Ringing true: Director Peter Jackson brings Tolkien's vision to luxurious -- if too long -- life with 'Lord of the Rings'
By Joe Baltake
Sacramento Bee Movie Critic
(Published Dec. 19, 2001)
J.R.R. Tolkien's legendary trilogy "The Lord of the Rings," perhaps the ultimate in modern mythology and a campus favorite for nearly five decades, has always been, at heart, the definitive Boys' Book. In bringing the author's fanciful vision of Middle-Earth adventures to the screen, New Zealand director Peter Jackson has meticulously seen to it that just about every detail has been delivered with the proper respect and just the right look.
Jackson has been a Tolkien fan since his early teens.
Working with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and a huge team of art directors, set decorators and special-effects experts, Jackson has conjured up Tolkien's physical world with a rich lushness that looks as if his film stock was processed and then laid over black velvet. The rampant darkness here brings a sense of gravitas to what is essentially another contest between good and evil. And the pedigree of the film's cast -- which includes Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and two British knights, Ian McKellen and Ian Holm -- only adds to the movie's sheen of importance.
However, while fidelity is paramount in human relationships, it is somewhat overrated when it comes to the arts. As in the case of Chris Columbus' hit version of J.R. Rawlings' "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," Jackson's film has been designed not to disappoint, upset or anger the legion of possessive fans, young and old, who have championed Tolkien's three volumes. But as Gus Van Sant's 1998 scene-by-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) conclusively proved, something is lost when a filmmaker or artist doesn't bring his or her own perspective to what is supposed to be an "adaptation."
It is much more important to capture the heart of another person's work -- its essence -- than to make sure that each fact is in place and each detail is in the right chronological order. Columbus' slavish version of "Harry Potter" works so well precisely because the filmmaker did manage to duplicate the spirit of Rawlings' literature. But the first installment of "The Lord of the Rings" -- "The Fellowship of the Ring" -- has everything you'd want in a film based on Tolkien, everything except heart.
The result is a film that works extremely well for its first hour or so, thanks to the movie's luxuriant look, no-nonsense acting and its discreet spurts of special effects and action. But the film becomes plodding, repetitious and tiresome as it marches onward like a good soldier, following the blueprint Tolkien provided. One chase, confrontation or showdown seems to follow another, with each one seeming the same after awhile.
The movie runs nearly three hours and the last hour is like a test of one's patience. It's a matter of too much of a good thing, of not knowing when to pull back and quit. There has been a history of trouble in trying to bring Tolkien's words to the screen and perhaps, just perhaps, this is because his stuff is, well, unfilmable.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the author's son, Christopher Tolkien, who runs his late father's estate, has disavowed this new version of the first book.
From his home in the south of France, Christopher Tolkien told Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent for the Guardian, "My own position is that 'The Lord of the Rings' is peculiarly unsuitable to transformation into visual dramatic form." (In 1978, Ralph Bakshi filmed a version of "The Lord of the Rings" using the rotoscope animation technique.)
In this movie, the first chapter of "The Lord of the Rings" sets the stage for the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood, perfectly cast) and his quest, which is to destroy the One Ring, a mysterious magic ring that has dark, deadly powers.
Hobbits, for those unaware, are small-sized furry creatures, sort of like Munchkins with pointed ears and hairy feet, and Jackson uses assorted shrewd camera tricks to miniaturize his actors playing hobbits.
This quest provides the reason behind Frodo's long journey, which is steeped in lore and a mythological derring-do. (Just as Tolkien himself wrote his books back to back, publishing them between July 1954 and October 1955, Jackson made his movie and its two sequels one after another, with "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King" slated for release around Christmas 2002 and Christmas 2003, respectively.)
Anyway, the One Ring is the master ring -- one of many created by the evil Lord Sauron as a source of dubious power. It can shift the balance of power in the world.
Lost in battle for 3,000 years, it is found by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Holm), who passes it on to Frodo, making Frodo the official, if reluctant, Ringbearer. It is Frodo's duty to return the deadly ring to the land where it was created -- Mordor, the only place where the ring can be successfully destroyed. If it lands in the hands of the wrong people, it can fulfill its evil purpose. Frodo's task is cut out for him: He must do it without being corrupted by the ring himself.
On his journey, Frodo is joined by three other hobbits (Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd); the majestic wizard Gandalf (McKellen); two human warriors (Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean); an "Elf marksman" (Orlando Bloom); and a "Dwarf battler" (John Rhys-Davies). Nine travelers in all -- the titular Fellowship.
In a landscape that's mostly dark (something that makes it easier, I assume, to pull off the many special effects), the travelers traverse Middle-Earth and its various sections, doing battle along with way with the Ringwraiths, the Orcs and the Uruk-Hai. The film's triumphant big set piece has the troop trying to cross a scary rock bridge. There is no doubt that moments like this are awesome, but there's also little doubt that, when it comes to computer-generated effects, there's the nagging feeling of "been there, seen that."
To his credit, however, Jackson manages to keep everything here on an intimate level.
Lee does a limited bit as Saruman, an evil wizard, but is a most-welcomed presence. As for the two women in the cast, Blanchett pops up as Galadriel, the Elf Queen, and Liv Tyler as Arwen, an adventurous Elf Princess. Like the rest of the cast, they speak their lines as if they're reciting Shakespeare -- and, for some reason, Tyler's voice sounds curiously dubbed.
In the end, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" succeeds as the event blockbuster that it was so clearly designed to be. Whether it successfully honors the spirit of Tolkien as much as it thinks it does, well, that's up for the fans to decide.
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