When Peter Jackson decided to film J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy tale The Lord of the Rings, he inherited a classic story and a brand name. But he also invited a hailstorm of challenges: a potentially runaway budget, logistical nightmares, length concerns, and (perhaps most crucially) the likely ire of fans expecting the story told as they have always envisioned it. Worse, even with critical and financial success, the film would likely remain marginalized as a "mere" fantasy picture, a cult genre traditionally not taken seriously by, oh, say—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But with the first in a trilogy of Rings films, Jackson has bucked the odds on most counts. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring represents a monumental achievement for fantasy cinema and, indeed, cinema itself.
A serious fantasy picture of this depth, scope, production value and overall artistic achievement is essentially incomparable. Here, Jackson coopts Hollywood's beloved epic sweep (the kind that wins Best Picture Oscars) to pull audiences into Tolkien's beloved and detailed Middle Earth geography, from Bag End in Hobbiton to the elvish wonderland of Rivendell, and beyond. Those daunted by the sheer tonnage of Tolkien's prose and appendices will be happy to hear that Jackson kicks off his filmic trilogy with a prologue of stunning visual impact and precise narrative clarity in introducing Tolkien's world to the uninitiated. Besides, Lord of the Rings, though long, isn't exactly Dune; its themes form an unobtrusive foundation to an adventurous fantasy explored mostly for adventure's sake.
Though Sir Ian McKellen, as the wizard mentor Gandalf, is the official Best Actor selection for the Oscars, the narrative sticks closely to Elijah Wood's Frodo, the relatively young Hobbit who follows in the footsteps of his famous uncle Bilbo Baggins (the great Ian Holm). McKellen, with equal parts gravitas and sly humor, shepherds the effectively wide-eyed Wood in his crucial mission: to save all good creatures of Middle Earth from the dark power of the evil Sauron, by laboring to deliver a magic ring to its destruction. As dramatically unlikely as that may sound to some, Tolkien's post-WWII masterwork holds new relevance in the post-9/11 era; Gandalf famously tells his young charge, "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil."
Jackson's fidelity to the novel is selective, by necessity (Tolkien's Fellowship runs 400 pages). Nevertheless, the screenplay effectively condenses the story, while understandably beefing up the slim female roles (Liv Tyler as elven warrior Arwen and Cate Blanchett as her Queen Grandmother, the shimmering Galadriel). My own taste would run to showing a bit more of the good-natured, hungry, musical lifestyle of the Hobbits (elaborated upon in the "Extended Edition"). Fittingly, horror-meister Jackson (much beloved by critics for the real-life account Heavenly Creatures) accentuates the horrific aspects of the story, effectively stirring dread with glimpses of dark armies, black ring-wraiths, Christopher Lee's Saruman, and orcs dripping with slime.
Though the special effects occasionally suffer from a certain blurriness, they never fail to dazzle, and the digital effects (so often garish in these early days of CGI) mesh tastefully with the physical production design and actors. Causing the most scratched heads are the multiple techniques used to "shrink" Holm, Wood and their Hobbit compatriots (Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, and Sean Astin, all sharp). Rounding out the film fellowship are Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, and John Rhys-Davies (also compact, in defiance of all reason); all are fine as the motley crew of warriors. The estimable Hugo Weaving fills out the massive cast as Elrond, the elven presider of Rivendell.
Peter Jackson, by juicing up the action and taking moderate liberties, risked losing fan support, but the commitment and detail of this Tolkien celebration command respect. The film ends with a metaphor for the audience experience, literally surveying the adventure to come. Though the characters may be taking a deep breath, the audience exhales. During the year-long spell between films, it's time for Tolkien fans to hit the books again, and for everyone else to make up for lost time.