“Epic” and “mythic” are the first words that come to mind to describe Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. That’s after the mental dust settles to allow words to be formed.
An opening scene soars us to an eagle’s-eye view of the pivotal battle between all the armies of Middle Earth led by Isildur, the High King of Gondor (Harry Sinclair), and the forces of darkness under the monumental Sauron (Sala Baker), the Dark Lord of Mordor. Isildur, of the fledgling human race, somehow manages to strike down the gigantic dark lord whose fall raises a towering mushroom cloud of earth, flattening legion upon legion of combatants from its ground zero.
But Isildur grasps Sauron’s ring, the One Ring of Power forged in the volcanic bowels of Mordor’s Mount Doom. This ring is the portal to his ultimate evil and may only be destroyed in the fires of its origin. To destroy the ring is to destroy all darkness. Only a soul pure in heart may be immune to its powerful seductions. That soul is a small hobbit, a peasant farmer named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood, The Faculty). Protected by a motley band of warriors (a wizard, an elf, a dwarf and two men) and squired by fellow hobbits of his home shire, Frodo must quest to return the ring to its hellish birthplace, destroying it and Sauron’s evil power forever.
The word “epic” denotes the monumental saga of a hero. The Fellowship of the Ring wears the definition well in story and vision. This film and its two sequels-to-come have been a labor of love from start to finish for writer-director Peter Jackson and his wife, screenwriter Frances Walsh (the team behind The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures). With writing assistance from Philippa Boyens, the couple have managed a deed almost as daunting as Frodo’s: They’ve packed the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy into an adventure that awes and gallops through just under three hours.
Even the biggest screen of your local cineplex would seem too small for a story that encompasses all of good and evil. But Jackson manages to squeeze a seemingly impossible number of actual and state-of-the-art computer-generated cast members and breathtaking vistas onto film. It’s true cinematic wizardry made even more impressive by its detail.
And it’s those details that compel us to fall under the spell of The Fellowship and perform the alchemy which makes mere light, shadow and sound real. Jackson pays a master craftsman’s attention to the architecture, interior design, costume, armament and even the utensils of each shot. We can almost smell the musty mines of the dwarves that have become sprawling catacombs for their warriors slain long ago by Sauron’s army of zombielike orcs (fallen elves) or the stench of putrefaction in Gollum’s (Andy Serkis as a hobbit-like creature corrupted in mind and body by exposure to the One Ring) lair. The clang of steel broadswords makes muscles ache, and bones and joints rattle.
Then there’s the acting. As fantastic as some of the creatures may be, Jackson has chosen to direct them naturalistically, not melodramatically. Their relationships are as realistic as their setting. Ian McKellan’s (X-Men) wizard Gandalf has the twinkling eyes of everyone’s favorite mischievous grandfather as he guides Frodo. He counsels Bilbo (Ian Holm, From Hell), Frodo’s uncle, like the lifelong friend that he is. His argument with fellow wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee, Sleepy Hollow) is like that between more mundane colleagues. Sean Bean (Don’t Say a Word) fills his Boromir with credible human frailty.
But as real as these characters are, their roots in Tolkien’s myth are maintained. Frodo is the archetypical underdog hero. Viggo Mortensen’s (A Walk on the Moon) Strider is the man of nature within every knight — and even every cowboy.
Jackson and Walsh have managed to marry the fantasy of their Heavenly Creatures (1994) with all they learned about special effects in The Frighteners (1996). The result allows them entrance into their own elite fellowship: that of masters of the monumental saga and the epic trilogy such as George Lucas. In fact, The Fellowship of the Ring may rightfully steal the thunder of Lucas’ next Star Wars episode, Attack of the Clones.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].