Fortunately for discriminating viewers, director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures) has been boning up on epic adventures and effects extravaganzas, from David Lean to Ray Harryhausen to the recent Mummy movies. Via the magnificent designs of fantasy artists Alan Lee and John Howe, Tolkien's mystical Middle Earth is brought to life courtesy of the wilds of New Zealand and the toil of Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger and Jim Rygiel, of the Kiwi effects workshop known as WETA. Your eyes will tell you: This is a formidable Fellowship.
At the risk of flogging a dead orc, the story goes something like this: In a happy, verdant land called the Shire, a diminutive, eccentric hobbit known as Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, chortling zestfully) is throwing a big party for his 111th birthday. At the firm suggestion of a fusty wizard named Gandalf the Grey (McKellen, otherworldly), Bilbo bequeaths to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) a quaint burrow called Bag End and a magical, highly coveted golden ring. The problem is, said ring is way evil, having been forged epochs ago by a satanic jerk called Sauron (voiced by Sala Baker) in the fires of the volcano Mount Doom. Frodo must cast the ring back into the volcano.
For sheer scale and ambition, Fellowship is that rare film that actually deserves to be called a triumph. Yet the project is so unwieldy that it simply cannot be perfect. Wood is simply too young to be Frodo, and he acts in only two modes: insipid awe and horrified nausea. And anyone unfamiliar with Tolkien's complex invented languages and nomenclature may have difficulty discerning colloquialisms from expectoration. Plotwise, there are plenty of stretches and assumptions that cause logic to lapse at times.
With coscreenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson is mostly faithful to Tolkien's storyline. Several sequences, though, are lifted directly from Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version (which is pretty enjoyable once you get past the Smurf music). Whatever the scene -- the party in Hobbiton, the clamor in Bree, the skirmish at Weathertop, the fracas at Durin's grave -- it's abundantly obvious that Jackson used Bakshi's movie as a blueprint, often expanding upon specific shots. But Bakshi's Rings concludes before reaching Tolkien's third book; it will be interesting to observe Jackson navigating his third installment without a map.
Niggling snipes aside, there's incredible spectacle here, surrounding formidable talent. Particularly noteworthy are the settings of Isengard and Lothlórien. The former is the immense headquarters of the wizard Saruman the White (Christopher Lee, sensationally sinister), who is breeding a hideous orc-human hybrid, the Uruk-Hai. If the rush of swooping through Saruman's Uruk-mills could be bottled, Starbucks would go bankrupt. Lothlórien, on the other hand, is an arboreal New Age paradise the Ewoks might have created if they weren't retarded, inhabited by the ageless elves Galadriel and Celeborn (Cate Blanchett and Marton Csokas). Best of all, the mines of Moria represent a directorial peak for Jackson, a chilling, thrilling underground sequence to give the stodgiest critic shivers.
There are many fine nuances from the cast as well. For instance, we discover that Liv Tyler -- as Galadriel's granddaughter and Aragorn's squeeze, Arwen -- can don pointy ears and emanate elfish pathos without eliciting a single chuckle. As her father, Elrond, Hugo Weaving also commands attention, holding court in the enchanted refuge of Rivendell, bemused by the hobbits one minute, racked by painful memories the next.
Stylistically, Fellowship marks a quantum leap for Jackson, proving that working long and hard on a well-told story is more impressive and potentially lucrative than grinding out disposable pap. Via director of photography Andrew Lesnie, the director allows himself his trademarks -- wide-lensed closeups, gory violence -- but this classic tale also affords him a glowing aesthetic (an Alan Lee painting here, a swan boat there) to balance the adventure's requisite grunge (bloody faces, dirty fingernails). Kudos to editor John Gilbert, sound designer David Farmer and the musical talents of Howard Shore and Enya for blending it all together like a fantastic dream.
Jackson and company have chosen to discard much of Tolkien's whimsy, focusing primarily on action and atmosphere. But the author's philosophies survive in Frodo's fortitude, Gandalf's fatefulness and the self-tests of all who confront the ring. Even Saruman's mad command to his orcs to tear out all surrounding trees speaks to an increasingly rootless, postindustrial society. Seen from a world of similarly insane felling, The Lord of the Rings becomes utterly vital.