THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The buzz over the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy has been building for over a year. New Line Cinema, in a move of unprecedented boldness, ponied up a reported $270 million for director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures) to bring all three books to the screen, a new entry opening each Christmas for three consecutive years. The plan was a real gamble because although Tolkein's novels have a loyal cult following, they are not necessarily as commercial a property as, say, Harry Potter. For the record, I have not read any of the author's works, nor I am a big admirer of the whole wizard/elf/gnome kind of story. And, happily, neither of those things matter. Jackson's first film in the series - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - is so well done that it transcends its genre.

Elijah Wood slips one on for size in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
For those who aren't already in the know, this is the story of the One Ring - a magical ring that harnesses evil and inspires evil dwellers to follow it wherever it may roam. The ring has been lost for centuries until it ends up in the hands of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Bilbo, in turn, hands it over to a younger hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Wood). The great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) urges Frodo to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom, the same place where it was created. This proves to be a difficult task, as a group of ominous, shrouded figures are in pursuit of the ring and will stop at nothing to get it. Frodo vows to take the ring as far away as he can. Aiding him in the task are best friend and fellow hobbit Sam (Sean Astin) and two warriors named Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean). On their journey to Mount Doom, Frodo and crew encounter a variety of creatures, some evil (such as a giant troll), others more benevolent (such as Elven Queen Galadriel, played by Cate Blanchett). Their path is often treacherous, especially once the evil Saruman (Christopher Lee) puts his forces to work against Frodo.

Time for a confession: there are so many characters, creatures, and species in LOTR that I had trouble keeping track of who everyone was and what everything meant. Tolkein's trilogy is an infamously complex tale that even its most ardent fans sometimes need a scorecard. That said, I was still able to follow the basic plot. Just as you don't need to be an expert in physics to know that something will fall if you drop it off a building, you don't need to be an expert in Tolkein to know what's basically happening in this movie.

Peter Jackson has done a masterful job interpreting the story as a visual work. The movie is packed with memorable imagery and some of the year's most incredible special effects. The genius of the movie is the way the director uses the effects to bring Tolkein's world to life. This is not a brainless CGI effects reel (a complaint I had with the Harry Potter movie). Instead, this is computer technology used to its maximum advantage: making a place that doesn't exist seem real.

I also admired the good vs. evil theme of the story. The characters are mostly well-developed, especially Frodo and Gandalf. They are heroic, but not heroes. They find themselves in a position to save the world, yet have continual doubts about their ability to do so. Playing into that insecurity gives the action scenes an extra sense of peril (at one point, I was convinced that Frodo was dead; usually I know that the protagonist of a movie isn't likely to die). I assume that Tolkein's book carried out the theme of the "ordinary" hobbit called to perform an extraordinary task; the movie follows through on that idea.

In every way, The Lord of the Rings is an ambitious film. It's not perfect, but it certainly aims higher than a lot of movies, and it hits the mark more often than not. The characters are interesting, their journey is involving, and Jackson's imagery is exciting. This being the first part, there is no real resolution to the story (you'll have to sit through two more movies for that), but LOTR nevertheless satisfied me. The best compliment I can pay the film is this: I'm looking forward to the next two installments.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Lord of the Rings is rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and some scary images. The running time is 2 hours and 58 minutes.
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