In a nutshell
Passed to him by his adventuring uncle Bilbo, young hobbit Frodo Baggins becomes the unlikely and unwilling bearer of the one ring of power, an instrument of unparalleled evil. And so Frodo, along with his three hobbit chums, the wizard Gandalf and a mysterious swordsman named Strider set out on an epic quest.
Brooking no argument, history should quickly regard Peter Jackson's The Fellowship Of The Ring as the first instalment of the best fantasy epic in motion picture history. This statement is worthy of investigation for several reasons. Fellowship is indeed merely an opening salvo, and even after three hours in the dark you will likely exit the cinema with a bellyful of dissatisfaction. Or, to put it another way, gunning for more.
Fellowship is also unabashedly rooted in the fantasy genre. Not to be confused with the techno-cool of good science fiction, nor even the cutesy charm of family fantasy like Harry Potter, the territory of Tolkien is clearly marked by goo and goblins and gobbledegook. Persons with a low tolerance level for lines like "To the bridges of Khaza-dum!" are as well to stay within the Shire-like comforts of home.
With those caveats in place, it bears repeating: fantasy does not come finer. There are electrifying moments - notably the computer assisted tracking shots of Isengard as it transforms into a factory for evil - when Jackson's flight of fancy approaches the sublime as the romantic poets would understand it: inspiring awe.
Leaving aside the thorny issue of Tolkein die-hards and their inevitable gripes - "What, no Tom Bombadil?" - Jackson's screenplay (written in tandem with Fran Walsh and Phillpa Boyens) is both bolder and more judicious than Steven Kloves' surprisingly timid retread of Harry Potter. In particular, rescuing the romance of Arwen and Aragorn from the footnotes and the elevation of Saruman to full blown bad guy actually has a corrective influence on Tolkien's often oblique and female-free source material.
There are problems though. The three-hour running time is high on incident and low on discernible form. After successive detours to elf habitats Rivendell (the watery home of Elrond) and Lothlorien (the forest home of the Lady Galadriel) the uninitiated might well ask why these crazy elf kids can't just live together and spare us all this attenuated dramatic structure.
More importantly, the action clearly climaxes in the desperate flight from the Mines of Moria, where the largely seamless SFX is showcased in the best possible light - total darkness - but the narrative demands a different, downbeat ending. Indeed, but for some fine emotional playing from Bean, Mortensen, Astin and Wood, the final fight might feel like a particularly brutal game of paintball in Bluebell Wood. Then again, the real battles are yet to come.
Putting formula blockbusters to shame, Fellowship is impeccably cast and constructed with both care and passion: this is a labour of love that never feels laboured. It is a genre movie, and it's not perfect, but it is a perfect genre movie. Moreover, it is the best reminder since The Matrix of why we go to the cinema in the first place.
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