The critical reviews are 99% positive, it is breaking box office records, and the word-of-mouth is good.
So is it?
In a word: yes. I think the last of the trilogy is also far and away the best. And not only of the trilogy, but the best of any movie I can think of that I have seen in the past decade. There are moments of deep terror, glory, sadness, joy and bittersweet nostalgia, and each are done without camp or overabundant earnestness. Although time constraints forced Jackson to eliminate or de-emphasize some episodes in the books, you can nevertheless feel the worshipful dedication to accuracy that the filmmakers succeeded in achieving.
I have been a Tolkien student for going on twenty years now (gads!), so I have gone into each of these movies with the critical eye of a fan. After seeing all three movies I not only harbor no ill will towards Jackson's interpretation of the books, I can honestly say that the enjoyment I received from this final movie made me wish I had paid more than a paltry $7.50 for my ticket. The battle scenes are simply glorious, the sense of scale stupefying. When uncounted legions of misshapen orcs, huge trolls, oliphaunts, and other evil forces assault the city/fortress of Minas Tirith you are filled with a sense of awe and terror. Mordor is knocking, and its arrival is something to be feared.
But the incredible scenes of war and battle are not the only area where this movie succeeds. The human element is what eventully makes this movie (like any movie) work, and Jackson does not fail on this point. The relationships between each of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are displayed with a subtle brilliance, especially the unnerving competition between Sam and Gollum, hidden from Frodo's eyes. Other interpersonal relationships are handled with equal skill, driving the characters towards doom or triumph, Each action taken is understandable on different levels, and none of the characters are shallow sterotypes.
And this is what eventaully separates the Lord of the Rings trilogy from other successful trilogies, especially Star Wars. After seeing "Return of the King" I was reminded of a conclusion I came to several years ago: Lucas is a wanna-be sci-fi Tolkien, but he (Lucas) fails because he has never been able to successfully capture the humanity of his characters. Compare the scene in Star Wars where Ben Kenobi is killed with the scene in Fellowship where Gandalf falls. In Star Wars, Luke is sad for about 3 seconds, and the other characters hardly seem to notice or care. In Fellowship, Gandalf's fall reverberates throughout the entire company, and beyond. Tolkien was able to portray emotions beyond bravery, although he did that well, too. Lucas is able to create a rich tapestry (the Jedi, the Republic and Imperium, the different planets and ships, etc.) but he has never been able to make his characters interesting in any meaningful way.
I think that "Return of the King" will rank as one of the great movies of our time, and will be remembered and loved for many years to come. It will be a surprise if this movie does not win the Best Picture Oscar, at least as an appreciation of the series as a whole. The trilogy is unarguably a more skillfully done work than the Star Wars trilogy (hexology?) and is at the end far, far more satisfying.