J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is one of, if not
the, most beloved and influential fantasy book series' ever written.
In adapting them to the screen, director Peter Jackson (1996's "The
Frighteners") was granted the sum of just under $300-million by New
Line Cinema to film "The Fellowship of the Rings," "The Two Towers,"
and "The Return of the King" back-to-back-to-back, and release them
each successive Christmas for three years.
If the first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," is any indication
of the quality and effort put into the next two films, then the general
filmgoing public is in for a groundbreaking fantasy series that may
both reinvigorate the genre and put the original "Star Wars" trilogy
to shame. As a stand-alone movie, "The Fellowship of the Ring" is
a very good motion picture (if not the brilliant one that many are
touting it as) but, nonetheless, filled with imagination, energy,
and awesome technical artistry. Something tells me, however, that
the whole of the trilogy will likely equal up to much more than this
first-third does when placed by itself.
For the uninitiated, "The Fellowship of the Ring" begins with a fast-paced,
informative prologue that tells of the One Ring, which has the power
to turn the wearer invisible. Forged by the Dark Lord, Sauron, it
also has the ability to corrupt the person who possesses it. If Sauron
or his henchmen were to ever get hold of it, nothing could stop them
from ruling the world.
Switch to the peaceful countryside of the Shire, hobbit Bilbo Baggins
(Ian Holm), currently the holder of the Ring, is gearing up for his
111th birthday celebration when he is paid a visit from old friend
Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a kindly wizard. Gandalf informs Bilbo that
it is time for him to pass the Ring on to someone else, as the late
Sauron's phantom servant, the Ring Wraiths, have begun scouring Middle
Earth in search of it.
The responsibility of the Ring ends up falling upon young Frodo (Elijah
Wood), Bilbo's heir. Accompanied by best friend Sam (Sean Astin),
his cousins Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), and
later, humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), elf
Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Frodo
must make the long, perilous journey to Mordor, where he will drop
the Ring into the fiery pits of Mount Doom--the only place able to
destroy it once and for all.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings" is a mesmerizing
technical triumph that, on behalf of the epic scale of the project,
has never been matched. Glorious special effects, awesome landscapes
(filmed in New Zealand), and marvelous cinematography (by Andrew Lesnie)
are all on hand to create a whole new world unglimpsed on film before.
The multiple villains are also showstoppers, from the faceless, hooded
Ring Wraiths, to the monstrous, zombiefied Orcs, to Saruman (Christopher
Lee), Sauron's maniacal successor. Unlike the creatures in "Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the villains here are not only made
believable and genuinely life-threatening, but also quite frightening.
The calamitous power that the Ring holds is also palpably felt throughout.
The actors take their roles very seriously, and acquit the characters
with enough emotion and realism to make them truly involving. Elijah
Wood (1998's "The Faculty") is the perfect choice to play the scared,
but strong-willed, Frodo. He is the kind of easily relatable protagonist
that you want to root for, and do. As his sidekick, Sam, Sean Astin
(1993's "Rudy") makes a strong return to acting after a few years
away from the limelight. And as Saruman, Christopher Lee (1999's "Sleepy
Hollow") relishes his evil role, and makes for one of the more memorable
human villains to come around in some time.
Who walks away with the picture entirely is Ian McKellen (2000's "X-Men"),
who injects Gandalf with such indomitable spirit and feeling that
it turns out to be one of the best performances of the year. McKellen
hasn't been this good since 1998's "Gods and Monsters," and his pure
thespian talents of disappearing into Gandalf deserve major kudos.
The two female characters are notably weaker, and not given much screen
time. Liv Tyler (2001's "One Night at McCool's"), as angelic elf Arwen,
is arresting for the ten minutes of screen time she has, but her role
is superfluous to the main action. Arwen will allegedly take a larger
part in the second film, "The Two Towers," and deservedly so, because
Tyler is wasted. The always-wonderful Cate Blanchett (2001's "Bandits")
plays elf queen Galadriel as a spiritual figure with grace and dignity
but, again, is only appointed about ten minutes to strut her stuff.
With equal measures of action set pieces and exposition vital to the
development of the story, "The Fellowship of the Ring" flows well.
At three hours in length, the film is painless to sit through, with
its energy only flagging in the final twenty minutes, which run a
little long. Certain plot threads are also brought up but left open-ended,
leaving them unsatisfying in relation to this overall film. Such a
criticism may not hold much weight, though, once the second and third
parts are released and all of the elements fall into a coherent whole.
It is easy to see how, in the wrong hands, "The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring" could have become another "Dungeons &
Dragons." Fantasy is a tricky genre to work within, because the premises
rely so much on otherworldly plausibility that they often come off
feeling tacky. Director Peter Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh
and Philippa Boyens have put so much dedication and care into this
monumental undertaking that they rightfully deserve praise. Nothing
appears overly cheesy, and there is nary a '70s hairstyle in sight
(a 'la "Star Wars")--a definite plus.
Is "The Fellowship of the Ring" one of the greatest motion pictures
of all time, like some audiences and critics are prematurely labeling
it as? Well, no; in fact, it isn't even one of the top ten of this
year. But it is a wholeheartedly innovative, heartfelt, entertaining
feast for the eyes. Now bring on "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," already!
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman