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The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Directed by Peter Jackson. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Sean Astin, Christopher Lee, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler
Synopsis: Many centuries ago, the rings of power were forged by the lords of the Elves, Dwarves, and Men. The dark lord, Sauron, saw in these rings the opportunity to enslave those who wield those rings by forging a master ring to rule them all. When Sauron was finally defeated, the ring was cut from his hand. But the ring corrupts whoever comes in contact with it and rather than cast it into the cracks of doom to destroy it, Isildur, the human hero who defeated Sauron, chose to keep it as his own. The ring betrayed Isildur and he was killed next to Anduin, the great river, into which the ring fell and was lost to all knowledge. There it was found by Smeagol, who was corrupted by the ring almost instantly. It granted him long life as it twisted him into a grotesque creature who became known by the sound he made: Gollum. Gollum fled the light of day and burrowed deep under the Misty Mountains. There he stayed for many lifetimes. One day, the ring slipped from Gollum's finger in his subterranean lair, to be found by Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit on an adventure. After his adventure, Bilbo retires to his home in The Shire. Many years later, restless from life and feeling the weight of The Ring on his mind, Bilbo decides to leave his home on his 111th birthday, leaving all of his earthly possessions to his nephew, Frodo. After the party, Gandalf, the wizard, urges him to leave Frodo the ring, as well. After a terrible struggle with his own dark side, Bilbo gives up the ring and leaves, but Gandalf has become deeply suspicious of The Ring. He tells Frodo that he should NEVER wear it and sets off to inquire about the ring's origins. Meanwhile, The Shadow has returned to Mordor: Sauron has reconstituted himself, but needs The One Ring to take full form again and conquer the lands of Middle Earth. To recover The Ring, Sauron dispatches the Nazgul, nine dark riders. Gandalf, now sure that Frodo's ring is The One Ring, returns to The Shire just ahead of The Dark Riders and urges Frodo to flee for his life. Frodo departs The Shire with his friends, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, heading for Rivendell. Gandalf heads to Orthanc, the tower of Saruman, head of his order. There, he discovers that Saruman has been corrupted by Sauron and now seeks The Ring. He imprisons Gandalf on the top of the tower. Frodo and his friends, meanwhile, narrowly escape The Dark Riders and meet the ranger, Strider, in the village of Bree. Strider advises them to take The Ring to Rivendell and offers to take them. After a nearly fatal encounter with The Dark Riders, Frodo arrives in the city of Elrond Halfelven, who holds a council of war against Sauron. Gandalf, meanwhile, escapes Orthanc on the back of Gwahir, the lord of eagles. At the council, it is decided that The Ring must be destroyed. Frodo steps forward to take the burden, and he is appointed eight traveling companions--The Fellowship, as it were, led by Gandalf and including Gimli, a dwarf, Legolas, an elf, Boromir from the kingdom of Gondor, Strider whose real name is Aragorn, heir of kings, and Frodo's three hobbit friends. Circumstances dictate that the path they must take leads through the abandoned dwarf-kingdom of Moria, where the darkest creatures now dwell, and to Lothlorien, the home of the elven queen Galadriel. On the journey, The Ring begins to exert its pull on Frodo's companions, leading to a confrontation between Frodo and Boromir, who covets The Ring. Frodo decides to leave The Fellowship behind, but unfortunately, the minions of Saruman and Sauron finally catch up with our heroes...

Pedigree: J.R.R. Tolkien's massive fantasy has eluded filmmakers for close to thirty years. Tolkien sold the rights to the film version to the Saul Zaentz company in 1970 to pay an outstanding tax bill. I wonder if he knew that his novel was, essentially, unfilmable. Not that that disuaded filmmakers. The first stab at it was filmed for television in the late seventies by the Rankin and Bass animation studio. Rankin and Bass is the studio responsible for many stop-motion holiday specials, including Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Mad Monster Party, Here Comes Peter Cottontail, and numerous others. Rather than tackle the daunting task of filming The Lord of the Rings proper, the Rankin and Bass people chose to settle for the more kid-friendly (and shorter) prelude, The Hobbit, which debuted in 1978. They made a conditional success of it, in part because the voices they cast for their version were perfect for the characters (standouts included John Huston as Gandalf and Richard Boone as Smaug, the dragon) and in part because they were able to capture the spirit of Tolkien's first book--made-up ballads and all--more or less intact. Unfortunately, The Hobbit was made for television and the animation is limited (to say the least). In the same year, a theatrical version of The Lord of the Rings proper appeared, made by animator Ralph Bakshi. Bakshi began in television, creating the extremely limited animation on Spider-Man in the late sixties, before moving to feature films with his imfamous version of Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Bakshi quickly established himself as the premiere counterculture animator. Films like Fritz, Heavy Traffic, Streetfight (originally titled "Coonskin"), and Wizards drew heavily on the tradition of underground comics. The relative success of Wizards on the midnight movie circuit probably got Bakshi the job of making The Lord of the Rings. Bakshi's movie was obviously meant as the first of two films. It gets halfway through the story and leaves things dangling. Unfortunately for Bakshi, the film tanked at the box office and the second part was never made. I've written about Bakshi's film elsewhere. The Rankin and Bass people were nowhere near done with the property, though, and in 1980, they produced The Return of the King. Like The Hobbit, The Return of the King was made for television. It also has many of the same virtues as its predecessor--I can even remember one of the songs from the production (the marching song of the orcs: "Where There's a Whip, There's a Way," which is more memorable than any song in a Disney animated musical since the death of Howard Ashman; but I digress). Unlike The Hobbit, The Return of the King requires some knowledge of the backstory (which it is inefficient at providing) and seems to be all climax (a flaw it takes from its source material, quite frankly). The Rankin and Bass people obviously got a taste for fantasy, though. A couple of years later they made a feature film version of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Beagle was the screenwriter on Bakshi's version of The Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, Hollywood lost interest in Tolkien, though not completely. The Jim Henson company produced The Dark Crystal, a film heavily influenced by Tolkien, in 1983. George Lucas offered up his own ersatz Tolkien film in 1988 in Willow, directed by Ron Howard. Numerous other films bear the stamp of Tolkien's influence. The cult surrounding the books in no way diminished. The visual landscape of The Lord of the Rings continued to be mapped by illustrators like Alan Lee, Brian Froud, and John Hale in calendars and coffee-table books year in and year out. Tolkien has long been a fixture of popular music (Led Zeppelin's "The Misty Mountain Hop" and "The Battle of Evermore," for instance, or Rush's "Rivendell"). It burrows deeper into the culture at large with every passing year.

Two decades passed and the task of filming Tolken fell to the unlikeliest of filmmakers. New Zealander, Peter Jackson's resume is idiosyncratic, to say the least. His first feature, Bad Taste, offers a picture perfect example of truth in advertising. His second, Meet the Feebles, has something in it to offend just about every sensibility. His third feature, Brain Dead (recut and retitled Dead Alive in America) closes the book on the zombie gore film and, again, has something in it to offend just about everyone. Then came his fourth film, Heavenly Creatures, a hauntingly beautiful film--a masterpiece, no less, that garnered Jackson and his wife, screenwriter Frances Walsh an Oscar nomination and a ticket to Hollywood. The Frighteners, Jackson's first Hollywood effort, was a disappointment. It tanked at the box office and alienated the critics who were hoping for a repeat of Heavenly Creatures (none of whom had apparently seen any of Jackson's other movies, by the way). While scouting around for another project, Jackson made a number of short films for New Zealand television, the best of which was a hilarious mockumentary called Forgotten Silver. Jackson attempted to get a remake of King Kong in the works, then attempted to become the director for the remake of Planet of the Apes. Failing that, he convinced Mirimax films to buy him the rights to make The Lord of the Rings, which he planned to make as two movies (much as Ralph Bakshi had planned). Mirimax balked at the cost of the project, though, and they weren't alone. The last studio he pitched the project to was New Line Cinema, who ponied up the jack to make not two films, but three. Jackson and New Line chose to make all three at once, in one of the most ambitios film projects ever mounted. The films will be released once a year at Christmas for the next two years. Nothing like it has ever been attempted before.

Tolkien, Jackson, and Me: I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was 12. I've read it a couple of times since, including a go through The Fellowship of the Ring in preparation for seeing the film and writing this review. To be honest, there are a number of fantasy novels I like more and there is very little fantasy fiction written in direct imitation of Tolkien that I like at all. One of the fantasy novels I prefer to Tolkien is Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, which, coincidentally was filmed last year by the BBC (including Christopher Lee--Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring--as Mr. Flay). There must be something in the air. Don't get me wrong. I like Tolkien well enough, but I'm a Ray Bradbury kind of guy myself. Like most people who have read the book, I had expectations of both Bakshi's movie and the new film. We all carry our preconceptions to film versions of books we have read, don't we? Raymond Chandler, for instance, preferred Dick Powell to Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe. The knife cuts both ways, too (see my comments on the recent Harry Potter movie). Jackson, of course, is a wild card. I was lukewarm toward Jackson's last feature, The Frighteners, which now looks to be an audition reel for the Ringwraiths in the current film. Jackson's first four features had a pronounced effect on me: I walked way from them all thinking, "What the hell was THAT?" I won't claim to "like" either Bad Taste or Meet the Feebles, but I will admit that they are fun to inflict on unsuspecting friends. The same is true of Brain Dead/Dead Alive, which has similar party qualities, and which I liked. Heavenly Creatures, is simply a great film and hints that there is more to Jackson than an obnoxious twit who makes gross-out movies. But what the hell would the guy who filmed the lawnmower scene in Brain Dead do with Tolkien...?

Snap Judgement: All of which has danced nicely around my reaction to the film at hand. Looking back at what I've written so far has made me realize that I've been dodging the issue. With good reason, too, because I'm not entirely sure of what the hell I think of The Fellowship of The Ring. I like parts of it a great deal. Other parts have me wondering what Jackson was thinking the first place. And still other parts of the film simply leave no impression. My first snap judgement: Damn it's long. This snap judgement leads me to other snap judgements: If I noticed its length, then it wasn't firing on all cylinders; there are plenty of films that are longer than this one where I didn't notice the length. Maybe it would be best if I break it down by elements.

Specifics: The film begins with a prologue, narrated by Cate Blanchett, detailing the history of The Ring. Portions of this are spectacular, but the device Jackson has used is clumsy. Tolkien himself did a better job of it in a scene that Jackson could easily have emulated, when Gandalf relates the history of The Ring to Frodo. Since this scene is STILL in the movie, it represents a wasted opportunity.

The film moves next to The Shire and Bilbo's birthday party. Some critics of the film have noted that the depiction of The Shire resorts to "Ren-faire kitsch," but from my own point of view, it looks more or less how Tolkien describes it. More to the point, it looks suspiciously like the watercolor renditions of The Shire Tolkien himself painted. The film's hobbit characters have been shrunk with computers and with a variety of forced perspective techniques, which takes some getting used to. Most viewers seem to have had no trouble with this, but I noticed it all through the movie. In these scenes, Ian McKellan's Gandalf seems somewhat addled, which I found odd. Later in the movie, when Saruman accuses Gandalf of being addled by the "halfling's weed," I couldn't help but agree with him. Certainly, this is an aspect of the books that hippies and potheads of all stripes have attached themselves too for a generation. The scenes in The Shire never really stop long enough to give us a sense of the people, really. The only hobbits we meet in The Shire are Bilbo and Frodo and their friends, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. This feeling of scenes being rushed never left me during the film, and while I complained earlier about feeling the length of the film, I wouldn't have minded if some of these scenes were given some space to breathe. This might have had the paradoxical effect of making the film seem shorter. The pace of the film shortchanges at least two of the characters, too: both Merry and Pippin are depicted as pure comic relief and are party to the adventure purely by happenstance, which is not the case in the book. Not only that, but they both seem to be idiots, which bodes ill for them later in the series. In spite of this, the scenes between Ians McKellan and Holm are excellent, particularly when Holm, as Bilbo, demonstrates just how thoroughly The Ring has him hooked.

The flight from The Shire is thrilling. Jackson's depiction of the Ringwraiths is spot on perfect. This portion of the film omits huge chunks of the story, including Tom Bombadil--Tolkien's Jack in the Green. I don't particularly question this excision--I always thought this portion of the book was a bit hard to take anyway--but I question the excision of the adventure in the Barrow Mounds, since it contains a particularly important plot point (our heroes find a number of weapons forged by the men of Numenor, one of which is ultimately fatal to the Witch King of the Nazgul; it will be interesting to see how Jackson avoids this pitfall). Once again, things seem rushed. Anyone who has read the book knows that the hill where the Black Riders attack our heroes is named Weathertop, but this name is never used in the film. This is perverse, given that Aragorn provides a snippet of the history of the ruins atop the hill. Strange. Two other strange omissions: Aragorn's rhyme ("All that is gold does not glisten...") and the scene at the end of the flight to the ford where Frodo turns in defiance to the Ringwraiths. The scenes immediately before the arrival at Rivendell point out one way that Jackson has decided to appease the nitpickers. The scene where Arwen meets up with our companions (Arwen has been combined with her brother, Glorfindel, for the purposes of the movie--which works better than I thought it would) takes places in a spot where three stone statues loom over our heroes. These are the trolls encountered by Bilbo in The Hobbit, which is mentioned briefly early in the movie, but receives no explanation when they are onscreen. At the climax of the next scene, the Ringwraiths are washed away by the river that guards Rivendell. At the head of the water, the foam transforms itself into the image of a stampede of white horses. This is pulled directly from the book, but is not explained. It's an astonishing visual flourish, I should mention. I wondered if they would actually film it, since i couldn't get my own mind around how it would look. This is once again perfectly filmed, but perversely enigmatic at the same time (for those who don't know, the horses were a bit of embellishment by Gandalf). This tactic of throwing visual allusions at the audience permeates the whole film.

Crosscut with the flight from The Shire is Gandalf's encounter with the traitorous Saruman. Christopher Lee gives his best performance since he played Rochefort in The Three Musketeers, possibly his best performance since The Horror of Dracula. The wizard's duel that ensues has no equivalent in the book, but it doesn't seem too out of place, even if it is more reminiscent of The Matrix than any other source. Much as I like Lee's performance as Saruman, I dislike the fact that they have basically transformed him into a minion of Sauron. He's a much more complex character in the book, acting on his own. Given the complexity of the project at hand, I suppose it's understandable that Jackson and company would want to simplify things like this. Once again, the film alludes to things in the book without comment, as Gandalf is borne away from the top of Orthanc on the wings of an eagle.

The scenes at Rivendell are mostly unconvincing. Hugo Weaving seems a little too intense--pissed off, even--as Elrond, and the production design and execution is mediochre to bad. The best scenes here are played by Sean Bean and Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen really begins to come into his own in these scenes, and in his scenes with Arwen (even though some of these are spoken in Elvish). Of the companions chosen in additon to the ones we've already met, only Bean's Boromir makes much impression. He's a suprisingly complex character, despite the small amount of screen time he gets.

Things don't pick up again until The Fellowship enters The Mines of Moria. In this thirty minutes of film, Jackson gets everything right--the pace, the production design, the action, everything. This sequence has the film's three big monsters: the Watcher in the Water, the cave troll, and The Balrog, all realized seamlessly. Jackson adds a vertiginous descent through the caverns that includes a sequence on a crumbling stone stairway that's worthy of the Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton. At this point, the film is functioning on all cylinders. The confrontation between Gandalf and The Balrog that concludes the sequence is one of the best effects scenes in cinema, not the least because you have a great Shakespearean actor adding weight to it.

The scenes that follow Moria, when The Fellowship arrives at the elven kingdom of Lothlorien, have some of the same problems that the scenes at Rivendell have. These scenes are too dark, too, which is odd given the description of Lothlorien that Tolkien gives of the place. Galadriel is played by Cate Blanchett, who gives the first bad performance of her career. Jackson doesn't seem sure of how to film her, and the result is a psychedelic mishmash. Galadriel's lament after Frodo offers her The Ring doesn't have nearly the power it ought to have (in which she decides to diminish and pass from the world rather than become a creature of evil).

The film's remaining scenes are hit or miss. Frodo's confrontation with Boromir is played marvelously well. Boromir's redemption is diminished some through the expediency of what has transpired in the rest of the film (he is killed while protecting our idiot sidekicks, Merry and Pippin). The scenery in this last portion is spectacular, but the action sequence that is set against it seems mundane in comparison. I wonder what the mass audience will make of the end of this film, which, necessarily open-ended as it is, seems like the end of an art film.

Global Concerns: Obviously, this is only one-third of a massive project. It's hard to evaluate the thing as a whole without the evidence of the other two movies. Some of my complaints with the film are probably too nit-picky, coming as they do from a more than passing familiarity with the original text. My main complaint with the film, though, has nothing to do with the excision of one element or the addition of another. My main complaint is that the film never seems effortless. I could always feel the tremendous effort behind the film. As a result, the film has huge passages that are earthbound. I have some problems with the specificity of the characters and scenes in the film, which have the effect of removing that level of identification readers of the books achieve without effort. This makes me wonder if the ideal medium for filming The Lord of The Rings isn't animation after all. Certainly, an animated character removes a certain level of specificity, granting the character the aspect of an icon. Such a character would function as an archetype on which the audience could imprint themselves.

At least the film has a look all its own. The Fellowship of the Ring bears the unmistakable stamp of its director, particularly when it is depicting monsters, from the smallest goblin up to the spectacular Balrog. Many effects-laden blockbusters--hell, most of 'em, in fact--are slick and anonymous. That is certainly not the case here. More importantly, I didn't feel insulted by the film in the way I felt insulted by, say, Pearl Harbor or The Mummy Returns, both of which have some elements in common with The Fellowship of The Ring. I'm not sorry I spent three hours of my life sitting in the theater watching this film. I might even be willing to watch it again (on DVD, where I can pause the thing when my bladder gets full). I'll even sign up for the sequels. But Tolkien is still only a minor luminary in my own personal literary firmament. I shouldn't be surprised that the films occupy the same status in my cinematic pantheon.

Some of the reviews of The Frighteners were downright perverse. Roger Ebert's review of the film on the Siskel and Ebert television show was representative, and represents a critic falling down on the job by reviewing the film he wants to see rather than the film he has actually seen. Mind you, I'm no great fan of the film, but the reception it got was reprehensible. Back