Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 50
Year: 2001
Writer: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson (adaptation), J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Director: Peter Jackson
Star: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen

Note: Like other films which have had extended editions issued, my article will be discussing the original theatrical version of the film.

Though it’s obvious “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” like “Star Wars,” has been chosen for inclusion on the AFI Top 100 as a representation of the entire trilogy, I attempted to discuss the latter as a self-contained film and avoid discussion of the other “Star Wars” films. Here, it’s almost impossible because all this film represents is the set-up. It ends on a cliffhanger with no closure. Moments and plotlines set up here aren’t adequately explained and remain confusing unless you’ve seen “The Two Towers” or “The Return of the King.” Was I emotionally invested in the journey? Yes. Did that emotional investment result in any pay-off? Nope.

The movie is, of course, an adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s much-beloved novel, unread by me. It focuses on an evil ring that a hobbit named Frodo (Elijah Wood) possesses and must destroy in the fires of Mount Doom. He begins a journey with several friends and picks up others along the way, forming the Fellowship of the title. One of the smartest things writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson (also the director) do is that they don’t dumb down the world. I know that there are thousands upon thousands of Tolkien readers who can tell me exactly what the name of every horn and sword means, but to me they might as well have been saying “The Horn of Aquafresh” or “The Sword of Prell.” Characters talk about things we are unfamiliar with in familiar, passing ways and, by doing so, it gives the world of Middle Earth a visceral, real feeling. More than that, Jackson and his co-writers aren’t afraid to stop and smell the roses. They drink in the details of the shire Frodo lives in before his quest begins, and does the same thing with the many beautiful locations the Fellowship visits over the course of the movie.

Of course, like any fantasy film, there are many questions the audience asks about logic that the screenwriters don’t bother answering, sometimes because they are saving it for a later film and sometimes just because. For example, why doesn’t the Fellowship just hop on those big ‘ole eagles and hitch a ride all the way to Mount Doom? Why couldn’t Gandalf just blow up the bridge before the fire creature reached him? Why does Mordor look close at the beginning of the film and even further at the end? If all Frodo sees while wearing the ring are horrible firey death images, why didn’t Bilbo see the same thing? I’m sure Tolkien fans can answer those in a heartbeat, but it’s not explained properly here.

For a film so steeped in location, ideas and moments, I must admit that the characterization is a bit flatter than I remember. Of course it would be extremely difficult to introduce such a huge cast and make all of them three-dimensional beings, but it’s still fair to ask that all the characters in the central Fellowship are properly fleshed out. Of all the main characters, the only two that really jump out at me are Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Boromir (Sean Bean). We immediately latch onto Gandalf because we sense his desperation, first at the betrayal of his old friend and later at the difficulty of the journey before the Fellowship. Boromir is a fascinating, imperfect human—always trying to be the best he can be but in over his head and knowing it. He has the kind of depth that is lacking in a major way from characters like Legolas and Strider, who are as boringly heroic as can possibly be, and as a result Boromir’s death at the end of the film comes as quite the punch in the gut.

And yet there is still so much to love. The setting is breathtaking, probably ranking as the most detailed, fantastic fantasy setting ever placed on film (sorry, Mr. Lucas). As the film unveils layer after layer of persons, places and things it becomes even more watchable and enjoyable. It’s suitably intimate when it needs to be, but when Jackson decides to go epic, the movie transcends just about every other blockbuster of this type. There are brilliant, creative shots that still linger with me years after seeing the movie opening weekend in theaters, like the one that begins on top of the tower Gandalf is imprisoned on, then drops through the earth into a literal hell of orcs. The high point of the film is the Fellowship’s journey through half-destroyed cave, cornered and chased by orcs all the while. There’s a long action sequence set on steps, and it’s just about a perfect meshing of special effects, stunts and music.

That entire sequence is so great that the last third of the film can’t help but feel a little pale in comparison. But the movie keeps going. And going. The places the Fellowship visits and the villains they encounter are interesting, for sure, but nothing comes close to reaching the heights of what has come before, and it begins to get a little bit tedious. It’s not bad, it’s just too much.

And then there’s the non-ending. For me, the best film in the trilogy is “The Two Towers,” which pays off many of the threads introduced here while still setting up the final movie. I’m torn as I reach the end of the article, because I think the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is tremendous, but this movie on its own falls a little flat. For example, it feels odd not to get a really good look at Gollum, who is so central to rest of the trilogy. And even though I know the characterization will improve in subsequent movies, it’s still not great here. And there’s only hints of the epic battles that would define these movies as the next step in the evolution of swashbucklers and special effects. If I were grading the trilogy as a whole, the rating would be higher, but I’m not.

My Score (out of 5):

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