Is there really anything left to say about The Lord of the Rings? By now, everyone knows the story of how a Kiwi filmmaker with only a handful of low-budget horror flicks to his name convinced New Line Cinema to give him $300 million so he could make a trio of fantasy movies in his backyard. The result proved to be the kind of cinematic phenomenon that comes along--if you're lucky--only once every 20 years. In addition to bringing new readers to J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved novels, the series has turned character actors like Viggo Mortensen and Ian McKellen into movie stars and made the fantasy genre seem cool again. But director Peter Jackson's larger achievement, and it can't be stressed enough, is that he has restored the fun to big-budget filmmaking. At a time when so many Hollywood spectacles fall flat, the Rings films are overflowing with imagination, as well as Jackson's palatable love of movie magic. And it's sad to think that with the release of The Return of the King, the journey is finally over; for the first time in three years, there won't be a new Middle-earth adventure to look forward to next December.

But then, it's appropriate to approach King with a heavy heart. This is a movie about endings--the end of Frodo and Sam's long quest to destroy the One Ring, the end of the war between the Dark Lord Sauron and the rest of Middle-earth, and above all, the end of an age. Viewers who have complained that the previous movies lacked passion will be surprised at how intensely emotional the final chapter is. There are moments here that one would expect to see in a character study like Mystic River rather than a fantasy blockbuster. The fact that these scenes don't seem campy or out of place is a testament to the respect that the Rings crew has for the source material and for the audience. It also drives home how crucial the stellar cast has been to the success of these movies. Each of the actors has gotten their moment to shine throughout the trilogy; McKellen and Elijah Wood were the heart and soul of The Fellowship of the Ring, while Mortensen and Andy Serkis dominated The Two Towers. This time around, it's Billy Boyd and Sean Astin who steal the show. Astin in particular gives a fantastic performance, elevating Sam from a sidekick to a genuine hero. In all three movies, it would have been easy for Jackson to fast-forward through the dramatic moments in favor of the big battle sequences. By devoting as much time to the characters as he does to the action, he allows the actors to be full partners in the experience instead of mere props, giving the films a depth and intimacy that few modern epics achieve.

This is not to say that King isn't a visually stunning thrill ride as well. The film contains some of the most eye-popping images you're likely to see this year, if not this decade. Everyone will no doubt have their own favorite scenes, ones they keep replaying in their minds long after they've left the theatre. Mine include Aragorn's confrontation with an army of ghostly warriors along the Paths of the Dead and Sam carrying a half-dead Frodo up the side of Mount Doom. Best of all is the latter duo's encounter with the giant spider Shelob, which is hands-down the most convincing CGI monster ever created.

Although Return of the King is overflowing with memorable moments, it's also a choppier movie than its predecessors. This isn't entirely Jackson's fault. After all, he only had to deal with one storyline in the first film, and Towers was neatly divided into three distinct narrative arcs. There's a lot more plot to get through in King, and orchestrating a story and cast this large is no easy task. Jackson does his best to keep up with the comings and goings of all the characters, but there are several instances where he allows major players to disappear for long stretches of time, reappear for one scene, and then promptly vanish again. He also makes the mistake of letting scenes build to a dramatic head, only to cut away to more footage of computer-generated armies amassing for battle. The decision he'll no doubt take the most heat for is tacking on so many endings to the final 40 minutes. While some may grow impatient with the multiple finales, fans of this world (myself included) will appreciate that Jackson takes the time to give each character a proper sendoff.

If you were left cold by the first two films, it's doubtful that Return of the King will change your mind. In some ways it's the weakest movie of the trilogy--a dazzling patchwork of thrilling, deeply moving scenes assembled into a somewhat jumbled narrative. Still, King is a touching end to this magnificent series. Taken together, the Lord of the Rings films stand as a landmark of modern cinema and set the standard by which all future blockbusters will be judged. --Ethan Alter