"The board is set. The pieces are moving." The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King looks poised to conquer box office records, and it may be on a path that leads to Oscars. Judging from the euphoric praise offered up by mainstream press critics, it looks like director Peter Jackson has triumphantly completed the greatest adventure film trilogy ever made.

Many of you—perhaps most of you—will be seeing the movie this week. (I've got a hunch a good number of you have already seen it.) When you do, let me know your opinions: Do you agree with those religious press film critics who are heaping superlatives on Jackson's effort? Do you think it is as successful an adaptation as The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers? Do you have any complaints? Further, why do you think the trilogy is striking such a chord with viewers, and what sets it apart from other films in this season saturated with epics? Send me an e-mail.

The film follows the last days of the quest of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) across the span of Middle-Earth. This hobbit from the quiet and innocent region called the Shire has been beaten down and nearly destroyed, sapped by the wicked and alluring power of the One Ring he is seeking to destroy. Helped by his faithful friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), Frodo has arrived at last in the blasted wasteland of Mordor. Within shouting distance of Mount Doom's destructive lava flow, the only force that can destroy the Ring and prevent the dark lord Sauron from ruling Middle-Earth, Frodo finds himself facing both his own weakness and the malevolent designs of the Ring-obsessed wretch called Gollum. Gollum has devised plans for foiling Frodo's quest. They include deceit, violence, and a particularly nasty spider.

Meanwhile, the rest of the heroes focus their attention on buying Frodo some time. The only way they can do that is by keeping Sauron's attention on the city of Minas Tirith, where a war of unthinkable proportions is being set in motion. The wizard Gandalf, Pippin the Hobbit, the armies of Rohan led by King Theoden, and a couple of warriors who disobeyed orders to join the resistance, dig in their heels for what seems to be a doomed cause. They must face fearsome winged monsters called Fell Beasts, the demonic warlords called Nazgul, and the poisonous disillusionment of their own leader—a sour-spirited man called Denethor.

The survival of these heroes depends not only on the Ringbearer, but also on Aragorn, the inheritor of the throne of Gondor. With his trusty companions Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Aragorn must enter the bone-chilling caves that lead through the Paths of the Dead. There he must wrestle his own reluctance and lay claim to the kingship, a title that could earn him the allegiance of a much-needed force that dwells forgotten within the mountain.

The last chapter of Tolkien's series plays like a three-hour finale, featuring some of the most awe-inspiring battle sequences ever created. Jackson wisely fills the film with quieter exchanges between characters so that the drama remains intimate and personal, the threats ominous and intimidating. Howard Shore's glorious soundtrack underlines the epic quality of this astonishing spectacle. In spite of the filmmakers' misguided meddlings with the story, admirable themes shine through.

Religious press critics are almost unanimous in their praise of the film. My own in-depth examination is posted at Looking Closer. (A shorter version appeared yesterday here at Christianity Today.)

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) praises its superiority in the film trilogy: "Certainly it's the most ambitious; it may also be the most emotionally affecting, and perhaps the most flawless. For all Jackson's reimaginings and elaborations, for all he does and does not do, Tolkien's saga is in these films honored beyond all reasonable hope. The spirit of Tolkien's work is honored in the transposition—imperfectly, yes, but brilliantly and transcendently in what it accomplishes."

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But he does admit, "Peter Jackson's … fingerprints are everywhere, notably in his flair for the hyperdramatic."

Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus), author of the book Tolkien in Perspective, calls it "Symphonic. I can find no better single word to describe the design, execution and impact of The Return of the King. Other classic films of the past, of course, have also felt symphonic—Amadeus, Apocalypse Now!, Lawrence of Arabia, even Saving Private Ryan. What distinguishes Jackson's magnum opus, however, is that the tempo of his cinematic symphony's final movement is largo—very slow. And Jackson's daring pace, perfectly in harmony with the spirit of Tolkien, pays off in a terribly satisfying and haunting experience."

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) expresses some concern over the way Jackson and Company "crank up the conflict and tension whenever they can, and in doing so, they risk subverting the purity of Tolkien's characters and concepts. These changes can be especially awkward when the conflicts they introduce have to be resolved immediately so that the story can point back in the direction it was always going in the first place."

Nevertheless, he concludes, "The films are remarkably true to Tolkien's deepest themes."

"Not only is this epic film the leading contender for best picture of the year," writes Michael Elliott (Movie Parables), "[but] Jackson may very well have just completed the best movie trilogy ever made. The triumphs of the cast, which perform brilliantly, are presented to us on a silver platter. The production design is magnificent; realizing not only Peter Jackson's vision but … Tolkien's as well. It is a story well told on every level. Though Tolkien himself often said that The Lord of the Rings should not be taken as a Christian allegory, it is impossible not to recognize that it is rife with Christian influences and principles."

Jeremy Landes (Christian Spotlight) goes farther, calling it "the best film of the … trilogy, this year, and, perhaps, this decade. Prepare your heart to laugh, cry, and shout. Return of the King brings you to the climax of the characters' struggles and leaves you dizzy with wonder, grief, and joy. [It] promotes character traits like self-sacrifice, unwavering friendship, and mercy."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (Our Sunday Visitor) says the movie is "a crowning conclusion to the trilogy, and also arguably the best of the three films." Praising Tolkien's achievement, she examines why the story endures. "What becomes a legend is a story that is made out of elements already within us: awareness of a great battle that is going on, that involves us somehow already, as well as invisible powers far stronger than us; the need for others to help us in this journey, and a love for them in all their failings; a sense of our own capacity to turn traitor at the last moment, despite our high-flown claims. All of these are elements of the Gospel story, the story we're born carrying inside, 'The Greatest Story Ever Told.'"

Mainstream critics are heralding it as an achievement unlikely to be matched in the genre of adventure filmmaking. Elvis Mitchell (New York Times) calls Jackson's film "a meticulous and prodigious vision made by a director who was not hamstrung by heavy use of computer special-effects imagery. It's been a long time since a commercially oriented film with the scale of King ended with such an enduring and heartbreaking coda: 'You can't go back. Some wounds don't heal.' It's an epic about the price of triumph, a subversive victory itself in a large-scale pop action film."

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But Mitchell also sorely misquotes Gandalf as saying that Frodo's quest is a "false hope," when in fact he calls it a "fool's hope." Big difference. Further, Mitchell makes the odd claim that "the movie isn't as exclusionary as the books' implicit Christian forcefulness, which made Middle Earth a re-creation of the Crusades."

Middle-Earth's Stars, Filmmakers comment on Tolkien's spiritual themes

At a Los Angeles press junket held two weeks ago, religious press writers had opportunities to meet with the cast and crew of The Return of the King for interviews. Transcripts of those interviews are being gradually posted at my own Web site, Looking Closer.

Commenting on the way that Tolkien's Hobbiton represents all that is good and pure in the world, Sean Astin (Samwise) says, "If Hobbiton is a place, an ideal, worth wanting to manifest in real human life, now … it can't happen without some awareness of what's going on in the real world. It's maybe a little bit sad that children just can't be children in a pure kind of world where there's no danger and there's no threats. But it's the responsibility of the mature to preserve the sanctity of a world worth living in."

Astin is also challenged by the nobility and longsuffering qualities of the character he portrays: "If I'm really honest with myself … I've been disappointed in myself and my own inability to be more like Sam with my friends. I don't know if I can in order to survive, in order to be a good husband and a good father and have a career. I try, in moments, to manifest the better angel of my nature with my friends, but I'm not as good a friend to my friends as Sam. It's a little bit hard to be the sort of emblem, to portray the character as an emblem for those things, and to know in my own life that I can't. Or maybe, if I can, it's going to be somewhere in my future when I'm more mature."

"In playing a hobbit," says Elijah Wood (Frodo), "I was at the very center of [Tolkien's] ideology, his perspective of what was good and what was wrong with the world. I agree with his perspective on the fact that there all these wonderfully good and pure things that are being threatened by Mordor, which is (in my estimation) the modern world threatening all that is good and pure. Those themes that are very important in the story to Tolkien became very important to me. I think I agreed with them before, but especially after working in New Zealand … working in a country that is so lightly populated and is so pure in terms of its ecosystem and its nature … I think we all have a better perspective of the state of the world and that it needs to be saved and preserved."

When asked about the film's culminating scene (which Jackson has made more ambiguous onscreen than it is in the novel), Wood has strong opinions about the events leading to that crucial turning point: "It's mercy. Had Frodo killed Gollum, he would have possibly gotten to Mount Doom, [but] he would have kept the ring for himself and the world would have been doomed. [It was because] he saw a kinship in Gollum and had an understanding and an empathy with Gollum that Gollum stayed alive."

Screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens commented on how they tried to stay true to Tolkien's sentiments about faith. "We have the ability within us to fail," says Boyens. "Faith requires us to believe in a higher power."

But in whom should we have faith? Looking at the story, Walsh says, "I think it's about the enduring power of goodness, that we feel it in ourselves when we perceive it in others. And that's a good reason to hope that it has significance for all of us asa race, as mankind … that we're evolving and getting better rather than becoming less, diminishing ourselves through hatred and cruelty. We need to believe that. We need to have a sense of perfection."

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Tolkien would have disagreed. He wrote, "One must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however 'good'." But he also added, "The Writer of the Story is not one of us."

This week, Terry Mattingly sums up the junket experience and the differing interpretations of the film in his own column.

Searching for the truth behind the tall tales of Tim Burton's Big Fish

Tim Burton has always been a director with a wild imagination. He arrived bearing the bizarre gift of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, revealed a morbid sense of humor in the outrageous comedy Beetlejuice, and then found great success with Batman and Batman Returns. But his most beloved film is a fairy tale about a fish-out-of-water, an "invented" boy trying to find his place in the strange world of suburbia. Edward Scissorhands remains an affecting fantasy for all ages, a work that Burton has not matched since.

In his new film Big Fish, Burton's affection for oddballs, outcasts, and people who live beyond the bounds of normalcy is still quite evident. Adapted from Daniel Wallace's novel, the story explores father-son relationships and the tension between the literal truth and the fantastical flourishes of myth and legend.

Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) hurries to his father's bedside when he hears the doctor's dire news. Edward Bloom (Albert Finney) has only a short time to live. Will's mother (Jessica Lange) attends to her husband with deep affection, showing patience and even delight as the old man continues to spin unbelievable tales about his past adventures. Old Edward insists that his life journey involved a lonely giant, a dark and dangerous forest, a mystical small town called Spectre, a circus, a flood, a wicked witch, and a love story that pushes the limits of plausibility. As we see in colorful flashbacks, the charming and youthful Edward (Ewan McGregor) would let nothing stand in the way of his ambition and his dreams. As Will tries to pull apart these fanciful tales in order to find the truth about his father, he learns something about the nature of truth and how it can sometimes be better expressed through metaphor and imagination than through cold hard facts.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "one of the most delightful films of the year. Burton … strikes the perfect balance between the magical and the mundane, blending fantasy and reality to craft a timeless fairy tale that cuts to the core of what it means to be human. Its offbeat message serves as an antidote to the cataracts of cynicism afflicting society by inviting us to see life through more wonderful eyes. Burton has fulfilled the duty of the artist—which, according to G.K. Chesterton, is to 'awaken and keep alive the sense of wonder in man.'"

"Burton has created a timeless classic for adults that will reel you in with a hook of hope, heart and humanity," raves Holly McClure (Crosswalk). "It's a story that will deeply touch fathers and sons, husbands and wives and ultimately reinforce the true meaning of family and friends."

Steve Beard (Thunderstruck) says, "Big Fish is an elegant and moving film about the power of story to transform the black and white of life into a colorful journey. Burton remarkably uses his quirky and unique cinematic vision to make a profound statement in the film about marriage and the discovery of true love. In an era when so many films are driven more by special effects than emotion, Big Fish is a movie that is driven by and relies upon the brilliance of storytelling."

I disagree. I too was charmed and entertained by the cast and the whimsical stories. The film is certainly worth seeing for its stronger qualities—its enchanting imagery and a bold performance by Albert Finney. But I came away unsatisfied.

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The film does indeed impress upon us the way that truth can shine through fabrications. That is not what bothers me. What gives this Fish a rather "fishy" smell is the attitude of its hero. Edward Bloom is a natural storyteller, no doubt about it. But his stories revolve around himself, and he tells them to dazzle and impress others. His life seems to be in service of himself. Everyone stands around in awe. Nobody seems to notice his lack of interest in anybody but Number One. Even his relationship with his wife seems reliant upon nostalgia (although I applaud the film's celebration of marital fidelity.)

I sympathize with the character of Will, who wants to be noticed by his father. He wants to have a conversation about something other than the past, something other than his father's spectacular and somewhat fictional adventures, however profound they might be.

Artists live with the temptation to be self-absorbed and egotistical. This film seems to suggest there is nothing wrong with that. For all of Edward Bloom's virtues, in the end it is his son who shows the ability to forgive and show unconditional love.

Many mainstream critics are praising Big Fish as one of the year's best films, and as the most mature work of Tim Burton's career.

Something's GottaGivesgives Christian critics a comedy challenge

Religious press critics have mixed reviews for the new romantic comedy starring Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson plays Harry, a man with a taste for women much younger than himself. When he meets Erica, the mother of his latest conquest, he finds himself inspired to act his age and explore the idea of a healthy and mature relationship. But just as he begins to learn his lesson, Erica finds herself attracted to a much younger man.

Religious press critics express dismay at the behavior of these reckless adults. But some notice that there is indeed some truth in what the characters learn from each other.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "These characters … are all adults who feel free to embark on affairs without taking any moral considerations into account." And yet, she concludes that it is "a rather entertaining tale of the battle of the sexes taken from a middle-aged perspective."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) admits, "Although I enjoyed the movie for the many truisms it has in it and I laughed at many parts, the overall theme was very depictive of our culture today. It's sad when the word 'love' is thrown around so casually."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "While it is true that many of the jokes come from sexual references or situations, it would be a mistake to think that there isn't a deeper or richer vein of comedy that gets mined here. One of the elements that makes aging more tolerable is to do it with someone else. Harry, for all his womanizing, runs the risk of growing old alone unless he can learn to invest an emotional, mental, and physical commitment into a relationship instead of a series of dates."

Dick Staub (Culture Watch) says, "The story functions as a manifesto for committed relationships and as a sad commentary on the pain inflicted by physical intimacy without relationship, and on the consequences of impermanence resulting from divorce. It also explores the fears and possibilities of ageing, especially in light of Harry's 'brush with immortality.' Harry is a man of great insights and complete obtuseness at the same time."

Mainstream critics are giving special attention to Diane Keaton's performance, as she apparently manages to steal the show from the incomparable Nicholson.

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The Farrelly Brothers find a heart in their conjoined-twin comedy

Stuck on You is the first comedy bold enough to make its central characters literally inseparable. When conjoined twins (Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear) leave their small town to test their luck in Hollywood, outrageous things transpire that could only come from the imagination of the brazen comedy team known as the Farrelly Brothers.

But unlike the Brothers' previous comedies (There's Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber), Stuck on You is earning some admiration from critics for the heart at the center of its comical caper. Positive themes of brotherhood, friendship, and self-esteem give meaning to the madness.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says it "imparts a life-affirming message about family and friendship. While [the twins'] physical handicap obviously fuels much of the humor, the Farrellys refrain from sharpening lighthearted lampooning into mean-spiritedness or exploitation."

"Obviously there is a potential here for pushing the envelope of taste over the edge," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "While the Farrellys do nose right up to that precipice, they are careful to infuse the characters with enough warmth and sweetness that we don't feel they are being exploited. What lifts this film out of the danger zone of political incorrectness is the heart that the filmmakers have given to the brothers' relationship."

But Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says she "barely laughed at this movie. It had a sort of sad undertone running all the way through it which kept it too serious to be a spoofy comedy and too silly to be taken serious."

The film is getting a chilly reception from mainstream press critics, who seem to prefer their sick and twisted sense of humor to this warmer, gentler variety.

More cheers forIn America

This week, Michael Medved (Crosswalk) raves about In America, Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical story about Irish immigrants in New York, calling it "a cinematic Christmas gift that not only deserves consideration as 'The Best Film of 2003,' but also qualifies as one of the finest pro-life, pro-family movies ever made. I'll admit it, that even as a jaded critic (who spends far too much of life watching mediocre movies), I wept openly, even copiously, by the conclusion of this eloquent, incomparable gem. The entire cast deserves Oscar nominations. No ensemble cast has ever—I do mean ever—portrayed family ties more convincingly or with more fierce, feral love."

Next week: Readers respond with their thoughts on The Return of the King. Plus: Girl with a Pearl Earring, and House of Sand and Fog.

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