LOTR Review - San Jose Mercury News

Fantasy trilogy's first installment excels on all levels 

Glenn Lovell 
Mercury News 
Published: Wednesday, December 19, 2001 

Published way back in 1954 -- long before ``Star Wars,'' Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Evil Empire -- J.R.R. Tolkien's ``The Lord of the Rings'' trilogy is responsible for a cottage industry of movie and literary fantasists. Unfortunately, like George Lucas, most of these token Tolkiens have feasted on the master's basic plot outline and philosophy without approximating the power, the breadth, the sheer epic scale of this latter-day Arthurian legend.

Peter Jackson, bless him, has taken a different tack. Instead of plundering Middle-earth and its loot, New Zealander Jackson (``Heavenly Creatures'') has lovingly distilled and preserved Tolkien in ``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,'' the first in a promised three-movie, spare-no-expense adaptation of the trilogy.

To call the results exhilarating and eye-popping would be an understatement. Here, at long last, is an epic adventure that's worthy of its source. It's fast-paced, eloquent, mysterious, scary and, finally, awe-inspiring in the style of a Homeric quest. It also has enough broadsword and battle-ax action to sate the most bloodthirsty ``Braveheart'' fan. (Though tagged PG-13 for violence, parents beware: An argument could be made for an R.)

Often in this kind of digital effects-heavy fantasy, casting is an afterthought. Not so here. For his ensemble of elves, dwarfs, wizards and furry-footed hobbits, Jackson has assembled a first-rate international cast. Elijah Wood is the perfect Frodo Baggins, diminutive hobbit heir to the evil Sauron's Ruling Ring, which brings its wearer immortality at a price. Ian Holm (``From Hell'') is the famous Bilbo Baggins, who, tiring of the good life, reluctantly leaves the ring with cousin Frodo.

Sporting traditional peaked witch's hat and flowing black robe, the wonderful Ian McKellen (``Gods and Monsters'') is everything you'd want in the wizard Gandalf: He's powerful, intimidating and flawed -- Obi-Wan and then some. Veteran baddie Christopher Lee has the baddest role of his career, wizard Saruman, whose long white hair and beard mask a very black soul.

It's Gandalf who tells Frodo to leave Hobbiton and the idyllic Shire and return the ring ``from whence it came'': the fires of Mt. Doom in the Land of Mordor, home to Dark Lord Sauron and his monstrous orc (mutant elf) minions. The journey takes Frodo and the chubby, accident-prone Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) from one cliff-hanger escape to another. Intrepid human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) assumes the role of champion/protector. He accompanies Frodo and the other hobbits to the Elven kingdom of Rivendell, where the Fellowship is forged with, among others, elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the all-too-human Boromir (Sean Bean) and the blustery, ax-wielding Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), who declares on a collapsing bridge, ``Nobody throws a dwarf!''

Like Ulysses and his crew, Frodo and friends endure all manner of hardships and dangers, including killer avalanche, tentacled serpent, marauding orcs and a siren-like Elven queen (Cate Blanchett). However, they carry something more dangerous with them: Frodo's much-coveted ring, which, not surprisingly, turns men green with envy. Betrayal in the ranks seems imminent.

Yes, at three hours, ``Fellowship'' is a film to test the average filmgoer's attention span and bladder. And yes, after ``Willow'' and ``Legend'' and those other Tolkien rip-offs, much of the expository first hour in the bucolic Shire and on the road to Rivendell has a been-there-seen-that feel.

But then Howard Shore's wonderful score wells up, weapons are crossed in a vow of allegiance, and this movie takes off like a shot, with Frodo, Gandalf and the others fighting back-to-back like a cross between Kurosawa's seven samurai and Spielberg's Pvt. Ryan detachment. All too often in such endeavors there's much to ogle but no true sense of jeopardy. Jackson avoids this trap by somehow topping each adventure.

The trip through the dreaded mines of Moria, where our heroes stir up a hornet's nest of orcs as well as the fire-breathing Balrog, is guaranteed to have you cheering as you flinch. Ditto the pitched battle to come between Frodo's band and the Frankenstein monsterlike Uruk-Hai, fresh from Saruman's house of pain. It's here that Aragorn and archer Legolas, whose quick-draw style must be seen to be believed, come into their own as the bravest of the brave.

The highest compliment one can pay Jackson and crew -- including cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, set designer Grant Major and makeup effects supervisor Richard Taylor (an Oscar shoo-in) -- is that their retelling of the Tolkien story has the texture and richness of a good book. And like any good book, the movie leaves one with a sense of regret when it's over all too soon, and Frodo -- now realizing ``even the smallest person can change the course of the future'' -- is about to enter the Land of Mordor ``where the Shadows lie.''

Talk about your cliff-hanger endings! Even after all we've experienced, we're left with the feeling that much more -- including a better glimpse of the chattering, mountain-dwelling Gollom -- is yet to come. In other words, Jackson has set the hook deep and well, and we're as good as there for parts 2 (``The Two Towers'') and 3 (``Return of the King''). Take a lesson, Mr. Lucas.

Postscript: In his foreword to the trilogy, Tolkien stressed that his stories were not meant as political allegory with ``inner meaning'' tied to World War II. In the present climate many, I'm sure, will want to draw similar comparisons between the Fellowship's alliance against evil and the current administration's global war on terrorism. Whether valid or not, there's no disputing this film now resonates as it might not have only a year ago. 


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