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the lord of the rings:
the fellowship of the ring

review by rob gonsalves

Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson
Philippa Boyens
Fran Walsh
based on the novel by
J.R.R. Tolkien

Peter Jackson
Barrie M. Osbourne
Tim Sanders
Fran Walsh

Andrew Lesnie

Howard Shore

John Gilbert


Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins)
Ian McKellen (Gandalf)
Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins)
Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn)
Sean Astin (Samwise 'Sam' Gamgee)
Liv Tyler (Arwen)
Orlando Bloom (Legolas)
Cate Blanchett (Galadriel)
John Rhys-Davies (Gimli)
Billy Boyd (Pippin)
Dominic Monaghan (Merry)
Hugo Weaving (Elrond)
Sean Bean (Boromir)
Christopher Lee (Saruman)
Sala Baker (Sauron)
Andy Serkis (voice of Gollum)

mpaa rating: PG-13
running time: 178m
u.s. release: December 19, 2001
video availability: VHS - DVD
official site

other peter jackson films
reviewed on this website:

- the frighteners
- king kong
the lord of the rings:
- the fellowship of the ring
- the two towers
- the return of the king

see also:

- peter jackson: the films
(overview of his work,
with brief reviews of each movie)

All right, everyone can relax now -- and I mean that both ways: the first of the three Lord of the Rings movies has emerged triumphant, but it's not going to alter the course of mankind (it's just a movie, folks). The wildly ambitious (and, fortunately, just as wildly talented) New Zealand director Peter Jackson has delivered what everyone should have been delivering for years: a good story well-told, a massive adventure painted in strokes bold and subtle on a vast canvas. I expected no less from him, though I come to The Fellowship of the Ring as a Jackson fan, not so much a J.R.R. Tolkien devotee (I last read the books, oh, twenty years ago), and this wouldn't be my favorite Jackson film -- second or third, maybe.

Given his biggest piggy bank ever and almost three hours in which to sprawl, Jackson still has to speed through the book. Invariably, when he does dawdle, he dawdles over fairly uninteresting stuff; no matter how much golden light he throws onto the Elves, for instance, they can't compete with the forces of evil for sheer cinematic power (at least in this first volume -- the Rivendell footage tends toward the blandly idyllic at times). Jackson's at his best here working with dark colors -- the corrupt wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who's building an army of half-man, half-Orc creatures; the truly frightening Ringwraiths, who bring a shiver of dread into the movie every time they ride in on their black and shrieking horses; the various monster-movie obstacles, including a giant troll and the much-beloved-by-Tolkien-fans beastie the Balrog, with its ferocious whip of flame. Not to mention the chief Big Bad -- Sauron, whose tainted Ring sets the plot in motion.

Pitted against all this evil are a motley crew of four hobbits, a wizard, an Elf, a dwarf, and a couple of regular guys. (No girls allowed in this Fellowship, though Jackson -- to the disgruntlement of many purists -- has given Liv Tyler's Elf character Arwen a slightly more active role than in the book.) Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who has inherited the aforementioned Ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm), must take it to Mount Doom and destroy it; the wise and mighty wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has advised Frodo never to wear the Ring -- its corruptive power is too great -- but of course on several occasions it finds its way onto his finger. It's a proactive ring -- it can even adjust itself to fit any finger.

There's unfortunately some rushing of things that shouldn't be rushed, even at almost three hours. The confrontations between Gandalf and Saruman (yes, I realize they weren't in the book) feel a bit too Matrix-y -- yeah, they're wizards, but they're also old, and should they really be able to be flung all over a vast room without breaking a hip? The Balrog gets more build-up than actual screen time; at times, the movie has the same thin, one-damn-thing-after-another tone as Harry Potter, which also tried to pack too much into a reasonable sitting time. But Jackson's storytelling economy also serves him well here; when Bilbo gives Frodo his sword Sting (which glows blue when Orcs are near) and magical chain mail, we're fondly reminded of Bilbo's own adventure, which he's busily recording in his book There and Back Again (Tolkien renamed it The Hobbit, of course). In the same scene, Bilbo shows us a flash of ring-addiction that's chilling for being so sudden -- Ian Holm, making a deep impression despite scant screen time, gives us an invaluable sense of how dangerous the Ring really is.

In addition to Holm, the film is immaculately cast. Elijah Wood is as much the ideal Frodo -- wide-eyed, sincere, frightened yet determined -- as Ian McKellen is the textbook Gandalf -- wise, wry, sometimes self-satirical (as when Gandalf, in his first scene, tries hard to be stern with Frodo and can't quite keep a straight face). It's a good thing Jackson populates the Good with so many vibrant actors, because his Evil -- with the exception of Christopher Lee's Saruman, who occasionally bears an eerie, obviously unintentional likeness to Osama bin Laden -- hardly has a human face. Evil in this movie snorts and writhes in shadows, or hisses to itself in demented supplication to the Ring (what little we see of the mutated Gollum in Fellowship is mitigated by what we hear -- Andy Serkis deserves kudos for making that famous "my precioussss" vibrate with menace and madness).

As the first act in a trilogy, Fellowship is all set-up and quest. It inevitably suffers from reverse been-there-done-that; Jackson is competing not only with fan devotion to the books, but with all the Tolkien rip-offs and knock-offs of the last fifty years, including a quarter-century of role-playing games. I grew bored with Dungeons & Dragons by age 14 or so, so it's a testament to Jackson's skill that I was with the film throughout, given that it often plays like a D & D game writ large. The proceedings are a bit more solemn than usual from the previously prankish Jackson, though he still manages to sneak in some humor: the bumbling hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan); the very tall Gandalf's trouble adjusting to the very small Bilbo's hobbit-hole; the perpetually snoopy Samwise (Sean Astin); a dwarf one-liner that, I'm certain, did not come from the books; the burping, blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the director himself, who, Hitchcock-like, has found his way into all his films except his puppet satire Meet the Feebles.

Jackson also, it must be said, conjures the most potent major-motion-picture magic in years. The landscapes get a tad too pictorial in the tradition of bad '70s folk-album covers, but when Gandalf breaks out his enchanted fireworks for Bilbo's 111th birthday party, you feel that this is what dazzlement was always meant to be, and that what we know as fireworks today are just a weak dilution of the age of sorcery. When the swords and arrows come out, as they frequently do, so does Jackson's love of hack-and-slash; the fearless human men of the Fellowship, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the conflicted Boromir (Sean Bean), speed into the fight with full-blooded battle lust -- the spectacle is all the more thrilling for packing an emotional charge. Fellowship is a big one, with two more to come; if some part of me isn't all the way into the story Jackson has chosen, I'll still definitely be back to see what else he does with it.

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