The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
When it comes to movies, fantasy fans haven't had a lot of good opportunities to get their sword and sorcery on. If you weren't prone to Xena and were, like most people, made physically ill by Willow, you could count your options on one hand: Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer, Excalibur, and the Ray Harryhausen movies (Jason and the Argonauts, 7th Voyage of Sinbad). Everything else was either a whimsical flight of fancy (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), a goofy journey into the campy (The Beastmaster), or a fairy tale for the kiddies (The Princess Bride, Harry Potter).
Reformed Dungeons and Dragons players (like
this reviewer) jonesing for wizardry had to rely on Japanese anime
features like Ninja Scroll and Hong Kong adventures like Swordsman
II and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for a high-quality fix.
One could also stumble across the occasional gem on the cult video
racks, like the all-but-forgotten British television series Robin
Hood The Legend, which owes more to druidic mysticism than Errol
That's what makes The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring such a towering achievement. It's a sword-and-sorcery film packed with both childlike wonder and mature drama. To call it the best fantasy movie ever made would be giving it short shrift. It's one of the greatest adventure films, period, possessing the stirring story, gut-wrenching tragedy, and massive combat of a great epic like Spartacus or Braveheart. Throw in some mythos borrowed from Nordic legend and special effects on par with Industrial Light and Magic's best work, and you've got a three-hour eruption of imagination that only the most calcified curmudgeon wouldn't enjoy.
Based on the first book in the late British author J.R.R. Tolkien's best-selling trilogy (100 million-plus copies at last count), Fellowship starts off small. Three-foot-six, to be precise, the height of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), an unassuming member of an unassuming people the hobbits, a diminutive race of good-natured hedonists more concerned with what's for dinner than saving the world. But fate has something different in store for young Mr. Baggins, and forces far beyond his control send him on a journey far beyond his imagination.
The impetus for Frodo's quest is an innocuous-looking gold ring that his cousin Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) picked up in a cave 60 years prior to Fellowship's events. However, the ring is no ordinary bauble, but an artifact of immeasurable evil. Forged in the bowels of a volcano by the demon-lord Sauron 3,000 years previous, it's the equivalent of metaphysical methamphetamine imbuing its wearers with enormous power, but also twisting them into dark shades of their former selves, eventually turning them into craven addicts for its cold touch.
In the case of Sauron, a terrifying, 10-foot-tall creature who looks pretty twisted to begin with, the ring made him all but invincible. During Fellowship's prologue, we see him bat off hundreds of attackers in a battle more awe-inspiring than Gladiator's introduction and Phantom Menace's finale put together. The ring also gave Sauron control over a series of lesser magic rings, wielded by the lords of elves, dwarves, and men; were he ever regain possession of it, the world would once more fall under his shadow.
Pretty intense stuff for the first 15 minutes of any film, but director Peter Jackson and his co-scribes Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens fulfill their screenwriting duty with high honors. They take the harrowing-yet-majestic essence of Tolkien's vision and present it accessibly enough for neophytes to understand but with enough freshness to make it seem new to Tolkien devotees. They distill the author's imagination, but mericifully don't boil it down into a three-act structure reduction. Some purists will howl at some of the additions (such as the increased profile of elf-princess Arwen, played by Liv Tyler) and omissions (merry troubadour Tom Bombadil is MIA), but most fans of the books will be amazed at how close the events on the screen correlate with those in their own imagination.
On a purely visual level, credit goes to conceptual artists John Howe and Alan Lee, whose Celt-inspired paintings were the backbone of Fellowship's grand vision. From there, Jackson's own effects house, WETA Workshop, overseen by production designer Grant Major and costume designer Nglia Dickson, began building countless sets and outfits, including thousands of suits of armor forged in medieval-style blacksmith shoppes. (Although they do, at times, plop one ruined statue too many into the background, and I'm not sure if they had modern-day buttons in Middle-earth.) On the higher end of technology, veteran effects supervisor Jim Rygiel (Starship Troopers, Star Trek: Insurrection) helped Jackson's computer-effect studio, WETA Digital, breathe life into Tolkien's menagerie of phantasmagorical creatures (the Balrog must be seen to be believed).
Fellowship's greatest effects, however, are the most likely to go unnoticed. First, there's the seamless way full-size actors are shrunk to play pint-sized hobbits. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) bonks his head on the five-foot ceiling of his old friend Bilbo's home, it looks completely natural. Through a combination of computer effects, body doubles, duplicate sets, and "forced perspective" camera tricks, the kindly old mage towers above his hobbit friend, even though he two actors have only nine inches between them (and were never actually in the same room). Then there are the stunning New Zealand landscapes where the film was shot a realm of stark glaciers, lush forests, and barren wastelands that one can scarcely believe exist on the same planet, let alone on two islands the size of California.
However, as The Phantom Menace so painfully proved, even the most glorious computer tricks can't cover up unlikeable characters. Fellowship's heroes are as psychologically complex as any of Shakespeare's, and the cast has the talent to give them the required depth. Wood's Frodo is a revelation, his wide eyes acting as windows into an innocent soul battered but unbroken by the evils of the world. McKellen's Gandalf is equal parts wise sage and wily trickster, as likely to flash a mischievous grin as cast a powerful spell. Two other talented Brits Sean Bean and Christopher Lee are equally striking as the conflicted warrior Boromir and the treacherous wizard Saruman, respectively. The biggest impression, though, comes from one of the lesser-known players: Viggo Mortensen stuns as the tormented, destiny-shucking warrior Aragorn, exuding a bravery than will make men admire him and an intensity that will make women want to hop into his leather jerkin. (Let's just hope he doesn't inspire a resurgence in Renaissance Faire fashion.)
Just like any other movie, The Fellowship of the Ring is only good as the sum of its parts, and the man putting all the pieces together is Peter Jackson. It's no easy task to juggle the demands of a single shoot, and Jackson oversaw three concurrent Cecil B. DeMille-scale productions Fellowship and its two sequels, The Two Towers (due Christmas 2002), and the Return of the King (due Christmas 2003) while simultaneously crafting dazzling effects, getting Oscar-caliber performances from his cast, and ensuring that the most popular novel of the 20th century became the first great film of the 21st. If that's not Best Director material, I don't know what is. There is one complaint, though we have to wait 12 months for the next one.
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