Everything you’ve heard is true. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is what you’ve been waiting for, good moviegoers. It’s all here. To borrow an icon from another legend of English origin, this is the Holy Grail. The big one has finally been delivered to us, and it is a beautiful thing indeed.
Head Hobbit Peter Jackson has fashioned this first film of the Tolkien trilogy with love and care and that rarest of things, respect for the audience. Unlike Chris Columbus’ ultraconservative rendering of the first Harry Potter book, “The Fellowship of the Ring” affords Jackson the chance to spread his wings as a supreme visual stylist while remaining largely faithful to his source material. Tolkien’s world of rousing action and honestly earned emotion is well served by Jackson’s formidable skills. As evidenced by “Heavenly Creatures,” Jackson is most comfortable working the extremes of imagination. Here he effortlessly balances light and dark, creating tableaux of ravishing, velvety beauty alongside spectacles of cruel, black-hearted terror. Heaven and Hell are never far apart in Middle-Earth.
There’s no need to relate the details of the plot – we all know the story, whether or not we’ve actually read the books. Tolkien labored on his epic tale throughout World War II, and the books were finally published in the early years of the Cold War. The first paperback editions began to enjoy massive popularity – in America, anyway – at the height of the Vietnam War. Needless to say, “The Lord of the Rings” will not be losing its relevance for readers anytime soon. Fans of the books, and they are legion, will find little to complain about in this film and much to praise.
Jackson’s visual mastery – immeasurably aided by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, effects supervisors Richard Taylor and Jim Rygiel, costume designer Ngila Dickson and art directors Dan Hennah, Alan Lee and John Howe – is what we see; the actors’ performances are what we feel. Elijah Wood plays Frodo Baggins as a tremulous hero with a soul, utterly defenseless without the protection of his fellows. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is an iconic yet somehow vulnerable mentor. As for the rest of the Fellowship, all that can be said about Viggo Mortenson, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean and John Rhys-Davies is that they inhabit their roles completely and with total conviction. They live the roles. Add Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, the magnificent Christopher Lee and…well, description is defied.
We should also be grateful to New Line Cinema (all is forgiven, even Lost in Space and Little Nicky) for having the sheer insane courage to put their faith, and indeed their very future, in Jackson’s hands. Spending over $300 million to shoot all three chapters of the saga at once is an unprecedented risk no other studio in town was willing to take. The risk has paid off. Rest assured, New Line’s future is quite secure.
It was also a stroke of genius – as well as a touching display of loyalty to his homeland – for Jackson to shoot the entire trilogy in so remote a realm as New Zealand. The place truly does look otherworldly, made even more so by all the visual effects technology the year 2001 has to offer. For once, though, the hardware has been brought to bear in service of a story. “The Fellowship of the Ring” is perhaps the most artfully crafted blockbuster ever made. Everything here feels organic, rich and real and organic, no matter how outlandish the vision. Jackson makes you believe it all. The experience is, in a word, overwhelming.
It’s amusing to recall that prior to the release of Harry Potter, some hype-dazed blurboids were actually calling it the most anticipated literary adaptation since “Gone With the Wind.” Sorry, but no. “The Fellowship of the Ring” is the one.
Whether he intended to or not, Jackson has now served notice. His film couldn’t be a more auspicious introductory chapter to this trilogy. If Hollywood filmmaking in 2002 proves as dire as it did this year, at least we have “The Two Towers” to look forward to. Bring on the next three hours, please, and the three after that!
This is it, people. Peter Jackson has shown us all how it’s done.