Dec. 19, 02:57 EDT
Lord of the screens
If we're not careful, Peter Jackson's The Lord Of The Rings could give hype a good name.
For more than two years, movie marketers have been telling us that the New Zealand director's $270 million (U.S.) screen trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien's immortal fantasy novel would be the greatest thing since buttered popcorn. And the standard response by readers and filmgoers, knowing the dismal track record of such projects, could be summarized in two words: Prove it.
Message heard, and results delivered. The first part of the Rings saga, The Fellowship Of The Ring, arrives in theatres today as not just a good movie, but as one of the year's best. Well cast, carefully written and handsomely mounted, it provides all the spectacle that audiences expect of an epic adventure without stinting on character or plot details.
Most importantly, it keeps the faith with the Tolkien faithful, who for nearly 50 years have wondered - and feared - what a screen version of their beloved novel might look like. The Lord Of The Rings has long been considered an unfilmmable novel, its 1,000-plus pages being crammed with multiple heroes and villains, fantastic creatures and endlessly changing scenery. Ralph Bakshi's poorly received 1978 animated version of the book, which made it barely halfway through the story before wheezing to a close, served only to strengthen the belief, largely endorsed by Tolkien himself, that Hollywood has no business being in Middle-earth.
Jackson wisely took the view, bravely endorsed by his studio, New Line, that a three-part book demands three movies. Thus The Fellowship Of The Ring, like the source story, serves as an introduction to the medieval world of Middle-earth and its myriad characters of hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, dwarves, ringwraiths - and humans, too. It also initiates us into the heroic quest by a Fellowship of peaceful Shire-dwellers, led by the hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), to destroy the One Ring, a band of gold fashioned by the dark lord Sauron and imbued with the power to unleash calamity upon a quiet and happy land.
A land that Tolkien fanatics will happily recognize as the place of legend, where fun-loving hobbits tend their farms in pastoral Hobbiton, graceful elves build wonderous gardens in beautiful Rivendell, stout dwarves plumb the dark mines of Moria and vile orcs defile nature in the smouldering and desolate ruins of Mordor. The exotic beauty of New Zealand's South Island, where the movie was filmed, aided production designer Grant Major in creating an award-worthy vision of Middle-earth that should delight even the most demanding fans.
So should the screenplay, which thoroughly reflects the desire by Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to satisfy both scholars of the book and those who have never turned a page. Even at a running time of nearly three hours, it would have been impossible to have every character and incident represented, but the film comes close. The only major character I noted missing is woodland mystic Tom Bombadil, who in the book assists the Fellowship travellers at an early stage of their journey. But his part is the one most easily excised from the tale. Jackson and his co-writers have also noticeably enlarged the role of elf princess Arwen, played by Liv Tyler in her most felicitious casting to date, to help inject a little estrogen into a story that is so dominated by male creatures, it borders on the homoerotic.
Most of the other casting choices are equally commendable, and several deserve special mention. Little-known American actor Elijah Wood is wide-eyed and wonderful as Frodo Baggins, the young hobbit ringbearer who is called to adventure in classic heroic style. His role in Fellowship may seem a bit passive, largely one of him reacting to events rather than causing them, but it's appropriate to a character arc that will stretch and change radically over six more hours of storytelling, in sequels due in 2002 and 2003. Wood seems up to the task.
Guiding and testing Frodo is stage and screen veteran Ian McKellen, who is the movie's dramatic heart in the role of Gandalf, the wise and mysterious wizard who uncovers Sauron's evil ring plot, and who joins with the Fellowship to defeat it. McKellen exhibits all emotions - smiling like Santa one minute, raging like King Lear the next - but he remains inside the tale, not on top of it. He's well-matched with the versatile Christopher Lee, who plays the turncoat wizard Saruman, willing lieutenant to the unseen Sauron.
As the forest ranger Aragorn (a.k.a. Strider), a human who joins the ring quest, Viggo Mortensen is at once the most physical and most romantic player in Fellowship. His love scenes with Tyler are brief, but he combines sensitivity and strength with such screen-burning intensity, it's almost appropriate to qualify this as a date movie.
Note that qualifier "almost." Make no mistake about The Fellowship Of The Ring: it's very much an adventure movie, and a violent one at that. There are enough stabbings, beheadings and other savagery to make it inappropriate for the younger half of the Harry Potter audience, kids aged 10 and under. Advances in computer technology allow the filmmakers to show such terrible beasts as the dentally challenged orcs and the hooded ringwraiths in all their terrible fury, and the viewing is not for the timid. The screams of the ringwraiths alone are enough to haunt your nightmares.
Sometimes the computer trickery gets out of hand, but far less so than with most blockbusters. The creature from hell unleashed in the mines of Moria looks disconcertingly like a figure out of the children's TV cartoon ReBoot, as does Cate Blanchett when her elf queen character Galadriel briefly morphs into a terrifying sorceress. There's also a recurring image in the movie that is supposed to represent Sauron's all-seeing eye, but which instead has the jarring aspect of a sexually charged symbol painted by Salvador Dali.
In the main, The Fellowship Of The Ring excels at gratifying Tolkien true believers without alienating newcomers, all in a package that is never less than entertaining. And it leaves us with a dandy cliffhanger leading into part two. How many days until next Christmas?
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