Combustible Celluloid
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With: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis
Written by: Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, based on the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien
Directed by: Peter Jackson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images
Running Time: 178
Date: 12/09/2001

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Catching It on the First 'Ring'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The toughest job a filmmaker can take on is translating a beloved novel to the screen: you're torn between being completely faithful and showing your own vision. Whereas Chris Columbus made Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone with no directorial personality whatsoever, the new The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was helmed by the far more interesting Peter Jackson, who made the 1994 masterpiece Heavenly Creatures and the raunchy B-movies Bad Taste and Dead-Alive. Rather than delivering a faceless product, Jackson imbues his personal signature on the fantasy epic, while still sticking close to the source.

Clocking in at three hours, The Fellowship of the Ring presents only the first book of J.R.R. Tolkein's trilogy, which means that the whole trilogy may run something like nine hours. The second and third movies will be released at Christmas of 2002 and 2003, respectively.

That also means that the story we're getting here is far from over. Fans who remember The Empire Strikes Back (1980) ending with many of its issues unsolved -- and feeling the anguish of having to wait three more years for the sequel -- will know how it feels. It's doubly frustrating here because when The Fellowship of the Ring is over, it feels like it's just beginning.

Nonetheless, we make do with what we're given, and this "Part One" does the job admirably. It begins in Middle Earth with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) celebrating his 111th birthday, the same day his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) celebrates his 33rd. Bilbo feels the call of the road once again and uses his ring -- stolen from Gollum during the precursor of the series, "The Hobbit" -- to suddenly "disappear." (It renders its wearer invisible.) He departs, leaving the ring to Frodo for safekeeping. But it's only after he's gone that the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) learns the origin of the ring and its destructive power -- and that its true owner, a Dark Lord named Sauron, wants to get it back.

Frodo sets out with his friend Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) to destroy the ring in the fires of Mt. Doom, where it was forged. They're later joined by a team made up of other hobbits: Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), humans: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), an elf called Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies).

But dark forces trail the Fellowship wherever they go, and the film becomes a series of chases, fights, and rests. They encounter an assortment of evil beasties as well as good elves like Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) who lend them a hand. And legendary horror film actor Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man) chomps up some scenery as the evil wizard Saruman (whose name sounds a little like Sauron, just to confuse things).

Not everything holds up to close scrutiny. For example, if the evil "ring wraiths," undead beasties who ride the countryside looking for the ring, never rest and possess unearthly powers, how can they be fooled by the simple tricks the hobbits play to divert them? Why do these baddies even stop at all to let the heroes rest when they obviously don't have to?

In addition, I was not impressed by the quality of the CGI monsters, though Jackson does his best to smooth the awkward computer creations into his grayish landscape. During one scene, characters jump onto one monster's back to attack it from behind. Since you can't have a real person riding on top of a fake monster, the people become computer generated as well -- and it all looks too fluid and fake.

However, I was extremely impressed by the makeup and sizing effects, making humans look like dwarves and hobbits. I have no idea how the early sequence with little Bilbo and big Gandalf was filmed. I assume Ian McKellen and Ian Holm are about the same size -- maybe a few inches difference -- but in the film Gandalf towers several feet over Bilbo with no seams showing. Beautiful.

Moreover, the astonishing set designs constantly overwhelmed me, and though most of them were computer-rendered, it made no difference. One gorgeous shot has the Fellowship floating down a river and passing between two enormous statues. The camera pans up and we see dozens of tiny birds bursting out of one statue's giant eye socket. This is how CGI should be used.

Going back to Jackson, he's a director who boasts an extremely dark sense of humor and sleek visuals, and he happily allows his personality to show more than a few times. During one shot, Bilbo makes a sudden grab for the ring hanging on a chain around Frodo's neck, and I jumped out of my seat. And a particularly horrific monster that lives in the water outside the Dwarf caves demonstrates a Jackson sensibility by timing its attack just perfectly. Little moments like these allow the film to come alive and take it away from what might have been an assembly line feel.

Most importantly, Jackson and his writers create a real world with its own logic and they never betray that by pandering to us. It's an accomplished movie for everyone who ever longed to hit the road and welcomed adventure in all its forms. I just wish there was a way to see the whole thing right now...

DVD Details (Theatrical Version): New Line's great two-disc set (make sure to specify the widescreen version) comes with plenty of extras. I watched it a second time and found myself liking it even more. But now New Line apparently has a longer version coming soon, making this one obsolete. If you've already spent your $30, you're certainly not alone.

DVD Details (Extended Edition): New Line really pulled a fast one on us by releasing the theatrical edition a couple of months ago, waiting until millions of units moved out the door, and then announcing this expanded edition with some 40 minutes of new footage edited into the movie, plus four massive commentary tracks and more mini-documentaries than any human being can watch at one time. Die-hard fans will find the extra footage essential but casual fans can rest easy with the three-hour theatrical version.

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