New Line // 2001 // 178 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // September 30th, 2002
Power can be held in the smallest of things.
Why do we go to the movies? Is it for the thrill of seeing something we have never seen before, bigger than life and in awe-inspiring presence before our very eyes? Is it to thrill, heart racing in rhythm to the edits, as our heroes and heroines face immeasurable odds and overcome extreme physical obstacles on their way to the final prize? Maybe we relish the fear, the notion of getting lost along with the characters inside the unknown and giving up our belief in the safety of the real world for a terrifying peek into the ethereal and supernatural. Or perhaps it's to laugh, to find the hilarity or satirical wit in the insane or mundane. It may just be drama, the oldest form of entertainment, where the world is mirrored before us in ways which strike dissonant chords, sounds that peal back the layers of our own tattered psyche. Any and all of these reasons are valid inspiration for paying our well-worn money, finding a comfortable seat, suspending our disbelief and drawing in the magical and the emotional healing power of film. And this is why Peter Jackson's version of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is such a stunning masterpiece of modern fantasy filmmaking. It encompasses all these divergent elements into a timeless, powerful epic. And New Line gives us one of the best DVDs ever, if only as a tantalizing preview of more to come.
As Bilbo Baggins approaches his 111st birthday, Hobbiton and the Shire are alive with party preparations. Even Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo's old friend from his adventure days, has returned to honor and celebrate his comrade. But soon after arriving he begins to notice subtle things. Bilbo has hardly aged in the many years since they first knew each other. He acts suspicious and irritable. Even at seeing his old friend, his mind seems lost elsewhere. And it is. Bilbo is obsessed with the ring he "tricked" Gollum for so long ago. And even as he plans to leave the Shire forever, he does not want to leave the ring. It has a strange power and hold over him. Gandalf finds this unsettling and it takes all of his powers of persuasion to convince Bilbo to leave it behind for his nephew Frodo.
But before long, Frodo is in danger. The trinket that Bilbo has secreted all these years is the One Ring forged by the evil dark lord Sauron of Mordor in the fires of Mt. Doom. Its malevolent power allows the owner/wearer to enslave and rule the world. Though long dead, the spirit of Sauron has been gaining strength. It has now sent out its ghostly Nazgul ringwraiths to sweep Middle Earth, find the ring, and kill whoever has it. With the ring, Sauron can return from the dead, reclaim its power, and destroy all that is good and noble in Middle Earth. Realizing the severity of the circumstance, Gandalf sends Frodo and his friends to seek the advice and protection of the Elf Lord Elrond, for only he can help protect the Hobbits and deal with the ring.
Alas, once they arrive at the Elf Kingdom of Rivendell, they learn that Sauron's forces are building a mutant army that will scour all of Middle Earth in a reign of terror and destruction, all in the quest for the ring. Elrond, a wise, immortal soul tells the travelers that even in his magical land, nothing is safe. Not them. Not the ring. Deciding that all races (man, dwarf, elf, and hobbit) need to band together to save themselves, they form the Fellowship of the Ring. This alliance will head with the ring to Mordor itself. For it is only there, in the fires of Mt. Doom from which the ring was made, can it be unmade. And it is up to Frodo and his fledgling league to avoid the obstacles, the dangers and the death that awaits them in this ultimate battle between nobility and wickedness.
By now, most people have firm, committed reasons for either loving or hating Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Those who mark it as their first epic blockbuster experience rejoice in the irrevocable bond it forged between their head and their heart. For others who sat through the cinema of the '70s and watched as Spielberg and Lucas carved the summer film out of childhood dreams and fears (with some very adult imagination and talent added into the mix), it is a return to that special time in the movie going experience: a time when a movie was indeed an escape into an amazing world of wonder. Some are angered that it taints Tolkien's work, compressing and destroying its grace and poetry for a decidedly Hollywood take on Middle Earth. And there are those middling few who gleefully obsess as they nitpick over the actors, the look, or the failure to incorporate certain or all elements from the novels into the films. It's this amazing adore/abhor relationship that changes LOTR from a simple film discussion to an overriding cinematic passion. Some have called it classic (as in this review). Some have called it boring. But hardly anyone questions that it is the work of a truly gifted filmmaker. If anything, LOTR: FOTR cements New Zealand's Jackson as one of the world's most gifted and imaginary cinematic minds.
It is important to note just how many things could have gone wrong with this film. The Lord of the Rings is a beloved literary classic. Tolkien slaved over his manuscripts with an almost historical zeal for accuracy and intricacy. To him, Middle Earth was the lost past history of Britain, the kind of fantasy mythology that the Greeks and Romans flaunted across the volumes of world lore for eons. Throughout the last 30 years, there have been several actual and abortive attempts to bring the saga of Frodo Baggins and the One Ring to life. During the height of their popularity, the Beatles wanted to make the film -- Paul/Frodo, George/Gandalf, Ringo/Samwise, and John Lennon as the obsessed, twisted creature Gollum. But not even their rock god status could convince Tolkien to release the rights. Fast forward to 1978, and the Marianation mentality of Rankin-Bass. They brought a version of The Hobbit to life in the only manner they deemed acceptable: animation. Their simple, singsong saga of Bilbo Baggins and his battles with Smaug (while untrue to its source) was a huge television ratings winner and seen as a viable formula for success. So along came outsider animation artist Ralph Bakshi with the ambitious goal of translating The Lord of the Rings into a serious two-part all animated fantasy film. But no matter how noble his intentions, the flawed film that resulted (1979's The Fellowship of the Ring) was a huge disappointment. Ending abruptly, mid-battle during the first half of The Twin Towers, Bakshi's hoped that a box office success would lead to a second film, and completion of the tale. It didn't happen. It took Rankin-Bass to wrap up the epic saga with another tuneful trite television entry in 1980 (The Return of the King).
Luckily, time passed and technology transformed the medium when Peter Jackson was handed the reigns to this overwhelming, encumbering task. Sure, there was trepidation when New Line Cinema announced that it would make Tolkien's classic into three separate films, made simultaneously over two years, and helmed by a then relatively unknown cult genre director Peter Jackson. Visions of a potential Bakshi or bastardized Bass version 2.0 swam in fanboy's dreams. Sure, Jackson could create goofy gore gross-outs like Bad Taste and Dead Alive, and there was even a hint at his ability to eloquently essay dramatic and tragic events with his work in Heavenly Creatures. But this was Tolkien! This was The Ring Trilogy! This was a gamble the size of the epic work itself. Was he the one? Could he wrestle this seemingly impossible, complicated narrative into a streamlined, mainstream movie (and success)? Well, just like a key theme in the film, there was noble magic in the power of one: One ring, one future king, one kingdom at peace, one brave hobbit to battle all of evil, and one brilliant director to capture it all. No matter how special the effects or stunning the visuals or intense the performances, the success or failure of LOTR, the two sequels, and New Line lay in the mind and talent of one man. In hindsight, Jackson was the perfect choice. Every previous artistic element he had worked in, from blood to beauty, from murder to majesty, would be channeled and enchanted into one of the finest fantasy films ever made, a benchmark for all future sword or sorcery films to emulate and strive for. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring became, and still is, a great film
Since there has been so much dissection and commentary on the film, from its wonderful, pitch perfect acting (everyone in the cast is just STUNNING) to its lush New Zealand locations (Middle Earth in the Southern Hemisphere), to add another 1000 words or so on it seems pointless. Still, one can marvel at Jackson's deft storytelling and spirited, dazzling direction (face it: if LOTR can convince you of only one thing, it is that Peter Jackson is a genius cinematic mind). But for those doubters out there who still find the lure of a nearly three hours motion picture revolving around kings, wizards, and dwarves about as inviting as a weekend at the local prison Renaissance fair, here is a suggestion. Come to the DVD of LOTR, if for no other reason than to watch how Jackson handles the key, crucial element of the story: the ring itself. Watch how he forges the myth of its creation, pulling every movie magic trick out of his bag and throwing in a few new ones for good measure. See how he constantly refers to it, from script to shot to compositions. Notice the number of ring themes and symbols scattered throughout the film. Notice the gravity it carries, the threat he instills in such a tiny, beautiful thing. Count the actual number of times he shows it to us. Future film student who want to understand the nuances of creating believable fear, dread, and suspense out of one tiny element should spend the requisite decades studying Jackson's technique here. Part of the success and joy of LOTR is the way he constructs, piece by piece, element by element, the perfect inanimate villain to stand in place of the distant, evil Sauron. This heinous presence and the ring are one. Jackson's direction never lets us forget that.
Jackson also understands the epic, from its long form poetic foundation to its cast of thousands Cinemascope compositions. He never forgets that a heroic tale is, indeed, about a hero. About a lone force, battling within himself and the outside world for personal or universal goals. From Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas to Luke Skywalker, James T. Kirk, and Neo, the saga has always focused on the one, the singular being possessed with a purpose known and borne only by them, even if others are seemingly present to support or participate. Jackson knows that scale is not important. The battle is not about multitudes or hordes. The real struggle is within the protagonist's heart: the war of fear with fate, of destiny, with the desire to simply be ordinary. This theme is reiterated and interwoven throughout the film, binding divergent elements together. From Aragon in exile to Sam as companion, all seem lost and alone in their quest. But none more so than Frodo, who bears so heavy a weight upon such tiny shoulders. His soul is committed to the destruction of evil, but his mind and his body were created for the warm days in the sun of the Shire, not the dark recesses of Mordor. It is truly to Jackson's credit that he never makes Frodo a martyr or some self-righteous entity. As played by Elijah Wood, he is humble in his service and genuine in his desire to help.
Still, let's face it. No matter how artistic or impressive or exciting the film, we all buy DVD for one thing -- strike that, make it two things, primarily. Sound and Vision. Pictures and Noise. Image and Ambience. And at 178 minutes, there is a real fear that no matter how much care or consideration was given to the transfer, packing that much data onto a flimsy digital disc would result in some artifact or compression issues. But this is just not the case. The Lord of the Rings is one of the most lush, visually striking DVDs to come out in a long time. The anamorphic image is nearly flawless. There are only one or two brief examples of defects and some minor edge enhancement. But the manner in which the medium captures the range and vividness of Jackson's color palette makes the presentation here hard to beat. The fire leaps off the screen. The dark worlds of Mordor and Mount Doom are detailed and menacing. The hills and homes of Hobbiton and the Shire are as fresh and green as a new mown field. And the underground factories of Saruman the White are alive with heat and hatred. Honestly, for a film so long, this is one stellar DVD presentation. As for the sound? Well, it too will sweep you off your home theater movie seat. The range you expect from a cinematic canvas this wide, this epic, is perfectly captured in the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. You will swear arrows are zooming past and through you, and just like the characters, you too will experience the deafening, directional arrival of Balrog. From battle to Enya ballad, New Line's treatment of the aural, as well as the visual, is to be commended (and experienced).
The only other issue to address is whether or not consumers should rush to their local store and buy this version of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when there is a four-disc collectors edition coming out in a month or so. A fan of both the film and Jackson's work would say absolutely, if for no other reason than the aforementioned transfer and sound presentations. But there will be some critical differences between the two packages. First, New Line is not going for the standard double dip. This DVD will be the only one to feature the full theatrical release of the film. The new set will offer an extended, director-approved cut. Almost all of the extras (with the exception of one or two) will be different on both sets. While the four disc set will be more in-depth, there are still some very entertaining, introductory extras here. Specifically, A Passage to Middle Earth does a very good job of explaining the story, the production and the work involved in bringing LOTR to life while not being too overly infomercial-esque. Welcome to Middle Earth is a strange, 32-minute publisher's sales pitch that's only redeeming feature is an interview with the British gentleman who, as a young boy, read the manuscript of The Hobbit for his publisher father and suggested he should print it (smart kid/man). Aside from the standard bag of promotional interviews, DVD-ROM features, trailers, televisions spots, and music videos, it is obvious that the more micro-specific dissection of the characters, the effects, and the film are being saved for the full blown four-disc extravaganza.
But that's okay. You can treat this DVD like the Cliff's Notes, or the abridged edition. You get everything you had in the theaters, and a sensible sampling of extras. And if you can't wait, there is even a ten-minute preview of part two of the trilogy, The Two Towers, which looks as compelling and exciting as part one. For some that may and will be enough. But those caught up in the whole DVD ideal of special editions, storyboard comparisons, interactive trivia access, and mandatory multi-party commentaries may feel the need to wait another few months and float the loan necessary to buy all the flutes and berries of the Special Extended Edition. It may seem unfair for New Line to treat the film and its release in this manner, but remember, not everyone is going to drool over the chance at seeing Gollum character mapped for 20 minutes or extensive interviews on how Orcs were made to look extra slimy. For many, this DVD is a perfect little reminder of the magic that can come leaping off the screen when a great story is matched to gifted actors and an exceptionally talented director. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring deserved every accolade it received (and a few more it did not win). It will remain a classic throughout the lifeline of film.
When Peter Jackson stepped up to the plate in his attempt at addressing the oncoming fastball that was the creation of a film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings, he already had a few ancillary strikes against him. He was a relative novice to the entire big budget Hollywood special effects blockbuster. He was handed three volumes, multiple storylines, and characters to deal with. He had an obsessed nation of Middle Earth fanatics breathing down his neck to handle these hallowed works properly and respectfully. And he had hundreds of millions of studio money riding on it. But you have to give the pleasantly plump New Zealander credit. He stood in the box, took the low pitches and brush offs, and waited. Waited for the world to acknowledge his talent. Waited for his unique visual style to be in full fertile effect. Waited until the cast he wanted and the script he needed were secured. And then he pulled back and followed through on that wild, unruly pitch and belted the sucker right out of the cinematic ballpark. Unfortunately, in the Hollywood version of a trip around the bases, two more sequels in the pipeline means more chances to get beaned, or strike out. Jackson will take the batting cage again in December with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. However, if his previous average is any indication, it looks to be another cinematic home run. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is why we go to the movies. Everyone loves the long ball.
Peters Jackson's masterpiece of visual fantasy storytelling, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is hereby acquitted of any and all charges. This version of the DVD is commended for avoiding the double dip charge by offering the original theatrical print, exceptional sound, and a healthy, if telling glimpse of the wealth of extras available, not only on this disc and in the forthcoming box set.
Review content copyright © 2002 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Discs: #54
* Top 100 Films: #21
Studio: New Line
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 178 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Three Documentaries: Welcome to Middle Earth (17 mins), Quest for the Ring (21 mins), and A Passage to Middle Earth (42 mins)
* 15 Featurettes Created for the Official Website Including Cast and Crew Interviews
* TV Spots
* Enya Music Video
* Four-Disc Extended Version DVD Preview
* The Two Towers Film Preview
* The Two Towers Video Game Preview
* DVD-ROM Features
* Official Site