Lord of the Rings, The: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001): Peter Jackson’s First Panel of Tolkien’s Trilogy of Movies

Visually striking, thematically grave, and morally weighty, Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” is a miracle of a movie: a three-hour fantasy-action-adventure that not only faithfully captures the spirit of its respectable source material, J.R.R. Tolkien’s three books, but also stands tall on its own merits as one of most ambitious movies to have come out of Hollywood in a long time.

Grade: A

The most massive undertaking in New Line’s history, “Lord of the Rings” easily claims its status as the mini-major’s most impressive film to date, superseding the studio’s previous jewels, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.”

Set in a time of uncertainty in the land of Middle-earth, the saga is structured as an heroic battle of good vs. evil, in which the very future of civilization rests on the fate of One Ring which has been lost for centuries. A large, superlative cast of both British and American actors is headed by Elijah Wood as the young hero, and Ian McKellen in brilliant, Oscar-caliber performance, as his wise guide. The ensemble, which also includes Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean, lends the film the kind of prestige and weight seldom encountered in mainstream epic adventures. Eagerly-awaited by millions of fans around the globe, New Line’s large-budget (over $100 million) fantasy is a must-see event movie, whose literary and cinematic qualities guarantee a strong theatrical appeal in every territory, easily crossing age and national boundaries, before becoming a cult classic, subject to repeat viewing by the ardent devotees.

Jackson’s version is not the first big-screen adaptation of the Tolkien’s masterpiece, which was published in three volumes, in 1954-1955. In 1978, Ralph Bakshi made a mediocre animated picture that featured the voices of Christopher Guard and John Hurt (among others) and covered about half of the trilogy, with a running time of 133 minutes; Jackson’s version runs 179 minutes.

“Lord of the Rings” generates the kind of epic cinema excitement, encountered in the films of Abel Gance (“Napoleon”), Akira Kurosawa (“The Seven Samurai,” “Ran”), David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Stanley Kubrick (“Barry Lyndon”), arguably last seen on the American screen in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, far surpassing the standards of popular epics like Braveheart or Gladiator, the Oscar-winners of 1995 and 2000, respectively. What the trilogy’s first installment shares with all those seminal movies is not just expansive breadth, but complex and engaging characters, genuine movie magic via state of the art effects, and, most important of all, moral and emotional significance, which are terribly missing from other event movies such as “Titanic,” “Star Wars,” and “Pearl Harbor.”

In its scope and grand operatic scheme, “Lord of the Rings” represents the perfect match between the singular vision of an artist, Jackson, and a mythical-literary text that has influenced generations of readers worldwide in a deeper, more meaningful way than other books, such as “Harry Potter.” Tolkien’s hero, Frodo, may not have the same catchy ring as J.K. Rowling’s protagonist, but artistically speaking, since both films were made under the auspices of AOL-Time-Warner, Jackson’s picture is head and shoulders above Columbus’s children fantasy.

It’s almost tempting to say that it was worth waiting for Jackson, whose last achievement was the haunting horror youth drama, “Heavenly Creatures,” to take his time and make what’s undoubtedly the best film of his career to date, one for which he possesses the requisite technical skills–and passion. Rumor has it that Jackson has been “preparing” himself for decades to adapt Tolkien’s seminal book to the screen.

Though necessary, the prologue, in which the history of the Ring is recounted in voice-over, is rather weak and overlong. However, as soon as the narrative proper begins, the yarn grabs the viewers with the captivating force of a mythic tale, seldom losing its grip even in its more feeble moments. The overture establishes that the Ring has been lost for centuries and that powerful forces are now unrelenting in their search for it. Fate, which a major force in the saga, has placed the Ring in the hands of a young Hobbit, Frodo Baggins (Wood), forcing him to risk his life in order to keep it.

The film’s motto, repeated throughout in live-action dialogue or voice-over states: “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” Indeed, a daunting task lies ahead of Frodo when he becomes the Ringbearer, and since he can’t do it alone, a Fellowship bands together to lend him the wisdom and power to accomplish his mission. Frodo’s Ring is no mere trinket–it is the One Ring, an instrument of absolute power that could allow Sauron, the dark Lord of Mordor, to rule Middle-earth and enslave its people. Along with his loyal Hobbit friends, Humans, a Wizard, a Dwarf, and an Elf, Frodo must take the One Ring to Mount Doom, where it was forged, and destroy it forever.

The central narrative thread, and the one to appeal the most to teenagers, revolves around the camaraderie that evolves between Frodo and his friends: Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Monaghan), and Pippin (Boyd). About half of the film is structured as an adventure, in which the quartet goes through painful rites of passage and proves its strength and loyalty, while facing foes of every imaginable kind.

However, rather shrewdly, the narrative is three-generational, and more mature viewers will be intrigued by the characters of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), the old, adventurous Hobbit who bequeaths the Ring to his young cousin Frodo; Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a powerful wizard who assists Frodo; Aragon aka Strider (Viggo Mortensen), a brave warrior who joins and defends the Fellowship; Boromir (Sean Bean), a conflicted human who joins the Fellowship despite deep misgivings about destroying the Ring; and Saruman (Christopher Lee), a wizard who has succumbed to Sauron’s evil.

It’s a known fact that Tolkien’s mythology doesn’t do much for women due to the paucity of female characters. There are basically two women, whose roles are contained in the film’s least involving sequences. Frodo and his buddies are aided in their quest by Arwen (Liv Tyler), the Elf princess who falls in love with the human Aragon. Then there’s Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the Elf Queen of power and wisdom. Not surprisingly, the two actresses render the only unconvincing parts in what’s a uniformly excellent cast.

Those who know Jackson’s previous work should not be surprised by his current accomplishment. For years, the New Zealand director was known in the festival and arthouse circuits for his offbeat sci-fi and horror movies (“Bad Taste,” “Braindead”), flicks that achieved international cult status. And if, by temperament, Jackson is more naturally inclined to–and more effective at–portraying evil than good, then be it.

Indeed, the most accomplished and scariest sequences are the dark ones (in the second half of the film). Frodo’s journey means venturing deep into territory manned by Sauron, where he’s amassing his frightening army of Orcs. But it is not only external evils that the Fellowship must combat; there are also internal dissensions and the corrupting influence of the One Ring itself. Working as a magician with his splendid technical crew, Jackson is most effective at illustrating, both pictorially and dramatically, how the course of future history is entwined with the Fellowship’s fate.

Lord of the Rings is by no means a flawless film. While the epos is not self-indulgent in duration, it certainly contains weak scenes that arrest the dramatic momentum and call too much attention to their special effects. That said, unlike most Hollywood pictures, epic and otherwise, this “Lord of the Rings” gets progressively better and more involving as it goes along.

Most admirably, “Lord of the Rings” avoids the pitfalls of historical epics, usually burdened by rambling narrative, anachronistic language, unsuccessful blend of accents and acting styles. It’s really a challenge, met by Jackson and co-scripters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens to write literate yet credible dialogue for mythical/realistic characters while placing them in the various predicaments that are required by the epic genre. Boasting a momentous scope, “Lord of the Rings” gives audiences the feeling that they’re viewing history and mythology from a great height

Tolkien’s–and now Jackson’s–Middle-earth strikes a chord, because it transports readers into an alternate world that existed before life as humans know it. At the same time, in both books and film, the fantasy world remains grounded in reality, dealing with socially relevant themes of loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and responsibility. When the book was published, some literary critics claimed that the author had “dared” to create an epic quest rivaling in power and ambition the classic legends of Homer and Chaucer, yet made it utterly accessible to readers of all ages and nationalities.

A similar argument can be made about Jackson’s epic, which is bound to assume a place of honor in film history. Perhaps the greatest compliment a critic can pay to “Fellowship of the Ring,” is that at the end of the first saga one is in eager anticipation to see the second and third chapters, already shot in New Zealand and scheduled to be released in 2002 and 2003, respectively.