Tuesday December 18 11:42 AM ET
At the Movies: `Lord of the Rings'
By DAVID GERMAIN, AP Movie Writer
Suddenly, investing $300 million in a three-film shoot by a relatively untested director no longer seems risky. With the stellar results of ``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,'' it seems like calculated brilliance.
J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth realm of pint-size hobbits, ethereal elves, plucky dwarves, imposing wizards and up-and-coming humans springs to visceral life in this opening chapter, which will be followed by part two late next year and part three late in 2003.
Dense with detailed lore Tolkien-ites crave yet packed with action and luminous visual effects for the Tolkien uninitiated, this is one of the finest fantasy films ever made.
``Fellowship'' is a thrilling, eye-filling epic built from a seamless blend of full-size sets, miniatures and digital effects, dazzling costumes and makeup, and glorious New Zealand landscapes.
Besides loads of technical Oscar nominations - notably for New Zealand special-effects house WETA Digital - the film should be a serious contender for best-picture, director and some acting nods.
Director Peter Jackson lobbied for years to make the trilogy. He was handed the reins to the colossal production with only a handful of modest-scale films to his credit, including the middling horror tale ``The Frighteners'' and the mesmerizing ``Heavenly Creatures.''
All three Tolkien films were shot simultaneously, and the results of ``Fellowship'' presage great things for the next installments, ``The Two Towers'' and ``The Return of the King.''
Jackson, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Fran Walsh and playwright Philippa Boyens, faithfully adapts the key events of Tolkien's first chapter, with a character or two and some situations amplified to bulk up the action and add a little romance.
Here's a thousand pages of text and millennia of Middle-earth history in a nutshell: Vanquished dark lord Sauron plans a comeback to enslave all creation with the help of the One Ring, an ancient artifact of evil inherited by the tiny hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) from his cousin Bilbo (Ian Holm).
Baggins family friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a mighty wizard, recognizes the danger the ring poses if Sauron acquires it. Gandalf dispatches Frodo from pastoral Hobbiton, where Sauron has sent his ringwraiths, terrifying caped riders that pursue the hobbit and his three pals, Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd).
While Gandalf wages a fierce battle with wizard-turned-bad-guy Saruman (Christopher Lee), the hobbits hook up with a human protector, the darkly valiant warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen).
The four hobbits, Gandalf and Aragorn are joined by the regally flawed human Boromir (Sean Bean), the fearless elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the bullheaded dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). These nine form a fellowship whose goal is to cart the ring to Sauron's lair and destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom.
There's a side trip down lover's lane for Aragorn, who woos the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), daughter of elfin leader Elrond (Hugo Weaving). Arwen is barely mentioned in Tolkien's ``Fellowship of the Ring,'' but Jackson elevates her to a pivotal player in Frodo's flight from the ringwraiths.
Frodo also has a soul-searching encounter with elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), steeling him for the hardships to come.
Besides ringwraiths, the fellowship battles hordes of demonic, bat-faced orcs, a monstrous cave troll, an even more monstrous, dragon-sized Balrog, and the bestial Uruk-Hai, bruisers specially bred by Saruman to retrieve the ring.
Masterfully paced, the movie builds slowly, introducing the mythology, habitats and lifestyles of Tolkien's creatures. It may be a bit of information overload for moviegoers who have not read Tolkien, but once the second exhilarating half of the film kicks in, few viewers will stop to ponder the difference between an orc and an uruk.
The cast is superb, especially McKellen with his kindly imperiousness as Gandalf and Mortensen with his brooding, noble savage take on Aragorn.
Jackson nails the fraternity that develops among Tolkien's fellowship. These curious misfits, skeptical of one another's worthiness, come to trust and love each other, grieving like brothers if one should fall. Two of the company share a grand death scene worthy of the heroes of ancient Greece.
The size differential (hobbits average 31/2 feet, dwarves a foot or so more) is deftly handled through visual effects, diminutive doubles for the actors and some old-fashioned, forced-perspective camera work. Interaction early on between the child-sized Bilbo and the towering Gandalf is so utterly real, size never matters from then on: The audience simply accepts it as another flourish in this exotic world.
The only drawback: Part two is 12 months away, part three, 24 months.
``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship
of the Ring'' is a New Line release and is rated PG-13 for epic
battle sequences and some scary images. Running time: 178 minutes.
Return to Lord of the Rings Review Archive
Return to Lord of the Rings Main Page
Return to Films and TV
Return to The Compleat Sean Bean