|Lord of the Rings, The - The Fellowship of the Ring|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 06 August 2002|
The word “classic” is thrown around far too often in reviews, but it’s hard to avoid in discussing either J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy of novels about his imaginary world of Middle Earth, collectively known as “The Lord of the Rings,” or the film version that director Peter Jackson has made of the first volume, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” This is epic fantasy so fully realized that most viewers will spend much of the film half-ready to rise out of seats and step into the realm on the screen, as it seems to exist as a real place. “Classic” can now also be applied to this first DVD edition of the film, which arrives with breathtakingly beautiful imagery and magnificent sound.
Tolkien’s books, published in 1954 and 1955, pretty much were the benchmark for 20th century high fantasy. They have influenced so much that has followed that it’s no exaggeration to say that contemporary pop culture would be quite different had the “Ring” cycle never existed. Almost 60 years after the unveiling of Tolkien’s creation, any movie adaptation would seem to be saddled with an unbearable burden of expectation.
Well, surprise. While there will be one or two naysayers out there (there always are), most folks, whether they’ve read Tolkien or not, will simply be blown away. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” has everything – and in greater quantity than anybody might have rationally expected. There are battles, betrayals, friendships forged, profound loyalties, a little romance (this is the one quality the movie handles sparingly, albeit the love story is still more pronounced than in the book) and spectacle that leaves us slack-jawed straight onward from the prologue, which starts “Fellowship” off with a Chapter 1 battle that most films would be proud to showcase as a climax.
“The Lord of the Rings” takes place in Middle Earth, a world populated by humans, elves, dwarves, wizards, evil goblins called orcs and half-sized folk called hobbits, who (at the time the tale begins) mostly keep to themselves. However, one uncommonly adventurous hobbit, Bilbo (Ian Holm), has come across a ring in his travels. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, this is the One Ring with the power to enslave the whole of Middle Earth should it fall back into the hands of its maker, Sauron, a thoroughly evil entity who almost laid waste to the world in ages past and is now preparing to wage war anew on everyone and everything. If there is to be hope of defeating Sauron, the Ring must be destroyed by throwing it into the fires of the volcanic Mount Doom in Sauron’s stronghold of Mordor. The task falls to Bilbo’s innocent nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), who winds up accompanied by his staunch – and likewise untried – hobbit friends Samwise (Sean Astin), Meriadoc (Dominic Monaghan) and Peregrine (Billy Boyd), the gruff dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), brave human Ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), ambitious nobleman Boromir (Sean Bean) and wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen).
If this sounds like something out of a Dungeons & Dragons manual (or, heaven help us, the “Dungeons & Dragons” movie), you’ve got it backwards. D&D is a vast oversimplification of “Lord of the Rings” – people who believe they already know this are in for an awakening when they see the movie. Jackson and his co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have done a remarkable job of structuring and pacing events, but their real genius shines in giving dimension to the characters. Certainly they are archetypes, but they seem rather closer to Shakespeare than figures out of a gaming manual. Frodo, Sam and Gandalf in particular shine as distinct, empathetic individuals (quite a task for McKellen, who is also required to be an icon of wisdom and power).
Moments from the book that may be remembered as grace notes (if at all) are reimagined here with the kind of nuance and emotion normally reserved for realistically-styled drama. Bilbo’s brief but ardent desire to get the Ring back provides a moment of real shock and horror in Chapter 24, while the extent of Sam’s devotion to Frodo (which, had it been left as in the book, would have seemed over the top) is startlingly moving. The cast all play their roles absolutely straight, with Wood, Astin, McKellen and Holm special standouts. Cate Blanchett, in the relatively small role of Galadriel, has immense authority, and Christopher Lee is a superb choice for the haughty, corrupt wizard Saruman.
Grant Major’s production design and the costume design by Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor are so completely detailed that every frame persuades us that we’re looking at the products of cultures that have evolved over millennia. The cinematography by Andrew Lesnie has a beautiful, burnished sheen, glowing ever so slightly. In darkened scenes, such as those taking place in caves and darkened halls in Chapters 27-30, the imagery is almost leeched of color, but even when we’re in the brilliant greens of the hobbits’ homeland the Shire in Chapters 2-4 and 10, there’s a hint of sepia that gives everything a long ago and far away quality that makes us feel all the more that we’re being transported to another realm.
The visual effects, supervised by Jim Rygiel, are as complex and intense as any we’ve ever seen, with a plethora of overhead shots that give life to landscapes created partially or entirely within computers. One stunning camera move takes us from the top of a high tower to plunge down into the bowels of the earth, where monstrous warriors are being brought forth. An effect used continually that calls no attention to itself because it is so seamless makes the normal-sized actors playing hobbits appear half the height of their colleagues.
The sound is splendid. There are sequences in which the room literally, physically fills with it, as in the opening Chapter 1 battle depicting a clash of might between Sauron’s massed hordes and the allied ranks of elves and men. As thousands of figures charge forth and weapons clash, the air vibrates, creating waves of tangible impact. The effect is replicated in avalanches in Chapter 26 and the roar of a fearsome demon called a Balrog in Chapter 30. Howard Shore’s score supports the emotion behind scenes but never upstages the action (unlike, say, the score on “Harry Potter”). There are also two songs by Enya, who has precisely the right ethereal voice to croon words in Elvish (Tolkien actually invented entire languages, reproduced in places throughout the film, for the non-human characters).
Directional sound is especially impressive. Fireworks at a celebration in Chapter 4 break in the mains and end their detonation in the rears, creating a sense of overhead movement. A door creaks in the left rear in Chapter 8, giving the characters specific placement in the room. Chapter 10 has discrete hoof falls as the terrifying Nine Riders approach, with the distinct sound effects remaining true and clear even after the score kicks in. In Chapter 29, there’s a wonderful effect in which an object clatters endlessly down a well in the mains, then startles us as a bucket ricochets off the well shaft in the left rear. Chapter 30 never lets the mighty roaring of the Balrog obscure the distinct whoosh and plink of arrows being fired and then hitting columns and cavern walls.
The DVD release comes on two discs, with the film arranged in 40 handy chapters on Disc 1 and all the extras on Disc 2, including a how-can-you-bear-to-wait preview for the second film in the trilogy, “The Two Towers,” laden with making-of clips. Diehard “Rings” fans may already have much of the other extensive making-of documentation on the disc, as two of the three substantial documentaries have aired on TV (Fox network and SciFi Channel) and 15 shorter featurettes are all available on lordoftherings.net. However, it’s still good to have everything in one place, the material is charming and informative and, like everything else about this release, gorgeous in both picture and sound. About the only complaint that could possibly be made is that there are a few moments when the sound mix lets some ferocious ambient effects overwhelm the dialogue – which may be fully intended.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is the first in what will be three films (the next will come in 2002 and the third in 2003). It is three hours long and feels both as though it passes with whirlwind speed and as though the viewer has been away much longer, off on a quest. New Line Home Entertainment is bringing out a “special extended edition” at the end of the year with 30-40 minutes of additional scenes interpolated into the footage, along with audio commentary from the filmmakers and a whole bunch of extra goodies. In an act of pure but understandable evil, a preview of the extraordinary-looking added footage is included with this DVD, pretty much guaranteeing that anybody who just purchased this two-disc version will be helpless to resist buying the four-disc version just a few months from now.
Most people will feel they can’t wait for “The Two Towers” – or even to re-experience “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” which is clearly one of the greatest fantasy films ever made. The longer cut looks like more of a wonderful thing, but if there was ever a movie that made a case for owning two versions, this is it.