In 1950, while writing the sequel to his more kid-friendly book The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien called The Lord of the Rings "a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody)." Clearly Tolkien's sardonic estimation was off, but his words convey that his book (released as a trilogy by his publishers) is more than an extended fairy tale, and Jackson's cinematic version is no simple piece of escapism. This Ring has sharp edges.
The prologue alone will knock you flat, concisely introducing the major races of "Middle-earth" and their ancient battle against Sauron, dark lord of the hellish land of Mordor. In just a few jaw-dropping moments of apocalyptic warfare, Jackson establishes the film's mythic dimensions and breadth of its canvas while summing up the key events from The Hobbit and Tolkien's invented history now brought to bear.
Segue to the Shire, the sun-drenched rural home to the half-sized, food-loving hobbits, where Sauron's all-powerful ring (the mother of all McGuffins) has been in the unknowing possession of The Hobbit's hero, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Strangely long-lived, Bilbo celebrates his "eleventy-first birthday" and sets off on one last journey, bequeathing to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) his possessions, including the magic ring.
Bilbo's old friend Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen) ascertains the ring's devastating potential in the wrong hands, but evil forces have already begun amassing. Disembodied Sauron -- visible only as an all-seeing, reptilian eye -- is raising armies in Mordor, while Saruman the White (Christopher Lee), head of Gandalf's order of wizardry, has thrown in with the bad guys. None the wiser, Frodo and some young hobbit pals venture from the Shire into the spooky outside world. The scenes with the hobbits and the enigmatic Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) fending off Mordor's Black Riders play more at the level of The Blair Witch Project than Harry Potter.
Fellowship quickly proves itself a superbly cast picture. Elijah Wood's big eyes have always given him an elfin, er, hobbitish demeanor, and he fully fleshes out Frodo's innocence and resolve. McKellen makes Gandalf intimidating, worldly wise and capable of twinkle-eyed affection, while 79-year-old horror veteran Lee is zestfully villainous as Saruman. Even Liv Tyler as elf-princess Arwen acquits herself well enough, though she has scarcely 10 minutes of screen time.
Eventually Gandalf and the hobbits reunite to form the titular fellowship, charged with journeying to the volcanic Mount Doom and destroying the ring. In a neat metaphor for racial cooperation, the group includes representatives of the elves (Orlando Bloom's Legolas) and dwarves (John Rhys-Davies' pugnacious Gimli). Trick photography makes average-sized actors appear pint-sized, but you're usually too caught up in the events to look for seams in the special effects.
A full three hours long, Fellowship encompasses not just the first -- and longest -- of the three books, but also shaves off the top of the second for a rock 'em, sock 'em ending. (Expect the subsequent films, due for release the next two Decembers, to be significantly shorter.) Fellowship's pace isn't slack or stately, but stays in near-perpetual motion, encompassing magical landscapes, ominous towers and a diversity of rolling New Zealand locales. The film's highlight finds the group venturing into the Mines of Moria, a subterranean realm on the scale of a city, only overrun with monstrous foes.
Jackson and co-scripters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens purposefully present Fellowship as the first third of a single plot, and not a self-contained film. It's not hard to follow, but doesn't shy from dropping place names or foreshadowing events -- like the kingship that Aragorn rejects -- to be picked up in the sequels. The script offers loving details from the book -- Bilbo's desk includes Tolkien's original map from The Hobbit -- while smartly extrapolating "off-stage" events or injecting new visual elements, like the way attack goblins swarm down from the ceilings of Moria.
The director developed a cult following by crafting energetic schlock like Dead Alive, then established himself as a talent to be reckoned with in the murderous fever dream Heavenly Creatures. Filming the $270 million Rings trilogy in sequence, Jackson has at his disposal armies of extras and precedent-setting makeup and computer effects. He doesn't simply sit back and admire his creation, but engages with the material, offering extreme high and low angles, airborne tracking shots, and moments of slow motion. The fellowship's battle with a huge, marauding cave troll is made even more unnerving with its jerky hand-held camera.
Jackson's Rings will inevitably be measured against the yardstick of George Lucas' Star Wars trilogies. What distinguishes the two series is that Lucas, himself partly inspired by Tolkien, mostly drew on Saturday morning serials and infuses his films with that spirit of derring-do: "Yippie! We're going to attack the Death Star!" Rings will be a more weighty and consequential affair, full of thrills but not the same exhilaration.
Jackson's model or computer-generated environments, like Saruman's infernal warrior breeding ground, can look a little fakey. Still, Rings' imaginary settings bristle with personality -- they're gritty, dark-cornered and lived-in, making the worlds of The Phantom Menace look pristine and sterile by comparison, despite their technical perfection.
When Fellowship ventures into the realms of the mystic, immortal elves, the film (perhaps inevitably) threatens to become an Enya video: The autumnal elf-home of Rivendell resembles a hippie haven, while Cate Blanchett's Galadriel suggests the proprietor of a New Age head shop. One also wishes that Howard Shore had composed a more memorable score: While Jackson writes a new rule book for fantasy films, Shore's music sticks to an old one. And the film doesn't flow as fluidly from spectacle to spectacle as you find in the grand films of Kurosawa or David Lean -- but that still shows the size of its ambitions.
Jackson's greatest achievement is that, even over such a sprawling, fanciful production, he never loses sight of the plot's human element, which could be summed up as "Power corrupts, but our friends keep us honest." Again and again Fellowship emphasizes its relationships, like the ease between old companions Bilbo and Gandalf, or the loyalty of the other hobbits to Frodo. And the temptations of the ring itself come across as more pressing and tactile than any abstract "dark side of the Force."
It'll be two years until The Lord of the Rings ends, and questions still remain: We've yet to get a good look at conniving, misshapen Gollum, and still don't know how Jackson will render the tree-like Ents, or how faithfully he'll present the stories' several resolutions. But with Fellowship's arrival, the biggest question has been answered, and Peter Jackson has proven himself worthy of the challenge of Tolkien's books. The Fellowship of the Ring suggests that New Zealanders, like hobbits, can live up to huge tasks even if they at first seem over their heads.
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