Monday, November 12, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Movie Review

More than anything, I want movies to surprise me. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before, or see an old story presented in a unique way. I want my expectations to be exceeded. I never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn’t interested as a child. To this day, the genre of fantasy fiction doesn’t particularly appeal to me. In December 2001 I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring because it was expected to be one of the biggest movies of the year. It was the subject of countless magazine and newspaper articles about the 15 month shooting schedule in New Zealand with Peter Jackson painstakingly creating a world on film that was already known to millions of loyal fans of the novels. I walked out of the theater both exceedingly surprised and deeply moved by both the story and the unbelievable craftsmanship involved in the making of the film.

I confess that when I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring I had no idea that the three books together represented a single storyline, that the journey would not be completed by film’s end. I expected three distinct adventures, connected by common characters and unifying themes. So throughout the movie I believed I was going to witness the destruction of the ring by the close of three hours. Much to my pleasant surprise, the film instead ends with the breaking of the fellowship into three factions, each on their own personal journeys toward one unifying goal.

For this particular review I used my own extended edition DVD of the film, which has an additional 15 - 20 minutes or so of footage that was cut from the theatrical release. The truth is that none of this additional material is crucial to the overall continuity. They add some texture and marginal deepening of character relationships. Mostly, the material has been added for the super-fans of the books who were asking questions like, “Hey, where’s the scene where Galadriel gives each member of the Fellowship a special gift?” So this scene gets an interminable three minutes of screen time now. The film as it was originally was just about perfect. Three hours can be a long running time for a film that has no business being that long, but The Fellowship of the Ring has so much to pack in, and everything that was included originally was interesting and so well handled that it never felt like three hours to me.

Admittedly, I have a soft spot for films about a group of men on a mission. I enjoy stories about teams setting out to work together to accomplish something greater than any of the individuals involved. Even though there is so much going on narratively in this film in terms of recapping events that took place before the timeline of the film in a long prologue, establishing the essential characters (numbering over a dozen), and setting the stage for events of the next two films, the screenplay remains successfully focused on the journey aspect of this first part. Screenwriters Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens successfully distill what I imagine is labyrinthine and complex novel into a film that can be easily digested in one sitting.

We will learn through the next two films that the crux of the story lies with the Hobbits, particularly Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), but also their friends Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Enough time is spent in the film’s first 45 minutes with the Hobbits in their homeland The Shire that we get to feel like this world is theirs. When they venture beyond their own borders, there is a sense that they’re entering an unknown world, but one that they eventually come to recognize as worth saving if they are to continue in their own happy existence. The strong bond between the Hobbits doesn’t truly begin to show until the end of this film and even more throughout the duration of the second film. The climactic battle features a wonderfully touching moment when Sam refuses to let Frodo go off on his own. When you first see The Fellowship of the Ring (not having read the books, of course) you can’t possibly understand the significance of Sam’s insistence. This scene takes on much deeper significance after the conclusion of the all three films.

The prequel to this story is The Hobbit, which has since been filmed by Peter Jackson, the first part set for release next month. Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm in The Fellowship of the Ring) is the main character in that story while here he has only a supporting role in which he must give up his beloved ring to the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who discovers it is actually the legendary ring of power, believed lost for millennia. Eventually the ring is brought to the Elf land of Rivendell, overseen by Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving). A council is held to determine the fate of the ring. Representatives are summoned from all lands of Middle Earth and from these a select group volunteers to accompany Frodo on his journey to throw the ring into the mountain of fire where it was forged, the one place it can be destroyed.

The fellowship is comprised of the four Hobbits and Gandalf. Joining them are Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), a ranger who bears a secret bloodline as heir to the throne of Men; the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom); Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies); and Boromir (Sean Bean) from the realm of Men. These characters, surely developed in great detail in Tolkien’s books, are brought vividly to life in the film, aided greatly by very good performances. At the time of the film’s release, Bloom was a virtual unknown. Though I find his acting less than substantial now, I absolutely loved his creation of the character of Legolas. Rhys-Davies is unrecognizable behind a mountain of makeup and hair as Gimli, the stout and stalwart, brave and proud representative of his clan. Boromir ends up being one of the most deeply flawed and thus, human, characters in the series. We see that he is drawn to the ring’s power, tempted to steal it from Frodo, but he also claims his allegiance to protect the Hobbit on the journey. His death at the end shocked and saddened me. It remains the only tragic death in the entire trilogy, and one of the few moments that I was truly moved. And watching it now, even after having seen the film three or four times, I am still touched by his dying words to Aragorn. I am glad the film still retains that power over me. What is most amazing to me, however, is the way Boromir’s actions and character are further enriched in The Return of the King so that we have a more complete understanding of his desire for the ring.

All this would be nothing were the story and characters not supporting by spectacular visual and aural accompaniment. At the time I found the special effects unimpeachable. Jackson relied heavily on CGI effects, but also used a great deal of miniatures and literally tons of makeup. Back then I could hardly tell where CGI ended and live action began. Today, after more than a decade of advances in the industry, the seams show a little bit more. What watching the film today truly reveals is the elements that Jackson thought were most important to get absolutely perfect. The Balrog, for example, that imposing demon that Gandalf faces in the Mines of Moria sequence looks incredible. Of course, I generally find the best use of CGI is for inanimate objects or fantastic creatures divorced from just about anything in reality. And the Balrog is a demon mostly of fire. The second near perfect use of CGI is in a program used to simulate armies of Orcs that endows each individual with agency. So in scenes with depictions of massive groups, they don’t move as a massive unit, they more closely resemble something lifelike. However, there are several uses of CGI to depict characters running amid expansive sets all created on computers where you can simply tell immediately that they are not real people.

Some of the scenes that really got me the first time I now find technically substantial even if they don’t have the same emotional effect that they did initially: The Hobbits being pursued by the Ring Wraiths was once terrifying and exhilarating; the Fellowship’s battle with Orcs and a cave troll in the Mines of Moria was, for me, one of the film’s great highlights (even if the CGI troll no longer looks so convincing); the final battle in the woods that breaks up the Fellowship is one of the greatest achievements of editing and choreography in the entire series. Surely it’s no coincidence that this battle also contains nothing I can discern as computer effects. Finally, Howard Shore’s beautifully elegant score ranges from quietly moving to loudly adventurous. It is operatically grand and just touches on the border of bombast. He had so many themes to develop for this film, the score is a triumphant work by itself.

I no longer find the extended version a valuable expenditure of time. The extra material simply doesn’t add enough to the story to make it worth the extra 15 minutes. But the first part of the trilogy remains, by far, my favorite entry in Peter Jackson’s great achievement.

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