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The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

by on 2012/02/06

“I spent all my childhood pretending I was off somewhere else . . . My own adventure turned out to be quite different.”

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This write-up will seem an embarrassment of compliments, but I’m hardly ashamed for they’re all true or, at the very least, truthful. It’s no small irony given my mass of displeasure with director Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners.

With The Fellowship of the Ring, most complaints I’ve heard relate to plotting, its transition from the page to the stage. By and large, however, what the creators have accomplished here — even in “just” the original theatrical version — is a brilliant adaptation, a landmark achievement transcending its rare issues to emerge a touchstone for modern high fantasy film.

If you’re not already familiar with the story, here’s a thumbnail sketch. Based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, it concerns the beginning of Frodo Baggins’ (Elijah Wood of Sin City) adventure. Having inherited a cursed ring from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm of Alien), he becomes responsible for escorting it to Mount Doom, where it can be properly disposed of.

Along the way, being met by various evildoers, he gathers a motley fellowship of protectors to help him through. The group includes some halfling hobbits (Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan), humans Gandalf, Strider, and Boromir (X-Men’s Ian McKellen, Appaloosa’s Viggo Mortensen, and The Island’s Sean Bean), elven archer Legolas (Pirates of the Caribbean’s Orlando Bloom), and dwarven warrior Gimli (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s John Rhys-Davies). Genre legend Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula) appears as Gandalf’s mentor, Saruman.

As good as the ensemble cast is, it’s matched by most everything else. For starters, you’ll immediately notice the panoramic vistas. It has become a cliche to say the environment is nearly a character itself. I would submit New Zealand — where location shooting was done — may be even more important. Swap out any of the actors and you shift the dynamic a bit; change the location to any other, and you have a very different experience.

The unspoken challenge of spellbinding scenery forces every other thing to compete and, overall, they rise to the occasion. Art design, architecture, costumes, props, prosthetics, and makeup all succeed for their efforts. Wrap yourself in a sheet, go sit on a horse, take a picture, and see how scary you are. Fellowship makes it work.

The cast is clearly inspired by their surroundings. Jackson allows them all character moments — usually the first scenes cut out — lending both breadth and depth to the tale. The action doesn’t suffer for it, mind you. Chases move it all along, stopping on occasion for a visual spectacle or adrenalizing clash. Speaking of which, you’ll rarely see fights of this calibre. They perfectly balance swashbuckling agility with a realistic weight and impact.

The crossover between production and post is just as awe-inspiring. The maintenance of relative scale never ceased to amaze me, especially with a tall actor like Rhys-Jones playing a short, stocky dwarf. Other impressive trickery is seen in wearing the titular ring, engulfed in a kind of duotoned flaming blur. Plus, this cinematography boasts the best use of the “Vertigo” effect I have seen — and I’m including its originator, Vertigo itself — though I strongly suspect it has been digitally tweaked.

These examples are but a few favourite highlights. Colour grading, selective slow motion, the use of chorales in the score . . . I could go on and on and on, numbing us all with the praise. It’s easier by far for me to note what little I didn’t enjoy.

I didn’t care for the opening. I’d rather have gotten going seven minutes sooner, and picked up the history en route. I felt little sense of time passing by early on when Gandalf is said to leave the Shire, research the ring, search fruitlessly for Gollum, then return to Frodo again. I hate to perpetuate another cliche, but I wanted a montage there. (It’s possible this sequence was expanded in the later extended cut.)

From a technical standpoint, eyes don’t always line up, perhaps an unavoidable result of the forced perspective views. These mismatches, however, are rare and brief, apparent only if you’re seeking them out. Some of the compositing still doesn’t look quite right: the prologue’s battlefield, a tower roof by night, scenes atop a mountain. All show a distracting artificial light, and visible “cut out” edges. Fortunately, any artifice is mitigated by sweep, in-frame action, close-ups, and quick cuts.

No, there isn’t much to complain about. The Fellowship of the Ring does it all, and does it all so well. It’s unprecedented in my experience for dwarves, elves, and magic in general to be rendered convincingly, formidably, and with a legitimate dignity. Peter Jackson has far surpassed his earlier endeavours, more Merchant/Ivory than the B-grade flicks we’d expect. All the little details he’s wrought have created a new gestalt.

At a couple of points in the script, we hear a particular line of dialogue, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Well, with the time (and resources) given to him, Jackson has managed to galvanize the once-erratic high fantasy genre into a force to be reckoned with. Such movies will, and should, not be the same.

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Rated 14A (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

178 minutes (original theatrical version)

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