'Lord' rings true
Tolkien's epic fantasy springs to wondrous life onscreen
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic Wednesday, December 19, 2001
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle
J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, the three books that make up "The Lord of the Rings," is about two profound things -- the horror of power without spiritual understanding, and the nature of courage. In the figure of Frodo, the humble, small-town hobbit who never expected to be called upon for acts of bravery or sacrifice, several generations of readers have found their everyman, their hairy-footed inspiration, their call to day-by-day fortitude.
The books are marvelous, and they have, like all great epics, the power to awaken powerful responses in their readers. To even begin to conceive of a cinematic version of the series is daunting -- not only because the books' power lies in the intimacy of their imagination but also because they are so specific in Tolkien's construction, created with such loving specificity. Get one thing wrong, and the whole thing is wrong . . . or at least not quite right.
Well, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" gets it right. It's a wonderful movie. Watching it, one can't help but get the impression that everyone involved was steeped in Tolkien's work, loved the book, treasured it and took care not to break a cherished thing in it. Director Peter Jackson has created a film refreshingly free of ego, giving this technically advanced picture an old-fashioned rhythm and gravity. Scenes play out without constant jump-cutting or obtrusive editing. The movie as a movie becomes, in a strange way, unnoticeable, because it's so correct.
The trilogy was about character, and so is the movie. In spite of its stunning special effects and beautiful art direction, the film
draws its power mainly from the essence, humanity and skill of its lead actors. Ian McKellen as Gandalf the wizard, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, Elijah Wood as Frodo -- and the rest of the actors who make up the fellowship -- hit their roles head on, with conviction and purity of heart. This is no place for post-modern detachment. The result is an acting company that interacts like the best of ensembles. The audience gets to be swept away because the actors are going there, too. .
A WIZARD'S AURA McKellen is particularly splendid. In him, the aura of a great wizard and a great stage actor combine effortlessly. He inhabits Gandalf without camp or bravado, but with a sly sense of enjoyment that makes it a characterization for adults as well as children. One gets the sense that McKellen understands the profundity of the role, and yet some part of him is also thinking, "Can you believe I get to wear this hat?" It's thoroughly winning.
"The Fellowship of the Ring" is the first of three "Lord of the Rings" movies, which will be released in consecutive Christmas seasons, each one an adaption of a book from Tolkien's trilogy. The first picture, like all three stories, is set in Middle-earth, a medieval-like fantasy world inhabited by hobbits, dwarfs, elves and men.
Hobbits are small, good-natured folk who love to have fun and who eat constantly. Dwarfs are somewhat broader and have rougher dispositions. Humans are humans, and elves are tall, beautiful, immortal beings, who, at least in this movie, are slightly prickly and aloof, like Swedish hairstylists. Cate Blanchett is Queen Elizabeth-like as Galadriel, the elf queen, and Liv Tyler is lovely and earnest as Arwen, an elf princess.
The movie gets off to an assured start with a visit by Gandalf to Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit friend. Through camera magic, Gandalf appears to be twice the size of Bilbo (even without the pointy hat), and the sight of the tall wizard trying to navigate the rooms in Bilbo's tiny house takes us immediately into this charming other world.
The film's story centers on a gold ring that gives invincible power to anyone who wears it. Bilbo has been in possession of it for years, and when he leaves town, he passes it on to Frodo. The ring is a force of evil, and the creator of that force, Sauron, is hot in pursuit of it. It becomes Frodo's mission -- dreaded, unasked for -- to save civilization by destroying the ring in the only place it can be destroyed, the hellish furnace where Sauron forged it.
"Fellowship of the Ring" gets its title from the team of warriors who go off with Frodo and several hobbit companions on what seems like an impossible mission. The fellowship is the Middle-earth equivalent of a U.N. contingent -- hobbits, a dwarf, a wizard, an elf and two men, who must overcome their antagonisms and weaknesses in order to fight an evil that threatens to engulf the world. .
A HUMBLE HOBBIT Wood is perfect as Frodo, the one being with enough humility not to be seduced by the ring's glamour. The role requires a quality of being as much as acting, and Wood's performance will come as a relief after many nauseating seasons of vile young screen actors embodying vile and narcissistic characters.
It's a beautiful thing -- an unsnotty, available, affectionate and utterly open performance.
Ian Holm is memorable in his handful of scenes as the hobbit who, having kept the ring of power for so many years, finds himself eroding in spirit, even as he is preserved in body. Viggo Mortensen brings the magnetism of an anti-hero to Aragorn, the wandering outcast king. Like Sean Bean, who is equally impressive as Boromir, Mortensen gives the sense of a great man in reduced times. .
SPLENDID SETTINGS The interior of the mines of Moria is dreamlike, and the goblins running up and down its columns are as eerie -- and may someday be considered as unforgettable -- as the winged monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz." The splendor of the various settings are too many to detail, but the harrowing escape from the mines is especially magnificent. In every way, this is moviemaking on a grand scale.
"Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring" would be an exceptional film in any year or season. Yet there's no escaping that part of what makes this film especially powerful is what happened to us as a nation Sept. 11.
The themes feel sad and close. We see visions of a fallen planet, of men unable to control their lust for power, of wizards of unimaginable knowledge who have sold their souls for profit. Most of all, we see a world in fear, and a shadow from another land that threatens the end of everything. . >>
This film contains graphic violence.
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