One 'Ring' to bring them all ... into the theater
Wednesday, December 19, 2001
By WILLIAM ARNOLD
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER MOVIE CRITIC
Love it or hate it, New Line Cinema's $300 million, three-part version of J.R.R. Tolkien's mammoth literary fantasy, "The Lord of the Rings," represents Hollywood's most dauntingly ambitious -- and financially risky -- movie project in many a year.
First of all, it's based not on some trendy kid's book or comic strip or director's whim, but on a classic of English literature that's as long and complex as "War and Peace" and filled with literally thousands of unfamiliar creatures, places and concepts.
Second, to have any credibility, it will have to appeal not only to a gigantic young audience, but to a 45-year-old cult of "Ring" fanatics, who'll scream "foul" if it's not absolutely authentic in every detail, right down to the Old English rhythms of its dialogue.
Third, it represents a genre that, unless it stars Judy Garland, has almost never worked on film. The casualty list of non-sci-fi films that take place in fantasy worlds is astounding. Moreover, a big-budget 1978 animated version of "Rings" was a critical and box-office disaster.
So, if nothing else, the three-part saga -- filmed back-to-back and scheduled slated to be released one a year -- represents an extraordinary act of faith in the movie-going public, and the kind of big-gamble moviemaking that's been scarce in Hollywood the past 20 years.
And while the fate of the three-hour first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," opening today is very much in the capricious hands of the movie gods, the good news is that the film seems, to me at least, to pull off the difficult trick.
On the one hand, it's complex and textured and true enough to the spirit of the cycle that it should please all but the most picky Tolkien buffs. On the other hand, it's such an exhilarating and visually dazzling sword-and-sorcery epic that it should appeal to everyone else.
It opens with a concise but dizzyingly operatic prologue that condenses 2 1/2 thousand years of backstory: telling how, in the ancient days of Middle-earth, a dark lord named Sauron forged an all-powerful magic ring that he eventually lost in battle, curtailing his power.
Over much time, the ring ended up in the hands of a hobbit (a small, humanoid creature of Middle-earth) named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who, on his "eleventy-first" birthday gives it to his nephew and the saga's young hero, Frodo (Elijah Wood).
But it soon becomes apparent that the unseen Sauron has discovered the location of the ring and dispatched platoons from his monster and goblin army to fetch it so he can use its power to cast a darkness over Middle-earth and all the men, hobbits, elves, dwarfs and other creatures that dwell therein.
The first half of the movie chronicles the formation of a "fellowship" or support group -- hobbit friends, two noblemen, an elf, a dwarf and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) -- to help Frodo destroy the ring by tossing it into the fires of Mordor, the dark realm where it was forged.
And the second half deals with the quest itself, as brave little Frodo and his entourage journey to the threshold of Mordor while encountering one harrowing obstacle after another, not the least of which is the dark temptation of the ring itself, which offers its owner absolute power.
As all this unfolds, the film's single downside is a certain nagging sense of deja vu: the fact that so many of the elements of the story -- the dark force, the all-empowering object, etc. -- have been usurped over the years (by "Star Wars" and others) that you feel as if you've been down this road many, many times before.
Even more than "Harry Potter," the film also fails to come to a satisfying conclusion. A three-hour sit basically leaves you in a cliffhanger situation, with the next fix set for Christmas 2002 and no real solution until 2003. That's a long time to totter on the edge of your seat.
Still, the film undeniably works. It's an imaginative and intricately layered re-creation of Tolkien's world, with precious few Hollywood indulgences (only one poop joke), and changes that are mostly well thought out and resolutely true to the spirit of the source.
New Zealand director and co-writer Peter Jackson ("Heavenly Creatures") finds just the right groove to tell the story: letting the visuals carry much of the exposition (he never "tells" us, for instance, exactly what a hobbit is), but never becoming so esoteric that only readers of the book can figure out what's going on.
Jackson -- who reportedly landed the job because he was such a big "Ring" fanatic -- also does an especially good job of conveying the epic sweep of the saga, and of communicating the power of its Arthurian mythology and central metaphor: man's struggle with the dark qualities programmed into his genes.
The characters are winning and the performances solid. Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett may seem a bit out of place as elves, but Viggo Mortensen (as the knightlike Aragorn) makes an unusually noble representative of the human species; and the baggy-eyed McKellen and cadaverous Christopher Lee -- both of whom make music out of Tolkien's dialogue -- are splendid as dueling wizards.
Visually, the film is a constant feast. From the quaint sets of Hobbiton, a village of the small hairy-footed beings, to the misty Golden Wood of Lothlorien, from the nightmarish opening Battle of Dagorlad to the Boschian underworld of Moria, the movie is a parade of otherworldly vistas, eye-filling spectacle and blood-chilling mayhem (to the point that the film probably deserves an R rating).
Even better for its box-office future, the film works as a rousing action/adventure. Seamlessly integrating a mind-blowing tapestry of computer-generated special effects into a progression of action sequences in which each outdoes the one before it, this first installment of the "Ring" trilogy has turned out to be a genuine adrenaline rush: the movie year's most compelling thrill ride.
Return to Lord of the Rings Review Archive
Return to Lord of the Rings Main Page
Return to Films and TV
Return to The Compleat Sean Bean