``The Fellowship of the Ring," the first in Peter Jackson's ``The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, succeeds mightily as picture-book storytelling, with its constantly exhilarating tapestry of quaint Hobbit houses, dark town streets, Victorian elf chateaux and sweeping vistas of fields, forests and snowy mountain ranges.
Yet as a dramatic journey, ``Fellowship" proves to be a long trek, a saga that sometimes sags. While Jackson and his co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, have infused excitement and dark magic into J.R.R. Tolkien's scholarly, poetic myth of Middle-earth, the story line nonetheless feels thin, attenuated. As a New York wag asked at the film's end: ``Where were they going, and why were they going there?"
Tolkien has countless devotees who worship his tales for many reasons. He brought his deep passion for Anglo-Saxon sagas and a close devotion to nature to his writing, together with his powers to imagine races of some lost time, including his beloved Hobbits, Bilbo Baggins, Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. For many, ``The Hobbit" and ``The Lord of the Rings" create worlds in which to wander endlessly. For non-initiates, however, the adventures may seem too quaint and plotless.
The story in ``Fellowship" is relatively simple. Frodo comes into the possession of an all-powerful, dangerous ring previously seized by his uncle Bilbo from the monstrous Gollum. To save the ring from its original owner, Sauron, the Lord of Darkness, Frodo must flee his home and make his way to Mount Doom, where it was originally forged and where it can at last be destroyed. The opening book covers only the first part of the trek.
Like the novel, Jackson's film, made simultaneously with the two following parts, begins with a Hobbit celebration, the 111th birthday of Bilbo, whose life has been prolonged by the ring. But the merry occasion, heightened by supernatural fireworks provided by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, soon gives way to the mission that falls to his adopted son, Frodo, here represented by a saucer-eyed, pointy-eared Elijah Wood as a barefoot boy, though he is middle-aged. Aware that the expedition by Frodo, Sam and their friends Pippin and Merry will not add up to the most dynamic of films, Jackson introduces more theatrical and spectacular elements, some from the first book, some found elsewhere. Gandalf does battle with an even more powerful wizard, the ancient Saruman. As played by a cadaverous Christopher Lee, Saruman, who has allied himself with Lord Sauron, manufactures a savage army and a giant Gollum. To expand the epic nature of the film, Jackson also weaves in a flashback, illustrating an epic clash in which Sauron loses the ring to a brave human who is then corrupted by its dark force.
But the focus falls mainly on the wary, edgy Frodo and his friends as they seek to avoid the Black Riders, or Ringwraiths, who pursue them to a medieval town. There the boys, Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry, pick up their errant samurai, known as Strider. As played by Viggo Mortensen in a career-making role, this ill-shaven mystery man becomes the film's most charismatic figure, its dark knight.
Making it at last to the safety of an Elfin fastness through the intercession of Liv Tyler's bewitching sorceress Arwen, the Hobbits and Strider, now revealed as the princely Aragorn, recruit the fellowship. The archer Elf Legolas is a sort of androgynous Robin Hood as embodied by the long-tressed Orlando Bloom. The hairy, semi-comical dwarf Gimli is ferociously acted by John Rhys-Davies, and the swashbuckling, cynical man Boromir is dashingly played by Sean Bean. Led by the ever resourceful Gandalf, endowed with Shakespearean grandeur by Ian McKellen, the fellowship faces new dangers at every turn, as chattering droves of hideous Orcs pursue them through mountain caves and along a turbulent river.
Wood brings an adolescent doubt and worry to Frodo, and Sean Astin, in an all-important performance, hits just the right notes as the simple but doughty and devoted Sam. Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan frisk about as the boy pranksters Pippin and Merry. As the senior hobbit Bilbo, Ian Holm shifts from hale and hearty old age to a dangerous decrepitude. And Cate Blanchett, as the white fairy queen Galadriel, glows transcendently but also unveils terrible secrets in her magic mirror.
Overall, ``Fellowship" sends off mythological resonance, with evocations of Wagner's ``Ring" cycle, the epic of Beowulf and Grendel and the Song of Roland. And, of course, as George Lucas certainly borrowed from Tolkien, Jackson's film sometimes comes across as the precursor of ``Star Wars," with Frodo as a Hobbit Luke.
Above all, however, this faithful tribute to Tolkien unfolds as a celebration of the natural beauties of the director's native New Zealand. Andrew Lesnie's photography delivers glorious and perilous vistas, and Grant Major's production designs call to mind images by such immortal illustrators and artists as N.C.Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and Edward Burne-Jones. And whether the white majesties of great mountains or the dark caverns of Dwarf caves fill the screen, Howard Shore's now holy, now bellicose music enriches the sensory delights of this first big epic. Though it is three hours long, one wishes to see the next two, ``The Two Towers" and ``The Return of the King," when it ends.