For decades, the upcoming THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has been unspooling inside the heads of every reader effected by J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic. However, the closest movie-going audiences have come to watching the trilogy unfold on the big and/or small screen has been in an animated format with 1978's LORD OF THE RINGS (done in the ill-received style of roto-scoping) and 1980's THE RETURN OF THE KING (traditional cel animation). After all, shooting an epic of this nature would be impossible... right?
In a year whose very numbers are synonymous with scientific achievement, cinematic history has been made and a masterpiece recorded to film. Ladies and gentlemen, director Peter Jackson and THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, the project that has consumed nearly six years of his life, are nothing short of traditional "Hollywood magic."
In this first installment of the trilogy, the young hobbit Frodo Baggins finds himself inheriting a ring. This is no ordinary piece of jewelry, however. It is the One Ring an instrument of absolute power that could allow the Dark Lord Sauron to rule all of Middle-earth, enslaving its people in the process. Frodo, together with a loyal fellowship of hobbits, men, a wizard, a dwarf and an elf must take The Ring to the Crack of Doom the place where it was first forged in order to destroy it forever. Such an adventure means journeying deep into Mordor, the territory held by the Dark Lord and his massive army of orcs. And as is the case with all "true" adventures, the adventurers are not only exposed to external evils they must also battle internal dissension and the corrupting influence of The Ring itself. The very course of the future is intertwined with the fate of the Fellowship.
With that said, the stage is set for a trilogy of films chop full of A-list performances, adrenaline rushing action, magical special effects and breathtaking cinematography categories in which the first installment, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, succeeds at on all levels. Walking through them in reverse order, Jackson himself has stated that no other place in the "real" world could pose for Middle-earth better than his homeland of New Zealand. Its virgin landscapes, untouched by the Western and/or European industrial machine, are the embodiment of Tolkien's writings. Drop in a few hobbit hole props or the façade of a towering spire and instantly you have The Shire (home to the hobbits) or Orthanc tower (home to Saruman the White). The country's vast natural landscapes make it easy for the production to shoot in the fictional snowy realm of Caradhras in the morning and the lush forest city of Lothlorien in the afternoon. Beautiful sweeping vistas and numerous aerial shots make for wonderful eye candy.
With THE LORD OF THE RINGS, Jackson not only is afforded the opportunity to get his fantasy fix a desire he merely touched upon in 1994's HEAVENLY CREATURES but he also gets to create special effects a la his childhood idol Ray Harryhausen. There is no better example of this than in the heroes' battle with the Cave Troll in the Mines of Moria. The creature itself, reminiscent of something you'd see in an early Sinbad serial, is a beautiful blend of clay maquettes and CGI technology. More impressive, however, is the way the effects shots were integrated into the live-action footage. At no point does the audience feel as if the actors onscreen are reacting against an "invisible" object or a blue screen. Nor are the breaking bits of wall and airborne rubble results of the monster's onslaught inopportune. On the contrary, each physical reaction was perfectly placed and time, as was every actor's movement and emotional response obviously due to good directing. Numerous other effects shots not the least of which is a massive battle pitting thousands of orcs against human and elven soldiers are pulled off with similarly successful results.
Of course, what sword and sorcery film would be complete without pulse-pounding battle sequences? And THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has its fare share so many, in fact, that it seems as if at every turn the weary group of adventurers has some hideous beast(s) to battle. Again, well-choreographed and skillfully executed by the actors/stunt team, the only complaint is that the sequences are cut together too quickly so as to create a bit of confusion as to who is fighting who. However, as the film roars toward its climax and the fights become bigger and better, this becomes less of an issue.
Last but not least, the high caliber actors do not disappoint with their respective performances. I can think of no better Gandalf than Ian McKellen an actor whose very presence screams Old World magic. His counterpart, Christopher Lee as Saruman, is likewise equally adept at the ways of classical acting. The playful performances by Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd truly bring to life the nature of hobbits (small stature and all). Yes, they seem a bit girlie and impish (one moviegoer commented that she had never seen as much male crying and hugging in a film before), but that's exactly as Tolkien described them. It will be interesting to see Wood's Frodo become darker and more brooding as the trilogy continues. And who can ignore the small but meaningful performance of Cate Blanchett as the magical elf Galadriel. Her natural beauty and even temperament make her the perfect choice for any type of fantastical "Lady."
Jackson can breath easy knowing that, not only has he done Tolkien proud presenting the best adaptation yet of the author's work, but also he succeeded in crafting the well-executed first installment of a history-making trilogy with THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. While the effects shots will still pose a challenge, THE TWO TOWERS and THE RETURN OF THE KING (parts two and three of the trilogy) should prove easier storytelling-wise with less exposition needed to set up the story.
Reviewed Format: Wide Theatrical Release
Stars: Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Marton Csokas, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, Dominic Monaghan, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Director: Peter Jackson
Distributor: New Line Cinema