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(2001) (Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen) (PG-13)

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Action/Fantasy: A disparate group of beings attempts to return a powerful ring to its place of creation and destroy it there before its evil, original owner gains possession of it.
In a world known as Middle Earth, a number of powerful rings were assigned to various beings thousands of years ago, with the dark lord Sauron forging one to control others and all life. When he was defeated by an alliance of men and elves, the ring passed on from one being to another over the passage of time, with all being influenced by its undeniable power.

The latest to possess it, Bilbo Baggins (IAN HOLM), a 111-year old hobbit, is reluctant to part with it as it's kept him perpetually young. Nevertheless, his old friend, Gandalf (IAN McKELLEN), a powerful but wise wizard, convinces him to pass it down it to his young heir, Frodo Baggins (ELIJAH WOOD), who's unaware of its background or potential for personal upheaval.

Familiar with the ring's power, its desire to rule, and its need to return to its original master, Gandalf realizes that Frodo's possession of it puts him in danger and thus tells him he must leave for his own good. Accompanied by his friends and fellow hobbits, Sam (SEAN ASTIN), Pippin (BILLY BOYD) and Merry (DOMINIC MONAGHAN), Frodo does just that, while Gandalf goes to visit Saruman (CHRISTOPHER LEE), another wizard.

It turns out Saruman's been corrupted by Sauron who's now been resurrected, and so Frodo and his friends find themselves on their own, pursued by evil beings on horseback intent on seizing the ring. It turns out, however, that they have friends in unlikely places as they meet Aragorn (VIGGO MORTENSEN), a human ranger, and Arwen (LIV TYLER), a beautiful elf, who collectively try to keep the hobbits out of harm's way.

Frodo is finally wounded, but is then saved and eventually reunited with Gandalf. They then attend a meeting where various beings -- Boromir (SEAN BEAN), a human, Legolas (ORLANDO BLOOM), an elf bowman, and Gimli (JOHN RHYS-DAVIES), a gruff dwarf - agree that the ring Frodo possesses must be destroyed. The problem is that the only way that can occur is by returning it to the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.

From that point on, those various beings - the Fellowship of the Ring - set out across the lands on their mission and encounter others - such as the mystical Galadriel (CATE BLANCHETT) - along with all sorts of monstrous creatures who either want to harm them or gain possession of the ring.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Once upon a time in town called Hollywood, credits ran at the beginning of films and trailers - movie previews to the layperson - ran at the end. Nowadays, of course, trailers are an industry in and upon themselves and for good reason. With the cutthroat competition and advertising hitting consumers from all angles, studios are desperate to pitch their product, and where better to do that than with a captive audience waiting to see another film.

While some viewers enjoy watching previews, others have grown tired of the number of them being shown before the show, their giving away most of the movie, and for some of them simply being too long at three or more minutes.

Well, kids, you haven't seen anything yet, as there's a new trailer in town. Clocking in at nearly three hours and not playing before the film but posing as it, ladies and gentlemen, may I present the latest coming attraction, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

Yes, the highly anticipated and long awaited cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's acclaimed first book of the Lord of the Ring series is really just an incredibly long teaser - albeit an often spectacular one - for the second film.

Like any good trailer, it introduces the basic plot and characters and shows a lot of action to intrigue and entice viewers. Yet, it's not so much a standard movie -- since it has no inherent conclusion -- as it is a setup for the sequel which we know is coming since both parts two and three have already been shot and are currently queued in the future release pipeline.

While I'm not familiar with the exact particulars of the literary work - which was first published in 1954 - or how they compare detail by detail to this work, I can comment on what does and does not work here. While the highly imaginative nature of Tolkien's fantasy world prevented any earlier live-action version of it - an animated and truncated version hit theaters back in 1978 - today's film technology obviously makes it possible. Accordingly, and if nothing else, the film certainly excels on a visual level.

Although one can still tell where miniatures are used and some of the sets look too much like, well, sets, the film benefits from a highly imaginative visual sense and look. The juxtaposition of characters of varying heights works rather well, the outdoor vistas - many filmed in New Zealand - are wonderful to behold (one sweeping fly-by toward a mountain top had me half-expecting to hear Julie Andrews belting out "The hills are alive, with the sound of Tolkien"), and the makeup is first-rate.

The plot - reportedly following but not steadfastly adhering to the author's story - is really just a modified version of Homer's The Odyssey. Accordingly, the film's hero sets out on a quest, accompanied by others, where they meet various interesting characters and monsters along the way and become involved in various adventures, some of them rather perilous in nature.

The problem is, the story - penned by writer/director Peter Jackson, long-time collaborator Fran Walsh ("The Frighteners," "Heavenly Creatures") and first-time screenwriter Phillipa Boyens - doesn't have a resolution, thus resulting in the three-hour teaser analogy. It doesn't make any difference what kind of cinematic story one is telling in any genre as most all movies follow the path of a character wanting something and then dealing with various complications they either overcome or that which eventually prevent them from attaining their goal.

Here, the character overcomes various obstacles, but never gets the chance to succeed or fail at the goal at hand - namely of destroying the evil ring -- as the film simply picks a convenient point to stop and then does so. It even has the audacity to do so without any sort of climax - beyond the conclusion of yet another battle - or cliffhanger finale, which would be all the better to elicit the "tune in next year, same Tolkien time, same Tolkien movie theater."

Some will argue that Tolkien ended the book the same way to prevent the story - that spans the three books - from overwhelming the reader in total length. While that obviously didn't hurt the now legendary status of the works and probably won't bother diehard fans, that doesn't mean such a "conclusion" will work on film. That's especially true after we've invested several hours expecting to see some sort of finale. If the filmmakers wanted it this way, perhaps the stories should have been presented as a TV miniseries spread out over several continuous nights.

George Lucas knew this with his initial "Star Wars" trilogy. The first film - obviously influenced in some manner by Tolkien's work - stood on its own with a beginning, middle and end, yet perfectly fit in as the first installment of the trilogy. While "The Empire Strikes Back" did have the "let's stop here" element, it got away with it since it was the second film and already had moviegoers hooked.

Imagine the outrage and/or disappointment if Luke and company didn't destroy the Death Star in the original due to the film stopping long before they made their assault. That's the feeling that non-fans here are likely to leave with. After seeing this film, I fear that part II - due in late 2002 - will simply be another long tease for Part III - due a year later - where things will finally be resolved.

Another area where Lucas bettered Tolkien - or at least director Peter Jackson's ("The Frighteners," "Heavenly Creatures") version of the story - is with the portrayal of the nemesis and purveyor of all that is evil and malevolent. Part of what made the "Star Wars" films so enjoyable was the personification and presence of Darth Vader, something that's sorely missing here.

Thanks to a narrator driven, exposition-heavy prologue where we get the Cliff Notes back-story for the main plot, we're told about Sauron, but don't see much of his face after that. Some may argue that the Ring is the true villain. That may be, and it might work rather well in literary form. Unfortunately, it doesn't convey very well to a visual one.

While the protagonist and his companions encounter some fun monsters, the head evil doer's minions are one-dimensional beings, dressed like Death or the Headless Horseman, your choice. Not even Jackson's constant use of showing them riding in slow motion - a point that makes one wonder if he owns stock in whatever company supplied the film - does anything to make them more menacing, let alone interesting.

Even Christopher Lee ("Sleepy Hollow," "Dracula") can't do much with his evil wizard character, and occasionally comes off as somewhat hokey, a cinematic precipice over which the film constantly teeters for much of its runtime.

Thankfully, the film contains a decent array of either quite good or at least engaging performances. The best obviously belongs to Ian McKellen ("X-Men," "Gods and Monsters"), playing the wise wizard Gandalf, as the veteran thespian creates an intriguing and fun character. Emoting the proper wide-eyed astonishment as the young hero, Elijah Wood ("Deep Impact," "The Ice Storm") is also good as the hobbit whose life is changed forever.

Billy Boyd ("Julie and the Cadillacs," "The Soldier's Leap"), Dominic Monaghan ("Monsignor Renard") and Sean Astin ("Deterrence," "Bulworth") are all decent portraying his friends and companions, while Ian Holm ("From Hell," "Joe Gould's Secret") delivers an entertaining performance as his rascally, 111-year-old relative.

The engaging and charismatic performances come from Viggo Mortensen ("28 Days," "A Perfect Murder"), Orlando Bloom ("Black Hawk Down," "Wilde"), Sean Bean ("Don't Say a Word," "Ronin") and John Rhys-Davies ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Great White Hype") who portray the hero's older protectors, but Liv Tyler ("One Night at McCool's," "Dr. T & The Women") and especially the usually terrific Cate Blanchett ("Charlotte Gray," "The Shipping News") can't do much with their limited and - in the latter's case - weakly drawn characters.

There's no denying that the film's Odyssey-like plot structure leaves it with somewhat of an unavoidable episodic feel, and that the many battle scenes 1) steal too much time from the drama and character growth/exploration, 2) occasionally look and feel too much like those from the recent "Mummy" films or 3) eventually become redundant especially when they don't involve any visual effects. At the same time, however, the picture benefits from the various adventures and some of the individual, terrific sequences that occur during them.

Simply put, if you're a big fan of the novels (and don't mind some artistic license taken with them) or mythical, fantasy style stories, you'll probably enjoy what's offered. If you don't fall into either category, you may love it or at least parts of it. Then again, you may just scratch your head wondering what all of the fuss has been about. I fall into the middle, thinking it has some terrific moments and individual performances, but otherwise is an incomplete experience in more ways than one. Good, but not as great as many have proclaimed, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 3, 2001 / Posted December 19, 2001

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