Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. A Review (Review #1275)


Editor's Note: This review is of the theatrical version.

The Lord of the Rings is perhaps one of the Twentieth Century's most enduring literary epics, a sweeping tale of a fantasy world filled with extraordinary creatures. As such, a cinematic adaptation of this massive work would be daunting. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is the first part of a cinematic trilogy to J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, and to its credit it more than meets the challenge of creating this universe while keeping to the novel's themes of loyalty and courage despite great dangers and odds.

After a prologue explaining the history of The One Ring and how it came to a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), the film begins at Bilbo's 111th birthday. His nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the entire of The Shire is waiting for this event as well as the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), with whom Bilbo had an unseen adventure.

Bilbo's party is a wild success, culminating in his 'disappearing act' via the Ring, whose power he is unaware of. Gandalf fears it is The One Ring, and when he discovers that it is he urges a reluctant Frodo to journey to Rivendell, home of the powerful and ethereal Elves to see what can be done to destroy it. If it returned to its master, the Dark Lord Sauron, it would destroy all Middle-Earth.

Off Frodo goes with his gardener/friend Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), later joined by two other hobbits, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Sauron's minions are hunting Frodo down, putting all their lives in danger. Gandalf is temporarily held prisoner by his frenemy, Saruman (Christopher Lee), another wizard who has fallen under Sauron's power.

Image result for the lord of the rings the fellowship of the ringIn their journeys to both Rivendell and later Sauron's land of Mordor, where the One Ring can be destroyed by being cast into the fires of Mount Doom, the hobbits are joined by others to form 'the fellowship of the ring' created at a Rivendell council by Elrond (Hugo Weaving). There is Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas the Elf (Orlando Bloom) and two humans, Boromir (Sean Bean) son of the Stewart of Gondor, and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a wanderer who is the true heir to the Gondor throne and descent of Isildur, the man who defeated Sauron ages ago only to weaken at the thought of destroying the Ring.

Passing through several lands including that of the Elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the Fellowship falters before Gandalf falls at the mines of Moria. Boromir nearly kills Frodo to get at the Ring but pulls himself together long enough to save Merry and Pippin before he is killed by Sauron's minions. They take the two hobbits as instructed by Saruman, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas follow to rescue them, leaving Frodo and Sam to take the arduous journey to Mordor, quietly pursued by the Ring's former owner, the creature known as Gollum (Andy Serkis).

It's extraordinary that The Fellowship of the Ring has such a massive plot just in the first film, so much so that the theatrical release runs nearly three hours. However, it is to the credit of director Peter Jackson along with his co-screenwriters Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh that the film rarely if ever lags. Jackson keeps the film flowing smoothly to where one does not notice how lengthy the film is.

For example, the first seven minutes serve as a de facto history lesson about the One Ring and the following half hour is devoted purely to the bucolic world of The Shire. This is a pretty substantial time taken up before getting to the main gist of The Fellowship of the Ring. However, the care that the film takes in setting up this world allows us to more than just see this fantastical world.

Image result for the lord of the rings the fellowship of the ring
It allows us to immerse ourselves fully in it, allows us to essentially be part of it. It also allows us to get to know these characters, and this is an element where Jackson really excelled. There is not a bad performance anywhere in Fellowship of the Ring. Each actor who plays an Elf is rather ethereal and mystical, punctuated by a slow and graceful speaking pattern. Liv Tyler as Arwen, Elvish princess and Aragorn's love interest, has a predominantly breathy delivery but here it makes sense. Even when in warrior princess mode her delivery is still in keeping with her Elvish roots.

Though their roles are smaller both Weaving and especially Blanchett are phenomenal. Galadriel comes across as a very mysterious figure: wise yet dangerous but ultimately helpful, not the feared Elf-Witch of terrible power Gimli imagines.

Lee is sensational too as Saruman, the wise and powerful wizard brought down by his own lust for power, matched by McKellen's more tender yet still fearsome Gandalf. Holm, while also in a smaller role, does wonderful as Bilbo: part bumbling innocent, part dangerous when tempted to keep The One Ring.

Bean's line about "one does not just walk into Mordor" may be the source of endless gifs but he too brings Boromir's basic decency mixed with the weakness of men into his performance. Mortensen's Aragorn has that mix of anger, fear and regret. Whether playing a fierce fighter or a tender lover with Arwen he does exceptionally well.

Image result for the lord of the rings the fellowship of the ringThe four hobbits are in a class by themselves. So much rests on Wood as Frodo, and with his large expressive eyes and quiet manner he makes Frodo this reluctant warrior, decent, honorable and appropriately scared. Astin more than matches him as Samwise, loyal friend. Their double-act of the upper-class Frodo and working-class Sam compliment each other.

So does the double act of Monaghan and Boyd as Merry and Pippin: the latter being the naive, somewhat dimwitted fellow and the former the straight man forever putting the oblivious fellow down.

The Fellowship of the Ring also has some simply brilliant work on all technical levels. The visual effects still hold up nearly twenty years later. The set and costume designs do create this magical world that feels authentic and lived-in despite the fantastical nature of Middle-Earth. Andrew Lesnie's cinematography captures all aspects of Middle-Earth: the lushness of The Shire, the darkness of Saruman's stronghold of Isengard and of Mordor, the mystical worlds of Rivendell and Galadriel's Lothlorien. Howard Shore's score is almost brilliant in showcasing the innocence of the Hobbit's world in the Shire to the ethereal Elvish lands and the dangers the travelers face.

While the closing song May It Be got the lion's share of attention, I would say that the other Enya contribution of Aníron is better: the love theme between Aragorn and Arwen enhancing a beautiful moment and complimenting Mortensen & Tyler's performance along with Lesnie's visuals.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a massive undertaking and breathtaking in scope. It also manages an excellent cliffhanger and keeps the themes of love, loyalty and perseverance against overwhelming odds. I confess I got emotional at the end as the fellowship breaks up but in particular Frodo and Sam hold on. Quibble if you must about things being left off but on the whole the film more than manages to capture Tolkien's universe as well as could be thought possible.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is an excellent way to begin this fantasy epic.


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