Since 1954, voracious fans of dense, fascinating literature around the globe have held their dog-eared copies of "The Fellowship of the Ring", first in the trilogy known as "The Lord of the Rings", and for almost half a century, we've imagined elves and wizards and orcs and balrogs. Tolkein's work has been the foundation for all the fantasy to come since, and has influenced several generations of both authors and filmmakers alike. Now, under the guiding hand of Peter Jackson, this Epic has entered the medium of film, and what an Epic it has turned out to be...
Where to begin. This is a truly difficult question to answer. I saw this film not once, but twice, on opening day. I saw it with a group of friends at 11:00am, then again at 4:00pm with old friends as part of helping them celebrate their 9th wedding anniversary. And, like all good films, it got better the second time around. I saw things that my mind simply hadn't noticed the first time. That indicates a film of such visual and content depth that one time isn't sufficient to catch everything that's going on. So, in the spirit of the film, I'll just go with first impressions and work my way around from there.
The single most impressive feature of this film is credited solely to Peter Jackson and his cinematography crew. The work with perspective on this film is staggering. Sean Astin, who plays Samwise Gamgee, Frodo's friend and protector, is 5' 5". John Rhys-Davies, who plays the dwarf Gimli, must be over six feet. Yet somehow, before our eyes, Gimli stands a mere four foot, although almost as broad at the shoulders, and Samwise is three feet tall. It is a substantial feat that we who view the film see hobbits as wee folk, dwarves as slightly taller than the hobbits, but incredibly thick physically, the elves slightly taller and lithe, and the humans the tallest, just as in the books. To see such perspective in ones minds-eye is simple. To see such perspective translated into believability on the screen was more than one could hope for, yet it was exactly what we got.
Now seems the appropriate time to talk about the human factor in keeping perspective: the cast. In a word, fabulous. It seems that, in most films of late, there are inconsistencies in the cast as far as who can act well, who can act somewhat, and those who couldn't act cold in the snow. What a delight it was to see a cast where not one person, not even down to the smallest extra, fell from that initial category. Everyone was fabulous! Everyone spoke the lines like they were born in their role, and that sense of professional perspective on the part of the cast only amplified the sense of total immersion one experiences when viewing this Epic.
Let me list off a few names... Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee, Viggo Mortensen as Strider the Ranger, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, John Rhys-Davies as Gimli the Dwarf, Billy Boyd as Pippin, Dominic Monaghan as Merry, Orlando Bloom as Legolas the Elf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Sean Bean as Boromir, Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins and Christopher Lee as Saruman the White. All were fabulous. But there is one name I want to mention specificaly. Liv Tyler, as Arwen Undómiel, the daughter of the King of the Elves, showed a talent and a depth of feeling and expression I've yet to see from that actress. I've always thought her pretty, but the seeming lack of characterization in the roles I'd seen her in always detracted from her allure. Not so in this film. She is so fully Arwen that, at times, I doubted if it was Liv Tyler. Her speech, her movements, her facial expression... they were all so fully elven that it shocked me, in a most pleasant way.
McKellen brought Gandalf to life. He was everything Gandalf was supposed to be, in all his varied facets. Wood carried off the "otherworldly innocence" of Frodo well enough that willing suspension of disbelief became status quo for the duration of the film. Hugo Weaving as Elrond... what can I say except "Fabulous". Mortensen's Aragorn was perfect, the epitome of quiet confidence and wisdom. I could go on, ranting and raving about every single performance, but this is getting long and I still have miles to go before the sun sets on this review, so I'd best get a move on.
The special effects were all that we've come to expect from the Hollywood film machine, with the exception that this film seemed to blend live-action and CGI better than any have before, about on the same level as Harry Potter in that respect. The shots that were obviously CGI'd didn't glare out most times, although a few times they did, such as the fight with the cave troll in the Mines of Moria. The cinematography was so good that it was one of the few times I jolted out of my immersion in the film, to wonder how they did a shot, then after figuring it out and being duly impressed, dove back into the soothing waters of willing suspension of disbelief for the last 30 minutes of the film.
Now, after all of this, you should get the idea that I strongly recommend seeing this film at least once, preferably twice so you pick up everything you didn't see the first time. I do feel this way, but... there were a few things that nagged at me, so I'll mention them briefly. I'm told the story deviates from the plot of the books. it's been more years than I'm willing to admit publicly since I've read the Lord of the Rings, so I don't know, but the woman who told me this is a Tolkein scholar, so I'm inclined to agree with her. This I didn't mind so much, one must always tweak and mold in any novel-to-film adaptation. But Jackson felt that we needed to be reminded of one image continuously throughout the film, and used the same exact footage three times to cement it in our image. I would have remembered with one, and felt that three times was excessive and burdensome. My other major complaint comes from the score. Beautiful, yes. Eerie and otherwordly, yes. Suitable for the film, no. This film is Epic in a way Titanic only wishes it could have achieved, and yet we have music that is completely New Age and not suitable for a film that is, at its core, quest/adventure-oriented. I found myself wondering how much better the film would have been, yet above what it is, had someone like Elmer Bernstein or John Williams had scored it. With that said, if you like the music of Enya, you will no doubt find my criticism of that portion of the film inaccurate. I, however, do not think it suited the film to be scored as if it were all under scenes in Rivendell or the Elven Wood.
All in all, though, a thoroughly enjoyable film. Apart from the minor nit-picky things, Peter Jackson, and his cast and crew, should feel nothing but pride in the accomplishment of bringing the great-grandsire of modern fantasy to the big screen. The fact that it is in such a reverent fashion will no doubt earn him the respect of Tolkein fans the world around. I give this film a hearty A! Go see it. Twice.