Frodo & Gandalf's excellent adventure
By Jay Carr
So far, so good. Not since the original ''Star Wars'' trilogy has film dipped into myth and emerged with the kind of weight and heft seen in Peter Jackson's first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's ''Lord of the Rings'' trilogy.
Wholly satisfying in its own right, ''The Fellowship of the Ring'' also bodes well for the next two parts, since all three were shot in one massive gulp in Jackson's native New Zealand, and will be doled out yearly. Like most successful screen adaptations of literary works, this one is essentially character-based, for all its sweeping action. Brilliantly and bravely, Jackson swings from the heels, with full awareness that the qualities of the original, like the power-bestowing gold ring of Sauron everybody is chasing, can be a trap.
But the film rings true. To borrow an image from Tolkien himself, it reaches deep into the well of Western culture, regenerating themes from the classics to Northern and Judeo-Christian myth. Although Tolkien had a son in the Royal Air Force, he said he wasn't writing an allegory of World War II, with the Allies fighting the forces of Hitler's, or even communism's, darkness.
Still, the parallel is inescapable, just as ''The Lord of the Rings'' takes on an extra urgency today, with its story of a righteous brotherhood restoring the moral order by going to war against an evil wizard in a mountain stronghold. Add a corrupting lust for power and a belief in individual fate based on moral choices, and you've got the kind of big themes that make a big movie live.
Jackson brings it off with visual flair, epic scale, enlivening detail, and, above all, conviction. The characters immediately look right. Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins, the podgy young Everyman entrusted with returning the ring to the fires it came from in order to neutralize its sinister power, is fresh-eyed, furry-footed, and resourceful, with a
gleam in his eye and dirt under his fingernails. He and all the characters in the film convince us they spring from the natural world and are at home in it.
Tolkien said that the book arose from the leaf mold of his mind. You can smell it on the screen as the characters range through forests. But Jackson is also cognizant of the fact that New Zealand's landscapes are wilder and more craggily mythic than most. They, too, become a presence in the film, quite apart from the inevitable computer-generated fantasyscapes and battle scenes.
The fellowship is a stalwart band of humans, wizards, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits - underdogs all and vastly outnumbered, but unswervingly stouthearted. Although they flee their share of supernatural antagonists, ranging from wraiths to wizened orcs to cave trolls to fire-breathing monsters, the biggest dangers they face are spiritual and internal. Frodo passes his big test when he slips the ring onto his finger and is confronted with seductive visions of power, then wrenches it off.
Not that the film spends a lot of time in moral debate. It doesn't have to. Jackson, in every way fulfilling the promise he displayed in his 1994 ''Heavenly Creatures,'' keeps his mythical freedom fighters hurtling along exuberantly as the fellowship keeps mankind one narrow step ahead of being consumed by darkness.
The film is just as good when it comes to the idealization of English country village life in the Shire, where the hobbits live, contentedly savoring their mundane, earthy, and earthly lives. Viggo Mortensen, as their brooding, knightly protector, Aragorn, might have stepped from Arthurian legend. The film also conjures up a gossamer land of elves, over which Cate Blanchett, looking like an ethereal cross between a Botticelli and a Pre-Raphaelite goddess, presides.
One of the pleasures of Wood's performance, apart from the oak-hearted goodness he projects, is the way he mirrors his 111-year-old uncle, Bilbo Baggins, who found the ring in the first place and who now, in the person of Ian Holm, is slyly embarking for better things. Ian McKellen makes a wonderful Gandalf the Grey, convincing us that he's wizard of stature, but also endearingly prone to occasional lapses, possibly because he's something of a pothead.
A lot of care and stylistic rightness have gone into putting Tolkien's world and characters onscreen, and with considerably greater impact than ''Harry Potter.'' Images, apparitions, humanity, and a rare sense of interconnectedness tumble from the screen in Jackson's soaring, sweeping, swooping camerawork. This rich, visionary ''Fellowship of the Ring'' is a long film, but it doesn't feel like one. It gets more involving as it goes along. If Jackson had spliced to it the second and third installments, I'd have cheerfully and voraciously stayed on for his entire ring cycle.
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