Fortunately for discriminating viewers, director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures) has been boning up on epic adventures and effects extravaganzas, from David Lean to Ray Harryhausen to the recent Mummy movies. By way of the magnificent designs of fantasy artists Alan Lee and John Howe, Tolkien's mystical Middle Earth is brought to life courtesy of the wilds of New Zealand and the toil of Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger and Jim Rygiel, of the Kiwi effects workshop known as WETA. As your eyes will tell you, this is a formidable Fellowship.
At the risk of flogging a dead orc, the story goes something like this: In a happy, verdant land called the Shire, a diminutive, eccentric hobbit known as Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, chortling zestfully) is throwing a big party for his 111th birthday, and, at the firm suggestion of a fusty wizard named Gandalf the Grey (McKellen, otherworldly), he bequeaths to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, enh) his quaint burrow called Bag End, plus a magical and highly covetable golden ring. The problem is, said ring is way evil, having been forged epochs ago in the fires of a volcano called Mount Doom by a satanic jerk called Sauron (voiced by Sala Baker).
There are several other rings of power -- nine for men, seven for dwarves and three for elves -- but the One Ring is the doozie. In fact, it's such a lulu that Jackson approaches its origin story no fewer than four times, presumably for the talkers in the back. Because Gandalf -- one of the immortal Istari, or wizards -- can't touch the ring, lest he be corrupted and transformed into a monster like Sauron, it's up to Frodo to nip over to the land of Mordor (pronounced with a Transylvanian accent) and pitch it into the lava from whence it was formed. Easy, right?
Not so. Sauron -- now basically a huge, disembodied cat-eye or flaming vagina, depending upon your specific fears -- wants the ring back so he can trash Middle Earth. To this end, he has dispatched a sortie of nine equestrian Ringwraiths called Nazgûl, plus armies of orcs (goblinlike creatures) and a nasty former hobbit called Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis), who chases the ring and its bearer with a murderous lust. Attended by his gardener, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin, perfectly pudgy), and two bumbling hobbits named Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan), Frodo sets out upon a pathless course that's essentially a treacherous variant of the Yellow Brick Road.
As the adventure -- all three hours of this first of three films -- unspools, the fellowship forms by way of eclectic casting. The hobbits' first stop is the homely village of Bree, where they meet a rogue named Strider (Viggo Mortensen, all stubble and rasp). Strider is quickly revealed to be Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, the pugnacious king who ages ago chopped the evil ring off Sauron's claw but stupidly neglected to destroy it. Aragorn wanders and broods. Soon enough, he and the hobbits are joined by a similar-looking but spiritually depleted warrior named Boromir (Sean Bean, buff and somber). Rounding out the fellowship are an earthy dwarf named Gimli (Jon Rhys-Davies, grunting aplenty) and an ethereal elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom, voguing), who forge an unlikely interracial alliance, perhaps because of their shared penchant for Ren Faire costumes and braids.
For sheer scale and ambition, Fellowship is one of those rare films that actually deserve to be called "a triumph." Yet the project is so unwieldy that it simply cannot be perfect. First off, hobbits are very short, so -- effects or no effects -- casting vertically challenged actors would have been a good idea. (Plus, Wood is simply too young to be Frodo, and he only acts in two modes: insipid awe and horrified nausea.) Next, those unfamiliar with Tolkien's complex invented languages and nomenclature may have difficulty discerning colloquialisms from expectoration. And plotwise, there are plenty of stretches and assumptions, as helpful eagles appear and disappear, or Gollum slips through an impassable landslide. Logic lapses at times.
The Nazgûl themselves provide a few unintentional laughs. These vicious specters are sometimes afraid of flowing water (although, in the Rankin-Bass animated The Return of the King, they can fly), plus they're easily hoodwinked by rustling foliage. Most amusing, when they stab the hobbits' empty beds in the inn at Bree, we must wonder: Are they instinctively drawn, per Aragorn's warning, to feather pillows, or did they pause to inquire politely of the concierge, "Good evening, we are wicked Ringwraiths. Might you direct us to the halflings' bed-chamber?"
Along with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson is mostly faithful to Tolkien's storyline, but several sequences are lifted directly from Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version (which is pretty enjoyable once you get past the Smurf music). Whatever the scene -- the party in Hobbiton, the clamor in Bree, the skirmish at Weathertop, the fracas at Durin's grave -- it's abundantly obvious Jackson was using Bakshi's movie as a blueprint, very often expanding on specific shots. Given that Bakshi's Rings concludes before reaching Tolkien's third book, it'll be interesting to observe Jackson navigating his third installment without a map.
Niggling snipes aside, there's incredible spectacle here, surrounding formidable talent. Particularly noteworthy are the settings of Isengard and Lothlórien. The former is the immense headquarters of the wizard Saruman the White (Christopher Lee, sensationally sinister), who's breeding a hideous orc-human hybrid, the Uruk-Hai. If the rush of swooping through Saruman's Uruk-mills could be bottled, Starbucks would go bankrupt. Lothlórien, on the other hand, is an arboreal New Age paradise the Ewoks might have created if they weren't stupid, inhabited by the ageless elves Galadriel and Celeborn (Cate Blanchett and Marton Csokas). Best of all, the mines of Moria represent a directorial peak for Jackson, a chilling, thrilling underground sequence to give the stodgiest critic shivers.
There are many fine nuances from the cast as well. For instance, we discover that Liv Tyler -- as Galadriel's granddaughter and Aragorn's squeeze, Arwen -- can don pointy ears and emanate elfish pathos without eliciting a single chuckle. As her father, Elrond, Hugo Weaving also commands attention, holding court in the enchanted refuge of Rivendell, bemused by the hobbits one minute, racked by painful memories the next.
Stylistically, Fellowship marks a quantum leap for Jackson, proving that working long and hard on a well-told story is more impressive and potentially lucrative than grinding out disposable pap. Through director of photography Andrew Lesnie, the director allows himself his trademarks -- wide-lensed close-ups, gory violence -- but this classic tale also affords him a glowing aesthetic (an Alan Lee painting here, a swan boat there) to balance the adventure's requisite grunge (bloody faces, dirty fingernails). Kudos to editor John Gilbert, sound designer David Farmer and the musical talents of Howard Shore and Enya for blending it all together like a fantastic dream.
Jackson and company have chosen to discard much of Tolkien's whimsy, focusing primarily on action and atmosphere, but, happily, the author's philosophies survive in Frodo's fortitude, Gandalf's fatefulness and the self-tests of all who confront the ring. Even Saruman's mad command to his orcs to tear out all surrounding trees speaks to an increasingly rootless postindustrial society. Seen from a world of similarly insane felling, The Lord of the Rings becomes utterly vital.