"Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" Review
© 2001 Fontaine L.

May it be an evening star
Shines down upon you
May it be when darkness falls
Your heart will be true
You walk a lonely road
Oh, how far you are from home

Mornië utúlië (Darkness has come)
Believe and you will find your way
Mornië alantië (Darkness has fallen)
A promise lives within you now

May it be the shadow's call
Will fly away
May it be you journey on
To light the day
When the night is overcome
You may rise to find the sun

A promise lives within you now
A promise lives within you now *

Let me preface with what this review will not be: It will not be a discussion of the film's merits based on its adaptation of Tolkien. The simple reason is because I have not read the books. Other reviewers will cover that topic extensively. The second reason is because I believe film criticism gets nowhere if the text assumes that the viewer has "already read the book." References might be made to an original work, but a film is always a text in and of itself. Besides, we've been through this with Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone. Frankly, I'm sick of that discussion. In addition, since I haven't read Tolkien, I wouldn't be able to tell you which parts of the novel the film has changed or kept intact. This is to say I'm already anticipating "well, you can't blame the screenwriter for that because that was part of the book" remarks (if anyone reads this, anyway).

A friend of mine told me The Fellowship of the Ring was "three hours of pure fantasy mayhem." He was right. There was never another three hour movie that felt so short, yet so long, a contradiction I will return to later. But in terms of cinematic excitement, "Fellowship" packs more juice in its punch than "Harry Potter," the obvious Exhibit B, though that film comes in second this year. Peter Jackson, if nothing else, is a master of cinematic captivation. The film does this from the start, with its epic (not to mention aesthetically pleasing) battle sequence and Cate Blanchett's mesmerizing alto narrative. To cite an oft-used cliche, we are kept on the edge of our seats for 2 hours and some 58 minutes, and I suspect this is true even for those who have read the novel or trilogy or what-you-will. When we're not being frightened by mythical beasts--some of which are splendidly imagined and hauntingly constructed, the horsemen/wraiths (sp?) for example; some of which are just ludicrous and reminiscent of a more "Harry Potter"-like environs--we're marvelling at the majestic span of Middle Earth. The film takes some of the places we ought to be familiar with--it was filmed on Earth, after all--and endows them with a mythical existence. The meticulous attention given by the filmmakers is evident in every shot, every scene, every sequence, from the lovely village of The Shire, the Middle Earth fireworks, the distinctive features of each race, to the the colors of Gandalf's order, the ethereal elves' niche in the valley (yes yes, I'm sure I'm screwing up the names), and so on. The film is, quite simply, a visual feast, and no words, no language, could describe what is best seen for yourself.

The other aspects of the film are close to impeccable as well. The costumes are sumptuous and imaginative, the actors well-chosen and the characters well-drawn (or as well as you might expect given the number of characters and the length of the film, long enough as it is), the sound and music and all those other Hollywood tricks of trade taken to another level and integrated to present to us the universe that is Middle Earth. Elijah Wood shoulders the all-important role of Frodo with gusto and a wide-eyed vulnerability that is so appropriate to the character, and the same can be said for the rest of Frodo's wonderfully cast Hobbit companions. I have nothing but praise for the rest of the supporting cast, and I only regret that Cate Blanchett is seen for a scant 5 minutes or so and during half of that time she looks, well, strange. As mentioned, what is left out of the character portraits must be blamed on constraints on running time. In terms of technical quality and artistic bravado, "Fellowship" is epic fantasy movie-making at its best.

To digress, I will explain why I've referred to "Harry Potter" so many times ... be assured that it is not because I do not recognize the uniqueness of the two films and of their respective universes. Like the Star Wars universe, Middle Earth and the Hogwarts School are imaginative maelstroms of their own, and each universe is entirely different from the next. Only time and circumstance make the comparison to "Harry Potter" expedient. Both are adaptations of best-selling novels. Both films are considered fantasy and feature elves, dwarfs, wizards, and the like, and both films take Hollywood special effects to another level. Both films believe in magic. My mind inevitably drifted toward "Harry Potter" because the films are so similarly freewheeling and captivating. The difference is "Fellowship" is much more serious in tone and we feel as if much more at stake. Both films work because their central theme is universal: good must counter evil, and good will triumph in the end. In distressing times, the films' universes are foreign but their messages are equally comforting. I liked "Fellowship" more, but the films are really fundamentally different to begin with.

As this is not a comparison paper, let's return to the topic at hand. "Fellowship's" "self-containedness" makes it easy for me to forgive some of its inevitable flaws. By "self-containedness" I mean a text's ability to draw us into its world and seal us off from the outside world, to make us forget the very theater we are sitting in or the room in which we are reading a book or playing a game. Obviously, the film's genre (roughly sketched as "fantasy") helps. One cannot think about what to wear tomorrow or deadlines at work when one is in the middle of a tense quidditch game or when all the races are battling for the free Middle Earth world. But most important to "Fellowship's" success, perhaps equally as important as its technical supremacy, is its utter belief in itself. This is a quality that is hard for me to articulate; the best I can do is point out that it is this quality that keeps the viewer tethered to the film even when it stumbles. Yes, the film does falter at times. Frodo's bumbling friends become predictable plot devices whenever the fellowship arrives at a secluded place and cinematic timing tells us trouble is brewing. I found myself thirsting for more background on each race and on each character, for details I'm sure Tolkien had been able to provide. The film fades, rather than rushes, toward its conclusion, and awkwardness sets in during the final half hour as it tries to condense an epic book into a few scenes. The pacing began to be awkward in a few places that could have been slowed down or sped up. The artists got carried away with a few of the monsters that would be better suited for a video game rather than an epic film. However, these crimes are the filmmakers' crimes of passion for their story, a story that takes on a life of its own. Any of the cinematic mistakes that could seriously distract from other works are mere afterthoughts in "Fellowship" becaused of the sheer force with which it binds the audience to its creed. This is the force that is evident when Liv Tyler's Arwen, close to tears yet exuding desperate determination, carries Frodo to safety with darkness closing in all around her. Or when Gandalf leaps astride a giant falcon-type creature to dubious safety. Or when the camera swirls around the lonely fellowship as they scale impossible landscapes. I guess what I'm trying to say is "Fellowship" conveys the sense of epic urgency so successfully that we are bound to Frodo as Frodo is bound to his quest. For three hours, the film's central truth and its all-important events consume us despite our normal, mundane selves. "Harry Potter" entertains, but "Fellowship" moves mountains and makes us believe that that makes complete sense. I find that when I attach myself to the film's centrifugal belief, I stop considering what the novel might have been and I stop evaluating the film as a critic. And it is so, so rare that a movie can do that.

So when the film so unexpectedly comes to a close just as the uninformed are expecting farther journeys, we leave with a sense of leaving behind old friends in their time of need. Yet, we know we'll be back for the next installment as surely as we know Middle Earth did exist for us in that brief time period, and that when we resume Frodo's belief will carry us all:

A promise lives within you now.

Rating: A (First viewing, 12/29/01)

* From Enya's "May It Be," off the original soundtrack.