I live in LA and work in the movie business, so I was able to go to the first Academy Awards screening of ROTK yesterday. Thanksgiving day, and they still filled a big theater – I think that says something about the enthusiasm of LOTR’s many fans in the film industry!

What struck me most was how much ROTK really is the third act of one huge epic. All climax and payoff. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of thrilling action sequences. And yet, even more than with the other movies, the emotional focus is tight on the characters.

The LOTR movies actually have less in common with fantasy like STAR WARS, and more in common with classic epics like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and SPARTACUS. So in a fairly traditional sense, ROTK is an old fashioned War Movie. We get the incredible battles, but also the fear in anonymous soldiers’ eyes, and our heroes desperately overcoming that fear to do what has to be done – which is of course what MAKES them heroes. Happily, ROTK doesn’t glorify war, but rather the impulse for sacrifice, putting yourself on the line for a greater good.

But what all LOTR fans will be saying as they leave the theater is “I cried!” Don’t bring a date if you don’t want them to see you cry. Do bring Kleenex, whatever. If you love these characters, you’re going to cry. Like nine times. Sad crying. Happy crying. Happy-sad crying. You get the picture.

Legolas does a stunt you will never forget, battling an Oliphaunt (Mumak, whatever). Sam is the bravest character in any movie, ever. Just the sequence of Pippin singing for Denethor while Faramir rides off on a suicide mission should net Peter Jackson a Best Director nomination. Eowyn ROCKS as action heroine. And you really DON’T want to know what comes through that gate when Minas Tirith is breached.

That being said, I bet this will be the LOTR pic that improves most on DVD. Obviously the Saruman sequence will be missed by fans. But some of the other character stories definitely seem truncated too.

Aragorn has great stuff to do, but we miss a couple of beats in his transformation. No Houses of Healing – in the book, a nice moment where he “proves” his Kingship in a non-warlike way, and where we see how much the people WANT a King. Same with Denethor – we never really get the sense that he is a good and noble man who has fallen low. He seems spiteful, rather than tragic. His sons are so noble, I found that incongruous. And Arwen is barely present, seeming more like she did in the book – a gift-wrapped prize for the King. Finally, though we spend lots of time with Frodo and Sam, even their trip through Mordor is somewhat ellipsed at the end. Jackson et al seemed mainly concerned with making it clear how the Minas Tirith battles are connected with Frodo’s story. This was probably a wise choice, especially for the larger audience who may never have read the books.

But the bottom line is, this is a massive epic which even three LONG movies can barely contain, and Peter Jackson & Company did a great job of bringing it to an incredibly exciting climax and a VERY fulfilling ending. The last few scenes of the movie are particularly well crafted. There’s a very subtle, understated scene after the Hobbits return to the Shire, with almost no dialogue. Everything is told by the looks on their faces. These are good actors! And then there’s the Grey Havens. (See KLEENEX, above)