Once and Future Kings

By Gillian Flynn
Updated December 26, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

The cast and crew from ”The Lord Of The Rings” are one of our Entertainers of the Year

Ring in the year, ring out the year. It was 365 days bewitched by hobbits and elves, wizards and…swords with pretty names. Last December’s The Two Towers ushered in 2003 as the No. 1 movie. Now the swooping, epic finale to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, is poised to take the box office crown through December and right into the new year again.

For three years, this scramble through Middle-earth has kept us dazzled with heroes who bear pointy ears, fuzzy feet, and tight, fated smiles. We worried. We rejoiced. Most important, we believed, and for that, the artists who created The Lord of the Rings are our Entertainers of the Year.

What an audacious, swaggering wager it was. Rather than tiptoe through the trilogy, New Line Cinema decided to film all three movies at once, over 15 months, at about $100 million each. The cast? Respected, but hardly marquee. Add to this J.R.R. Tolkien’s prickly fan base, which was sure to shred any adaptation, and the fact that just a few years ago, fantasy was a joke.

Heading the enterprise: producer-writer-director Peter Jackson. At the time, the New Zealander (who insisted on filming in his homeland) boasted a resume that included one chilly jewel of an art-house film, Heavenly Creatures, and a bonanza of blood-splatting horror flicks. Not one of his movies had grossed more than $17 million.

No matter. The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers have become two of the most beloved movies ever — together grossing $1.8 billion worldwide (even Tolkienists hurrahed). King now looks primed to join the pantheon. Not that anyone who has worked with Jackson doubted it. ”It’s just something that’s in his blood,” says Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo. ”He absolutely was overwhelmed with passion to make these movies. And he set up this incredible team to support him.” Jackson’s design and computer graphics folks created the toy town of Hobbiton in film 1 and the freaky arachnid in film 3, and tended to the tiniest details. Example: Two guys spent months assembling 12.5 million rings for an army’s worth of chain mail.

The cast too was inspired. Consider Wood, who crossed with pure grace from child actor to tortured hobbit, and Ian McKellen, who, as the clever, crotchety wizard Gandalf, is the only actor to earn an Oscar nod thus far. One lucky role call came with Viggo Mortensen, who hopped a plane to New Zealand when Jackson decided to recast his Aragorn. He began his haunting, haunted turn as the king-to-be days later. Mortensen credits a generous fellowship on and off screen for the trilogy’s warmth: ”The way the movies were made was in the spirit of Tolkien, which is about community.”

Naturally, the Oscar question resurfaces. Fellowship and Two Towers earned a combined 19 nods, but took home just six. This past year, director Jackson wasn’t even nominated. ”After what he’s accomplished in the seven years of working on these things, it would be a shame if he wasn’t acknowledged,” Wood says. ”Because I think it is pretty extraordinary.”