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MOVIE REVIEW — The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

My rating: 9 1/2 out of 10

I am so grateful Peter Jackson made this movie.

It could have been a horrible mess. It could have been a cheap tinfoil mini-series made for television – you know the kind – with lame CGI effects and stock costumes out of the warehouse. Even worse, it could have been Disney, filled with dancing candlesticks and Gollum singing a tearful ballad by Elton John & Tim Rice.

Happily, the end result is none of those things. After seeing The Fellowship of the Ring I must say that PJ has struck gold.... a rich vein of cinematic gold!

Last Alliance
Elrond and Last Alliance
stands on its own as a strong, visionary, and surprising film. Painted with sweeping strokes and equal measures of intimacy, the movie leaves you eager to see more. If the next two films match this one, then I can predict what movie fans will say years from now when they speak of PJ’s work – "The Lord of the Rings is the Citizen Kane of adventure films."

Trust me on this, folks. I was there in New Zealand, was there on the set, and have seen PJ hard at work. I watched, amazed at the creative vigor and purpose that brought his crew together; and to finally see the results projected on the screen is gratifying to no end. You can safely go to the theatre thinking to yourself, "This will be very cool. I am going to enjoy this."

But I tell you up front to bring Kleenex. Emotions run high in the latter part of the film, which is cut from the same epic fabric that Kurosawa used for Seven Samurai. If you have a single strand of true feeling in your heart or any sympathy for the characters you know so well from the books, you will know when you get there.

Who knew that a fantasy movie could be so powerful and moving? Ah, look at that, already I've called it an Adventure Movie and now a Fantasy Movie. But it's not entirely fair to lay it down under a label. PJ's work is special.... it transcends. Here you will find exceptional storytelling that elevates it above the label of "genre film."

But this movie is not the same Fellowship you have on your bookshelf. It is clearly NOT a replacement or a perfect mirror of Tolkien’s work. It’s not supposed to be. Indeed, many pieces and plots and people did not survive the translation from page to screen, but I don’t fault the screenwriters for that. Look, I miss Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Wights as much as anyone but I doubt they would find a place here to fit in.

Look at what happened with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – where the best Chris Columbus could do was clone the book for another medium. That movie felt like a flat copy of J.K. Rowling’s original story sadly lacking any real zest, challenges, or satirical wit.

But Fellowship screenwriters Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, and PJ avoid that mistake by serving up a unique distillation of Tolkien without aping him. Yes, they have made some eye-popping departures that fans are likely to fight over but amazingly they never lose the soul of the story; and I believe the skill of their adaptation is more valuable than quibbling over differences. Their version is not the original song but a clever remix – with a new rhythm all its own.

Last Alliance
Last Alliance Battle
The story begins with a sweeping prologue filled with spectacle. I would have been a satisfied customer with just this opening eight minutes.... Lo and behold there was an entire movie yet to unfold! You will recognize Cate Blanchette as the narrator, her voice brimming with authority and power. The essential background of the Ruling Ring is explained in a lucid way and one of the film’s prominent themes is quietly introduced, though you may not realize it since it plays out so fluidly.

I have previously praised the design work by Richard Taylor and the folks at WETA but seeing it all on screen, real and live and meaningful.... it’s just a total wow! Even if Fellowship clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it’s still not enough time to soak in all the remarkable things WETA has created. All these details help immerse the audience in a Middle-earth that is organic, ancient, and sometimes harsh. Of course Fellowship is a triumph of production design and special effects. PJ and Company can go ahead and dust off some space on the shelf for all the awards coming their way. Seriously. Don’t wait, just give them the Oscars now. They have created Middle-earth with such clarity. There’s just so much beauty here.

The Shire is fresh and alive with hobbity goodness. I swear you’ve never seen a green like the green of those hills. There is a very effective shot where the early mist of morning rests around the Shire.... a gorgeous backdrop of hobbit holes and gardens. It is pastoral to the tenth power. Then a terrifying Black Rider slowly enters the frame, very slowly, surveying the land with an ominous change in the music. The hobbits’ peace is about to be shattered by an encroaching world they can no longer ignore. Now this is what I call damn fine directing.

The magical environments of the Elves really stand out. Rivendell is like a dream that not even the Elves could dream of. The open terraces are gilded with fine carvings and soft leaves of autumn fall about the characters as they speak. You feel assured of Professor Tolkien’s own words: "Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness."

The embarrassment of riches continues in the Mines of Moria. How PJ managed to do it is beyond me. He combines breathless action, Dwarvish history, and devastating emotion into a virtuosic sequence that will go down in film history. Even though I saw the Cannes footage months ago it was just as brilliant the second time around. A visceral experience by any measure. When the Fellowship finally comes out on the other side of the mountains....

Ah, but I said I wouldn’t spoil any of those moments. Okay, I’ll just leave them for you to enjoy.

Howard Shore’s music is perfect in every way. There is a sublime moment of longing as Enya softly sings Aníron, the theme for Aragorn and Arwen. The score is stunning all on its own, with themes of such beauty and sadness that you are moved to another place. But when the music is matched with equally vibrant images you have achieved a special bliss. Waiter, could you wrap up that little gold statue, please, Mr. Shore will be taking it home tonight.

Gandalf and Frodo
Gandalf and Frodo in Moria
What holds this magic tapestry together is the cast. Everyone can agree that the casting of these films is divine. I have a hard time pointing out my favorites because everyone is so superb.

Okay, I admit, Ian McKellen brings a heartfelt Gandalf to life as perfect as perfect can be. There is so much trust in his eyes and mysterious power in his voice that you can’t help but believe Gandalf is real. His performance is almost transparent, if you know what I mean. He has a lock on the Oscar nomination, easily.

Sean Astin had me in tears. I’ve cried at his movies before but not like this. Since Samwise has the most extreme range of moments in the whole trilogy – going from comedic to raging to otherworldly courage – it really is wonderful to see Astin up to the challenge.

I loved Sean Bean as well. He stands out as an exceptional actor. His Boromir is deeply connected to the bigger canvas around him. Oh, the sadness and nobility he holds within him.... I told you to bring tissues.

And now I admit my shame for not trusting in Liv Tyler. She’s actually quite splendid as Arwen.... we don’t see enough of her, really. I had been downright awful in my early dismissals of Liv but she really is a find. Her beautiful Elvish flows like wine and her tenderness with Aragorn is wonderful. And Viggo! When he looks into her eyes and his stern gaze turns to soft love.... it just gets you right there.

And there are such great performances from the others, especially Elijah Wood, who clearly shows the torment and uncertainty in his heart with his crystalline eyes. Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies are impressive as Legolas and Gimli, but sadly their screen time seems abbreviated. I would have enjoyed seeing more of their bristling and banter.

Arwen and Aragorn
Arwen and Aragorn
This is one of my few complaints: the editing of the film moves things along at such a pace! Sometimes not enough time is spent on the characters settling in with one another, before BAM you’re on your way to another gorgeous vista or frightening encounter with danger. I appreciate the need for economy, story-wise, but for my taste I prefer more personal connections between lead characters instead of less. But PJ is a director with a very clear purpose; and in Fellowship he trusts his audience to keep up. He telegraphs things visually and quickly moves on, not going back for needless exposition.

Maybe when the DVD comes out next year, he might be able to return some of the excised material to the film. I hope to revisit some of those character set-pieces that I know are there, waiting to be added in for the deluxe super-long edition.

All things being equal, I am even more hopeful for the promise of the next two installments, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. And now it seems a very long time to wait.

Spoiler Ahead

I have one last complaint that requires a spoiler warning, so get out of here if you haven’t seen the film.... Go and enjoy The Fellowship of the Ring, have a great time, and come back later if you want to discuss this.

*** Last Spoiler Warning! ***

Okay folks, you have been given a fair chance to clear out.

There's plenty to admire in the script, granted. And since I'm not such a prickly purist I was satisfied with the dialogue for the entire film up until one moment -- just one small spot at the end that seemed like "Hollywood" dialogue creeping in.

At this point Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have just sent Boromir's body over the Falls, and everyone in the audience is deeply moved.... most are in tears. Then when Aragorn decides not to follow Frodo and Sam, he says some beautiful things about saving Merry and Pippin from the tortures of Isengard, followed by this statement: "Let's go hunt some Orc." This was the only dialogue that squeaked a little, sounding too colloquial for a character like Aragorn. That's my only real gripe, small as it is.

Immediately after we have Frodo and Sam gazing out across the Emyn Muil, with a staggering view of Mordor far, far in the distance. The two hobbits exchange hope, fear, and love in a few short sentences straight out of the book. As the music brightens, just a bit, a feeling of trepidation and wanderlust flows across the audience. Everyone simulatneously feels it: the sense of "what will befall our heroes next?" It is a beautiful emotional grace note to close the film.

All in all, Fellowship is brilliant and exciting.... and like I said before, carping over a few defects is silly when you look at the film's achievement as a whole.

I must close by giving my congratulations to everyone involved. This is a new high watermark for modern cinema.

Much too hasty,

What did you think of my Review? Post your comments here!

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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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