Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Elijah Woods as Frodo and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in “The Fellowship of the Ring.”

Awesome ‘Fellowship’ is magical achievement

The first in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” returns to theaters this weekend for a limited run. To mark the occassion, here is a reprint of my 2001 review of the film for The Patriot Ledger:

With an unprecedented $450 million investment on the table, the folks at New Line Cinema are hoping and praying their sweeping, three-part production of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” becomes hobbit-forming.

With a massive built-in audience of geeks, stoners and peaceniks who equate Tolkien’s literary trilogy with the Holy Grail, New Line should have little to worry about. In fact, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first of the three Peter Jackson-directed “Lord of the Rings” films to be released between now and December 2003, may well earn back that initial investment alone.

Even if it doesn’t, the suits at New Line can lay claim to one of the year’s most visually arresting films. Right from the opening moments, when a lengthy prologue explains the legend of the One Ring and the evil it wreaks, we are transported to a magical world of awe and adventure called Middle-earth.

It’s here that an imaginative congress of elves, dwarfs, wizards and, of course, hobbits, coalesce into a fellowship determined to wipe out the powerful dictator Sauron by ridding Middle-earth of the One Ring, the gold band that grants its possessor absolute power. For the fellowship, this quest is a test of courage and heart. For us, it’s a test of endurance.

The first installment alone is nearly three hours, and because the ending serves merely as a segue into next December’s Part 2, Part 1 lacks a satisfying payoff. The trilogy format also makes “Fellowship of the Ring” difficult to review. It’s like being asked to judge the merits of an hourlong TV show after having seen only the first 20 minutes. Still, there’s enough here to declare the franchise off to a promising start. What it lacks so far, however, is heart – a problem we can hope will be rectified as the characters are more fully fleshed out in the next two installments. Part 1 does serve nicely as an introduction to Tolkien’s array of fanciful characters, all engagingly portrayed by a spectacular international cast.

Most impressive are Elijah Wood as the adventurous and peace-loving hobbit, Frodo Baggins, and Sir Ian McKellen as his mentor, the wise old wizard Gandalf. Think of them as the Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi of the piece, characters who personify all that’s benevolent and heroic. One also can detect similarities between Han Solo and the fellowship’s fierce, bull-headed human warriors Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean); and between Darth Vader and the wizard Sauron (Christopher Lee), traitors who have crossed over to the dark side.

Unlike that galaxy far, far away, Middle-earth feels closer to our own world, set amid beautiful snowcapped mountains and lush green valleys. It’s a place so idyllic that it’s hard to imagine the evil lurking beneath the surface. It’s an evil much like that currently wielded by the Sauron-esque Osama bin Laden, whose hideous acts add urgency to Tolkien’s anti-war tale. And much like how the world has set aside its differences to fight the good fight in Afghanistan, so, too, do the inhabitants of Middle-earth join as one to conquer Sauron’s cutthroat armies of black-cloaked Ringwraiths and ominous Orcs.

As with any war, the battle scenes in “Fellowship of the Ring” are bloody, including a decapitation. Helping leaven that shocking degree of carnage is the camaraderie exhibited by the furry-footed hobbits played by Wood, Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd; the Elf played by Orlando Bloom and the Dwarf played by John Rhys-Davies. Providing the film with a nurturing, feminine presence are Cate Blanchett as the mystical elf queen, Galadriel, and Liv Tyler as the pointy-eared elfin princess, Anwen. As Frodo’s charming, century-old cousin, Bilbo Baggins, Ian Holm is also a big plus.

The actual hero is Jackson, who dared take on the Herculean task of co-scripting and directing a nearly nine-hour epic. Shooting all three installments of the trilogy (which also includes the forthcoming “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King”) simultaneously to ensure continuity, Jackson must have felt overwhelmed at times. It also must have been daunting trying to meet the expectations of Tolkien’s diehard fans, many of whom thought the New Zealander (best known in the United States for his pictures “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners”) too simplistic to direct such a classic piece of literature. They needn’t have worried.

Jackson solidly answers the call with a movie that’s an appealing amalgamation of dreamlike splendor, blood-splattering violence and old-fashioned heroics. It may not be among the year’s most moving films, but with its infectious mix of swords and sorcery it’s definitely one of the most dazzling.

Movie review

The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

Rated: PG for some scary images

Cast: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Sean Bean, Viggo Mortensen, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin and Orlando Bloom

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens

Runtime: 178 minutes

Where: In theaters for a limited run June 8

Grade: A-

Leave a Reply