December 19, 2001
A Heroic Quest Through Middle-Earth
By ELVIS MITCHELL
There are two groups probably sharing the same dread about the film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's ornate and busy "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" its most loving adherents and those who have spent their lives avoiding the books. But neither side is likely to be disappointed by the director Peter Jackson's altogether heroic job in tackling perhaps the most intimidating nerd/academic fantasy classic ever.
Given that huge portions of the movie are devoted to exposition (there's a crushing amount of explanation required), Mr. Jackson has simmered the novel down to the most compact action-epic that could be made of it. As director and co-scriptwriter (he wrote the adaptation along with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) he understood that what propels the story forward are the battles between the forces of good and evil a word from which British stage actors can extract at least three syllables.
One of those British actors, Ian McKellen, plays Gandalf, the wizard and friend to the Baggins family. Gandalf drops in on the Shire to visit his hobbit friend Bilbo (Ian Holm) on his 111th birthday. (It's good to see Mr. Holm and Sir Ian together, even though the special effect required to make the hobbit diminutive and Gandalf lanky and majestic interferes with their ease.)
During the celebration, Bilbo passes a ring on to his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood), and this ring places Frodo in the center of a struggle for the future of the world. The ring, which contains an evil wizard's "cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life," must be destroyed in the fire Pits of Mordor, where it was created. Even the towering Gandalf is afraid of this master ring.
"Fellowship" then slips into a series of chases and pitched battles, each with a bit more at stake because the ring's power to tempt those who come in contact with it becomes a bigger factor. Mr. Jackson has exploited the anecdotal nature by turning "Fellowship" into an escalating group of cliffhangers. This is the craftiest way to deal with the essence of "Fellowship," shrinking the border between seduction and greed. When the ring corrupts each side, what's the difference between those who want it to do what's right and those who want it for less selfless reasons?
Tolkien's books were written and passed around from zealot to zealot long before fantasy became the order of the day in contemporary popular culture, which is why so much of "Fellowship" will seem familiar to those who know nothing about them. (Tolkien devotees are probably still wiping the bad taste of Ralph Bakshi's poky 1978 animated adaptation from their mouths.)
Rather than emphasize the similarities to George Lucas's mythology, Mr. Jackson gallops straight through them, trimming away as many of the complications as possible. "Fellowship" may still feel like "Star Wars" and just about every other otherworldly battle epic of the last 30 years a whopping composite of Christian allegory, Norse mythology and a boys' book of adventure. There's not much of a place for women on the loamy, rich dream scapes of Middle Earth; they enter the action briefly as if they were dream figures, part of the film's subconscious, like the glorious Elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the magical Arwen (Liv Tyler).
"Fellowship" centers on a band composed of the hobbits Frodo and his best friend, Sam (Sean Astin); the wizard Gandalf; and a pack of warriors that include the humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), the angry dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) and the elf archer Legolas (Armando Bloom).
Mr. Jackson apparently feels that the way to keep each of the fighting groups separate in the audience's minds is to provide them with hairstyles reminiscent of 1970's bands. The hobbits all have heads of tossled curls they're like members of Peter Frampton's group. Aragorn and Boromir have the long, unwashed bushes of Aerosmith, and the flaxen-maned Legolas has the fallen-angel look of one of the Allman Brothers. (The tubby, bilious and bearded Gimli could be a roadie for any of them.) "Fellowship" plays like a sword-and-sorcery epic produced by VH-1. Together, they rock against the forces of Sauron the evil wizard who created the Ring that Frodo holds. They have to pass through a cavernous passageway to fight through the assortment of nightmare creatures that Sauron sends to stop them.
In Tolkien's book, each obstacle represents what is by now a kitschy level of enlightenment; once it's surmounted, you can never go back. Though this sadder-but-wiser educational experience is integral to the story, rather than snip it away, the director lingers on the mournfulness. When Frodo's band of brothers has to endure its sacrifices, the movie has a sense of loss. Mr. Jackson gets more feeling into "Fellowship" than he did with his previous films, like "Heavenly Creatures" and the bracing shock comedy "Dead Alive" and "The Frighteners" (which contained milder elements from "Dead Alive"). He's better at this stuff than the happy shenanigans at Bilbo's birthday bash in the Shire; it's an entire village of comic relief. Mr. Jackson is a deft filmmaker, though, combining humor and horror in the same scene so that the actors' takes of disbelief when yet another menace materializes are so expressive they seem like part of the storytelling.
The movie gets going once the quest begins and the adventurers hit the road. Since the actors serve a plot need rather than filling out characterization, the movie succeeds when the performers quickly communicate their functions. Mr. Wood's light, tremulous voice for Frodo and earnest, pointed face offer decency. He sometimes seems to possess the visage that Michael Jackson has spent a lot of money having sculptured by man-made means.
Sir Ian's good-humored courtliness goes a long way, especially in his scenes with his former mentor-turned-nemesis, the wizard Saruman; he's played by Christopher Lee as if he were still Dracula rising from the grave. Mr. Mortensen's tendency to withhold as an actor informs Aragorn's nobility, and he moves well with a sword; it gives him an action hero's passion, which contrasts with Bean's conflicted Boromir.
If the actors had more to do, the picture might run longer than its current 180 minutes. At that length some may find the movie exhausting, since those not caught up in the story which will seem reiterative because Tolkien's prose has been pillaged so often may find themselves indifferent to "Fellowship." The playful spookiness of Mr. Jackson's direction provides a lively, light touch, a gesture that doesn't normally come to mind when Tolkien's name is mentioned.
"Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is rated PG-13 Parents strongly cautioned) for the plethora of menacing creatures who eventually have to be encountered and slaughtered.
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