LOTR Review - Detroit Free Press

'Fellowship' gets the trilogy off to a grand start

Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press

Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Of all the positive things I could, and will, say about Peter Jackson's sweeping, sincere and epic adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," the most telling may be this:

He might be the person who finally gets me to continue a quest I abandoned in college. I was one of the few in my circle unable to get past the first 300 dense pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's mystical history of Middle-earth and the hobbits, elves, dwarfs and wizards who must face orcs, trolls, dark armies and ultimate evil to restore peace and goodness to the land.

The trick is, Jackson's "The Fellowship of the Ring" doesn't have a proper ending. Like an old-fashioned movie serial -- and nearly everything in this movie is old-fashioned -- it stops at an crucial turning point in the life and journey of young hobbit Frodo Baggins, and I'm not sure I can wait until next Christmas, when the forebodingly titled "The Two Towers" will resume the story. In contrast to the other major ongoing franchises of "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter," I can't wait to see what happens next.

It took a while for "Fellowship of the Ring" to cast its spell. The film begins with an extended prologue that attempts to explain the politics and history of Middle-earth -- the sort of things that put me off the book. This culminates in a battle with thousands of computer-generated warriors that evoked unpleasant memories of "The Mummy Returns."

But by the battle's conclusion, we have learned what we need to know: A dark lord named Sauron has forged a mysterious ring, which holds the potential of ultimate evil and the power to seduce whoever wears it to succumb to his own dark impulses.

The ring is dramatically lost in the battle and, after a few thousand years, found by a genial hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), a respected member of the tribe of leprechaun-like folk with pointed ears and furry feet and good dispositions. At Bilbo's 111th birthday and going-away party, "Lord of the Rings" finally begins to weave its magic.

The arrival of Bilbo's old friend, the bearded wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who gently urges Bilbo to leave the ring to his naive nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), allows director Jackson to introduce the film's amazing special effects in a wonderfully ordinary way. Our perspective is literally altered, and the plot is set in motion.

Put simply, the various squabbling, distrustful races of good -- hobbits, elves, dwarfs and (most unreliable of all) humans -- must form an alliance that will return the ring to Mount Doom in the legendary land of Mordor. Only there can the ring be destroyed, so that its powers can never again be used against those who stand for good.

So is formed the Fellowship of the Nine, consisting of two humans, the rival warriors Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), whose father was seduced by the ring; the wizard Gandalf; the ever-composed elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom); the primitive strongman dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies); and three more hobbits -- loyal, simple Sam (Sean Astin) and the mischievous Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd).

But it is on Frodo, the ring bearer, that civilization ultimately depends, and "Lord of the Rings" is finally a story of growing into greatness, of making the kinds of decisions and taking the sorts of risks that decide the fate of the world we live in.

Jackson, leading his own loyal fellowship of writers, special-effects artists and designers, has made the decisions and taken the risks that separate visionary filmmakers from focus group-fixated marketeers. While his "Lord" gets enough of the details right to appease those who have actually read Tolkien's book, he doesn't sacrifice filmmaking for fidelity. Long passages and side trips have been eliminated, and the role of the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler) has been expanded to give her an actual function. (Girls weren't of much interest to Tolkien.)

The director has also done impeccable casting, beginning with New Zealand as Middle-earth. From the hobbits' cozy Shire in Hobbiton to the Elfishdomain of Rivendell to the fantastic forest kingdom of Lothlorian to the horrifying Mines of Moria, the movie takes us places we've never gone before. Though some of the landscape has been digitally enhanced, much of the rugged beauty of New Zealand, populated only a few centuries, has remained not only unphotographed but unmolested, by humans or hobbits.

Many of the faces are nearly as fresh, and while Mortensen and Bean and Hugo Weaving, as the elf lord Elrond, are familiar to many moviegoers, they will be major discoveries to others. So will Wood, whose Frodo is so well-intentioned and good we shudder at the thought of the challenges he has yet to face.

McKellen is an ideal choice for Gandalf, leading the forces of good while hinting at the tricks that have yet to come out of his sleeve, and he even gets to mix it up spectacularly with Christopher Lee as the dark forces' field marshal, the wizard Saruman. And, though she shows up late in the game, Cate Blanchett's appearance as the elf queen Galadriel is probably as close as anyone will ever get to capturing the white light of an angel on a movie screen.

"Lord of the Rings" makes copious but discreet use of computer effects, with Jackson taking inspiration not from Industrial Light & Magic but from his beloved old Ray Harryhausen adventures like "Jason and the Argonauts." Jackson's early splatter films, as well as his artistic breakthrough "Heavenly Creatures," bear homage to this stop-motion master.

Most of the monsters and creatures are puppets or prosthetically enhanced actors or combinations of both, and that gives the film a spirit that digital images can't emit.

All that prevents "Lord of the Rings" from achieving classic status is its own divided nature. Remaining true to the arc of Tolkien's narrative means facing every foe in order; often the film feels like a WWF marathon, with Frodo's tag team taking on one ugly, elaborately costumed and seemingly unbeatable challenger after another. And when the Fellowship is asked to exemplify brotherhood and nature's inherent goodness, the film takes on a cornball, shining-sword quality that could embarrass even the cuddliest hobbit.

Still, one appreciates that Jackson takes even the kitsch seriously: The absence of irony in this picture leaves room for an abundance of fun, thrills and, well, fellowship. This "Lord" reigns.

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