An engrossing saga of good versus evil
Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2001
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first big-budget fantasy in ages that doesn't feel like it was made on someone's computer, or as an excuse to sell action figures, or to capitalize on a profitable franchise. The movie, of course, is based on J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved epic about hobbits, wizards and a far-flung land known as Middle-earth.
But the film has such a unity of tone, such genuine passion and feverish invention, it feels like it sprang right out of director Peter Jackson's imagination. Despite the considerable hype surrounding it, The Fellowship of the Ring has the stamp of a personal, intimate project: It really is one from the heart.
A lifelong fan of fantasy films, Jackson spent several years trying to get Lord of the Rings going at various studios, and the constant delays were the best thing that could have happened to the movie. Jackson spent so much time writing and rewriting the script (with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens), designing the film's costumes and special effects, and even scouting locations in the New Zealand wilderness, that by the time shooting actually started, he had the entire movie worked out in his head.
That confidence emboldens a sprawling, mammoth-scale adventure that never loses sight of the complex story it is telling. The gist of the plot centers around Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a personable hobbit (they of short stature, furry feet and a fondness for pipeweed) entrusted to destroy a magical ring wanted by some very bad people. Frodo must trek to the place where the ring was forged -- Mount Doom -- in order to carry out his assignment, and he's helped by a coalition that includes the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the mighty warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elven archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a host of others, both human and not.
With the forces of evil at their heels, Frodo and company traverse a richly imagined world that feels lived-in and authentic, complete with its own languages, customs and traditions. They also engage in battle -- lots and lots of battle. The Fellowship of the Ring is an old-fashioned quest movie, one so archetypal and influential that it will remind you of everything from Star Wars to Willow to those creepy Teletubbies. It's a testament to the timelessness of Tolkien's creation that no matter how often it's been plundered, it remains fresh and invigorating, at least as it is presented here.
What's more, Jackson treats the material seriously and respectfully, without the condescension with which other filmmakers might have treated a movie replete with goblins, orcs and half-human beings with pointy ears (there's only one throwaway joke in the movie, involving dwarf-tossing, that feels anachronistic). That respect is reflected in the casting, from McKellen's Shakespearean turn as the powerful Gandalf, to cameos by Liv Tyler as the 3,000-year-old Arwen and Cate Blanchett as the ethereal elf queen Galadriel (both of whom play larger roles in the later films).
Striving to remain as true to the original text as possible, Jackson has included passages of dialogue and conversation most other directors would have trimmed for the sake of pacing. The Fellowship of the Ring runs a full three hours,
and it is not without the occasional dead spot. The fact that it's the first of a trilogy also makes the movie more than a little anti-climactic: It doesn't really end so much as stop, and even though Jackson has tinkered with the structure of the books to give the film the semblance of a big finale, there's no denying the twinge of disappointment that comes when the credits roll, knowing the next chapter in the tale, The Two Towers, is a year away.
But The Fellowship of the Ring leaves no doubt it's a wait worth enduring. It has several classic setpieces, including one long sequence, depicting the heroes' excursion through the spooky Mines of Moria, that is as rousing and exciting -- as perfect, really -- as any fan of fantasy could ever hope for. The battle sequences in Fellowship have the exhilarating energy of Jackson's raw early films (Bad Taste, Dead Alive), except that they've been made by a much more mature filmmaker who is putting every bit of technique at his disposal in the service of a story, instead of the other way around.
Because of its fantasy trappings, The Fellowship of the Ring is the kind of movie hipper-than-thou cynics will roll their eyes at and dismiss as geeky fanboy stuff. That's their loss. This is a stalwart, engrossing drama about the age-old struggle between good and evil, a struggle that remains relevant no matter its setting. And Jackson's dazzling vision turns the story into a real movie-movie -- one that, unlike too many fantasy films today, is genuinely transporting. The wait for The Two Towers has officially begun. Hurry, 2002, hurry.
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