PRAISE 'THE LORD'!
By LOU LUMENICK
December 18, 2001 -- ONE of the biggest gambles in Hollywood history, the long-awaited "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" pays off with dividends - it's the three most exciting hours we've seen on a movie screen in years.
The first of three $100 million features - derived from J.R.R. Tolkien's cult trilogy by visionary director Peter Jackson - is an utterly beguiling feast for eyes, pulses and minds.
It's got the ingredients that eluded "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" - heart, soul and inspired direction by Jackson ("Heavenly Creatures"), working at eye-popping locations in his native New Zealand.
Even those who found Tolkien's books confusing will be riveted by the well-paced screenplay by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh and rookie screenwriter Philippa Boyens.
It lays out Tolkien's complex history in a way that should please die-hards - yet, unlike the makers of "Harry Potter," Jackson doesn't let slavish fidelity to the text stand in the way of a rip-roaring good time.
Young Elijah Wood is perfection as Frodo Baggins, the hairy-footed hobbit who receives an unwanted present at an 111th birthday party for his cousin Bilbo Baggins (the ever-delightful Ian Holm).
The wizard Gandalf (a super Ian McKellen) has forced Bilbo to give Frodo a magic ring forged 3,000 years before by the Dark Lord Sauron.
The ring has the power to make its wearer invisible, but it also has the ability to bring Sauron back to malevolent life.
Frodo reluctantly agrees to return the ring to the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged - the only way it can be destroyed.
Three boys from the Shire join Frodo in the quest - the devoted Sam (Sean Astin), and pranksters Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd).
Soon they're part of a multi-racial coalition that includes human warriors Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), Elf marksman Legolas (Orlando Blood) and the ferocious dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).
Frodo needs the help.
Gandalf has been sidelined by his mentor, the rogue wizard Saruman (a commanding Christopher Lee in his best role since "Star Wars").
Saruman summons up spooky ring wraiths, slimy orcs, cave trolls, goblins - and just about everything short of anthrax - to stop our heroes from accomplishing their mission.
Actually, Tolkien's tale of good people who band together against a Dark Lord and his minions has never been more timely than in our troubled age.
"Lord of the Rings" is so consistently involving because the excellent cast delivers their lines with the kind of utter conviction not seen in this kind of movie since the first "Star Wars."
Much of the vast budget has gone to some of the most memorable sets since "The Wizard of Oz" - and composer Howard Shore's lovely score doesn't have to hype the action.
There are plenty of well-staged fights - and parents should think twice before bringing very young children to this film, which aims somewhat older than "Harry Potter."
Girls may be slightly disappointed that the two main female characters - Cate Blanchett as the Elf Queen Galadriel and Liv Tyler as Princess Arwen - make little more than Tolkien, er, token, appearances.
But my only major complaint about what's easily one of the year's best movies - is that we'll have to wait a full 12 months to see "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
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