LOTR Review - JAM!

Tuesday, December 18, 2001 
'Lord Of The Rings' true genius 
Senior Reporter, JAM! Showbiz
"The world has changed ..." 

That sentiment has been expressed repeatedly since the horrors of Sept. 11, to convey the shock, sorrow, and fear for a world that has been knocked off its orderly orbit. 

But the line is also the first piece of narration heard in director Peter Jackson's "The Fellowship Of The Ring," the frantically anticipated first instalment of his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord Of The Rings." 

And in ways that Jackson could never have anticipated, his film arrives at a time that needs both the stern lessons and warm comforts of Tolkien's tale. 

It should be said off the top that "Fellowship Of The Ring" is a great film, but it's not perfect. Jackson has had to struggle with the same titanic problems that bedeviled the parade of wanna-be adapters who have tried, and failed, to bring Tolkien to the screen. 

But he has done wonders with reshaping "LOTR's" labyrinth of plot and characters into a satisfying -- and ultimately exhilarating -- cinematic experience. 

In viewing "Fellowship Of The Ring," patience is both required and rewarded. In that regard, the film is very unlike every fantasy film that followed in the dumbed-down wake of George Lucas's "Star Wars," and more in line with, say, director David Lean's approach with his epic "Lawrence Of Arabia:" The careful accumulation of plot and character and detail enhances later action and drama. 

New Line Cinema, though, might have considered handing out Cole's Notes to keep on track readers not intimately acquainted with Tolkien's world. There's a mountain of abbreviated exposition off the top of "Fellowship Of the Ring" to bring the audience up to speed on what will unspool during the film's nearly three-hour running time. The prologue is like a trailer from a prequel that we somehow missed. 

We're hit with a hailstorm of monarch's names to memorize, different races (Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, humans) to distinguish, and a crash course in the geography and history and topography of Middle Earth. By comparison, sorting out the Balkans is a walk in the park. 

"Fellowship" demands more of the audience than most modern fantasy or adventure films. But the viewer who dedicates some attention during its early scenes is copiously rewarded during the second half, which is more exciting and heartbreaking than any of the one-dimensional action blockbusters Hollywood has cranked out during the past 30 years. 

Jackson's genius starts with casting. Although he is competing with generations of readers who have cast the story in the screening rooms of their imagination, it is hard to find fault with this ensemble. 

Ian McKellan as the aging wizard Gandalf hits precisely the right notes of vulnerability and weariness. Elijah Wood, as Frodo, exhibits all the innocent wonder and unexpected dread of his mission, as keeper of a ring that holds the fate of the world. And if nothing else, Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of the story's reluctant champion Aragorn will nudge him closer to the vanguard of Hollywood's hot-list. Sean Bean (Baromir), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), and Liv Tyler (Arwen) are competent and credible in the limited screen-time they command. 

Jackson's homeland of New Zealand can also expect a tourism boom in the wake of the film's release. The movie is packed with snow-capped mountains, mist-shrouded hills, and sun-dappled forests that could have been plucked right out of Tolkien's prose. What nature can't provide, Jackson's effects experts can, creating computer-generated fantasy worlds of startling, often terrifying realism. 

To their credit, some of the effects' teams most inspired work is also its subtlest. One of the major differences between Tolkien's characters is height. Hobbits are shorter than dwarves, who are puny next to elves. Jackson has employed adult actors who are generally the same height (rather than cheating by casting midgets, or kids dressed up as adults), but he has digitally created the vivid illusion that Hobbits, for example, appear child-like in stature next to the regal elf characters. 

In one scene, McKellan's towering Gandalf visits the home of pint-sized Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), and even seasoned effects-watchers will be scratching their heads trying to figure out how they made the two actors appear to be radically different heights, while interacting naturally in the same cramped environment. 

While it's common practice to dump on the decision-makers in Hollywood, let's take a moment to remember that those same merchants of mediocrity have shown unexpected wisdom in the making of "Fellowship Of The Ring." 

With a beloved literary franchise and a rumoured $300 million at stake, it would have been easy for New Line to have opted for a proven box-office performer to helm the project. Jackson's audacious "Heavenly Creatures" showed promise, but no one would have been surprised if the studio had opted for Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg. That same logic was used to scratch "Brazil" director Terry Gilliam from the shortlist of directors for Warner Bros. "Harry Potter" series, in favour of the commercially proven, if unaffecting, Chris Columbus. 

While he may have lacked a box office track record, what Jackson does have is a vision. So, good on New Line for rolling the dice. 

It should also be said that "Fellowship" is too intense for the under-10 crowd, whose repeat business has become Hollywood's bread-and-butter. The temptation to soften the story for kiddie consumption must have been great, but it is thankfully a lure the studio hasn't swallowed. 

But forget for a moment all the effects, the performances, and the expectations. What sets "Fellowship Of The Ring" apart from the action/fantasy film glut is Tolkien's story, which is fortified with rare substance and meaning and will resonate with thoughtful viewers long after the house-lights come up. 

Early on, as the Hobbits Frodo, Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippin (Billy Boyd) head off on their journey, there's a boy's-own adventure feel about the trip. But gradually, as their small band is absorbed into the titular fellowship, the severity of their mission emerges, and the enduring potency of Tolkien's tale becomes plain. 

These characters do not charge headlong into their mission convinced of their own righteousness, as one would expect in most Tinseltown epics. On the contrary, the quest to fight evil can only go forward when the members of the fellowship recognize their own capacity for evil. 

Even the mightiest of their members recognizes that they are vulnerable to the ring's seductive greed. Their mission can only succeed once they have dealt with that revelation about their own potential for malice. In a modern climate in which violence and swift justice is being dealt in the name of vanquishing "evil," the lesson of "Fellowship Of The Ring" is all the more timely. 

It's probably not giving too much away to say this: At the conclusion of the film, when Frodo invites Sam to join him on the next leg of his journey, the emotional force of the pair's friendship is as powerful as any of the swordplay and sorcery that has preceded it. 

"Fellowship Of The Ring" is a triumph of the imagination, but what makes it grand is that it is about the things that really matter. 

The film's narrator tells the audience "History became legend, legend became myth ... And some of the things that should not have been forgotten were lost." 

But "Fellowship Of The Ring" is a modern myth that will surely make history. And it's an experience audiences are unlikely to forget. 

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