The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Originally Written: December 2001
First off, my criticisms of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”: Like the book, the events before Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) embarks on his journey move slowly; secondly, the first battle between the Fellowship and the Orcs is filmed and edited rather incoherently, to where geography and people involved are difficult to figure out.
That said, let me put this simply: “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is *bleeping* magnificent, a hot-blooded epic in every sense of the term, filmed with passion and skill by co-writer/director Peter Jackson. The first film of his historic production of J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark literary epic- he filmed the whole trilogy simultaneously over 16 months in his native New Zealand for $300 million (gambled by New Line Cinema), with “The Two Towers” coming out next December, and “The Return of the King” arriving in December 2003- “Fellowship of the Ring” is stunning in scope and production value, literate in dialogue and language (even including some of the Elvish dialect Tolkien pioneered himself for the novel), and powerful in story and emotion. At nearly three hours, it’s longer than anything else out there, but “Fellowship” merits and earns that 180 minutes with a palpable sense of excitement, danger, and feeling that’ll pin you to your seat.
Before I continue, allow me to clarify my status as a “Lord of the Rings” reader- I’m not one. I made it through the first 50 or so pages earlier this month, but haven’t made headway on it since. All the better; I wasn’t sitting there thinking what was and wasn’t in the movie, and just got sucked into experiencing the story for the first time, letting the story “happen to me” if you will. What a glorious feeling; now I can go back to the source and do the comparison between book and film, maybe even move ahead into “The Two Towers,” since “Fellowship” had me itching to see Part Two of Tolkien’s epic on film immediately. Like a great trailer, it had me itching for more.
What’s it about? For the uninitiated, and put in the simplist form, “Lord of the Rings” is about the battle of Good vs. Evil in a land called Middle Earth. Put in more specific terms, it’s about Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit whose cousin Bilbo (Ian Holm)- on his 111th birthday- disappears, leaving Frodo all of his possessions, including a ring of his. It turns out the ring is the One Ring of Power, created by the Dark Lord Sauron so that he could rule over all of Middle Earth. The Ring was taken from him, and eventually fell into the possession of Bilbo. The backstory of the Ring is relayed both in a staggering prologue and by Gandalf the Wizard, played by the great Sir Ian McKellen with authority and humanity (and a great sense of enjoyment for the role). As the current owner of the Ring- whose power to corrupt is unsurpassed, Frodo must embark on a perilous quest to destroy the Ring in the land of Mordor in the fires of Mount Doom from which the Ring was created. To accompany- and protect- Frodo, a Fellowship of nine- consisting of members of the different races- is formed. It includes Frodo, Gandalf, the Hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan), and Pippen (Billy Boyd), a mysterious ranger called Strider (Viggo Mortensen), the elven archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a proud warrior by the name of Boromir (Sean Bean), and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). Also involved- in various ways- are Arwen the warrior-princess (Liv Tyler makes an impression in her few scenes), Galadriel, the elf-queend of Lothlorien (Cate Blanchett, sterling and beautiful in a brief appearance), and Saruman (Christopher Lee), a wizard every bit as powerful as Gandalf.
And this is just an outline of “Fellowship”; to say more would surely damage the experience of watching the film for yourself, although I’ve probably said too much already. The story takes hold when Frodo and Sam head out of the Shire- their homeland- and begin to be stalked by the ominous Black Riders (Darth Maul couldn’t take these guys), and doesn’t let go. Adapted by Jackson, wife Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, the film moves briskly through the story (by way of a series of expert set pieces and scenes) and introductions of the characters, with ample development of all despite the large cast of vital characters involved. Not since “Gone With the Wind” has such a large-scale story been brought so vividly- and intelligently- to life onscreen with such confidence. It’s a great credit to Jackson, whose earlier films- most notably 1994’s brilliant “Heavenly Creatures”- showed the work of a visionary imagination to be sure, but hardly a director fit to tackle such a massive undertaking as “Rings,” which many thought impossible to do justice to onscreen (a previous attempt- by way of animation- proved unsuccessful). That’s where passion comes into play, and where “Rings” will surely become a cinematic milestone alongside the likes of the “Star Wars” and “Godfather” series. This was a labor of love for Jackson, and it shows all through the film. One of the things critics criticized the season’s other literary blockbuster- “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”- for was the workman-like direction of Chris Columbus; being faithful to the text, but not really enliving it with more cinematic vision, or “wow,” if you will. Jackson’s “Fellowship” makes me see what they mean; among this year’s blckbusters, only Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” comes close to equalling “Fellowship’s” sense of wonder and imagination. Jackson’s having the time of his life realizing this ultimate dream project (boding well for “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King”), and that infectious feeling enters the viewer, making “The Fellowship of the Ring” powerhouse entertainment.
It surely goes without saying at this point, but the film- from a technical standpoint- is practically perfect. Production designer Grant Major and costume designer Nguka Dickson create a vividly detailed look for Middle Earth- helped in part by artists Alan Lee and John Howe, illustrators for Tolkien’s books- and it’s many locations- Mordor, Shire, Rivendell, Lothlorien- that could’ve been derivative, but feel fresh and distinctly believable. For the visual and makeup effects- like turning the not-so-short Holm, Wood, and Astin into diminuative Hobbits (which also involved sly camera tricks on Jackson’s part)- Jackson turned to his own effects workshop, WETA in New Zealand. The work isn’t groundbreaking in the vein of Industrial Light & Magic, but it’s remarkable nonetheless, especially in the Mines of Moria section of the film and the extraordinary Bridge of Khazad Dum sequence- which pulses with suspense and amazement- and the creation of the Balrog- watch out for that fire whip!- for the digital visual effects, and the Hobbits and Orcs for the makeup effects. The visual effects will surely have my nod for Best Visual Effects, while the makeup- though extraordinary- will have to take a backseat to “Planet of the Apes”- maybe next year and “The Two Towers.” If Jackson deserves much of the credit to how smoothly “Fellowship” flows, also give credit to his editor John Gilbert; save for the aforementioned battle scene, the editing is crisp and logical, and doesn’t wear thin like in other action-adventures. And the cinematography! Few epics feel truly epic; “Fellowship” does, and in spades. Whether it’s a sweeping overhead shot of the Fellowship making the journey to Mordor or a character-driven scene like the “round table” meeting to discuss the Ring’s fate, this movie is a sight to behold through Andrew Lesnie’s lens. The imagery is strong and rich with detail, and the visual style is thrilling to watch, in particular during the action scenes in the movie (by the way, the violence in the film pushes the PG-13 rating to its limits, including a graphic decapitation like those seen in “Braveheart” or “Gladiator”).
Fantasy films aren’t known for their acting per se (look at “Star Wars”), but that didn’t stop Jackson from forming a Fellowship of gifted actors and actresses to bring Tolkien’s characters to life. Wood’s Frodo is the anchor of the film, and the young talent- who’s shined in everything from “Forever Young” to “The Ice Storm”- carries the film with a confidence worthy of comparison to Haley Joel Osment in “A.I.,” but conveys the sense of the fear and beguiling courage Frodo gains in his journey with a touching performance. As mentioned before, McKellen is terrific (and Oscar-worthy) as Gandalf, and he has a compelling “partner” in wizardry in Lee’s Saruman; Tyler- in her few scenes- is atoned for “Armageddon” in my book, and Blanchett- in her one big scene- commands attention. As far the Hobbits, Holm- as Bilbo- is reliably good, while Astin- from “Rudy”- makes you believe Sam’s devotion to friend Frodo, and Boyd and Monoghan- and Pippen and Merry, respectively- make a fun pair of comic relief, so long as they don’t overdo it. Bloom- as Legolas- and Rhys-Davies- as Gimli- are given the smallest to do among the Fellowship, and are barely even worth mentioning (ditto “The Matrix’s” Hugo Weaving as Elrond), as they’re overshadowed by the rich, surprising depth given to Aragorn (AKA the Strider) and Boromir by Mortensen and Bean, respectively. Mortensen keeps Aragorn’s past mysterious, while Bean does the same with Boromir’s intentions, while both provide some of the film’s most heroic moments in battle (both do pretty well for themselves in swordplay and combat). Overall, a strong cast effort all around; no lightweights.
For composing duties, Jackson tapped veteran composer Howard Shore, and while he’s known more for dark, moody scores like “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Se7en,” “The Cell,” and just about every David Cronenberg film ever, he hits a career peak with his exhilarating score for “Fellowship.” Now as some of you may know, in the ’80s composer Johan De Meij wrote a five-movement symphony (“Tone Poem,” more appropriately) inspired by characters, places, and events in Tolkien’s epic (Gandalf, Lothlorien, Gollum, The Mines of Moria and The Bridge of Khazad Dum, and- most memorably- the Hobbits). Those expecting quotations of that exquisite musical work will be solely disappointed, but trust me when I say Shore has crafted a symphony every bit as evocative and powerful as De Meij’s; I’ve been listening to it for close to a month, and it’s never worn thin for me. With beautiful themes, thundering brass, brilliant strings, sinuous motifs for the Dark Riders and Orcs by way of choral voices, and otherworldly music for the more ethereal passages in the film, Shore paves the way for a cinematic symphony unlike any since “Star Wars.” Not since James Horner and “Titanic” has a score been such a sure thing for an Oscar. It even has a ballad like “Titanic” in the haunting “May It Be” by Enya. It’s one of the best songs of not just this sorry movie year, but of the past 5-10 years as well, and minus the pop sensibility and grating sentimentality of Celine Dion’s smash from “Titanic,” it’s likely to have more staying power.
Well, I’m out. What else can I say? I came, I saw, I loved almost completely (see my quibbles at the top). It’s an event epic worthy of comparison to “Star Wars” (which- granted- will still remain my favorite movie series of all-time) and the “Indiana Jones” movies. Like those classics, “Fellowship” created in me a sense of wonder that only the great ones do. It threatens to convolute my Top 20 Favorite films of all-time, as well as my Best Films of all-time. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is an extraordinary story- at least, from what I can tell by this film and the enthusiasm of long-time fans, and Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” is a powerful cinematic telling of that story, and I can’t wait for next December and “The Two Towers.” That really says it all, doesn’t it?