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"The Lord of the Rings"
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. "The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring"

If you want to get into an adventure between good and evil, you've come to the right place when you see this saga, first of a trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and adapted right well for the screen. It's a spectacle of epic proportions, encompassing pastoral beauty, titanic battles, and broad strokes of imagination. One might wonder what Terry Gilliam and his massive budgets could have done with this material, but it was Peter Jackson who so faithfully rendered it for movie audiences.

The books from which it is adapted were published between July 1954 and October 1955, a time of great excitement for those who would become its legion of fans. The first service Jackson performed for the faithfulness to Tolkien's work was to make three films out of it and shoot them all in one production schedule of 274 shooting days and a cost of somewhere near $400 million. This itself is a rare occurrence in the annals of filmmaking but it insures continuity of characters, story style and every other aspect of the massive undertaking.

What it doesn't do, which is all the more to the credit of New Line Cinema, is allow them to evaluate the boxoffice returns before committing to a sequel. The sequels are made, and will be released on each of the next two Christmases.

It's all about a ring -- one you wear on your finger. Only this one was forged by Sauron, the darkest and most malevolent force in the universe, and intended to extend his mystical power over his team of followers who wear lesser rings. Ah, but it's lost in battle, only to be retrieved 3,000 years later by Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) who, because of his ownership of it, doesn't age.

Enter the good wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) who has a clear vision of the big picture, and prevails on the reluctant Bilbo to pass the ring onto Gandalf's adopted nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) so that the younger man can see to its destiny. The idea is to return it to the fires from which it was forged on Mount Doom, the only place where it might be destroyed and the evil force it contains ceased.

Like the quest for the holy grail, this is the motive behind the action of the entire saga: the good guys, in support of the angelic Frodo, band together in a fellowship, trying to end evil while facing one after another exemplification of it, each more menacing than the one before. One might wonder how such a small unit could hope to quell the tireless and widespread powers of evil, including the one residing in the ring itself, but of such wonders are legends made and heroes defined.

Joining the good team are warriors Aragorn Strider (an excellent Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), Elf marksman Legolas (Orlando Bloom) whose unerring eye and a magical self-replenishing quiver of arrows helps the team out of some serious jams and, finally, dwarf firebrand Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) who adds his strong and dangerous hands to the fighting ensemble.

At a helpful time, the band reaches Rivendell, the luxuriously secluded jungle hamlet populated by the Elves. Both Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), herself romantically involved with handsome Aragon, and Queen Galadriel (unblemished Cate Blanchett) add spiritual aid and comfort to Frodo and his men, giving them temporary respite from the dark forces lurking ahead on their journey.

Good wizard Gandalf, bested by Saruman, a more powerful wizard who aligns himself with Sauron, is left with limited powers as the squad meets a posse of Dark Riders and the horrible Orcs in the Mines of Moria. These episodes contain the mythology and physical invention of the author and, insofar as movie renderings are concerned, should be satisfactory to fans of the book and its myriad details. For newcomers, the movie, with its well chosen cast, extraordinary settings and impressive battle choreography goes far in explaining the hold this work has had on legions of readers.

There is a wealth of creative talent, with music (Howard Shore), costumes (Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor), makeup, art direction and cinematography (Andrew Lesnie) making proportionate contributions to the total cinematic experience.

But, there's a negative... maybe two. The continuum of episodes of "now we'll fight them", "now we'll fight those others", etc. gets tedious, humor and lighter moments aside. The feeling of disconnected engagements with a variety of colorfully contrived enemies might be a sensational challenge for the design departments, both analog and digital, but for the viewer it's not unlike separate circus tents in which individual freak shows impress us with the awesomeness of each attraction -- it tends to lessen one's involvement with the characters and main thread of the story. It makes the 3 hour running time feel like the extreme amount of time that it is for one sitting.

One might also pine for the romantic adventure yarn and the way such pictures provide a gender balance and some good ol' sexual tension. Liv Tyler's brief moments are just enough to make you hunger for more of her involvement. Of course, a romance amidst all this male danger would be antithetical to Tolkien, but wishing for it suggests that there might be a weakness in the dramatic make up of the tale. I realize I'm treading on dangerous ground by just whispering such a misguided notion, so let's talk about the actors.

Most impressive is the image created by Viggo Mortensen, an actor of considerable gifts who can't be accused of overexposure. His handsome features and unmannered charisma goes a long way toward livening the action. For personal magnetism he's exceeded by only one other presence and that's the masterful Ian McKellan who once more, in great clarity and detail, demonstrates the greatness of his art. This role affords a few dimensions of physicality and skillfulness that could be new in his long list of credits. The inescapable effect is that, when he's on screen, the picture's pulse of interest rises.

After all the effects, action and materialization of imagery of the imagination, it really comes down to the characters and your involvement with them. Adults are more demanding in such story requirements than the more youthful audience that probably constitute the major part of the fan base and who are likely to uncritically embrace this movie installment of the enduring work. To them I say, may your year be fruitful and rewarding while you await the next one.

Estimated cost: $100,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $308,000,000.

                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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