Hobbits and hobbit-lovers everywhere can rejoice, along with all moviegoers with a taste for fantasy, far-off kingdoms and great swashbuckling adventure stories. Peter Jackson's movie of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring," first part of a three-film adaptation of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, is everything you might want it to be - and more.
This is a movie by a filmmaker who clearly loves his source material - Tolkien's epic tale of Frodo Baggins' dangerous quest and the war over his magical ring - but not so much that he's stifled or intimidated. It's a film from a major literary work made with real reverence but also with an impudently joyous recklessness: a work of immense range and visual imagination, of rapturous beauties, hair-raising supernatural visions and awesomely spectacular battle scenes. Jackson gives us a vast landscape populated with dozens of colorful characters, played by first-rate actors in all shapes and sizes, from tiny hobbits to towering wizards. It's a great adventure movie that's also great fun.
Part of that fun comes from the story's playful juxtaposition of fairytale English cuteness - incarnated in the chubby, 3-foot-high, confirmed-bachelor hobbits who are its improbable heroes - and the majestic grandeur and sweep of their adventures. Both novel and movie begin in a close-to-coy parody of British rural domestic life, set in the blissful green Shire where hobbits live in their cozy-hole dwellings and where pipe-puffing Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) resides. Bilbo is that estimable burglar-hobbit who, years ago, went on his own heroic quest (described in Tolkien's 1936 prelude novel, "The Hobbit"), winning a fortune and a magic ring that renders him invisible. Now Bilbo, in his "eleventy-first year," is planning his final departure and disappearance, ceding his fortune and ring to his plucky chosen successor and 33-year-old "nephew," Frodo (Elijah Wood).
As the story unfolds . . .
Bilbo was aided, years ago, by powerful know-it-all Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, in the film's indisputable top performance) and Gandalf now reveals that dark forces are rising around the Shire, foreshadowed by a company of ghostly wraith riders intent on reclaiming the ring, which would enable them to unleash its full evil power on civilization. So Frodo and three hobbit companions, including his adoring rustic servant Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), set off for the perilous East, where they link up with elf king Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and his lissome daughter Arwen (Liv Tyler). There, a grand council decides that the only solution to impending catastrophe is to take the ring back to its dark source in far off Mordor and destroy it.
To that end, a fellowship of nine is formed, including all four hobbits and Gandalf; their rugged human hero-guide Aragorn, a.k.a. Strider (Viggo Mortensen); the brawny but more vulnerable Boromir (Sean Bean); one lithe elf, Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and one dwarf, the sturdy but ill-tempered Gimli (John Rhys-Davies). They strike off for Mordor. But pursuing them through treacherous forests and broad-flowing rivers, up snowy mountains and into cavernous cliffhanger-ready mines are a variety of menacing types: the wraith riders; the grisly orcs; the huge dragon-breath batwinged Balrog; assorted wolves, trolls and mean forest beings; and, behind them all, the evil wizard Saruman (played, most appropriately by Hammer horror movie king Christopher Lee), once Gandalf's friend but now the implacable, ring-lusting enemy of all.
From then on, the movie is an almost non-stop series of staggeringly exciting adventures, with brief rest spots (such as the interlude with Cate Blanchett's ethereal Dante Rossetti-style elf-queen Galadriel) all realized by Jackson and company with jaw-dropping fullness and skill. These days movies try so regularly to ignite our collective sense of wonder through all the modern magic of CGI and computer effects, that filmgoers may be getting sated with screen marvels. Still, I think many audiences are going to be stunned by "Fellowship of the Ring": almost as visually impressive a movie action epic for our times as "Star Wars" was for 1977.
Jackson shot all three "Ring" movies in sequence, in his native New Zealand, to be released over the next three years - and his control of the huge enterprise is formidable. He has always been a visual spellbinder, in cheapo horror gems like "Dead Alive" and smutty puppet movies like "Meet the Feebles" as much as his more respectable 1994 true-life noir "Heavenly Creatures." But here he surpasses all expectations. This isn't really an actor's movie. Except for McKellen, it doesn't (yet) contain a great performance. (Tolkien, whose inspirations were massive works like "Beowulf" and the Icelandic sagas, never tried for psychological depth or human complexity in the original.) But Jackson has created a great movie saga anyway, one that constantly amazes, thrills and amuses. "Fellowship of the Ring" can be appreciated both by audiences who have read the trilogy repeatedly and those who don't know a hobbit from a bobbit or Tolkien's Middle Earth from Middletown or Middlesex. Some confirmed Tolkienites, of course, will hate the results. They'll find the tone too coarse, lament the absence of characters like Tom Bombadil, find the battles too bloody and the book's lyricism and elegant mock scholarship among the many casualties of translation.
They have a point, but it matters little. This film will probably encourage a big part of its audience to read or reread Tolkien's book, doubling their pleasure. And, all on its own, "Fellowship of the Ring" is a massive achievement. Compared with all the other major fantasy quest films in its genre, from Fritz Lang's 1924 "Die Nibelungen" and Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 "The Thief of Baghdad" on, this is an extraordinary work, grandly conceived, brilliantly executed and wildly entertaining. It's a hobbit's dream, a wizard's delight. And, of course, it's only the beginning.
"Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring"
Directed by Peter Jackson; written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; photographed by Andrew Lesnie; edited by John Gilbert; production designed by Grant Major; music by Howard Shore; produced by Barrie M. Osborne, Jackson, Walsh, Tim Sanders. A New Line Cinema release; opens Wednesday, Dec. 19. Running time: 2:58. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for epic battle sequences and some scary images).
Frodo Baggins....Elijah Wood
Gandalf the Wizard....Ian McKellen
Bilbo Baggins....Ian Holm
Elrond....Hugo Weaving Gimli....John Rhys-Davies
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.