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In this episode: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring | The Even Longer Version on DVD
Lord of the Glowy Red Letters

NOTE: This review was written right after I'd seen the movie and right before I left for a two-week holiday vacation in Colorado. It was rushed and rough, and since e-mailing it out to my Reviews On The Side list (You're not on it? Now how could that be????), I have received numerous replies. A couple corrected my mistakes on the details of the book. So I have gone through the original review and added notes on things I was wrong about the first time 'round or on things I just wanted to, you know, add.

I have since seen the movie a second time. I really like it.

This movie is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, I really, really enjoyed it. It's adventurous, fun, and even moving in a couple places. On the other hand, it deviates from the book in some ways that, quite frankly, make no sense.

So how am I supposed to balance these feelings? Could the movie have been a better stencil of the book and still been a good movie?

The part of me that enjoyed the movie tells me to just let the book go, that any movie of a book is going to have changes. I should, this impish voice suggests, enjoy the movie on its own merits.

Those merits are quite impressive. The story really has an epic feel. Director Peter Jackson has captured Middle Earth in a way that is honest and realistic. I felt the enormous scope of that fantasy world up there on the screen, a feat accomplished through special effects (some good, some lousy) and, more importantly, through characters.

The best way to demonstrate a vast artificial world like Middle Earth is to show how tiny the people are who live in it. The quest upon which Frodo and his companions embark is long and treacherous, and Peter includes many a long-shot showing our tiny heroes traipsing across any number of landscapes, almost lost in the vastness of it all. When we get in close on the characters, we see each has personal prejudices, beliefs, and fears, something that in contrast to the size of the world makes them seem even smaller. We all feel small sometimes, especially when something has gone wrong or we're doubting ourselves or we're afraid, and that's the kind of feeling The Fellowship of the Ring showcases with artistry.

My favorite characters in the movie are Gandalf and Frodo. Yeah, they're probably the two most important characters, at least at this point in the trilogy, so I'm very happy to say that Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and Elijah Wood (Frodo) more than live up to the daunting task laid before them. Did I say that the poor kid playing Harry Potter had tough shoes to fill? Well, these shoes are even larger, like those big clompy things gang bangers and gay guys wear to make their feet look larger (for you know what they say about large feet).

Ian the GreyIan is such a masterful actor. Every line of his comes from a real place inside him, even when the dialogue gets silly. (Some of J.R.R. Tolkien's dialogue in the book is a bit dated a hokey. Considering the time period of "history" he created, this is of course acceptable if somewhat odd-sounding to our modern ears. The screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson has its share of stupid modern-sounding lines that don't fit in with Tolkien's language at all. "Let's hunt some orc." Please!) But back to Ian. Even listening to sound clips of the movie on two different NPR reviews, I felt Ian's words, sensed the very real gravity with which he says them. In the theater, he is as mesmerizing to watch. No one else could have been Gandalf. [Skip to the next paragraph if you don't want anything spoiled.] It's hard to pick out one example in a sea of great acting, but the moment that most grabbed me was in Rivendell, at Elrond's council, where Frodo offers to take the ring to Mt. Doom. It's a tiny moment in a movie of big events, but Ian's masterful reaction—a combination of relief and sadness—was powerful enough to make my heart jump.

Elijah has a difficult task because, even in the book, Frodo is kind of bland. He's the squeaky-clean good guy. Elijah manages to give Frodo a very palpable charm, a goodness that's not boring or sterile, but truly, genuinely good. You like him for being such a nice guy, but also for his strength. Elijah lets us know that Frodo is scared out of his mind while boldly choosing to tread on the path laid before him. That's exactly what Frodo is supposed to be. Elijah gets a gold star (or if there are no more in the blister pack, maybe a nice red one or a blue one will suffice).

I was also impressed with Sean Astin. In the book, Sam is I suppose what you'd call the comic relief. He's bumbling and silly at times, and often over-sentimental. In the movie, Sam's strong will seems to come more to the forefront, and Sean has a lot to do with that. Compared to Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan (as Pippin and Merry), he's very strong. For some reason, Peter Jackson has made Pippin and Merry the bumbling idiots. They are not like that in the books, and I think Peter was suffering from Lucas Syndrome. That is the belief that every adventure movie has to have bumbling idiots to act as the comic relief and to make stupid mistakes that force the story along. It's as if Sam has swapped with Pippin and Merry. Why? I have no idea. The good thing that's come out of that choice, though, is that Sam has become a more weighty character right off the bat, with still plenty of room to develop over time. Sean was good to watch, and he made Sam a very likable character.

The other actors fair... Well, they fair from good to bad. I thought Viggo Mortensen gave Aragorn just the right combination of aloofness, withdrawal, poise, and seriousness. Sean Bean wasn't quite as successful pulling Boromir together—his acting showed through the seams—but he certainly did a good enough job. John Rhys-Davies was very theatrical as Gimli the dwarf, but not annoyingly so. Gimli is not a very interesting character, however, mostly because he's not developed as strongly as the others. The same goes for Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom. His character is mostly filler (which is not much different from the book, frankly), but he is kind of like Darth Maul: He has his moments. My favorite, small as it is, is when he's shooting arrows at the orcs near the end of the movie. He's smooth and swift, shooting off arrows like a silent pistol. FWIP! FWIP! FWIP! Cool.

Cate Blanchett, whom I love, is fine as Galadriel, but Peter has chosen to make her floaty and slow. Unlike Legolas and Elrond (played by Hugo Weaving of The Matrix), Galadriel and, er, whoever the dude is she hangs with in Lothlorien, are kind of the cliché of fantasy elf characters. They speak in carefully stilted tones and in a high-falutin' manner. Cate gets to wig out when Galadriel gets tempted by the ring, and that's interesting, but overall she's just kinda there. Ho hum. Hugo is a good Elrond, I think. The elves in the book tend to be hard to read because they are, well, stilted and high-falutin'. And I read The Hobbit so long ago I can't remember if Elrond has more personality there than in The Lord of the Rings. But Hugo is interesting and kinda creepy looking in an Elvish way, so it works.

I mentioned Billy and Dominic as Pippin and Merry. They suck. For the most part. They have good moments, but overall, they're useless. I know this is partly because their characters are little Jar Jars, but the acting talent doesn't seem to be shining through either.

[ADDED NOTE: I got attacked by a couple people for comparing Pippin and Merry to Jar Jar, but I still am not convinced there's any good reason for their having been made such silly characters. They, too, begin to develop into more heroic characters by the end of this first movie, but, as Sam's development proves, it's not necessary for growing characters to start off as idiots.]

Ian Holm plays Bilbo Baggins. I'm mixed on the results, but there's nothing much to criticize. I think Ian is another awesome actor in this movie full of high talent. As Bilbo, he's sometimes a bit aggravatingly busybodyish. The print-version of Bilbo is something like that, true, but he's also quick and, in a funny Hobbit way, wise. I didn't get as much of that from Ian as I may have hoped. However, he's fine, so I won't bitch too much.

Finally, I'd like to mention Christopher Lee as Saruman. Another change from the book is how incredibly present Saruman is in the movie. He's a major character whereas in the book The Fellowship of the Ring, he's mostly on the fringes, present only in expository dialogue. And this is where I have to question my dislike of the major changes from the book. In visual media, it's always best to SHOW, not TELL, so the movie is made stronger by having Saruman physically in the scenes. It gave the movie a balance the book didn't have, though I'm not saying the book needed that kind of balance. Adding Saruman in heavy doses also makes this movie more accessible for the person in the audience who hasn't read the book. This change will make the whole trilogy of films a tighter story.

Oh, and Christopher Lee was fantastically creepy as Saruman. Kudos.

[ADDED NOTE: I see Christopher is also in Star Wars II. What a pity and a shame.]

The Fellowship of the Ring has a tangible air of adventure about it. Besides the world of the movie being huge, as I already mentioned, there's also great detail with sets, props, costumes, makeup, and creature design. Peter had a magnificent blueprint to work from, as J.R.R. himself created the details. Thank goodness he didn't sluff off in that department. For instance, the cave troll in Fellowship feels like a real creature compared to the troll in Harry Potter.

I really liked the effect when Frodo wears the ring. Too often, strange effects are used mostly to show off computer crunching power, but the effect Peter ended up using was stirring. It was at once beautiful and frightening, and the cold power of the Ring could almost be felt. The great eye of Sauron was spectacular, and combining the two effects—the wearing of the Ring with Sauron's eye—created a beautifully disturbing emotion. It was Frodo's fear made visible for the audience to see.

To avoid writing a review as long as The Fellowship of the Ring itself, I will move on to my disappointments with the movie. Like I said, I really liked the film, and I can't wait for the other two, but I was incredibly disappointed by some of Peter's choices in adapting the book to the world of movies. The movie itself holds up very well as a movie; people I know who haven't read the books really liked the film. But I posit that those people would have enjoyed the film just as much without the addition of certain annoying Hollywoodisms.

I have mentioned the first annoyance already: The changing of Pippin and Merry to comic relief. In the book, the two Hobbits purposely choose to go with Frodo and Sam on their adventure, being the plucky, young-at-heart fellows they are. But for reasons I can't guess, Peter had them accidentally join up with the quest. That presents problems when you're watching the movie and thinking, "Uh, when exactly did those two become involved enough to stay on board? Do they even know Frodo well enough to stick around?" Did I say I couldn't guess the reason for the change? I can. My guess is Peter needed to get those two on board as quickly as possible to cut down the running time of the movie. Dealing with the history between the four Hobbits would have taken too long, so Peter decided just to throw them in. It's stupid, though, because it would have taken a smart writer no brains at all to both establish a relationship between the Hobbits and include the moment when they decide to come along. Instead of doing the stupid Stealing of the Fireworks thing at the beginning of the movie, Peter could have shot a quick, easy, even fun scene between the four Hobbits. Done!

Of course, part of the problem was Peter changing the mechanics of the beginning from the get-go. In the book, Frodo is part of Bilbo's plans to vanish. He helps with the whole thing! But Peter, for reasons of fabricated drama, decided to have Frodo be as in the dark about the whole affair as everyone else. And when the drama needed to be kept alive, Peter has Frodo leaving almost immediately from The Shire, which of course means Merry and Pippin couldn't have planned to join him! Well, now, see what Peter's changing of that one simple plot element wrought? He could easily have left the story alone and... Well, but it's too late now.

[ADDED NOTE: Looking at the above point with a film eye, the extra drama Peter created by changing the events in this way helps the movie and the story. As one friend said, she had trouble getting through the books because there is so much that doesn't happen in them. I suppose that's one extreme. Frankly, when I re-read Fellowship, I kept questioning why on earth (er, why on MIDDLE earth) everyone was waiting around so casually before leaving the Shire? Fine, they didn't know the true scope of the danger facing them, but, hell, the way things were shaping up, it would have seemed much more likely they'd leave sooner rather than later. So, with this in mind, I should be happy Peter jacked the tension level up several notches in the Shire sequences.]

Something else that bothered me terribly (did I just say "bothered me terribly"?) was Arwen. Oh! Did I forget to mention Liv Tyler before when I was discussing the cast? I did, didn't I? Well, she was not good. Liv is not a great actress, but that was not the problem, really. Mostly it was turning Arwen into a major character in this first movie. When the black riders get swept away in the waters of Mitheithel, it is Arwen who makes it happen, not Gandalf. That's a big mistake, and definitely not something that helped the story along in any way. I'm sure Peter once again wanted Arwen to be more established in this movie before she shows up later on, but this was definitely not the way to do that. The white horses, the flood, it's all a spectacular re-entry of Gandalf into the story. In the movie, though, we are with Gandalf throughout his absence, so it's not a mystery. Therefore, perhaps, Peter didn't think such a dramatic return was necessary.

[ADDED NOTE: Okay, I was very way wrong on this one. It turns out it was Elrond who caused the wet white horsie flood via remote control powers in Rivendell. Thankfully, George in Athens, Georgia, pointed out this error. He also made a perfect argument for putting Arwen in this sequence. I had forgotten this detail, thanks to the aluminum in my deodorant, but it was Arwen's brother who rode Frodo across the river. George pointed out that the brother was not a major character afterward, so why not put his sister there instead to tighten up the movies? Good point. And instead of Elrond causing the flood in a place off-screen, why not let his daughter do it right there at the site to make the scene more interesting? Again, a good point, and I am happy to announce I agree fully! But I still didn't like Liv as Arwen. Yick.]

There are many digressions from the book, and it'd be silly to go through them all. I understand that the book needed to be made "movie ready," but still, many of the choices baffle me. Most are unnecessary and could have been achieved with minimal changes or smarter writing.

It's time to move on to the effects. It would be unfair for me to spare The Fellowship of the Ring my usual bad effects tirade, so I'll have to be honest: Most of the effects are just okay. There's a lot of bad blue screen with characters obviously faked over backgrounds. There's lots of mushy joining of live and CG action. There's fakey-looking mattes. All of that stuff.

But sometimes, the effects are so dramatically realized, it doesn't matter that they're less than realistic. My favorite effects sequence, besides the meant-to-be-odd-looking wearing the ring effect, is the end of the trek through Moria. The caverns are so impressively deep and the bridges and staircases unnervingly narrow, I was dizzy. Watching the same bridges and staircases crumble, the pieces falling into the fiery pits below, was beautiful destruction. Truly awesome in the original meaning of the word.

I was watching the attack sequence of Pearl Harbor on DVD the other day (the DTS soundtrack kicks so much ass it received a medal from Colin Powell). Had that kind of money been spent on the effects in this movie, it could have really blown me away. I know CG is still a developing art, but some movies deserve to be given the best. Did Pearl Harbor deserve that excellent work ILM and the others put out? No. Does LOTR? Yes!

Anyway, the effects aren't seamless, but I'm a picky SOB anyway. Most people won't notice. Important point: They are certainly better than a lot of the effects in Harry Potter.

[ADDED NOTE: I forgot to mention how well the size differences between the characters are portrayed in the film. Hobbits and dwarves are small in the book, so in the movie, some shots had to have a little Elijah next to a big Ian, for example. On the whole, it's really well done. Whereas some of the effects do a lot of grandstanding&30151;flying virtual cameras and such—this effect is subdued, making it blend right into the movie so as to be mostly unnoticeable. Subtle camera work helps the size illusion along in non-effects shots, too, where the camera shoots ever-so-slightly down on the Hobbits to make them look small to your subconscious.]

[STILL ANOTHER ADDED NOTE: Okay, about the grandstanding effects, please let me vent... It's very easy, once one has created a 3-D world inside a computer, to allow the virtual camera to move and swoop and fly in all directions. I love that kind of thing generally, but it needs to be used with restraint. There is nothing that will call attention to an effect than over-zealous camera moves. You know such a move can't be accomplished in the "real" world, and in this movie, it's not, so when a grand landscape of denuded forests littered with the swarming forms of ugly orcs is plunged into with a caffeineated "camera," the shot does not connect organically with the rest of the movie and is instantly recognized as a CG creation. Yeah, it's picky, but imagine how much it would have added to the already impressive realism of the movie to use the 3-D CG setpieces as one would a real set. I hate to use it as an example, but Star Wars I did this rather well. When the "camera" moved in those CG worlds, it was with a cinematic purpose. Okay, enough of that.]

The music was dull and unoriginal. Okay, maybe atmospheric here, haunting there, but mostly unmemorable. Recent boring orchestral soundtracks have made me appreciate older John Williams scores like Star Wars, Empire, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those were soundtracks that had singable, whistleable, humable themes and yet were complex enough to tax any symphony orchestra. They were so much more than just background. Can I recall any themes from The Fellowship of the Ring? Nope. Did I know Pippin and Merry were about to make a silly comment when the music changed from french horns and strings to bassoon? Yup. The music is perfectly serviceable, but really, nothing to get feverish about. I also understand Enya did two songs for the movie. I only heard one, and that was in the end credits, so maybe the other was somewhere in the background. Oh, well.

That's enough, then, on the pros and cons of this movie. And how have I decided to balance it out?

I do really, really like it. I want to see it again. It's 3 hours long, but certainly worth it, and it holds your interest the entire time.

[FINAL LAST ADDED NOTE: As I mentioned at the top, I have seen this again, and it was incredibly entertaining the second time. It's a strong film that overcomes the negatives I mentioned. Except Pippin and Merry, who bugged the hell out of me much more the second viewing.]

I can't wait for The Two Towers, to see how Peter continues his version of the trilogy. I doubt any better version of The Lord of the Rings could have been made right now, and for that I am thankful.

 

—Steve

1/17/02

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The Extended Extra Super Long Special Director's Expanded Collector's Edition on DVD



I liked The Fellowship of the Ring when it was in theaters. I saw it three times. Or was it four? Now I've seen it once on DVD, plus once more on the new expanded edition DVD. The expanded edition has 30 more minutes of footage, all completely finished, with new effects and music, and an incredible-sounding DTS-ES 6.1 Discreet surround soundtrack.

You may gather after reading the review above that I would not have enjoyed the movie enough to see it so many times. Well, it's grown on me. Like a wonderful fungus.

My appreciation for what Peter Jackson has done with The Lord of the Rings grows with each viewing of Fellowship. Some of the things I complained about him changing last year I was wrong about, meaning I was inaccurate in remembering what was in the book. Some of my complaints have withered with my new understanding of why certain changes were made. Some complaints are addressed with the new added scenes on this DVD. But what is most impressive is how the movie affects me emotionally. I finished reading The Two Towers not long ago, and I realized what the movie offers that the book does not. Emotion. I may get booed off the Net for saying this, but the books, for all their grand scale and amazing detail, are not very moving. Exciting in parts, but not moving. Frodo is rather dull. Gandalf is a weird-ass enigma. I do not find fault in the books for this, I merely point it out because it's something I felt with this reading that I didn't remember from when I read the books in high school. The books recount the tale as an epic, detailed, and complicated adventure. The movie version has successfully retained the epic feel, but has also added a dimension to Tolkien's characters that is necessary for them to succeed on the big screen. Like I mentioned in my original review, I still get teary when Frodo offers to take the ring to Mount Doom and Gandalf gives that incredibly complex facial reaction. (Yes, thanks again to Ian for pulling that one off.) And by the end of the movie, when Frodo and Sam are taking their first steps into the marshes, I am moved by the sense of danger, friendship, sadness, and anticipation that the scene holds.

I still have to read The Return of the King, which I'm putting off until after The Two Towers comes out so I can keep each book fresh in my head before each movie. Maybe that book will turn out to be more moving emotionally than the first two.

Almost every single thing spliced into the extended DVD version is a helpful addition. Aside from a couple expository scenes I felt were not necessary, the longer movie creates a richer world, richer characters, and greater parity with the book. Spread out over two discs, the movie is nearly 4 hours long. But it's 4 well-spent hours. The movie already felt epic, and now it's more so, which makes it better, not more boring. With more vigor this time, I can congratulate Peter Jackson and everyone else involved with the film for making a Lord of the Rings that's a keeper.

Now I'm so excited for The Two Towers that I can hardly contain myself. Does anyone have some Tupperware?

 

—Steve

11/26/02

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©2002 Steven Lekowicz except
The Fellowship of the Ring graphics ©2001 New Line Productions, Inc.