Sunday, August 4, 2013

FIlm #100: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

*The Fellowship of the Rings is the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The list-compilers at TIME magazine consider them all “one film,” but I will review each one separately.

Director: Peter Jackson

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: at least eight

Rapid-Fire Summary (No spoilers)

Tiny, cheery little fellow ends up with the most powerful and evil trinket in the land. A few other tiny, cheery little fellows and a few larger fellows join up to help him bring the trinket to a raging volcano and destroy it. Some silliness and swordplay carry them through.

Extended Summary (Spoilers included. Fair Warning)

*As many of you know, a truly geeked-out Tolkien and/or LoTR film fan could write a 200-page summary of this film. I’m not, and I won’t. However, if you want something more detailed, you can check out this synopsis at imdb. And if you want something MUCH more detailed, just read the novels.

In the mythical world of Middle Earth, a variety of beings dwell. In a setting that resembles the Middle Ages of our world, humans share Middle Earth with other races, including elves, dwarfs, orcs, goblins, and many others. One of the more peaceful and communal races is that of the hobbits – smallish beings that resemble humans, though around half the size and bearing hairy feet and slightly pointed ears.

One evening, in Hobbiton, the elderly hobbit Bilbo Baggins pulls an incredible vanishing act in front of a full crowd on his 111th birthday. To pull off this feat, he uses a ring of invisibility that he had obtained many decades prior in a game of riddles from a wretched creature that called itself Gollum. In addition to the other witnesses to Frodo’s disappearance are his nephew Frodo and their human wizard friend, Gandalf. What Gandalf knows that Frodo doesn’t is that Bilbo had planned this disappearance, in order to leave behind the daily headaches caused by his relatives in Hobbiton. Bilbo leaves behind the ring of invisibility, which Gandalf carefully passes along to Frodo. Gandalf, however, suspects something more sinister about the ring.

Bilbo and Gandalf share a smoke before Bilbo's grand vanishing act in the shire of Hobbiton.

After much travel and research, Gandalf returns to Hobbiton and tells Frodo that the ring is, in fact, the lost “One True Ring” of Sauron, “The Dark Lord” from ages past. The ring is a physical manifestation of Sauron’s evil soul and his will to dominate, and it corrupts all those who come into contact with it. Hobbits, though, seem to have a much stronger resistance to the ring’s corrupting powers than nearly all other races. Gandalf has also discovered that Sauron has been gradually reforming and building a massive army in the blasted lands of Mordor. The Dark Lord has also learned that his ring of power is in the hands of a hobbit called “Baggins.” Because of all of these things, Gandalf forces Frodo and his friend, Samwise (Sam), to leave the shire and get to the nearby town of Bree, where he will meet them after he consults with the head of his wizarding order, Saruman the White.

When he meets with Saruman, Gandalf soon discovers that his elder and superior has already been turned by the powerful will of Sauron. Saruman captures Gandalf for a time, but Gandalf eventually escapes. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam, who have been joined on their journey by fellow hobbits Merry and Pippin, reach Bree, only to find that Gandalf is not yet there. After some trouble nearly erupts, the hobbits are befriended by a man called “Strider,” a ranger who seems to have their interests at heart. He saves them from the “ring wraiths,” powerful minions of Sauron whose only goal is to retrieve his ring of power.

The hobbits and Strider spend several days evading the ring wraiths, and they eventually reach the elven city Rivendell, where they reunite with Gandalf. After a counsel between representatives of the races of elves, dwarfs, and humans, it is decided that the ring must be taken to and destroyed in the only place where it is possible – Mount Doom in the middle of Mordor, where the ring was originally forged millenia earlier. Frodo elects to bear the ring, and eight others accompany him: his three fellow hobbits, Gandalf, Strider (whose real identity we learn is Aragorn – the heir to the throne of humans), the human nobleman Boromir, the dwarf Gimli, and the elf Legolas. The fellowship of the ring is formed.

The nine members of the fellowship of the ring in Rivendell, before they embark on their treacherous (and for some, fatal) journey to Mordor.

The fellowship fight through and past many dangers in an attempt to reach Mordor. They are harried by crows, pursued by orcs, and turned back by massive snowstorms created by Saruman. With no other options, they take Gimli’s suggestion to go under the mountains, through his cousin Bali’s cave city, The Mines of Moria. However, upon entering Moria, they find nothing but dwarf corpses. Moria has been overrun by goblins. The fellowship forges ahead, cautiously, but after a few days they are attacked. After fending off several dozen goblins and a cave troll, the must flee when a powerful fire demon appears. Gandalf stands against the creature, allowing his companions to escape; however, the kindly wizard is pulled down into a seemingly bottomless chasm with the beast.

Once free of Moria and after a brief respite in a wooded elvish city, the eight companions move on. Eventually, though, Frodo begins to realize that he will have to continue the journey alone, as the ring’s power threatens to overcome and twist each of his companions. To confirm his suspicions, Boromir attempts to take the ring from Frodo. Frodo flees him just as the fellowship is attacked by a band of orcs. The companions turn back the orcs, but not before Boromir is killed and Merry and Pippin are taken prisoner (Saruman has commanded his orcs to take any hobbits prisoner, so that he can find the ring of power).

The fellowship of the ring, once composed of nine companions with common purpose, is now broken. However, they are not defeated. Sam willfully joins Frodo on his quest to bring the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. Now parted from the ring bearer and his closest friend, Aragorn rallies Gimli and Legolas, as they agree to stalk the orcs who have Merry and Pippin and free their little companions.

Aragorn, imploring Frodo to flee on his own and leave the fellowship behind. Aragorn then goes on to display his swordsmanship by mowing down waves of orcs.

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing)

To my slight sadness, the Fellowship of the Ring has lost a bit of its magic for me in the past few years. It’s still a great film, and I can’t see anyone ever attempting to adapt Tolkien’s seminal work onto the big screen again, so successful was Jackson. Still, this recent viewing didn’t hold my attention the way that it had before.

A little history: I LOVED these movies when they came out. When Fellowship hit the theaters, I saw it three times. When it was released on DVD, I watched it another two or three times. When they released the extended DVD version (which brought the film’s length to nearly three-and-a-half hours), I bought it right away and watched it three more times. About four years ago, my local theater did a marathon of the full trilogy, extended editions (nearly 11 hours of film in one day), and I went to it and enjoyed them all, immensely.

So why has my adoration for the movie faded? I can’t say that I’m completely sure. It could be that I just wasn’t in the right mood to watch it upon this recent viewing. I also suspect that, by viewing the 200-minute-long extended edition, I asked too much of myself at that particular time. However, I have other suspicions…

Upon this umpteenth viewing, I experienced some of the same dazed, stupefied disconnection as ol' Boromir here. Mainly, it was during the the sappier Frodo/Sam exchanges.

Once you’ve seen the films a few times, or maybe if you’re really familiar with the books, you may have less patience for the slower moments of the film. And Fellowship does have plenty of what could be called “slow moments.” This is not to be confused with “unnecessary scenes,” as all of the quieter moments do have their purposes: they add depth to certain characters, they reveal relationships or lore about the very rich world of Middle Earth, or they allow the viewer to take in the visual majesty that the film presents. Still, for some reason, these things weren’t enough to keep hold on my attention like they had in the past.

Lest I get too deeply into what I was not as enamored of, I need to spend time on the many positives of this movie. Now, one needs to be aware that this is the ultimate “fantasy” film, based on the “fantasy” story that basically birthed a massive genre of novels, films, cartoons, role-playing games, and so forth. If you haven’t seen these films and you have no interest in medieval-setting mythical tales, then don’t bother. I understand that some people find such things silly and pointless, and those people should stay well away from this film trilogy. I, on the other hand, love this kind of stuff, and Peter Jackson constructed what will probably remain the greatest fantasy film(s) for many, many decades.

Tackling J.R.R. Tolkien’s incredibly rich world of Middle Earth had been attempted before, but only in cartoons. For the many decades that followed the book’s release, there was simply no way that any movie could capture the imagination the way that the books always had. Finally, though, by the late 1990s, the financial and technological means existed for bringing Tolkien’s Middle Earth to live-action life. And right from the first scenes of this first installment, it was clear that Jackson was the man for the job. The prologue in Fellowship, which depicts the background tale of the Dark Lord Sauron’s One Ring of Power and his defeat at the hands of elves and humans, is packed with the visual magic and rousing action that define the film series.

The first, historic battle scene is relatively short, but conveys all of the grandeur and intensity that is intended. After this, though, it takes quite a while for the film to get back to these breathtaking, blood-pumping melees. 

The attention and respect that Jackson constantly pays to the source material is very impressive. Of course, hardcore Tolkien fanatics will nitpick at plenty of little things – “No, Boromir didn’t inherit that sword from that person…,” or “No, it wasn’t Pippin who stole the carrots, it was Merry...” and blah, blah, blah. Those who get caught up in such minor details completely miss the point – Jackson was brilliant at staying as true as he could to the novels while putting together a very entertaining film. The story conveys every bit of wonder and richness embedded within Middle Earth, and the tale of Frodo and the ring are given the epic treatment that they require.

The story itself is the classic, age-old story of a quest undertaken in order to prevent evil forces from dominating the lands. The fellowship formed by the four races certainly presents a compelling mix of mythical history, characters, and archetypes. The various races represent simplicity, power, honor, grace, courage, stodginess, and many other characteristics, in different turns. The ultimate presence of magic, represented by Gandalf and Saruman, adds the mystic and mysterious aspects of the story. To people like me, it can be truly enchanting.

Of course, all of the things explained in the previous paragraph were present in the books. What Jackson did was successfully translate them onto the big screen. Using his native country of New Zealand was a convenient and perfect choice. The small island country’s rolling, verdant hills; craggy, snow-capped peaks; and lush forests provide all of the scenery that Tolkien’s Middle Earth contained. Even someone who has no interest in the story of little hobbits, dwarfs, and elves can watch many of the sweeping shots over the landscape and marvel at it.

Jackson also put New Line Cinema’s massive budget to good work as well, with the end result being phenomenal costumes and visuals. The set pieces are great, and they build up the world all the more. Perhaps my favorite decision of his was to use human actors as much as possible. While there are clearly moments when CGI was used (particularly to create some of the especially enormous buildings, statues, or armies), Jackson opted to use make-up and creature effects as often as he could. Hence, you have many of the orcs, goblins, and other nefarious beings being played by human actors. The effects is that they all seem much more tangible and horrifying. I guess this latter adjective should come as no surprise, seeing as how Jackson got his cinematic start doing extremely graphic and effects-heavy horror films like Dead Alive.

Even when scenes involved dozens of individuals, Jackson didn't cop out with computer graphics - the use of real actors done over in top-notch make up and costumes was an invaluable asset to the film series.

The cast is excellent. From the impish and humble hobbits to the gruff and belligerent dwarves, all of the players nailed their parts right from the start in this first installment of the trilogy. The standouts to me are Ian McKellan as the kindly, paternal Gandalf the Grey and Viggo Mortensen as the mysterious, internally conflicted Strider/Aragorn. Some people might find the dialogue and deliveries to be overly theatrical and dramatic, but I’ve always felt that it fit the setting well. We’re dealing with imaginary myths here, so the speech and deliveries should be delivered with a polished and almost aristocratic air. It all fits perfectly well in this film series.

This does, however, bring me to something that I now find a bit tedious in Fellowship – the relationship between Frodo and Sam. I do understand perfectly well that this relationship is the true heart of the story. The fraternal bond between the two friends is the very type of goodness that is supposed to carry us through dark times, and it is this notion that creates the connection between us the viewers and these completely imaginary characters. Still, once you’ve seen the film a few times (or a half dozen times, like myself and other nerds), the moments that Sam and Frodo share start to drag. Granted, it isn’t a massive focus in Fellowship, but it’s already starting to wear on my attention. Instead of enjoying the moments between the two hobbit pals, I find myself anticipating other scenes. Namely, the action sequences.

Just a small, early sample of what will be many, many, MANY doe-eyed gazes between Sam and Frodo. It doesn't get terribly annoying until the third film, but it begins in the first film.

In Fellowship, we get several fantastic action sequences, and these serve as great hints of what is to come in the subsequent films. The opening prologue features a rousing depiction of the historic defeat of Sauron at the hands of Isildur. Other fight and battle scenes are equally entertaining, though they take a while to arrive at. The standouts are the trek through the Mines of Moria, including Gandalf’s facing off against the towering Balrog, and the battle in the woods between the fellowship and a patrol of orcs. For a man who had never directed extended action scenes in any of his previous major films (maybe you could include The Frighteners), Jackson proved himself quite astute at directing these scenes. Of course, he would continue to outdo himself in each of the sequels, with battles becoming grander and more spectacular.

*I will be reviewing the other two films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the next few weeks, after watching the few other films remaining on the TIME list.

That’s a wrap (sort of). 100 shows down; 5 to go.

Coming Soon: Talk to Her (2002):

My hunch is that this is a thoughtful, artful drama that has nothing to do with elves and dwarfs cracking wise and killing monsters. It should be an interesting change of pace.