by Todd McCarthy
Daily Variety Chief Film Critic
With the world newly obsessed with the clash of good and evil, the time would seem to be ideal for The Lord of the Rings.
An epic by any standard, The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in Peter Jackson’s vigorous and faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, looks to please the book’s legions of fans with its imaginatively scrupulous rendering of the tome’s characters and worlds on the screen, as well as the uninitiated with its uninterrupted flow of incident and spectacle.
As all three portions of the book (which was initially published in three volumes between July 1954-October 1955) were filmed over the course of 274 shooting days, there will be Rings features released on each of the next two Christmases, just as Harry Potter entries will precede them each November. Exhibitors and audiences therefore have much to anticipate, as, on the basis of Fellowship, Frodo will give Harry a healthy, if not quite even, run for his money.
Partially adapted for the screen once before by Ralph Bakshi in an unsuccessful 1978 animated version, Tolkien’s 1,000-page yarn poses all manner of challenges for a screen transfer — imaginative, logistical and financial. With the final bill likely to come in somewhere near $400 million when production and marketing costs are all tallied, one has to credit New Line Cinema with a tremendous amount of guts for shooting all three pictures with a young New Zealand director with only one genuinely notable, and small-scaled, film (Heavenly Creatures) to his credit.
But Jackson must have convinced someone that he would do it right, a view thoroughly borne out by what’s up on the screen. Evocatively delineating the many aspects of Middle-earth on tremendously diverse locations in New Zealand in resourceful collaboration with a massive crew, Jackson keeps a firm hand on the work’s central themes of good versus evil, rising to the occasion and group loyalty in the face of adversity, and always keeps things moving without getting bogged down in frills or effects for effects’ sake.
Pic’s main problem, however, is inherent in the odyssey-like structure of the tale; the “and then, and then, and then” nature of the narrative becomes necessarily repetitive and even a bit wearisome at times, and ultimately arbitrary in the sense that one battle more or less with the Orcs, Ringwraiths or Uruk-Hai wouldn’t have made much difference. Lack of dramatic arcs involving rising action, relaxation and interconnecting story strands unfortunately makes the film’s running time feel pretty much like the three hours it is.
It’s all about the ring, of course, the One Ring which, in a potent prologue that out-mummies The Mummy in terms of sweeping combat, is shown being forged by the malevolent Sauron as a source of dark power, being lost in battle and finally disappearing for 3,000 years until it’s retrieved by an unlikely Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Perfectly mirroring the opening chapters of the book as if to reassure the faithful millions that its intentions are honorable, film depicts old Bilbo being urged by his old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), to leave the ring behind for his adopted nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), who has now come of age but knows nothing of the ring, its legacy or power.
Early stretches are obliged to pack in a great deal of exposition, but screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson make it go down easily by mixing in agreeable doses of action and character work. Bilbo takes off but Gandalf keeps turning up whenever he’s needed to mentor the reluctant Ringbearer, who, with his best friend Sam (Sean Astin) and mirthsome buddies Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), set out from the Shire with one purpose: to return the ring to Mount Doom in dreaded Mordor, where it was created and the only place it can be destroyed, so as to save civilization from the full force of evil that would be unleashed should it fall back into the wrong hands.
Much, of course, stands in their way. For starters, the ring itself “wants” to be returned to evildoers who can fulfill its potential, forces now represented by turncoat wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who gathers an army of fearsome fighting monsters in order to capture the gold. There are also relentless Dark Riders, marauding swordsmen, natural catastrophes and airborne spies, which give Saruman a clear picture of where they are.
All the same, Frodo and his mates are not alone. In addition to the essential Gandalf, whose magical powers are a match for those of Saruman, joining the Hobbit boys’ team are “human” warriors Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), Elf bow-and-arrow marksman Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and stout Dwarf battler Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). As they make their way from the verdant rolling hills of Hobbiton (where one can readily see where the Teletubbies’ homeland got its visual inspiration) to the gloriously secluded Elfishdomain of Rivendell and the complex forest world of Lothlorien with its sweeping spiral staircases spun around massive trees, the group receives crucial help from Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), who has an ever-so-brief tryst with Aragorn; her level-headed father Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).
After innumerable confrontations, fights and close shaves — most cinematically notable an exciting chase in which Arwen, with an injured Frodo onboard, outflanks a posse of Dark Riders — Fellowship has its first climax in the Mines of Moria, a corpse-strewn complex of caves and vaulting chambers where the valiant band is attacked by ghastly Orcs, including one giant ogre who looks like the illegitimate brother of a supporting player in Harry Potter. Once the group has made its daring escape, it is attacked again in a forest, from which Frodo must flee before setting out for Mordor and the sequel, The Two Towers.
Fortunately, the episodic narrative doesn’t require non-Tolkienites to absorb all the details and niceties of the author’s invented mythology and lore in order to enjoy the tale; the distinctions are there for aficionados, but don’t represent an intimidating barrier for newcomers. Either way, the world of the Rings has been superbly physicalized by the locations, Grant Major’s impressively varied production design, the costume work by designers Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor, the latter’s sensational makeup, creature and armaments inventions, and the extensive special and visual effects, which have been smoothly integrated into the texture of the rest of the film in a non-showoffy way.
The film also very well handles the matter of perspective and height differentiation between the Hobbits and Dwarfs, for example, who are meant to be less than four feet tall, and the human-scaled characters, something that must have been as difficult as many other more obvious effects. Andrew Lesnie‘s lensing has its slightly murky moments but is predominantly muscular in putting forceful images on a large canvas.
While he has perhaps not written a classic epic adventure score in the manner of Korngold, Rosza or Steiner, Howard Shore has composed two hours of music that is constantly supportive, creative and complementary to the action. As such, it represents an object lesson that handily points up how unnecessarily intrusive and insufferably distracting John Williams’ work is in Harry Potter.
One place where Harry outflanks Rings is in the starriness of its cast, but the film is nonetheless capably served. One hallmark of the players is their startlingly blue eyes, especially those of Wood, McKellen and Blanchett. Wood’s Frodo spends most of Fellowship coming to terms with his unwanted responsibility as Ringbearer, and is generally uncertain and frightened as a result, something that will no doubt change over the course of the two remaining installments. McKellen delivers Gandalf with great relish and gusto, giving the picture a shot in the arm whenever he’s around, which is often. Mortensen and Bean cut dynamic figures as Frodo’s expert swordsmen, Rhys-Davies is a barrel of fierce defiance, while horror vet Lee is silkily superb as the chief nemesis in a black tower. Blanchett and Tyler have relatively little to do, at least in this first episode, and the small attempts at humor, particularly with the tag-alongs Merry and Pippin, seem half-hearted and rote.
Still, New Line and company should be able to breathe a sigh of relief after the picture comes out, and there is little doubt that those who grab the Rings at the start will anxiously await Frodo’s trip into ever more perilous territory a year hence.