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Entries in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [2001] (1)

Friday
Dec072012

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Once You Go Back, You'll Never Go Back Again (Maybe)

The hardest part of admitting I was wrong about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is figuring out what led me to dislike the film in the first place. I saw it once theatrically, in 2001, and the following year on home video. Prior to that first viewing, I knew nothing about the LOTR trilogy or J.R.R. Tolkien, except that both were highly regarded as being significant to sci-fi/fantasy storytelling. Afterwards, I concluded that the movie adaptation had so turned me off to Tolkien's work that I needn't bother reading the source material--and would succumb to watching the sequels only under duress or influence of alcohol.

The home video experience was just as bad. My girlfriend was curious about the movie, so we rented it and spent an entire Saturday starting and stopping, running errands, starting and stopping, napping, starting and stopping--you get the picture. Fellowship was such a tedious chore (we thought) that committing to a single sitting didn't seem worth the effort of being able to say we'd both seen it.

Ten years later, on the eve of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy (the prequel to LOTR), I've resolved to watch the films again--all in one weekend, and with the forty-plus minutes of additional footage found in each "Extended Edition". I sighed before pressing "Play" on Fellowship, as I couldn't imagine enjoying (or even appreciating) nearly an hour of further exposition and walking. But as you may have guessed from my lead-in, Jackson and Tolkien have finally worked their charms on me. I now love me some hobbits.

For the uninitiated, the story centers on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), the most innocent of a race of Middle-earth creatures called hobbits. Frodo's uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) entrusts him with a cursed golden ring, which must be destroyed in the distant fires of Mount Doom--lest it find its way back to its previous owner, a disembodied flaming eyeball named Sauron. Aiding him on his quest is a wise old wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo's best friend Sam (Sean Astin), and an assortment of other hobbits, dwarves, elves, and displaced human warriors.

This film is all setup, and I think that's what annoyed me the first time out. Perhaps I was too young or too impatient to understand the importance of Jackson's style of world-building (or perhaps the additional material really does, as friends have suggested, help smooth out some of the jumpy narrative patches). Today, I see things differently. The director, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, establishes a leisurely pace in the Baggins' homeland, The Shire, and then ramps up the pace and danger as they step cautiously into the realms beyond. The greatest compliment I can give Fellowship is that Jackson and company capture the thrill of reading a great adventure novel on a rainy afternoon.

Things get a tad repetitive as our band of heroes treks from one wise-elf oracle to the next, collecting people and peril along the way. At the behest of a treacherous wizard named Saruman (Christopher Lee) they are pursued by ghastly ring-wraiths and tracked by the impish Gollum (Andy Serkis), a bizarre creature who was driven mad by the ring's powers for centuries until he lost it to Bilbo. These frequent intrusions help break up the numerous speeches about destiny, delivered by scowling, elaborately dressed actors pacing equally elaborate and nigh indistinguishable sets.

The picture's most interesting dynamic plays out between Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), two members of a doomed kingdom. Aragorn, the rightful heir to its thone, turned his back on power because one of his ancestors allowed the ring to corrupt is soul. He agrees to help Frodo and Gandalf on their quest, ostensibly to see evil destroyed once and for all. Boromir, on the other hand, goads Aragorn to return home, and is convinced that acquiring the ring for himself will allow his people to stomp out the dual threats of Saruman and Sauron.

The least interesting characters, sadly, are Frodo and Sam. But I guess that's the idea. Their innocence and reluctance to fight are precisely what gives them the best chance against the ring's dark influence. Everyone else acts as a buffer on the long journey.

As a member of the Star Wars generation (and, technically, the tail end of the Harry Potter generation), it was impossible for me to separate those films' archetypes from those in Fellowship. True, LOTR beat the other two franchises to the Joseph Campbell punch, but I challenge anyone to ignore the similarities between Frodo and Luke Skywalker, Gandalf and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Sauron and Lord Voldemort--not to mention the Hermione/Princess Leia and droid/hobbit comic-relief sidekick archetypes.

If there's a lingering concern from my hobbit-hating days, it's this: the characters in the Tolkien/Jackson trilogy, for the most part, lack personality--at least as played by the actors. Aside from Bilbo and a couple of the goofy supporting players, Fellowship is populated by solemn sad-sacks who treat living in a world of magic and monsters with the resigned heaviness of a Mokena gas station attendant. Wood could use a tad more Mark Hamill and a lot less Jake Lloyd in his portrayal of the wide-eyed kid going on an adventure. After the first hour, Frodo spends much of the movie sick or sad, and after Gandalf drops out of the picture, he becomes even less tolerable. In fairness, a lot of these decisions may come down to direction.

And what direction! Jackson and the effects geniuses at WETA transform the New Zealand countryside into a host of fantastical lands. From Saruman's spiked tower rising out of a demon-harvesting factory to the renaissance-inspired elegance of the elf kingdom, Middle-earth becomes a real place in this film, with a clearly defined geography and relationships between various races and territories. At all times, the screen is packed with details that suggest histories as exciting (and, in some cases, far more exciting) as what's going on in the present.

As embarrassed as I am to say that I never gave this film a fair shake, I'm glad to have taken the time to watch it again. I recall liking the second film better than the first, and the third film better than the second--so, hopefully, more great surprises await in The Two Towers.

Regardless, I'm officially a Lord of the Rings fan. Who knew?