Not only the best of the "Lord of the Rings" series, but sets a new standard of epic filmmaking.10/10
Saying that this film starts where `Two Towers' left off is somewhat misleading, for the film starts a great distance from the walls of Helm's Deep. `Return of the King' opens with a flashback of Smeagol (Andy Serkis) obtaining the one ring of power and an origin of his deterioration into the creature Gollum. This opening recaptures an emphasis that was somewhat lost within the epic battles of `Two Towers,' at that's the ring. The first installment, `The Fellowship of the Ring,' provided heaps of exposition on the ring's importance and influence, and in `Return of the King,' we see it pay off, big time.
After the armies of Isengard have been defeated due to an allegiance between Theoden (Bernard Hill), the king of Rohan, and the elves, the main threat to middle earth is now concentrated in the kingdom of Mordor, controlled by the dark lord Sauron. Sauron has turned his eye towards the realm of Gondor, the last free kingdom of men, and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) must warn Denethor (John Noble), Steward of Gondor of the impending attack, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), heir to the throne of Gondor, and Theoden gather men to aid against the armies of Mordor. The dark lord Sauron needs only to regain the one ring of power to conquer all of middle earth, and two hobbits, Frodo (Elijah Wood) the ring-bearer and Sam (Sean Astin), must continue their journey, directed by Gollum, to Mount Doom, the only place where the ring can be destroyed. Got all that? If not, you need to bone up on your `Lord of the Rings' before expecting to follow this film.
Since all three epics were filmed simultaneously, each individually has the feel of being part of a larger picture - except for this one. `The Return of the King' is just too big, the most epic of a set of epic films. Now that director Peter Jackson has brilliantly constructed the characters and plotlines throughout the first two films, he puts them to use.
All of the characters have their best moments within this film. The pair of mischievous hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), are no longer the tree ornaments they were from `Two Towers,' but are split-up, and take their characters in completely new directions. Aragorn, played with an unmatched sense of honor by Viggo Mortenson, is about to meet his destiny as the future king of all men, while Andy Serkis continues his expert portrayal of Gollum (Serkis' provided not only the voice of Gollum, but also assisted during production by acting out the scenes of the computer-generated character with his fellow actors).
However, the real acting triumph of the film is Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins. He continues his descent into corruption with an incredible talent that many could not pull off. Wood's performance is so critical to the film because it determines the ring's power to corrupt, which, needless to say, is absolute.
The first two films established Jackson as an incredible visionary, shooting vast landscapes from his native New Zealand. With `Return of the King,' Jackson really gets a chance to show off. With, hands down, the most beautiful visuals of the trilogy, Jackson makes `Return of the King' a gorgeous feast for the eyes, while never resorting to McG level over-the-topness. Jackson stays very grounded in his characters, not letting the effects tell the story, but only assist the wonderful dialogue and characters. Think of `Return' as a mix of `Fellowship' and `Two Towers,' with enough action and character development worthy of ending a film event of this magnitude.
The bottom line, fans of the films will not be disappointed. Hardcore Tolkien lovers might be upset by plot changes and interpretations made by Jackson and the other writers, however, it is unrealistic to expect a completely true adaptation of the novels, being that film is an entirely different medium. Despite the alterations, Jackson consistently stays true to the major themes and ideas from the original text, while adding some of the finest filmmaking ever put to screen. `The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' is one of the most finely tuned and cinematically perfect films ever made. Not only the best of the trilogy, but a crowning achievement in epic filmmaking.