All hail 'The Lord of the Rings'

By STEPHANIE THOMPSON  |  Dec. 22, 2001 at 8:53 PM
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SAN DIEGO, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of

the Ring" is the film George Lucas wished he had made.

On the face of it, the first film in Peter

Jackson's "Ring" cycle shares some similarities with Lucas' much-ballyhooed, but ultimately disappointing, prequel to the "Star Wars" trilogy, "The Phantom Menace."

In both, the forces of good battle the forces of evil to safeguard the future of the universe. The temptation of evil -- the Dark Side -- is strong and those who fight it must use all their wiles and strength to resist it and defeat its minions.

But there the similarities end.

In every way that Lucas sold out, chickened out and took the easy way out in making his film -- pandering to the lowest common denominator, inserting ludicrous characters to maximize ancillary marketing potential, unwilling to trust his audience long enough to develop any characters or plot points for more than 90 seconds -- Jackson takes the high road and emerges bloodied but triumphant. Let's put it this way: Darth Maul, that fearsome Dark Lord of the Sith, would wet his pants if he came face to face with an Orc.

Jedi Knights dream of handling their lightsabres with the bravery and panache of Aragorn, the heir to the throne of Gondor, or Boromir, his faithful steward. And the hordes of unpleasant Goblins swarming the abandoned halls of Moria make Lucas' antiseptic army of cutesy pop-up robots look like exactly what they are -- flimsy CGI-generated toys.

"The Fellowship of the Ring" breathes and bleeds, sweats and stinks, digs to the depths of despair and soars with hope. It clocks in at just under three hours, and yes, at times its relentless pace can be exhausting. But for every eardrum-splitting Ringwraith screech, there is a hauntingly beautiful Elvish chant; for every close-up of a drooling, slimy, bloody Orc there is a glimpse of stubborn Hobbit good humor. And although its ending isn't really one -- you must, after all, leave the audience thirsty for the sequel -- it's by far the most satisfying movie experience of the year.

Credit for all this must first, of course, go to J.R.R. Tolkien, who, in his exhaustively detailed trilogy-plus-one of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," created every detail of the world of Middle Earth and the creatures which populate it, down to a completely developed, grammatically correct Elvish language (he was, after all, a professor of philology at Oxford University, and did not take such things lightly).

Without being slavish about it, Jackson -- who also co-wrote the film's screenplay -- has lovingly brought the first of the trilogy to life, and no devotee of the novels -- as I am -- could take offense at his visual interpretation.

Fans of "The Hobbit," which opens the doors to the world of Middle Earth for most readers, may blanch at the speed with which that whole backstory is dispatched in an introductory segment that brings us smartly up to speed. However, Jackson may have realized that the relative cutesiness of "The Hobbit" serves as a mere appetizer to the much meatier, denser tale which unfolds as the trilogy begins, and to get bogged down in Bilbo Baggins's story might not have served his greater purpose of riveting his audience into their seats for the duration of this film, and ensuring they will return for its sequels.

If "The Fellowship of the Ring" wins any

Academy Awards, some should definitely be in the technical categories. The sound, the editing, the visual effects and the cinematography, not to mention the make-up and costuming, are all remarkable, and combine with powerful effect.

Although you know many of the scarier monsters and more horrifying locations are computer-generated, it doesn't feel like it when you are hanging off the edge of the crumbling staircase staring down a horde of gibbering arrow-slinging Goblins. This is yet another way "The Fellowship of the Ring" distinguishes itself from poorer competitors like "The Phantom Menace."

When this film is released on DVD, I defy even those who have already seen it to turn away from these battle scenes for a drink or a quick trip to the bathroom.

The actors portraying the nine companions who make up the Fellowship are unusually well cast for their roles. Perhaps because he is the least recognizable, and also because Elves are simply the most bitchin' folk around, Orlando Bloom is a standout as Legolas, the Elvish archer who can reload and take dead aim faster than you can say "Uruk-Hai." Viggo Mortensen is appropriately soulful and somber as Strider, a.k.a. Aragorn, the displaced heir of Gondor, while Sean Bean, chewing the scenery, steals most of the scenes he's in as the conflicted but ultimately heroic Boromir. John Rhys-Davies is unrecognizable as the Dwarf King, Gimli, until his famously round, plummy tones roll out from beneath the tangles of his beard -- a great risk for a popular actor to take, and a measure of how committed all these artists were to the making of this film.

As Gandalf the Grey -- the most recent incarnation of that impressive, patriarchal line of wizards which includes Merlin and Obi-Wan Kenobi -- Ian McKellen seems to blossom into life, in a role which clearly fits him like a glove. When I was a college student, I sat in a coffeehouse in Berkeley and wept as I read of Gandalf's death, and I came close to it again watching it on film. His old friend Bilbo is perfectly incarnated by Ian Holm, a piece of luxury casting, which deepens and strengthens the bonds that hold the whole tale together.

Elvish shoes are big ones to fill, even when dainty and ladylike, and despite the jeers of the critics when it was first announced that Liv Tyler would play Arwen, Aragorn's Elf-lover, she acquits herself remarkably well and even speaks Elvish like it's her second language. Cate Blanchett is also above reproach as Galadriel, the powerful and mysterious Elvish queen whose beauty is quite literally luminous.

As for the four Hobbits at the center of the tale, their antics -- especially Pippin's -- often make you wonder why Gandalf feels such affection for them, but then I suppose that is the point.

Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Bill

Boyd, as Sam, Merry and Pippin, create moving portrayals of these fast friends whose propensity to get into trouble is only matched by their stoutness of heart in defense of their friend. Which brings us to the center of all this attention, the unfortunate Ring-bearer, Frodo Baggins. Child actor Elijah Wood has grown up, but still manages to bring to this role a wide-eyed innocence which over the course of the film's three hours matures into the reluctant realization that he must go it alone before any more of his companions are killed (imagine -- a film in which heroes actually die!).

At the center of the action, Wood has a heavy burden to bear, and at times I wished he would snap out of his stunned trance and pick up a sword in his own defense.

Perhaps because he had the luxury of filming all three films at once -- parts two and three of the trilogy, "The Two Towers" and "The Return of the King," are already in the can and slated for release in 2002 and 2003 -- Jackson caps his achievement by ending "The Fellowship of the Ring" at exactly the right place, reeling from the shock of recent defeat but turning with hope and steely resolve to the challenge of the future (much like the situation in which we find ourselves post-9/11).

At the screening I attended, the audience sat in stunned silence as the credits began to roll, then a smattering of applause began which swelled into an ovation. Maybe they were remembering, as I was, the scene in which Frodo says to Gandalf, "I wish none of this had ever happened," to which Gandalf responds, "That is not for those of us who find ourselves in difficult times to decide. It is for us to decide only how we shall act in those difficult times."

Maybe we can all take hope from those wise, and timeless, words.

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