The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring
Starring: Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler
Director:

Peter Jackson

Writing credits: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Frances Walsh
Distributor: New Line Cinema
Rated: PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images
  (USA 2001)

It's said that couples who enjoy the same leisure-time activities are more likely to stay together. Yet this critic's life gives lie to that notion. I tend to like talky, character-driven pictures, preferably starring lots of British actors in period costumes. My spouse, on the other hand, is an action kinda guy. He goes for flicks with lots of adventure, stuff getting blown up, or some really belly-splitting sophomoric yuks. So usually I leave him at home. I therefore owe a special holiday thank you to Peter Jackson, director of perhaps the most daunting cinematic project of the last thirty years -- the filming of the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy. Thank you, Mr. Jackson, for creating an adaptation of the revered J.R.R. Tolkien novels that's faithful and lively enough so that a Tolkien devote like my spouse will actually sit for three hours, and a fantasy novel-avoider like myself can become transported by the sheer visual magic of it all.

I am one of perhaps only five people of my generation who has never been able to slog through Tolkien's densely academic fantasy universe, though I did manage a cursory read of the Henry Beard/Doug Kenney Harvard Lampoon parody from 1967. However, this blasphemy has left me with a rather unfortunate tendency to refer to hobbits Bilbo [Baggins], Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin as Dildo, Frito, Spam, Moxie and Pepsi. Nevertheless, I was determined to get through Jackson's film the way I was never able to get through Tolkien's prose, and so my intrepid spouse and I slipped through the doors of the local Loew's multiplex at 10:00 AM.

Without knowledge of the source material, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING requires a fair amount of work and concentration on the part of the filmgoer. The story seems familiar, largely because Tolkien is the grandaddy of the various sword and sorcery stories, games, and lore that have evolved over the last 50 years, right through the Star Wars phenomenon and culminating with J.K. Rowling's Classic Comic version, the Harry Potter oeuvre.


A hodgepodge of Arthurian legend, Norse mythology, and Christian symbolism, the story at its core is a simple one: Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) has in his possession a ring of tremendous power, a power of which he seems to be ignorant. At a celebration of his 111th birthday, Bilbo decides to take a journey, leaving all distractions behind so he can finish his book (I can relate, Bilbo). Along with the rest of his worldly possessions, Bilbo leaves the ring to his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). Like King Arthur's Excalibur, this is a ring of tremendous power. Unlike Excalibur, however, the ring, created by the dark lord Sauron, is fraught with evil's "cruelty, malice and will to dominate all life." Even Bilbo's wizard friend, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is afraid to touch the ring. However, Hobbits are such harmless creatures, living as they do in a perpetual Renaissance Faire world of quaint little middle-English houses nestled right into he hills, they seem not to pick up on the ring's power, and so Frodo becomes the innocent, reluctant savior of Middle Earth.

What makes the story so dense and detailed are the various races of beings that have an interest in the fate of the ring. Gardener/friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), along with his cousins, the dimwitted Beavis and Butthead act-alikes Peregrin (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc (Dominic Monaghan), are the harmless Hobbits who are charged with keeping Frodo, the Keeper of the Ring, safe. An alliance with Gandalf's elf-allies takes the form of Legolas Greenleaf (Orlando Bloom), a flaxen-haired archer. And humans, who seem to have screwed everything up royally, thus bringing us to this sorry pass, are represented by Über-goy -- I mean Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson) -- a brooding prince in exile, and his vaguely sinister counterpart Boromir (Sean Bean). This group forms a traveling Camelot, on a quest not to find an artifact of great power, but to return one to its source -- the disturbingly vaginal ring of fire that represents the Cracks of Doom in the depths of Mordor.

Director Peter Jackson, a Harry Knowles near-lookalike best known for bringing Kate Winslet to the attention of the world in the bizarro murder/fantasy HEAVENLY CREATURES, has shrugged off the Mantle of Crushing Responsibility in bringing such a revered work to the screen, choosing instead the enviable indulgence of making his own vision of Tolkien's universe ours. And what a glorious universe it is, even if it does indicate that Jackson has seen John Boorman's EXCALIBUR as many times as I have.

In conjunction with production designer Grant Major, Jackson has carved a gorgeous pre-Raphaelite fantasy world out of the rugged New Zealand location that owes a debt to Belle Epoque artists from Sir Edward Burne-Jones down through Alphonse Mucha and Aubrey Beardsley, and even into the pink-and-blue realm of that great kitschmeister, Maxfield Parrish. Between this film and Moulin Rouge, it's been a great year for aficionados of vintage illustration. Every setting is beautifully imagined and realized, from the Ren-Faire loaminess of the Hobbit's shire, to the strangely Naziesque statues guarding the northern entrance to Gondor, to the gloriously colorful Rivendell, which looks like a mountain resort on mescaline. Yet it's not all hallucinogens and bright colors, for THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING has some genuine "jump" moments, as the Black Riders, who resemble nothing less than Grim Reapers on horseback, chase Our Heroes to the banks of a river, where they are stopped by a spectacular sequence involving a tidal wave in the shape of stampeding white horses, or the edge-of-your-seat fight sequences, which go on only marginally longer than they need to.

Because THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is so chock full of plot and backdrop story and symbolism, there's no time for any real character development, which makes it all the more surprising that heavy-hitters such as Ian McKellen and Ian Holm signed on. Yet these are not the kind of cardboard characters, nor is this the kind of crap-film that Sir Laurence Olivier took on for the money in his later years. Ian Holm is a marvelously whimsical Bilbo, with the slight edge required for this Keeper of the Ring. Ian McKellen, as Gandalf, is clearly having a rollicking good time. Elijah Wood, who was one of the most otherworldly beautiful children every to appear on the screen, managed to survive adolescence to capture a look of a somewhat disillusioned seraph in adulthood. He was born to play Frodo Baggins, and indeed, carries much of the film's emotions in his improbably large and expressive eyes. Sean Astin, as Sam, is a fine, vaguely comical Sancho Panza to Frodo's Don Quixote, and young Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan are entertaining as the other Hobbit voyagers.

Yet the biggest surprise in this film is the usually marble-mouthed Viggo Mortensen, an actor who has never before shown any ability to do much beyond sneer and look vaguely unclean and malevolent. Here, dark-haired, dirt-smeared, and anguished, he looks somehow cleaner than ever before. Here he makes a fine, strong warrior.

There seem to be very few women in Tolkien's universe (which makes me wonder how these various species are re-populated, but that's just me being overly literal again). This fact is underscored by the very brief presence of the only two women of any significance in the film -- the Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler, who appears for about five minutes and in a colossal example of Hollywood ageism, is the love interest of Aragorn, who is old enough to be her father) and Elf-queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who has little to do other than wear one heck of a gorgeous art nouveau tiara right out of the Past Times catalog, encourage little Frodo, and have one heck of a PMS psycho bitch from Hell episode at the mere thought of possessing the ring. No, Middle Earth is by and large a boys-only club.

Because THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING is only the first in a trilogy, there is no real ending. We can be grateful, however, for the absence of the words "...to be continued" at the end, for while Jackson's film is gorgeous; an epic in the true sense of the word, it's utterly exhausting. I need a year to recover and gear up for the next installment.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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