An insider at Cinefantastique Magazine has sent us the as-yet-unpublished review of LOTR:FOTR, read it here and ONLY here!
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
Peter Jackson’s eagerly awaited THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING?the first film in his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy?is a truly magnificent achievement, possibly the best fantasy film to come along since STAR WARS appeared, nearly 25 years ago. Jackson and his entire crew have done standout work, while carefully managing to avoid the numerous pitfalls that usually befall such massive undertakings. One only has to look at such previous misfires in the genre?WILLOW, LEGEND and the animated LORD OF THE RINGS?to see how easily this movie could have trod down the same path. However, by staying true to his inner vision and having the great good fortune of having New Line Cinema solidly behind him, Jackson has been able to pull off a true feat of cinematic magic. It seems likely that the complete trilogy will make movie history, and in the process, catapult Jackson into the top rank of world film directors.
Starting off with a extended prologue that sets up the mythic background behind the forging of the one true ring (destined to rule all), we see how it first came to be lost in battle by the malificent Sauron, and are immediately drawn into the mythos of this ancient world, via a series of spectacular battle sequences. Narration informs us of how the ring comes into the possession of Gollum, followed in turn by Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who bequeaths it to his nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood).
The condensing of Tolkien’s novel is succinctly done by a trio of scripters, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson, which seldom hits any false notes. Most importantly, it immediately achieves the right balance of wonder and awe. Disbelieve is suspended with a series of realistic and beautifully crafted settings, which transport one into this enchanted world with nary a thought of the massive trickery needed to accomplish it. And audiences not already familiar with Tolkien’s opus will have little to worry about, as the characters are introduced with clarity and economy, aided by a top-notch acting ensemble, all who seem perfectly cast in their respective roles. Quite thankfully, no big star names have been forced on the production in a vain attempt to enhance it’s box-office appeal (I’m sure some brilliant producer could easily have seen Tom Cruise as the perfect Frodo?after all, he’s short enough).
Opening scenes in the Hobbit Shire introduce us to Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) and his beautifully realized Hobbit-sized house, Bag End, set into the side of a grassy hill. The Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appears and gently urges Bilbo to leave the ring with his nephew Frodo, which Bilbo does with some reluctance, as it has kept him from aging for many years. Gandalf instructs Frodo on the evil nature of the ring, and tells him to take it to a Tavern in Bree, while he reports to the head Wizard of his order in Isengard. There, Gandalf seeks advice on how to destroy the ring from Saruman (Christopher Lee), who shrewdly bids his time, by first drawing Gandalf out, and then slowly tries to sway Gandalf to the dark side. When Gandalf realizes (too late) that Saruman is now under the dominance of Sauron, a titanic battle of Wizards takes place, with Gandalf unable to match the powers of his former master.
These scenes, set in Saruman’s throne room, are a real delight, as Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee first calmly discuss the fate of the ring (like the old friends they are), until Lee’s evil intentions slowly becoming apparent. The scene culminates in a full-fledged duel, which has the two gifted thesps tossed about the throne room MATRIX-style, until Gandalf is near death. Having succumbed to Saruman’s greater powers, Gandalf is imprisoned on top of Saruman’s imposing Orthanc Tower.
Frodo, meanwhile journeys towards Bree, and his scheduled rendezvous with Gandalf, along with three Hobbit friends. Arriving at the Prancing Pony Inn, he encounters the mysterious Strider (Viggo Mortensen), who helps Frodo escape from the Ringwraiths, the nine dark horsemen who are intent on obtaining the ring for their dark master. However Strider is able to guide the Hobbits to the safety of the Elve city of Rivendell, where the true journey will commence.
Back at Isengard, Gandalf watches helplessly, as Saruman begins to create an army of fearsome Urak-Hai warriors to help him obtain the ring, and Saruman confronts Gandalf one last time attempting to convert his former pupil to do his bidding. Instead Gandalf makes a spectacular escape on the wings of a giant eagle (which he has transformed from a Butterfly), and flies off to join Frodo in Rivendell. There, the nine members of the Ring Fellowship are chosen, whose appointed task is to dispose of the ring in far off Mordor, by incinerating it in the fires of Mount Doom.
Leading the team is Gandalf, with master swordsman Strider, (now revealed as the royal heir, Aragorn), taking the deputy position. Also joining the team is the Elve archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom), the boisterous Dwarf ax-warrior Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the brave but conflicted Boromir (Sean Bean). Actors chosen all fit convincingly into their roles, abetted by impressive costume design and make-up work.
Jackson’s assured directorial style, handles the numerous introductions deftly, and turns what could have become a drawn-out period of exposition, into an asset, by following the classic Hitchcock style of suspense, where an innocent bystander is forced into a cross-country chase. Here, the unlikely hero (Frodo) is constantly in peril, but with adequate respites, to allow audiences to catch their breath. Being constantly on the move also allows for the use of a variety of ever-changing scenic backdrops, provided by spectacular locations in New Zealand that all seem fresh, especially since most of America’s epic landscapes (like Monument and Death Valley) have become so familiar.
The Fellowship’s quest continues, as they attempt to forge a path through the snowy mountain pass of Caradhras, before being forced by an avalanche, to attempt an even more hazardous alternate route, a four day journey through the dark mines of Moria. Here several of the film’s astonishing set-pieces occur, as the valiant band of warriors must face all manner of dark foes in a series of labyrinth-like vaulted stone chambers, inspired by Gothic Church’s and catacombs. First menace is a horde of marauding Orcs, who attack the Fellowship before retreating at the onset of the massive and demonic Balrog, who forces the fearless group into a precarious retreat on the stairs of Khazad-dum.
Effects and design work for these scenes is particularly noteworthy, with Jackson wisely eschewing straight CGI work, for a combination of large scale miniatures enhanced with CGI. Results are truly impressive, with viewer held in total awe at the incredible realism of seeing a massive stone stairway that appears to tower hundreds of feet across an apparently bottomless chasm.
Jackson’s fondness for the work of Ray Harryhausen is well known, and with THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, he has given us the ultimate Harryhausen homage, by creating the first film in the grand tradition of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, since the stop-motion master retired in 1981. The menagerie of creatures presented here is outstandingly realized (in CGI animation) by Randall William Cook (GHOSTBUSTERS), and includes “The Watcher,” a many-tentacled. squid-like monster, which attacks the fellowship from a lake outside the gates of Moria. There’s also a huge cave Troll (which could almost be a more evil version of Shreik), that nearly kills Frodo in an exciting battle in the Tomb of Balin. Best of all is the towering Balrog, whose immense powers seem unstoppable, until Gandalf manages to dispatch the demon in a highly charged confrontation on the stone steps Khazad-dum, where McKellan intones “you shall not pass” as furiously as if it were King Lear’s “Howl” speech from Shakespear!
e. It’s an epic confrontation scene, that’s like seeing a live-action Chernobog face-off against the Wizard from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode of Disney’s FANTASIA.
One clear advantage Jackson has over many past fantasy films, is the tremendous advances in effects work that makes the world of middle-earth so realistic. But he’s also working with more fully realized character’s than are usual for this type of film. Relationships between Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn and Boromir are finely delineated and enacted, giving rise to real emotional responses in the viewer. Gandalf’s death, for instance, is a truly heart-felt moment, and causes the tears to flow, unlike the phony and manipulated emotional responses so often encountered in Spielberg’s movies. And the characters, while brave and heroic, also display touching character flaws, making them seem far more vulnerable, with two fellowship members actually dying during the trek, making the fantasy seem all the more realistic.
Stylistically, Peter Jackson has a very distinctive signature, which combines elements favored by past cinematic masters, like Sergei Eisenstein (the epic battle scenes) and Sergio Leone (huge close-up’s of the actor’s eyes), although he always retains his own point of view. Jackson is also greatly assisted by the mobile camera work of cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who manages to create expert lighting over every kind of scene imaginable, as well as perfectly blending miniatures and digital characters into the various shots.
Design work by conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, realized by production designer Grant Major, is nothing short of brilliant, outshining anything to be seen on screen during the past year, and should easily carry home an Academy Award.
Howard Shore’s music, while nicely in-tune to the onscreen proceedings, still falls slightly short of the grandiose themes a Bernard Herrmann or Miklos Rozsa could have brought to the proceeding (if only they were still around). Ironically, Pic’s score is perhaps the one area where FELLOWSHIP could have borrowed a page from HARRY POTTER’s book. A John Williams scored FELLOWSHIP would no doubt have made this awesome achievement, even better.