There are people – and not just a few – who have been waiting their whole lives for this movie. The influence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy can best be measured not by how many copies it has sold (though it has sold over 100 million since its publication in the mid-1950’s), but by the enduring subculture it spawned. Generations of halflings have come of age devouring the books and all their imitators, attending fantasy conventions dressed as elves or goblins, and spending an inordinate amount of time rolling multi-sided dice in the back of comic book shops. For some of these individuals, no movie will ever be good enough. They’ll weep for any minor character who is dropped and decry any epic battle that is condensed. This sort of nitpicking is to be expected from the hardcore faithful, but for the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine that a big screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings could have turned out any better than this one has.
The Fellowship of the Ring is the first installment of director Peter Jackson’s epic film of the entire Lord of the Rings saga. All three parts of the trilogy were filmed simultaneously in New Zealand over the course of eighteen months. The Two Towers will be released next Christmas, with The Return of the King to follow in 2003. The story, for those who can’t remember or never read the books in the first place, takes place in the mythical land of Middle-Earth and revolves around a magical ring of power once wielded by the evil sorcerer Sauron. The ring has since found its way into the hands of Bilbo Baggins (whose adventures were recounted in Tolkien’s Rings prequel, The Hobbit), who has kept it hidden away in his hillside home in the Shire for many years. Now, on the occasion of Bilbo’s 111th birthday, the aged Hobbit has decided to leave the Shire behind him, and the ring as well.
Bilbo bequeaths the ring to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), but no sooner has the talisman changed hands than dark forces are afoot, looking to reclaim it for their own nefarious purposes. Horrid black ring-wraiths descend on the Shire, and Frodo is forced to set out on an expedition to rid Middle-Earth of the One Ring once and for all by tossing it into the fiery pits of Mount Doom. Aided only by kindly wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a handful of Hobbit comrades, Frodo makes his way toward an enchanted Elven city, where the Fellowship of the Ring will be completed.
This takes us only to about the halfway point of Fellowship, and indeed there are so many more characters and plot developments than can be covered in a single review, it’s best to stop there. Suffice it to say that Frodo and his gang face many perils, including an army of hideous orcs, a monstrous mountain beast called a balrog, and the ring itself, which threatens to turn its bearer to the side of darkness whenever it is worn.
At nearly three hours, Fellowship of the Ring is an awful lot of movie, and certainly one’s tolerance for trolls and orcs and balrogs is pushed to the very limit. (At this rate, the complete Rings trilogy will run over eight hours – and no doubt someone will still complain that they left out Tom Bombadil.) It’s an exhausting experience, but a rewarding one; no other movie this year has provided as many "I can’t believe what I’m seeing" moments. Director Jackson, previously best known for his early splatter pictures Bad Taste and Dead Alive and the anomalous fantasy/drama Heavenly Creatures, has hit on exactly the right tone for the material. Blessedly free of campiness, faithful without being overly rigid (a defect of the recent Harry Potter movie), solemn but not ponderous, Fellowship boasts an elegance that lifts it above the usual fantasy fray. The effects work is astonishing for the most part. Although CGI still shows its limitations in a few spots, one can’t help but be awed by the immense battle scenes pitting thousands of warriors at each other against a bleak, apocalyptic backdrop. But Fellowship works in its quieter moments, too, thanks to the down-to-earth performances from Elijah Wood, Sean Astin as his comrade Samwise Gamgee, and Ian Holm as Bilbo. Indeed, the film ends on a subdued note – one that doesn’t seem to provide enough closure for such a grand scale story. That is, until we remember there are still two more chapters to come. Judging from Fellowship of the Ring, they’re sure to be worth the wait.