The Lord of the Rings

 


Robin Clifford 

Laura Clifford 

"One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them." So begins the epic adventure of J.R.R. Tolkien brought to the screen for the first time in live action by director Peter Jackson in part one, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

Robin:
Tolkien's sword and sorcery trilogy has eluded filmmakers since its introduction in paperback to America in 1965. Animator Ralph Bakshi gave a valiant, but vain, attempt at recreating Middle-earth with his inventive rotoscope technique where live action is filmed, then animated. (See Richard Linklater's recent, experimental film, "Waking Life," for an interesting use of the anime method.) But, Bakshi ran out of steam and, especially, money, and only provided the first installment of the Tolkien epic, with the rest only a dream.

Decades have passed since Bakshi's attempt and, now, fantasy master Peter Jackson ("Heavenly Creatures") has taken on the daunting task of breathing cinematic life into The Lord of the Rings classic. With budget figures estimated anywhere from $300 million to $500 million Jackson, his principle cast, a 2400-person production team and 26,000 extras have spent years on filming the entire adventure with plans to release the trilogy over the next two years. There has been a great deal of anticipation by the sizable number of fans of the books - especially for those of us whose interest was whetted by Bakshi unsuccessful attempt - and the first in the franchise will soon be here for the holidays.

Jackson and his enormous crew have recreated Tolkien's world in a way that gives an accurate and wonderfully detailed imagining that is very close to my own mind's eye of the work. I read it a couple of times many years ago and the story has stayed with me ever since. When the camera first unfolds the laconic charms of Hobbiton and its cozy earthen homes where in habitants like a good meal and a warm seat in front of the fire I felt right at home and snuggled down myself as the author's words came to life on the screen.

Those familiar with the story do not need a description of the Tolkien tale, but for the uninitiated (who, I hope, will become initiates of both the film and the books) this is the original S&S yarn (well, at least since King Arthur's mystical story) that spawned all the rest. The story really begins with Tolkien's 1935 fantasy story, The Hobbit, where meek little Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) is called upon to perform uncharacteristic heroic deeds and is given an important ring to protect with his life. But, the Ring has power beyond all imagination and the film begins many years after Bilbo first took possession.

Kindly wizard Gandalf the Gray (Ian McKellen) drives his wagon into Hobbiton for the event of Bilbo's 111th birthday party and is joined by one of his favorites, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), Bilbo's nephew. But, there is a hidden agenda around the visit and, following Bilbo's dramatic disappearance at his party, we soon learn that the Ring the elder Hobbit has possessed for so long has aroused the attention of an evil force that once was the dark lord Sauron (Sala Baker). Gandalf, knowing the Ring needs to be returned to the place of its making, Mount Doom, and cast into the fires that first formed it, enlists Frodo to the task of destroying the Ring of Power. (There is background information provided about the Ring and its scions done in narration at the beginning of the film, filling in the uniformed nicely.)

As Frodo and his loyal friends Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Lloyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) set out on the long journey away from home Gandalf learns that the Ring is beckoning its creator, Sauron, to bring forth an evil army of the spawn of Hell, called Orcs, to destroy the peaceful coexistence of Hobbits, humans, dwarves and elves. After nearly being destroyed by head wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who has been turned by evil Sauron, Gandalf realizes the little Hobbits, brave as they may be, will need help navigating the dangerous terrain between Hobbiton and Mount Doom. Joining the little fellers is the human and son of a king, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), human warrior Boromir (Sean Bean), elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a battling dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) to become the Fellowship of the Ring. The little, determined band must face danger upon danger, do battle with the evil Orcs and seek the assistance of elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). This is the stuff that sword and sorcery fantasy is meant to be.

The huge main cast is made up by a group of professionals who are able to give character to the roles they inhabit, despite the fact that the concentration of the film is in telling the story of the Ring and not on "character development." The actors bring Tolkien's myriad collection of creatures to life with Wood giving Frodo the wondering innocence and forthright resolve I remember from reading the stories. Ian McKellen is particularly notable in his wonderful and complex playing of Gandalf. Sean Astin is endearing as the not-too-bright but undyingly loyal aid to Frodo. Cate Blanchett is elegance and grace personified as the almost ethereal elf queen. There is an embarrassment of acting riches with the likes of Christopher Lee, Mortensen, Hugo Weaving and Ian Holm filling out their various characters nicely. Even Liv Tyler gives a pleasant perf as elf warrior Arwen.

Technical efforts range from first class to brilliant, starting with Jackson as helmer and co scripter (with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens). Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie will garner attention for his crisp, beautiful color palette with photography that ranges from dramatic close-up (especially with McKellen as the subject) to panoramic views of Hobbiton and the sinister fiery gloom of Sauron's lair, Mordor. Production design by Grant Major brings the world of Middle-earth to life from the homes of the Hobbits to the elfin lair and the dark lord's den of evil. Costumes by Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor also help convey the fantasy world of Tolkien's imaginative mind. F/X, led by Jim Rygiel, are superb in capturing the creature proportions and mystical aspects of The Lord of the Rings and makeup and creature effects (including Sauron's Ring wraiths), by Richard Taylor, are top-notch. Score, by Howard Shore, is suitably majestic and stirring and sprinkle with a couple of songs composed and sung by Enya.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" richly deserves the anticipation that has been building for so long with its fan base. My only complaint about installment number one of the trilogy is that I have to wait for so long for the rest. I give it an A.

Laura:
When Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, "The Sweet Hereafter") finds the One Ring he becomes oddly possessive of it, but when he leaves the Shire, his old friend Gandalf (Ian McKellen, "X-Men") persuades him to leave it for his beloved cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood, "The Ice Storm").  Once the wizard Gandalf discovers the ring's evil origins in the hell fires of Mordor, he insists that Frodo flee as Lord Sauron's nine wraiths will be hunting it down. Reunited in the Elvish Kingdom of Rivendell, where King Elrond (Hugo Weaving, "The Matrix") declares that the ring must be destroyed at Mordor, Frodo accepts the task under Gandalf's watchful eye.  They, along with Frodo's three Hobbit friends Sam, (Sean Astin, "Rudy"), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), the dwarf Gimli, (John Rhys-Davies, "The Living Daylights"), elf Legolas, (Orlando Bloom, "Wilde") and humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen, "A Perfect Murder") and Boromir, (Sean Bean, "Don't Say a Word") form a fellowship in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

Cowriter (with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) director Peter Jackson ("Heavenly Creatures") brings the much anticipated first installment of his ambitious trilogy to the screen with the creativity and confidence of the young George Lucas.  If the first is any indication, Jackson's films are sure to take the "Star Wars" mantle as beloved mythic epic for a new generation.

The introduction of the Shire is the film's weakest point, recalling the childlike cuddliness of Ewoks, but quickly the legend of the One Ring is established (complete with jaw-dropping flashbacks of Sauron's Orc army in battle against Middle Earth) and Frodo's adventure begins.  He leaves the Shire with ever loyal Samwise Gamgee silhouetted with horse and low wooden fence against a painted sky like Scarlett O'Hara departing Atlanta with her wooden horse-drawn cart.

The two meet up with Pippin and Merry in time to flee from a hooded ringwraith and make their way to the Prancing Pony Pub where they're joined by Aragorn and Frodo makes his first eerie journey with the ring into invisibility.  After the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler, "One Night at McCool's") rescues the injured Frodo from the ringwraiths in a rousing chase on horseback, the band arrives at Rivendell to find Gandalf, who has just escaped the clutches of his former colleague Saruman, (Christopher Lee, "Dracula") now a follower of Sauron.  The fellowship will be severely tested during the journey towards Mount Doom, splitting apart as Frodo once again sets off with only Sam accompanying him.

"The Fellowship of the Ring" is beautifully cast, with Ian Holms' Bilbo the only non-perfect fit.  McKellen simply is Gandalf and his spirit pervades the film like Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan.  The Academy should take note. Wood has the look and temperament of the guileless Frodo and Astin exemplifies the power of friendship.

Viggo Mortensen is a good and noble Aragorn.  Sean Bean deftly portrays the conflicted Boromir, the weak link of the fellowship who lusts for the ring's power yet courageously defends his allies.  After McKellen, Bean's is the most complex and noteworthy performance.  Rhys-Davies is endearing as the pugilistic dwarf.  Cate Blanchett personifies the grace and wisdom of Galadriel.  Liv Tyler proves the naysayers wrong appearing in the film's first truly exciting scene.

Technically, the film excels in every department from the production design (Grant Majors, "Heavenly Creatures") and art direction (Dan Hennah, "The Frighteners") that imagine a whole new cinematic world to the special effects, costume design, hair and makeup used to create and complete the characters that populate it.  This is spectacle, from the Elvish Rivendell which resembles an Alpine village adorned with Victorian gingerbread trim, to the towering stone sculptures that are the gates of Minas Tirith's Abu Simbel.  The Cave Troll and Gollum seem as real as the actors.  Director of Photography Andrew Lesnie is challenged to follow the flying spies of Saruman as they dart through tunnels and descend into Mordor as well as make the forced perspective that allows Gandalf to tower over hobbits look seamless.  He's up to it.  Peter Jackson's achievement in bringing all the pieces together is astounding.  He's made the special effects film seem fresh again.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" should meet the long pent expectations of Tolkien fans.  I can't wait for the next installment.

A-

Click here for The Two Towers review.                                Click here for The Return of the King review.

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