by David Hunter
New Line Cinema and filmmaker Peter Jackson’s risky mission to bring The Lord of the Rings to movie audiences in three epic films, of which The Fellowship of the Ring is the first, should conjure up a worldwide boxoffice bonanza.
Opening Dec. 19 and eagerly anticipated, to say the least, by several generations of fans of the original books, the Fellowship installment rarely takes a wrong turn in its fairly faithful adaptation of the first Rings book, while those unfamiliar with the story of Frodo Baggins and his perilous quest should be lining up as well because of the sword-and-sorcery genre and lengthy marketing buildup.
The late English philologist, fantasy writer and professor of medieval literature J.R.R. Tolkien started in 1938 to write a sequel to The Hobbit — the novel that introduced the world to the furry-footed, “halfling” race of peace-loving shire dwellers and a place called Middle Earth. It became for the author a nearly two-decade task that resulted in the Rings trilogy and several other works. The vividness of the mythical, prehistorical world he created and the fantastic and endearing characters he imagined inspired a legion of imitators and homages, as well as a 1978 animated version of about half of the saga by Ralph Bakshi.
Filmed simultaneously with its two sequels — The Two Towers and The Return of the King — Fellowship is so well-made and well-cast that one can have no reservations about the rest of Jackson’s monumental creation. Skillfully crafting a long work that appeals to young and old, with strong emotions but nary a romantic subplot (so far), Jackson has seemed a natural to take on such a once-in-a-lifetime project at least since his masterful 1994 film Heavenly Creatures.
Fellowship opens with an eight-minute prologue that recounts the history of a powerful ring created by the evil lord Sauron thousands of years ago and the battle to stop him. Indeed, Sauron is defeated by the human king of Gondor, Isildur (Harry Sinclair). He hacks off Sauron’s finger with the ring but later becomes its first victim. Breezing along, the events in Hobbit are swiftly related, in which adventuresome Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) fatefully finds the ring and takes it away from the cave-dwelling, warped-by-evil Gollum.
Sixty years later, having not aged because of the ring, Bilbo celebrates his “eleventy-first” birthday (111th) in the shire, then abruptly leaves his own party. He uses the ring, which when put on makes the wearer invisible, then has difficulty giving it to his cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood) at the insistence of wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Throughout the movie, characters are almost corrupted by the evil essence of the ring — which “wants to be found” and can be used only by Sauron — and Frodo becomes the unlikely bearer of the instrument that could bring doom to his people and many others.
The first half of Fellowship concerns the journey of Frodo and his trusted companion Sam (Sean Astin) as they leave home with the ring after the appearance of terrifying “Black Riders,” or the Nazgul — nine kings who long ago became enslaved to Sauron and seek the ring. With promises of meeting them later from Gandalf, Frodo and Sam are joined by two fellow hobbits, Merry Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin Took (Billy Boyd). These four little folk are saved from disaster one night in an inn by Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a human “ranger” whom they first call “Strider.”
Hobbits are not often taller than four feet, and one of the initial delights is seeing how the filmmakers get away with normal-sized actors paired off (McKellan and Holm, McKellan and Wood). But there’s much action and spectacle as well in early scenes where Gandalf travels to Isengard to confer with his wizardly colleague Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) and finds his elder already siding with the resurgent Sauron. The initial legs of Frodo’s journey end with a spectacular rescue on horseback by the beautiful elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), who calls up a flood that sweeps away the Nazgul.
After surviving a wound and wanting desperately to return home, Frodo takes part in a council in which humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits and Gandalf decide what to do about the ring. They decide to throw it into the “fires of Mt. Doom, where it was forged,” and Frodo comes to realize, in another of the many visions and dreams he has, that he must continue to bear the ring. The second half of the movie chronicles the start of the journey to Sauron’s realm of Mordor, including the creation of the nine-member fellowship: the four hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn, the ax-wielding dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the bowman elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and human Boromir (Sean Bean) of Gondor.
Quite masterfully paced and one of those rewarding movies that seems to get better and better as it progresses, Fellowship justifies its long running time. The real pain that Frodo feels at causing his friends to be in danger, his doubts and his fears are the central drama in a tale with many outlandish and beautiful moments. From the attack on the heroes in a mountain cave by monstrous Orcs, a horrific cave troll and the dreaded Balrog (an ancient demon) to the climactic battle against Saruman’s Uruks (a cross between Orcs and goblin-men), the film has memorable but unbloody action sequences. Alas, some of the literary richness of Tolkien has been sacrificed, with no hobbits singing or reciting poetry, and many minor characters and scenes are not included.
Cate Blanchett as the Lady Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond, both immortal elves, are two more crucial participants. Wood is inspired casting as Frodo, while McKellen is superb under seemingly pounds of fake hair and whiskers. The production design, cinematography, countless special effects, costumes, makeup and score are all top-notch.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
New Line Cinema
A Wingnut Films production
Credits: Director: Peter Jackson; Screenwriters: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson; Producers: Barrie M. Osborne, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Tim Sanders; Executive producers: Mark Ordesky, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Robert Shaye, Michael Lynne; Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie; Production designer: Grant Major; Editor: John Gilbert; Costume designers: Ngila Dickson, Richard Taylor; Music: Howard Shore; Visual effects supervisor: Jim Rygiel. Cast: Frodo Baggins: Elijah Wood; Gandalf the Grey: Ian McKellen; Aragorn: Viggo Mortensen; Sam Gamgee: Sean Astin; Saruman the White: Christopher Lee; Boromir: Sean Bean; Bilbo Baggins: Ian Holm; Arwen: Liv Tyler; Legolas: Orlando Bloom; The Lady Galadriel: Cate Blanchett; Gimli: John Rhys-Davies; Elrond: Hugo Weaving; Merry Brandybuck: Dominic Monaghan; Pippin Took: Billy Boyd. MPAA rating: PG-13. Color/stereo. Running time — 178 minutes.