By KEVIN WILLIAMSON
That The Lord of the Rings dazzles with heretofore unseen visual abandon isn't what makes this fantasy epic such a sensational triumph.
Rather, it's that -- with a sleight of hand worthy of a wizard -- director Peter Jackson has made a film that retains its humanity even as it speeds audiences into unreal worlds and jaw-dropping battles.
Jackson's balancing act proves as seamless as the digital effects that find hobbit and human occupying the same space -- and the result is the most satisfying blockbuster in recent history.
Jackson -- a New Zealander with cinematic hutzpah and a Kiwi effects team to back him up -- has crafted an adventure sure to satisfy both the fans of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic and those neophytes who have never turned one of its pages.
Despite an intimidating running length of three hours, the film is brisk and never bloated, spanning a few thousand years of Middle-earth history in the opening minutes before settling into the distinctly personal introduction of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), one of a peaceful people known as hobbits, who stand about a metre tall and live in a carefree shire.
That existence is shattered when Frodo inherits a ring forged thousands of years earlier by the dark lord, Sauron, who, with the ring's power, nearly enslaved the world before being defeated in battle.
Led by his friend and wizard Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) and accompanied by three other hobbits -- Samwise Gamgee and the mischievous Peregrin (Pippin) Took (portrayed by Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc (Merry) Brandybuck (played by Dominic Monaghan) -- Frodo embarks on a quest to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom, a dark evil territory which, thanks to Jackson, lives up to its name.
Eventually his friends are joined by a motley assortment of races who form a fellowship to protect Frodo -- the warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen in a star-making performance), the brave but all-too-human Boromir (Sean Bean), the blustering dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom).
They must guard Frodo -- and the ring, which corrupts all who possess it -- from Sauron's forces, including the treacherous wizard Saruman The White (Christopher Lee) and armies of killer creatures called orcs, trolls and the Urak Hai, a new breed of creature cross-bred from orcs and goblins.
Whereas most Hollywood blockbusters involving forces of darkness and light are little more than shiny, spotless wind-up toys, Jackson's film possesses an uncommon urgency and sense of dread.
The battle scenes at times recall the ferocity of Braveheart and Gladiator -- even as Jackson is delivering plenty of breathtaking Indiana Jones-style jolts.
But as skilled as Jackson's hand is at mythic clashes between good and evil, so too is it assured with character and drama.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with McKellen's wise and courageous sorcerer and Mortenson's battle-scarred but honour-bound soldier standouts.
As Frodo, Wood is both resolute and rightfully terrified. He yearns for the life he had, even as he knows he cannot go back.
Of course, this film, Fellowship of the Ring, marks only the first of a trilogy, with the second part, The Two Towers, due in a year.
For moviegoers, it promises to be a very long wait indeed.
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