Holiday traditions are supposed to last more than three measly years, but in the case of Peter Jackson’s phenomenally popular "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, a longer engagement just wasn’t under the tree.
After dominating the last two holiday movie seasons, the series draws to a close Dec. 17 with "The Return of the King." Exit Frodo, re-enter Frosty.
The 2003 holiday movie landscape extends far beyond Middle-earth, however. Jude Law and Tom Cruise bear the physical and emotional scars of the Civil War in "Cold Mountain" and "The Last Samurai," respectively. Beyond that, there’s family fare ("Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat"), tasteless comedy ("Stuck on You"), female empowerment drama ("Mona Lisa Smile") and head-tripping science fiction ("Paycheck"). We’ll open the big, gaudy ones first and save the cool little knickknacks for later.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (Dec. 17): Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his companions embark on the final leg of their journey into Mordor, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) rallies the remaining armies of elf, man, hobbit and dwarf against Sauron’s forces of darkness. Meanwhile, director Peter Jackson begins preproduction on his next blockbuster project, "King Kong" (due 2005). Did you know? Christopher Lee angrily reacted to news last week that all of his scenes as the traitorous wizard Saruman the White have been edited out of Jackson’s final cut, saying he plans to boycott the film’s premiere.
"The Last Samurai" (Dec. 5): Still carrying the scars of battle, a Civil War veteran (Tom Cruise) travels to feudal Japan to help modernize the emperor’s new army. In battle, he’s captured by relics of the once-great samurai whom the emperor is trying to destroy, and identifies powerfully with their codes of honor and selfreliance. Ed Zwick ("Glory") directs. Did you know? Cruise was originally slated to play the haunted Civil War veteran in "Cold Mountain" before opting for this project.
"Cold Mountain" (Dec. 25): Based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier, this antebellum "Odyssey" finds a Confederate deserter (Jude Law) struggling to make his way back home to Kentucky and the lover (Nicole Kidman) he left there. Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient") directs. Did you know? Co-star Renee Zellweger met rocker Jack White on the set, and the pair dated for a brief stretch.
"Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat" (opened this weekend): Universal’s $80 million adaptation of the beloved children’s book stars Mike Myers ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery") as the mischievous feline who visits a pair of bored children (played by Stuart Breslin and Dakota Fanning) on a rainy day and proceeds to make a royal mess of the house. Art director extraordinaire Bo Welch ("Batman") makes his directorial debut. Did you know? Hotel heiress and amateur adult film star Paris Hilton has a small role.
"Mona Lisa Smile" (Dec. 19): With the Eisenhower era in full swing, a progressive Berkeley grad (Julia Roberts) takes a position at Wellesley and teaches her students — played by Julia Stiles, Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal — to strive for more than a well-heeled husband. Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") directs. Did you know? Femme rocker Tori Amos has a cameo.
"Stuck on You" (Dec. 12): Nothing quite sums up the holidays like a Farrelly Brothers comedy about conjoined twins. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear play the inseparable sibs, one who craves to move to Hollywood to become a movie star, forcing the other to follow suit. Did you know? Jim Carrey and Woody Allen were once considered to play the twins, the difference in age explained by a chronic liver condition.
"Paycheck" (Dec. 25): Based on the 1953 short story by scifi seer Philip K. Dick ("Minority Report"), this John Woo-directed thriller stars Ben Affleck as an electrical engineer who voluntarily has his mind "scrubbed" of all memories relating to a top-secret two-year work assignment. Instead of getting a paycheck for the job, he receives a package of seemingly meaningless objects that could help him retrieve his lost memories. Meanwhile, the government is after him. Did you know? Affleck cohort Matt Damon was up for the role first.
"Peter Pan" (Dec. 25): Budgeted at a hefty $100 million, this retelling of James M. Barrie’s bedtime fable has no major stars but a talented director (P.J. Hogan of "My Best Friend’s Wedding") and an intriguing mix of young talent, including Jeremy Sumpter ("Frailty") as Peter and Ludivine Sagnier ("Swimming Pool") as Tink. British character actor Jason Isaacs ("The Patriot") plays Hook. Did you know? Isaacs also plays Mr. Darling, making this the most Freudian "Pan" ever.
"Something’s Gotta Give" (Dec. 12): Recovering from a heart attack, a rascally old playboy (Jack Nicholson) finds himself romantically drawn to the mother (Diane Keaton) of his latest trophy girlfriend (Amanda Peet). Keanu Reeves plays his personal physician, who also has designs on Keaton. Nancy Myers ("What Women Want") directs. Did you know? Keaton and Nicholson previously starred together in "Reds" (1981).
"Big Fish" (Dec. 10): Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands") offers up a characteristically zany tale of a young man (Billy Crudup) who sits at his father’s deathbed, piecing together the facts of his life from fantastic, utterly unbelievable accounts of adventure and derring-do. Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor play the father in the present and past, respectively. From the novel "Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions," by Daniel Wallace. Did you know? "Big Fish" was attached to Steven Spielberg before Burton snatched it up.