LOTR Review - Philadelphia Inquirer

'Ring' leaders don't cut it in film that's a visual feast


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring **1/2 
By Steven Rea 

It seems to be the thing, among reviewers of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, to disclose one's history with the Tolkien trilogy: Read it, haven't read it; worshipped its world of elves and hobbits, dwarves and men, think it's pathetic twaddle.

Not only have I devoured all 1,008 pages of the saga of Frodo Baggins of the Shire, I pored over its appendices and indexes, and surveyed Tolkien's maps of the exotic quadrants of Middle-earth. I kept a notebook written in runes (see Angerthas table, Appendix F). I imagined myself as Aragorn, heir to Isildur of Gondor. I was 12.

So, a few years later (ha!), there I am, watching what Peter Jackson - a courageous Kiwi who has made low-budget movies about depraved puppets (Meet the Feebles) and a haunting classic about girl-bonding-gone-bad (Heavenly Creatures) - has done with the inaugural installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy.

And what he has done, on one hand, is a marvel. Exploiting the awesome landscape of New Zealand and deploying banks of digital wizardry, he has conjured a universe of cavernous subterranean halls, impregnable, towering fortresses, golden Elven forests, and multi-tiered stone cities. 

He has also suffered a Renaissance Faire fit of excess, depicting Hobbiton, home of our furry-footed hero Frodo (Elijah Wood), as a kind of thatched-roof Teletubbyland. (The hobbits live in houses carved into the hills, much like the one Dipsy and Tinky Winky share.) And with its bubbly falls and fussy architecture, Rivendell, the leafy refuge at the foot of the Misty Mountains, looks like that Shangri-la at the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Stop the world, I want to jump off.

Visually, then, LOTR - the first of three annual cinematic installments devoted to the quest of the Ruling Ring - is a feast. Stallions galloping across wide expanses. An expedition of nine trekking great peaks and snowy slopes. Cate Blanchett, moony-eyed and golden-tressed, as the Elven babe Lady Galadriel. Clanging battles - the sky filled with arrows, the ground strewn with the bodies of warriors and Orcs (unpleasant beings with terrible teeth and more terrible temperaments) - that equal the scale and carnage of Braveheart and Gladiator.

But moving across this tableau is Frodo and his gang, and here the trouble lies. For one thing, Wood, the boyish, saucer-eyed thespian, is a wimpy protagonist. True, hobbits are peaceful stay-at-home types, but when Frodo sets out on his treacherous trip to destroy that darned ring, he risks life and limb and rises to daunting challenges. Not a one seems believable as conveyed by Wood, who forever looks to be on the brink of a good sob. Likewise, his hobbit sidekick Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) is a real wuss.

Jackson and cowriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have loaded their screenplay with rumbling declarations ("Eeee-vil has stirred in Mordor") and long tracts of cumbersome, quasi-Shakespearean exposition. Whittling a giant volume of prose down to even a long film (this one clocks in at two hours, 48 minutes) is no mean feat, but this particular feat hasn't been realized altogether successfully. And endless rounds of pseudo-Wagnerian choruses don't help any.

Stealing the show are Ian McKellen as Gandalf, the tall, bearded wizard who blows a mean smoke ring and nudges Frodo into his adventure; Viggo Mortensen as the mysterious ranger Aragorn (a.k.a. Strider); Sean Bean as Boromir, a troubled, valiant warrior; and John Rhys-Davies as Gimli, a rather impertinent noble dwarf. Also to be found roaming around Middle-earth: Liv Tyler, as a centuries-old beauty who speaks in a dreamy elf tongue; Orlando Bloom as a dashing elf knight (and Nelson twins doppelganger); and Hugo Weaving as Elrond Half-elven, not quite as menacing as Weaving's G-man in The Matrix, but still sporting an imposing forehead.

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