Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:58 - Released 12/19/01

Okay, this is it. In an industry so derivative and bottom-line-focused as feature films, where every breakthrough movie is followed by hundreds of pretenders trying (and failing) to re-capture the originality and impact of the "first one," Peter Jackson's masterpiece The Fellowship Of The Ring does it. It actually breaks new ground. The first installment of the legendary Lord Of The Rings fantasy trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein, all three parts of which Jackson is producing simultaneously, The Fellowship is nothing less than a masterpiece of art and integrity, capturing with vast magnitude the grandeur, majesty, and surreal whimsy of Tolkien's mythical Middle-Earth. In terms of impact, Jackson's choice to film all three parts at once (the other two, The Two Towers and The Return Of The King, are apparently already in the can and scheduled to be released in December 2002 and '03) will have the effect that there will be no changes in cast, no aging of the actors between films, and no deterioration of the public's interest. The use of a classic piece of literature, already loved by millions of devotees and sure to attract millions more, will ensure a pre-established and exponentially growing audience. This movie is the Star Wars of its generation. It's Harry Potter for grown-ups.

But the thing that makes this such a delight is not the shrewdness of its producers' choices in the board room. It's the fact that it's just an amazing, beautiful, well-crafted film full of earnest acting, breathtaking visual splendour, and, of course, one of the best and most popular stories ever to hit the adventure/fantasy bookshelves, adapted for the screen by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and director Jackson. The history of Middle-Earth, how the legendary rings were created, and the story of The Hobbit, the book which serves as the prelude to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, are covered in a voiceover and montage during the first ten minutes of the film; by the time we meet hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), his uncle Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), and their wizard friend Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), we already know the rich history behind the little ring of gold Bilbo carries in his pocket.

As the story begins, the Shire (the area where the hobbits live) is abuzz with the excitement of Bilbo's upcoming 111th birthday party, which the legendary Gandalf is expected to attend. During the celebration, Bilbo announces that he is leaving the Shire, retiring to Rivendel, the elvish realm ruled by Elrond. His nephew Frodo will acquire his house and all his worldly possessions, including the famous ring which he has kept secret all these years. The ring, forged in the volcanic depths of Mt. Doom 2500 years ago, is one of immense power; it could endow its bearer with control of the world, but since it was made by the dark lord Sauron, its power is dangerously evil, infecting most creatures who possess it with the irresistible dark temptations of Sauron's influence. But as Gandalf explains to Frodo, there are some who know of the ring's whereabouts, and they are converging on the Shire to find it. Frodo must leave the Shire and travel back to Mt. Doom, in the treacherous realm of Mordor, and cast the ring back into the fires from whence it came. This is the only way to destroy it.

So Frodo sets out with his hobbit friends Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd), and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), on a difficult and perilous journey to Rivendel, where Elrond (Hugo Weaving) assembles a team of adventurers. In addition to Frodo and his friends, there are two men, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom), Gimli the dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), and Gandalf. This group of nine forms the titular "fellowship" who will travel to Mordor with the sole objective of destroying the ring once and for all. Along the way they encounter many hardships, most of which are engineered by Gandalf's fellow wizard and former friend, Saruman The Wise (Christopher Lee), who has been seduced by Sauron's evil power, and fight with all manner of foes, including wraiths, orcs, goblins, and various other long-leggedy beasties, in a series of specifically imagined and wondrously realized epic battles which stretch the limits of cinematography, digital wizardry, and conventional special effects.

If author John Ronald Reuel Tolkien were alive today, he could not help but be pleased with what filmmaker and self-admitted Rings freak Peter Jackson has done with his epic Middle-Earth saga. Brimming with sweeping vistas of mystical, magical landscapes and seriously scary villains (using, of course, the most current techniques in digital effects), the film outdoes Ralph Bakshi's arty but bogged-down 1978 cartoon version by a mile. All the actors give heartfelt and memorable performances, especially Wood, who is in almost all 178 minutes of film, and the 62-year-old McKellen, whose technique betrays why he is one of the most respected elder statesmen in the English theatre. In addition to the fine work by all the actors named above, there are also effective appearances by Liv Tyler as Arwen Undómiel, the elf who leads Frodo to Elrond, Cate Blanchett as the mysterious and beautiful elvish sorceress Galadriel, and Andy Serkis as the hauntingly weird voice of Gollum.

While I want to say that everyone should see this film just because it's so darned good, I can't in good conscience recommend it for young children; its PG-13 rating is there for a reason. In addition to the three-hour running length, which might cause even the best-behaved youngsters to fidget, it has many truly disturbing scenes and images—not just the loud, in-your-face bad guys they may already be accustomed to, but some really unsettling, subtle things which could cause minor sleeplessness even in adults. There are a few draggy portions which, while helpful in the expository department, seem to underscore just how long you've been sitting in that seat. On the other hand...it's just so darned good. *****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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