The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The celebrated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy ends here, with a movie bigger, bloodier, longer, and, yes, better than its fine predecessors.

Peter Jackson and company pull out all the stops, with huge battle sequences, intense emotional drama, and new depths of evil and madness. The computer-animated Gollum assumes his rightful place as one of cinema's great villains, and the interplay between him and his hobbit colleagues/victims Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) remains, as it did in The Two Towers, the most compelling aspect of the Rings saga. But you can't discount those awesome battle scenes!

I needn't go on, since everybody who's already been following the movies will be running out to see this concluding chapter anyway. I throw out a warning to arachnophobes about the terrifying sequence where Frodo battles the giant spider Shelob, and happily report that the tired subplot involving Elf queen Arwen (Liv Tyler) is cut mercifully short, so much so that it barely feels necessary by now. Filling out her character was apparently the one major change Jackson and cowriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens made to Tolkien's storyline, in order to have a female star to help market the series. You can almost sense Jackson editing down her sequences in the latter two films as he realized what little they added to the story. Anyway, it's a minor quibble.

The music, the cinematography, the production design, the performances – all are more powerful in Return of the King, which must have been part of Jackson's grand design. All too often, these mythic trilogies end on weak notes (Star Wars, The Godfather, The Matrix), so despite the rather elongated denouement (I guess after nine hours with these characters, we can sit through 20 minutes of coda), this film brings the epic series to a completely satisfying close.