Pure Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings, Lynn Lee writes, will impress the Tolkien fan, but its absurd grandiosity keeps it from being a masterpiece


‘Fellowship of the ring’ wins with fantasy fans

By now it’s pretty clear that the first installment of the hotly anticipated “Lord of the Rings” has more than passed muster. It’s scored big at the box office and picked up great word of mouth and, amazingly, great reviews as well. I concur with the majority — with this polite qualifier: Your opinion of Tolkien, and of the fantasy genre generally, will almost certainly dovetail with your opinion of the movie. If you’re a Tolkien fan, you’ll probably adore “The Fellowship of the Ring;” if you think he’s pompous and stilted, or fantasy just isn’t your cup of tea, then the movie probably won’t be, either. I personally think “LOTR” is great fun, but not quite great literature, and Peter Jackson’s film does full justice to that. It’s a splendid adaptation and completely engrossing, yet a certain grandiosity, occasionally bordering on the absurd, keeps it from being a masterpiece.

The plot’s pretty simple, reduced to its basics: There’s a magic ring of great power that the evil lord Sauron lost long ago. Upon learning it was found by a hobbit (a small humanoid creature), he dispatches his undead warriors, the Ringwraiths, to hunt down the hobbit and get the ring back. The story is about their pursuit of the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood), and his quest to get rid of the ring, and the seemingly endless succession of evil and dangerous creatures he encounters on the way. Luckily, there are good folks, too, to help him: He’s accompanied on his quest by an elf, a dwarf, two men, three other hobbits and, best of all, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), an old friend.

The film is swiftly paced and well-edited: Clocking in at three hours, it rarely lets up on the action and never drags. The scenery’s quite beautiful (most of the movie was filmed in the lush woods and mountains of New Zealand, the director’s home) but almost escapes notice; there’s usually too much happening in the foreground. (In direct contrast to Harry Potter, where one’s all too aware of the setting as the most interesting thing in the movie.) The special effects are more noticeable, and they’re nifty: Frequent swooping shots highlight the virtuosic fluidity of the digital animation.

There are flaws, of course, which aren’t Tolkien’s. To begin with, the obtrusive musical score, which shifts none too gracefully between an over-blown melodramatic action/battle/monsters register — it doesn’t help that Jackson often ratchets up the action at crucial moments, presumably for added dramatic effect — and airy-fairy Enya ballads. The action sequences work, at least, whereas nearly every scene involving a woman (let’s see, all two of them?) is a failure. Arwen (Liv Tyler), beloved of Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), gets a bit more to do here than in the book, but her interaction with Aragorn falls dismally flat. As the camera draws away from the couple in profile, kissing, the excessively posed quality of the image produces the effect of a $5 suncatcher, or a reproduction of a Victorian miniature. As for the lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), her appearance is probably the biggest disappointment of all. Blanchett’s a wonderful actress, which makes me wonder all the more why she decided to play the elf-queen like a zombie-apart from the one dreadfully campy moment when she roars and waves her arms around.

The men fare better: Aragorn, Boromir (Sean Bean, looking oddly like Kenneth Branagh) and Gandalf (he in particular) are all excellent. This is partly because they are the fighters, and damn good ones, too — like it or not, “LOTR” is, after all, a testosterone-driven enterprise. Which may explain why the hobbits, central as they are, seem so ineffectual. Elijah Wood is a competent Frodo, even if he looks more like an elf than a hobbit, but a certain recurring deer-in-the-headlights expression makes him seem more helpless than Tolkien made him. As for the other hobbits, they come across as clumsy, not-too-bright children; even Sam Gamgee (my personal favorite among the hobbits) is a bit oafish. There’s very little evidence here of the quickness and resource they display in the book.

These quibbles aside, there’s no doubt “The Fellowship of the Ring” is a remarkable achievement. It succeeds precisely where the “Harry Potter” movie failed, in allowing the novel to inspire, rather than stifle, the director’s cinematic vision — though, to be fair, Tolkien’s narrative, which sticks closely to the tried-and-true outline of the hero quest, simply lends itself more easily to film than Rowling’s. That said, the narrative isn’t over yet. Perhaps the best thing about “The Fellowship” is that it leaves us properly unsatisfied, raising the stakes for the next segment. Let’s hope it’s as good as the first. Jackson has given us every reason to think it will be.

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