By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Of The Examiner Staff
The toughest job a filmmaker can take on is translating a beloved novel to the screen -- you're torn between being completely faithful and showing your own vision.
While Chris Columbus made "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" with no directorial personality whatsoever, the new "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" was helmed by the far more interesting Peter Jackson, who made the 1994 masterpiece "Heavenly Creatures" and the great, raunchy B-movies "Bad Taste" and "Dead-Alive."
Rather than delivering a faceless product, Jackson stamps the fantasy epic with his personal signature while still sticking close to the source.
Clocking in at three hours, "The Fellowship of the Ring" covers only the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, which means that the whole package may run something like nine hours. (The second and third movies will be released Christmas of 2002 and 2003.)
That also means that the story we're getting here is far from over. Fans who remember "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) ending with many of its issues unresolved -- and feeling the anguish of having to wait three more years for the sequel -- will relive that feeling upon seeing "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Even more frustrating is that when "The Fellowship of the Ring" is over, it feels like it's just beginning.
Nonetheless, we make do with what we're given, and this "Part One" does an admirable job. It begins in Middle Earth with hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) celebrating his 111th birthday, the same day his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) celebrates his 33rd.
Bilbo feels the call of the road once again and uses his ring -- stolen from Gollum during the precursor to the series, "The Hobbit" -- to suddenly "disappear." (It renders its wearer invisible.)
He departs, leaving the ring to Frodo for safekeeping. But it's only after he's gone that the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) learns the origin of the ring and its destructive power -- and that its true owner, a Dark Lord named Sauron, wants to get it back.
Frodo sets out with his friend Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged. They're later joined by a team that includes two other hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd); humans named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean); an elf called Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and a dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).
But dark forces trail the members of the Fellowship wherever they go, and the film becomes a series of chases, fights and rests.
The group encounters an assortment of evil beasties, as well as good elves like Arwen UndÛmiel (Liv Tyler) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who lend them a hand. And legendary horror film actor Christopher Lee ("The Wicker Man") chomps up some scenery as the evil wizard Saruman (whose name sounds a little like Sauron, just to confuse things).
Not everything holds up to close scrutiny. For example, if the evil "ring wraiths" -- undead beasties who ride the countryside looking for the ring -- never rest and possess unearthly powers, how can they be fooled by the simple tricks the hobbits play to divert them? Why do these baddies even stop at all to let the heroes rest when they obviously don't have to?
In addition, the quality of the computer-generated monsters isn't impressive, though Jackson does his best to smooth the awkward computer creations into his grayish landscape. In one scene, characters jump onto one monster's back to attack it from behind. Since you can't have a real person riding on top of a fake monster, the people become computer generated as well -- and it all looks too fluid and fake.
But the makeup and sizing effects work well, and the humans look like dwarves and hobbits. I have no idea how the early sequence with little Bilbo and big Gandalf was filmed. I assume Ian McKellan and Ian Holm are about the same size -- maybe a few inches difference -- but in the film Gandalf towers several feet over Bilbo with no seams showing. Beautiful.
The astonishing set designs are overwhelming, even though most are computer-rendered. One gorgeous shot has the Fellowship floating down a river, passing between two enormous statues. The camera pans up and we see dozens of tiny birds bursting out of one statue's giant eye socket.
As a director, Jackson boasts an extremely dark sense of humor and uses sleek visuals, happily allowing his personality to show. At one point, when Bilbo makes a sudden grab for the ring hanging on a chain around Frodo's neck, I jumped out of my seat. And a particularly horrific monster that lives in the water outside the dwarf caves demonstrates a Jackson sensibility by timing its attack just perfectly. Little moments like these make the film come alive.
Most important, Jackson and his writers create a real world with its own logic, and they never betray that by pandering to us.
"The Fellowship of the Ring" is an accomplished movie for everyone who ever longed to hit the road and who welcomes adventure. I just wish there was a way to see the whole thing right now...
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