visually stunning, with Jackson casting spells worthy of the film's sagacious mage, Gandalf (Ian McKellen). A sequence showing signal fires being lit across a mountain range, for example, suggests a literal and metaphoric attempt to banish the gathering darkness. And the film -- the entire trilogy, really -- builds to a climactic battle for the city of Minas Tirith, where humans contend with orcs, giant trolls and elephants with spikes bristling from their tusks. The movie's depiction of the ring's ultimate fate is anti-climactic in comparison, but just about anything would be.
The performances are adequate, though Serkis' Gollum is arguably the trilogy's key figure. Gollum is literally divided against himself, struggling to regain the ring while longing to be free of it. His battle, in other words, is that of Middle Earth, and it has left him just as ravaged. Fittingly, it is Gollum who ultimately, and unwittingly, decides the world's fate.
Be warned: The film is nearly four hours long, and you may identify with the hobbits as they wring the last drops of water from their canteens in Mordor's parched landscape. Thanks to Jackson's pacing, the film doesn't feel long until the last 10 or 15 minutes of predictable denouement. But as hobbits know, when descending into shadow -- whether in Mordor or a Monroeville cineplex -- pack wisely. The journey is long, though ultimately triumphant.