[box cover]

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen,
Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Sean Bean,
Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving,
Orlando Bloom, and Christopher Lee

Written by Frances Walsh
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien

Directed by Peter Jackson

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

"Did they NOT see the part where Legolas stabs an orc with an arrow and then shoots another with THE VERY SAME ARROW?"

— Cartoon character Brent Sienna, bemoaning
the Academy's foolishness at not awarding
Fellowship of the Ring with a Best Picture
Oscar, in the comic
PvP by Scott Kurtz

"How many years ago in days of old
When magic filled the air
T'was in the darkest depths of Mordor
I met a girl so fair
But Gollum, the evil one, crept up
And slipped away with her
Her, her ... yeaaaaaaa
Ain't nothing I can do, no."

— "Ramble On," Led Zeppelin

Geek credentials and a few caveats.

This review should have been written by someone else. It was supposed to have been written by Alexandra DuPont, in fact — she of the blazing intellect, hefty thesaurus, and encyclopedic memory for sci-fi/fantasy minutiae. But various circumstances conspired to drop the DVD Journal review of Fellowship of the Ring into my lap instead, and so I shall endeavor to do the best I can. (A. DuP.'s legion of slavering fans need not be alarmed, by the way; the Queen of All Geeks is fine and dandy. When we spoke via cell phone, she was up to her neck in some sort of rejuvenating mudbath at a Napa Valley health spa.)

However, I do need to explain a few things before we continue. I am something of a Born Again Geek, having come to all of this rather late in life. Certainly, I have loved movies and TV and books practically since birth, absorbing American pop culture like a ravenous sea sponge. But I was Theater Girl — then, later, Art School Girl and Punk Rock Girl — and turned my snide little nose up at all things related to science fiction and fantasy. They just ... weren't ... cool. But as adulthood loomed, then arrived, then swallowed me whole, I found myself hanging out more and more with people who loved SF and fantasy (I even learned that you should say "SF" and not "sci-fi" because "sci-fi" pissed a lot of people off — kind of like saying "Trekkies" instead of "Trekkers.") I even started reading science fiction, and found (surprise!) that I greatly enjoy a lot of it.

But — and herein lies the biggest caveat of all — I've never read the Tolkien books. Oh, I tried. First in high school, then again in my twenties. And, most recently, when my husband (whom I met, embarrassingly enough, at a science-fiction convention) was gifted with a lovely boxed set of the Rings trilogy at Christmas. But I just don't enjoy fantasy novels. Something about trolls and elves and unicorns and hill giants and women in fur bikinis with sidekicks who are telepathic leopards ... well, it all just leaves me cold. I'm not a stupid person, and it's not like I can't read complicated novels — hell, I've read every book by Thomas Pynchon and even made my way through David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest without giving up. But try as I might, I've never been able to make it through Tolkien.

Peter Jackson's movie, however, floored me.

After sitting through the three-hour Fellowship of the Ring for the first time (with one quick trip to the ladies' room because I foolishly purchased a huge Diet Coke before the film) I would have happily stayed for six more hours to see the rest of the story. I mean, I'd need to have snacks on hand, obviously. And maybe a pillow for my ass. But still ... I was ready. Even now, it sounds somehow wrong to my own ears — I sat through a three-hour fantasy movie and was disappointed that there wasn't more. I was as enthralled by FOTR as the most rabid, con-going, SCA-joining, Spock-ear-wearing fanboy.

Seeing this movie was a baptism. I have seen the chubby, bearded face of God, and His name is Peter Jackson. I have finally been transformed into a full-fledged geek.

I still can't read those damn books, though.

One DVD to rule them all. Or two. Or maybe three.

Depending on your point of view, New Line's marketing of the Fellowship of the Ring DVD is either a) brilliant; b) frustrating; or c) the work of money-grubbing weasels who want to exploit fan's loyalty by sucking every dollar out of their faux-leather, Celtic-cross emblazoned Bags of Holding.

The real answer is d) All of the above.

The three films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are being released theatrically with a year wait between each, and around seven months passed between the time that Fellowship of the Ring hit theaters and was released on video and DVD. The fans were restless — they wanted to own the damn movie! And they wanted lots of extras on the DVD! And it had better be good, or they'd ... well, they'd whine a lot. And by Gimli's massive axe, it wouldn't be pretty! So here we have the lovely two-disc set of FOTR with a nice padding of extra features. But by delivering it in late summer, that meant that New Line couldn't exploit the Christmas release of The Two Towers or take advantage of the year's biggest retail season.

Or could they? The problem was solved by utilizing what is becoming a fairly common practice in the world of DVDs. A nice, reasonably priced, two-disc set of Fellowship of the Ring was released to get the movie onto shelves and into fans' hands in a timely fashion. Then a bigger, pricier "special edition" will come out in November 2002, offering a bushel-basket of new extras plus 30 minutes of restored footage (including plot lines that hardcore fans have complained about missing, like Gimli falling in love with Galadriel and Galadriel bestowing the all-important gifts on the Fellowship that they use during their journey). So everyone's happy, right? New Line makes more money and the fans get more stuff. Huzzah!

The only problem, if one is inclined to see it that way, is that word has it the extras available on the first disc won't be included in the upcoming four-disc set. So if you're saving your money now, thinking you'll just wait until November, that's fine ... but you probably won't get the extras that are on this version. If you're a major fan — or just a DVD completist — you'll have to buy both. And you may have to do this for every film. And then you'll also probably want to buy the premium-priced, three-movie box set that will inevitably be released after all the movies have had their theatrical runs, which will probably have even more exclusive extras. Which will make a total of seven different purchases just to own everything.

Which is what they're counting on. Brilliant. Frustrating. And yes, more than a little weaselly.

But enough about that. Talk about the movie!

Whoever you are, Gentle Reader, you probably don't need me to tell you what the movie's about. If you loved it and you're a fan of the books, you've probably seen it four or five or six times already and know more about it than I do. Of course, you could also be someone who hated the movie (probably because you memorized every little bit of the books and nothing Jackson did could have made you happy anyway), in which case you also already know the plot. Hobbits. Elves. Wizards. A ring. A cave troll and orcs and Gollum ... whatever the hell he is.

In a very concise nutshell: A few millenia previously, the One Ring — the Ring of Power forged by an evil lord to enslave the people of Middle-earth — was lost. Years later it was acquired by a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Having just turned "eleventy-one," Bilbo's about to celebrate his birthday whilst planning one last, big adventure. Before he leaves, he gives all his possessions (including the ring) to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). Unfortunately for Frodo, the Dark Lord Sauron, creator of the ring, has been lying dormant waiting for the right moment to rise up, nab the ring, and get on with his evil work. However, Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) recognizes the Ring of Power and urges Frodo to take it and flee. So Frodo, along with his servant Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) and fellow hobbits Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd), hit the road, with Sauron's terrifying black ringwraiths in hot pursuit.

Eventually, after a few close calls, the hobbits arrive at the home of Elrond (Hugo Weaving — Agent Smith from The Matrix!) in Rivendell, where a committee of the remaining races opposed to Sauron get together and vote that the One Ring must be destroyed. Tricky bit of business, that, since it can only be destroyed in Mordor ... the home of Sauron. And so a Fellowship is created to complete this task — the four hobbits plus Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson), heir to the throne of Gondor ; Boromir (Sean Bean), also from Gondor (and destined to be tempted by the evil of the ring); Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), a mighty dwarven warrior; and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an Elf with a wicked way with a bow.

And that covers roughly the first hour of the three-hour plot. So, rather than go through another 20 paragraphs of synopsis, let's just talk about why it's a terrific film. One reason, pointed out to me by Ms. DuPont before she jetted off to that spa, is that for everything a normal genre picture gives you, FOTR gives you multiples. X-Men had adventurous, alpha-male Wolverine; Star Wars had adventurous, alpha-male Han Solo. But Fellowship goes even further, giving you the geek-cool trifecta of Legolas and Aragorn and Gandalf (and let's not overlook Boromir — actor Sean Bean has a rabid legion of female fans himself). This seems to extend to monsters, set pieces and environments, as well. Not to mention the very structure of the film — FOTR comprises several distinct acts that are, to a degree, free-standing stories in themselves: The flight to Rivendell; the flight through the Mines of Moria; and the fight that leads to the breaking of the Fellowship. All are dramatically self-contained, with distinct climaxes. (It could in fact be argued that the climax of the Mines of Moria sequence is so good, in fact, that what follows is a mild letdown.) The movie is extraordinarily lush, with lavish environments and texture upon texture, in the plot structure as well as the art direction, and yet somehow never becomes overly busy.

Other films like FOTR (if, indeed, one can say there has ever been a film "like" this — it's a little like saying "other swords like Excalibur") often take awhile to engage the viewer because of a ponderous, boring prologue. I mean, do you remember a word of Lucas' scrolling tome at the start of Attack of the Clones? Or were you just thinking, "Come on, get on with it and show me the spaceships, already?" But Fellowships's prologue is engaging from the start, seeming effortless even as it rolls in backstory from The Hobbit and that tedious Middle-earth biblical text The Simarillion (yes, I tried to read that once, too). Jackson rewards fans in that respect while still considering the non-fans, as well — he informs the newcomers while tipping his hat to the experts. Gandalf, for example, says a line early on as he arrives in Hobbiton that's actually a chapter title in the book — unobtrusive to the uninitiated, but a special little treat for the fans.

*          *          *

And having mentioned Attack of the Clones, it's worth taking a moment to make a statement that strikes me as patently obvious, but could be construed as heresy in certain circles: Peter Jackson is just a better director than George Lucas. Yes, the all-digital world of Attack of the Clones is a mighty impressive technological achievement. But whereas everything about AOTC is slick and hygienic, Fellowship feels utterly organic. While Lucas had a team of designers sitting in front of computers creating cities and landscapes that existed only on their hard-drives, Jackson and his team were flying in helicopters all over New Zealand, finding locations that were exactly right for Middle-earth, and building sets. In the case of Hobbiton, they built the structures and then let them lie fallow so that the vegetation would grow and everything would become weathered. Lucas created an artificial world that looked real; Jackson created a real world in the real world, and the difference is enormous.

As a result of Jackson's more environmental approach, the actors had the opportunity to move around in the same landscape and architecture as their characters; even though they still had to do some green-screen work and were subject to the usual technicalities involved in shooting any film (owing to forced-perspective issues, the actors were frequently required to interact with one another along false sight lines), the value of having real trees and grass and stone and water and hobbit-holes around for inspiration can't be overstated. Additionally, the environment that Jackson created for his cast seemed to enrich their working relationship — and, by extension, their performances — immeasurably. Before the release of the film, Elijah Wood told interviewers that the Fellowship actors had become so close, they went out and got matching commemorative tattoos. Wood refused to say where or what his tattoo was, but compare that to the arch, embarassed interviews that Natalie Portman gave while publicizing AOTC (as well as the board-stiff performances in that movie), and it confirms that geek art should only be entrusted to real geeks.

Oh, and Howard Shore's score is indescribably good. Meaty, majestic, dignified and altogether appropriate for a film of this scope. (Typically, A. DuP.'s comment was far more urbane: "Its tones walk a perfect line between lyricism and woe; its hues are autumnal." Yeah, what she said.)

So much for the drooling. What didn't work?

At three hours, Fellowship of the Ring still felt too short. I wanted more time in Rivendell with the elves (I know, there'll be more later ... but it felt rushed to me). Hell, I wanted more time in Hobbiton, for that matter. The environments are so rich in FOTR that it simply seems a shame that the story has to keep jogging off to the next plot point at such a galloping pace; perhaps it's just that it's all so saturated, each stop feels like it could be a film — a world — in itself. Which was Jackson's goal, after all: to create a film that felt less like a fantasy and more like a history of a real place that existed a long, long time ago. Unfortunately, he did that so well that I kept feeling like there was more I wanted to know, that he wasn't telling me. (Yes, yes, I can hear you screaming, "So read the book!" All right. Jeez.)

While the CGI work is amazing, there's one spot in the film where it's fairly crappy — the cave troll. It simply doesn't work, most notably when Legolas leaps upon it and gets flung about like a rag doll. The whole sequence looks like something out of a Nintendo game, and it's especially unfortunate because everything else in the film to this point has been so seamless (although it's hard not to step back a bit and indulge in a little "how the heck did they do that?" when admiring the way Jackson handles the on-screen size differences of the various characters — particularly during the scenes with Gandalf and Bilbo.) On the other hand, the Balrog is one of the most impressive CGI monsters ever brought to the screen, and one of the scariest.

Here I feel obliged to include the only two quibbles that Ms. DuPont offered via e-mail: "There is really only one false moment in the film for me — a scene where Christopher Lee, as Saruman, is explaining things to a naked, glistening Uruk-Hai. Lee looks like Cher, and the whole thing is weirdly homoerotic in a way the rest of the film isn't. The lighting is so garish that the scene feels like the only one in the film that should be scored by Queen" and "It strikes me that, in the prologue, The Dark Lord Sauron in his armor looks like he wandered in off the set of Krull." And you know what? She's absolutely right.

So how's the DVD, anyway? Isn't that what you're supposed to be writing about?

It's very, very good. Certainly not the same as seeing the film on the big screen, with the sumptuous score thundering all its Dolby-enriched goodness out of a humongous theater sound system. But yeah, it's really good. While the DVD version seems to be lacking some of the sparkle I remember from the theatrical presentation, it's still a gorgeous transfer in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1). The transfer has extraordinary depth, in fact, even in the darker scenes — the detail is truly remarkable. The Dolby Digital EX 5.1 audio is impressive, especially in the almost non-stop lower tones (Shore's score, plus swords clashing, plus echoes, plus enormously loud booming noises ... the lower registers get a major workout here). This is a film that greatly benefits from a good home audio set-up.

And, of course, there are all those extras. The entire package is cleverly designed as sort of an archive commemorating the release of the film, heavy on the behind-the-scenes publicity featurettes:

— Dawn Taylor

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