Lord of the Rings, The
By Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
For 50 years, we've turned the pages of The Lord of the Rings and created, in our minds, at least, creatures and places of endless wonder and fantasy. We've imagined dwarves, elves, hobbits, ringwraiths, the attire of great wizards and the armor of great warriors.
We've wondered what the elvish village of
Rivendell, the dwarvish mines of Moria and Mordor's pinnacles
of evil, Barud Dûr and Mount Doom, might look like.
And now we know.
Peter Jackson's first film installment of the most popular literary trilogy of the 20th century -- and one of the greatest fantasies in all of literature -- arrives in theaters today. The Fellowship of the Ring is a reverent, full-bodied and full-blooded opening to the saga, a film that strikes so many of the right chords that only the pickiest fan of the J.R.R. Tolkien books will be able to find fault.
This is fantasy with some heft to it, an epic with weight. It's not dumbed down or tidied up for a child audience. It's a three-part war story in the tradition of The Iliad, a tale full of dread and forboding, violence and blood. But it is also heroic and noble, with heartfelt moments of suspense, sacrifice and doubt.
Special effects technology has finally reached a point where The Fellowship of the Ring and the rest of this fantasy could be filmed. But what shimmers forth from this brisk three-hour trip through Middle-earth are the poetic turns of phrase and the noble hearts of the characters that Tolkien invented half a century ago. Several excellent performances breathe life into characters that, thanks to the glorious writing, didn't need much help leaping off the page.
The Fellowship of the Ring is about a great evil, once vanquished, now returning from the dead. This dark lord needs a magic ring, the "ring of power," which has been lost for millennia, but was found by an unwillingly adventurous hobbit (short, fur-footed folk) named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Now, the dark lord realizes the ring has been found, and his henchmen scour Middle-earth in search of it.
The only thing that can save the men, elves, dwarves and hobbits from being devoured by this evil is the destruction of the ring. And for that, Bilbo's nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) is chosen.
A council of the many peoples of Middle-earth provides Frodo with companions to help him bear the ring; the Ranger, Strider (Viggo Mortenson), the nobleman Boromir (Sean Bean), Gimli, the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas, the elf (Orlando Bloom), and the hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and the faithful but slow of wit, Samwise (Sean Astin).
Looking over them and prodding them on their way is the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen), a bearded wonder who is handy with a sword and staff and who is the only one who has the whole picture, the rueful end of the age of Middle-earth and the good vs. evil politics of their quest, in his head.
The script, by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, omits most of the literary flashbacks that enriched Tolkien's books, underexplains some leaps of magic and wastes little time on treks between the big action moments. Jackson stages these fights with great gory gusto and gives the entire world a grungy, lived-in look and feel.
Trickiest of all is the sense of scale, of massive, ancient structures, cozy hobbit holes and the differing sizes of the people of this world. Jackson mastered that thanks to a variety of effects, old and new.
Even the music -- flutes and pipes and the ethereal singer Enya dominate the score -- is nigh on pitch-perfect.
But while the emphasis on the action and combat gives Fellowship momentum, it shortchanges the characters. A fan of the books may feel that the characters are fully realized, but newcomers to the Rings may be lost at times.
And even though the film captures what whimsy there is in the first book, this is a bloody sword-and-sorcery tale, more Excalibur than Star Wars, emphasizing the grim and the gray, not the fun.
The performances, however, compensate for much of that. McKellen makes a fine, nuanced Gandalf, a wizard with both a noble cause, and a suspicion of his fellows that makes him keep secrets. Horror legend Christopher Lee is his dark wizard counterpart, Saruman. The eternally fresh-faced Wood makes a fine Frodo, and Astin, the once and future Rudy, is perfectly cast as Sam.
Holm, who played Frodo in the BBC radio adaptation of the books (13 hours in length) is spot-perfect as Bilbo, Mortensen is properly heroic, as is Bean. And the two women in this third of the tale, the elves Arwen and Galadriel (Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett) magnify their presence by virtue of two of the most exciting scenes; one a chase, the other a special effects-dazzler in which Frodo sees the future.
Brisker and much smarter than Harry Potter, more involving than The Phantom Menace, if The Lord of the Rings doesn't reinvent the film fantasy, it at least makes a definitive statement of what the medium can do with a ripping good yarn. And that's what this is, storytelling in the grandest Homeric tradition.
It's a pity we have to wait a whole year, minus a day, to see the middle third of this quest, The Two Towers. But that should give you time to pick up the books, either to revisit old friends or pass them on to the uninitiated. As good as this film often is, it's still no substitute for the master storyteller of Middle-earth.
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