A towering achievement made even more appealing by well-sketched, arresting characters, it is widely expected to be the highest grossing film of 2003, dwarfing Finding Nemo's $340 million.
It has arguably the best screen battle in world cinema and a relentlessly spine-chilling sequence involving the movie's young protagonist and a giant spider. It also has superb performances and a well-paced narrative.
Director Peter Jackson and editors Jamie Selkirk and Annie Collins navigate deftly between several story strands.
What is more important, amidst all the bloodcurdling battle scenes and fighting a battalion of monsters and beasts, including huge elephant-like creatures called Mumakil, the film never fails to celebrate self-sacrifice, courage, integrity, tenacity, faith and hope.
Jackson's epic could also win major Oscars this year, ending the notion for once that sci-fi and fantasy films are not worthy of top Oscars.
The first two films in the saga have grossed about $1.78 billion in movie theatres alone. Given the rousing and gripping nature of the new film, it stands an excellent chance of grossing over $1 billion worldwide.
In a year that has seen many big budget films, including sequels (Matrix Revolutions, for instance), turning into huge disappointments, the overall success of The Return assumes more significance. Half-brewed and much-hyped 'epics' like The Last Samurai are going to take a big hit as The Return starts playing on more than 10,000 screens in many countries this week.
There is little doubt that The Return could make the faithful followers of the Tolkien saga ecstatic and win new converts. But those who haven't read the books or seen the previous films would be bewildered by the new epic. For those who have seen the previous films, we would suggest another viewing just before watching the final episode. The pleasure of watching the new film would be more enhanced as the familiar characters revisit our imagination and fill it with urgent curiosity.
Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his faithful friend Sam (Sean Astin) continue fighting a world of deception, betrayal and illusions to defeat the schemes of Gollum (Andy Serkis). One of the most intriguing of the characters in the saga, Gollum becomes more interesting here as Serkis' performance soars.
Frodo and Sam's quest is to destroy the all-powerful One Ring. They are on their way to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring and save humankind from destruction.
Also planning to save the humanity is King Theoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) who has summoned warriors like Aragon (Viggio Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).
While plans to defeat the evil forces gather steam, Aragon (Viggo Mortensen) wavers about his responsibilities and course of action. His lover Elf (Liv Tyler) has to make some crucial decisions, too.
But when Aragon finally rises to the occasion, the plans to thwart the evil creatures grow urgent. One of the most stirring sequences in the film emerges when Aragorn reclaims his birthright as king and uses a broken sword mended by his guardian Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and commands an usual army to fight the evil forces.
Complications continue growing, and tension seems evident between Frodo and Sam thanks to the manoeuvres of Gollum.
But good men won't give up the fight.
Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is confident that eventually the good men and women will triumph but he also knows he must buy time for Frodo to toss the Ring into the lava at Mount Doom and destroy its effectiveness, and save humanity.
Jackson's strength as a grand filmmaker is evident not only in the suspenseful and fast-moving scenes, but also in the ones where emotions are more important.
While both the characters of Frodo and Sam have become fuller with the new instalment, Sam gets far better exposure now. Wood and Astin have perfected the chemistry between them. Frodo has many more frightful challenges here and Wood effectively brings out the fear and hope in his character.
But it is Astin who could get more attention this time from critics and audiences. His character has to exhibit complex emotions especially when the friendship with Frodo is tested. He also gets to be in some of the most thrilling scenes that test his character's endurance and courage. Watch him in the sequence following Frodo's imprisonment by a giant spider in a cocoon. The scarefest segment that would be discussed for a long time pushes Sam into taking up an excruciatingly tough challenge.
Like in the previous two films in the saga, women play secondary roles here too while the men shine even in secondary parts. Dwarf fighter Gimli (Rhys-Davies) invests the film with humor and sarcasm. As Elf bowman Legolas, Orlando Bloom is rousing battlefield action and has several minutes of action that are huge crowd-pleasers.
Despite numerous well-etched characters performed with verve by a hugely talented cast, some viewers will certainly miss Christopher Lee, the traitorous elder wizard Saruman. The character of Saruman has been cut from the new film after Jackson wrestled with the idea of keeping it on for a few minutes right at the start of the film. Jackson has also said that Saruman will be back in the extended DVD version.
The movie starts leisurely but don't get impatient. Once it begins to explode -- about 30 minutes after it starts -- it moves with spectacular energy.
The tagline for the movie proclaims the end of the journey. But who wanted it to end?