Grit and spectacle help 'Lord' ring true
Journey begins with intimate tale
By DUANE DUDEK
Journal Sentinel film critic
Last Updated: Dec. 18, 2001
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" continues the dubious tradition of filling the marquee with a title so long you think you're in a bookstore rather than in a multiplex. But it does so not out of self-importance, but out of respect for the material.
The title alone, while a mouthful, promises a fidelity to the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy that the film itself fulfills in spades.
Lately, fantasy genre fans have seen heralded films fall short of their potential, in one way or another. It's as if the tools to imagine the impossible have outpaced the imaginations wielding them.
As a result, films that may look great have been creatively tone-deaf, causing desperate fans to embrace them despite their flaws and not because of their achievements.
"Fellowship of the Ring" may or may not mark the birth of a brave new world of fantasy film, but it does set a new standard against which other such films should be compared.
While not a slavish carbon copy of the source material, it is truer to its spirit than any line-by-line adaptation could ever be (although this opinion is spoken out of a quarter-century-old, shadowy half-memory of a text that resisted recent efforts to revisit it).
But in the same way Tolkien turned the developing 20th century's struggle with industrialization and war into a tale about an unlikely alliance of good souls battling an encroaching evil, New Zealand director Peter Jackson's evocative film synthesizes the traditional and the modern.
"Fellowship" could not have been made without the same computer-generated imagery that has run amok in the hands of less capable filmmakers.
The evocative environments, elaborate battle scenes and fantastic creatures require a technology that is as current as it is costly.
But Jackson has his roots in up-by-your-bootstraps filmmaking, and his use of miniatures, matte paintings, costumes and in-camera trickery give the film a tactile grittiness that makes the fantasy feel like reality.
And it is in this authenticity that the film distinguishes itself.
The stout-hearted "Fellowship" is closer to "Braveheart" or "Gladiator" than it is to "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." And its considerable violence should give parents pause. But its spectacle is made intimate and credible through the detailed conduct of its characters: the calloused, working-class hands and tired eyes of Gandalf the Wizard; the hairy-footed, clear-eyed but naive Hobbit boy Frodo, in whose untested hands the fate of the world of Middle-earth rests; and the bloody-hoofed horses ridden by the screaming wraiths that pursue them.
Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, has inherited a ring coveted by long-dormant evil forces. The ring has a life of its own. It wants to be found by these forces, and its evil tempts all who come near it. Led by Gandalf, played by Ian McKellen, and protected by a "fellowship" of other Middle Earth species, including elves, trolls, Hobbits and humans - played by John Rhys-Davies, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler and others - Frodo travels into the same heart of darkness where the ring was forged to destroy it.
The story takes Frodo and his friends from the bucolic conviviality of the Hobbits' emerald shire and the "Lost Horizon" majesty of the elven capital, through the cavernous underworld of trolls, and into a hellish wasteland where they do battle with the things that inhabit it.
Although three hours long, the film ends in a cliffhanger that will be resolved in the next two films. It leaves you wanting more, but it is the same place the first book paused.
Jackson filmed all three stories at once, a risky tactic that offered economy of scale. But that, and shooting them in New Zealand, made the $270 million total cost of the films affordable.
The seams show a little after multiple viewings, but the initial impression of a vividly imagined and majestically realized journey that manages to be thrilling yet intimate is the lasting one.
Even if you're not a fantasy fan, "The Fellowship of the Ring" has everything you could want in almost any kind of film. It is joyous, mythic, elegiac and, most importantly, cinematic.
And the "ending" makes you want to read ahead to see just how things turn out.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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