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IN SHORT: Wow. A most wonderful Holiday present. [Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images. 178 minutes]
In J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," the prefacing novel to his trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, the story is told of how the hobbit Bilbo Baggins came into possession of a Ring, from a 500 years old, seemingly insane creature called Gollum. This, and the three thousand year history of The Rings of Power, is laid out clearly as The Fellowship of the Ring, the adaptation of the first book of Tolkien's trilogy by writer/director Peter Jackson (click for StarTalk) begins. As the movie progresses, all that you need to know of "The Hobbit" is so skillfully blended into this film's story that at no time did we feel like we were "watching a book". We remind readers that it is the policy of this site not to read the book -- you shouldn't have to read a book to understand the film -- so we haven't cracked a spine on the novels sitting on our bookshelves. If you've never read Tolkien, you have nothing to fear. This story rings as clear as a bell.
We haven't taken as much as a peek at the books in at least twenty years, so we've forgotten all but the basics. They all came rushing back in Jackson's magnificent adaptation. Tolkien's multi-layered world, filled with dwarves and elves and humans and hobbits, common-folk and Royalty and monstrous creatures plays like a standard drama, though one whose world is inhabited by wondrous folk. Story aside, every square inch of screen space is filled with visual wonders that never for a second make you think that you are anywhere but a fantastical world called Middle-earth. This Middle-earth has a long history in which Dwarves and Elves and Humans have coexisted for thousands of years. Hidden among them are the Hobbits, who prefer a cozy chair and a nice fire and a filling meal eleven times a day. Hobbits didn't tend to leave their land, The Shire, much until Bilbo and his friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, did sixty years before the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.
On the One Hundred Eleventh anniversary of his birth, a party is thrown for old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). His friend Gandalf (Ian McKellan), journeys to attend the festivities. There he is the first to discover that Bilbo intends to leave his village forever, bequeathing all his possessions to his young cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood, click for StarTalk). Among these is the golden ring, which will later be discovered to be the One True Ring of Power -- you'll already know what is necessary from the introduction -- and, as such, must be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged. This task falls on Frodo's shoulders as, of the races that inhabit Middle-earth, no one trusts anyone other than this Hobbit to carry the Ring. The catch is that Mount Doom sits in the middle of the Land of Mordor, a dark and unwelcoming place that is home to Sauron, the bodiless incarnation of the Spirit of Evil. When Sauron had a body, he used the Ring to mercilessly rule the World. Now that the Ring has reappeared, Sauron wants it back.
Buried in the events of the above paragraph is the appearance of Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman, Gandalf's Master. We're not downplaying Lee's part. The path his character takes is a major part of the political subplot of the story, and we're not about to spill. All who come into contact with the Ring, whether wizard, human, elf or hobbit, are somehow tainted. If there is evil in your heart, you are susceptible.
The journey being a tough one, and due to the fact that none of the Races of Middle-earth trust each other, a Fellowship is forged: alongside Gandalf and Frodo are his Hobbit friends Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd); humans named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean); the bowman Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and the anything-but-minute dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). Early on they are aided by Elf Princess Arwen (Liv Tyler)and Arwen's father Elrond (Hugo Weaving), later by Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett). Frodo remains the Ringbearer because, despite what we said at the beginning of this paragraph, everyone trusts a Hobbit.
Hunting our young Hobbit are nine black clad hunters on horseback, seeking to find the Ring and kill the Ringbearer; as well there are murderous bands of ugly night dwelling beings called Orcs, who slaughter most everything that gets in their path. Even more dangerous are a new breed of beings, the Uruk-Hai, a mutated combination of Orc, Human and Goblin. We're not even going to get into the special effects creations, monsters of ancient black magic or some such things. They flat out rock.
Secure in the knowledge that 99.9% of the moviegoing audience knows that Fellowship is the first part of a trilogy, the film takes its own sweet time setting up the Journey and introducing us to the characters and the travails they will face. If nothing else, the languid pace of Part One is the only negative thing we could harp on, though certain sound effects are a bit hard to decipher. If you need to duck out for a minute or two, you probably won't miss anything vital. If you don't duck out and find the pace a bit slow, you have the visual distractions of the stunning New Zealand scenery that pass for Middle-earth. Make no mistake about it, tourism Down Under will increase exponentially as these films roll out this Christmas and the next two.
More to the point, Jackson's adaptation, co-written with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, nails it. It doesn't matter if you know the books or not, The Fellowship of the Ring is a slam dunk winner; the best fantasy flick ever made. There is nothing cute about this world of dwarves and elves. Wood's Frodo is ever the innocent, and continually tempted by the Evil power of the Ring that he's been warned never to put on his finger. McKellan and Lee are about as wizardly as you can get in pointed hats and three foot long beards. McKellan's gig is a hands on, get your fingernails dirty, kind of magic gig. Lee, the Master mage, is not as passive as you would expect from a man with thousands of years of learning under his belt. Our swashbuckling merry men -- Aragorn, Boromir and Legolas -- buckle all the swash necessary and John Rhys-Davies, as the dwarf Gimli, drops enough comical asides to get laughs from our audience.
That's an important note. There were no contest winners or non-critical freebies in this audience, folks. Critics and our well connected guests, only. We rarely hear applause in these screenings. The special effects got applause, too, as did the entirety of the film when the credits rolled at the end. That's a major achievement. As for those effects, many of which enhance the scenery, they are lovely. For the fanboys worried about a fire demon called Balroc -- we had a long time fan with us and his reaction, to quote, "just perfect".
There is blood and death and magic and the bonds of friendship. While there is no slam-pow ending a la Star Wars, this part bears the weight of establishing all that is to come next year in The Two Towers and two years hence in The Return of the King. How nice not to have to wait four years for a sequel!
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, he would have paid . . .
'cuz we ducked out for two minutes and didn't miss anything. We weren't happy that we had to duck. We were very happy that we didn't need to be brought up to date by the fanboy to our left or the young innocent on the other arm. As for the pace -- drown yourself in it. Luxuriate in the utter magnificence of the countryside, mountains and fields. The Fellowship of the Ring struts its self-confidence. Knowing there are seven more hours to come, give or take, it makes sure that no one will miss any of the important story points that will show again in The Two Towers or The Return of the King. You won't have to pay close attention to know what those Towers are or which member of the Fellowship is the King in question.
We thank Peter Jackson for a most marvelous Holiday present and we thank him again, in advance, for the pair yet to come.
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