The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Review

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) Director: Peter Jackson

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”
-Gandalf

★★★★★

The world is changed. I feel it in the water.
I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.
Much that once was, is lost. For none now live, who remember it.

Whereas the Baby Boomer generation had the Star Wars trilogy released during the 1970s and 1980s, millennials got The Lord of the Rings, an epic film series based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels. Despite bearing certain distinctness from the novels, and almost guaranteed to fall short of expectations, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a massive success. It was a remarkable feat for a film series reminiscent of a re-imagined Anglo-Saxon epoch in a distant imagined past. I remember going to see each of these movies upon initial release in theaters (nearly 20 years ago!)

The first film is my personal favorite of the trilogy. I enjoy it for its well-constructed tone and pacing, as well as its beautiful transitions between green hills, lakes, snowy mountains, and dark subterranean caverns. It is a hopeful film about a fellowship of creatures formed just before the next two films which take a decidedly darker turn. At the outset, we are introduced to a fantastical world of hobbits amid sweeping vistas of the shire, however the bucolic bliss is contrasted with an emerging dark prophecy (picking up from the story of The Hobbit). The grey wizard Gandalf arrives in the shire just as the Dark Lord Sauron has discovered the whereabouts of his powerful ring (Gandalf is played by the great Ian McKellan after both Sean Connery and Patrick Stewart turned down the role -in fact McKellan’s role overlapped with his shooting schedule for X-Men). The task falls to Frodo Baggins (played by Elijah Wood, chosen from 150+ actors to play the role), son of Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm), to bring the ring to Rivendell, home of the Elves, while avoiding Sauron’s dreaded ring-wraiths who plague him at every turn. He is joined by his friend and gardener Sam Gamgee (played by Sean Astin who had recently become a father and took the young 18-year old Wood under his wing) and the comedic relief of Merry and Pippin (played by Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd respectively). Along the way the group is protected by a mysterious ranger called “Strider” also known as Aragorn (played by Viggo Mortensen after Daniel Day-Lewis twice turned down the role, as well as Russell Crowe and Nicholas Cage).

The group arrives in Rivendell thanks to another rescue by an Elf-woman named Arwen (played by Liv Tyler). Unfortunately, it is determined that the ring cannot stay with the Elves under the leadership of Elrond (played by Hugo Weaving). It must instead be brought to the dark home of Sauron and cast into the fiery pit of Mount Doom where from whence it came. A fellowship of nine people is formed including the four hobbits, Gandalf, Aragorn, a dwarf named Gimli (played by John Rhys-Davies), an elf named Legolas (played by Orlando Bloom), and a prince of Gondor named Borimir (played by Sean Bean). Gandalf battles with his old ally, Saruman (played by the great Christopher Lee) over the proper path going forward for the wizards. Saruman has now formed an alliance with Sauron and he thwarts the fellowship at each turn while they attempt a valley crossing, then a mountain-pass crossing through Caradhras, and finally they attempt to pass through the ‘Mines of Moria’ -an underground dwarf dwelling which was once massacred and abandoned due to a mysterious evil unleashed. The fellowship hopes to pass through unnoticed but they are forced to flee when they make too much noise while a balrog confronts Gandalf on the cataclysmic ‘Bridge of Khazad-Dun’ which sends Gandalf falling to his apparent death.

In mourning, the fellowship flees from the mines into the woods and they are captured by the woodland elves of Lothlorien, led by Galadriel (played by Cate Blanchett). At the same time, Saruman grows in power and creates a new hybrid form of orc called ‘Uruk-Hai’ to track and kill the fellowship in order to reclaim the one ring. The Uruk-Hai confront the fellowship and internally the fellowship begins to crumble as Borimir tries to steal the ring of power from Frodo. Thus with threats mounting, Frodo and Sam spontaneously flee from the fellowship to carry the ring alone. Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin are captured by the Uruk-Hai while Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli track them down. In the end, Borimir redeems himself by sacrificing his life for the group. The film ends on a conclusive note while also perfectly setting itself up for a sequel (it ends where the beginning of the novel The Two Towers actually begins).

One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

This extraordinary series was directed by New Zealander/relatively unknown filmmaker Peter Jackson. He started out making splatter gore home-films before coming to Hollywood with dreams of directing a King Kong remake but the project was shelved due to other similar releases (Mighty Joe Young and Godzilla). He directed a positively reviewed film called Heavenly Creatures. Somehow, Jackson managed to win the rights to The Lord of the Rings for a dual-picture which turned into pressure for a single film. However, at the ninth hour he was able to work out a deal with New Line Cinema, a smaller studio which was acquired by Turner and Time Warner before creating The Lord of the Rings -their most successful film. Jackson’s deal was for a trilogy. Suddenly, a man who had never directed a film with a bigger budget than $16M was set to direct one of the biggest blockbusters of all time with a budget of $400M.

Jackson pieced the script together with Fran Walsh (his wife) and Philippa Boyens. The plot of The Fellowship of the Ring stays mostly true to the original Tolkien novel, excluding some notable differences, such as the lack of hobbit songs and the complete absence of Tom Bombadil. Howard Shore delivers an absolutely brilliant score for the film. Christopher Tolkien, son of J.R.R. Tolkien who was a notoriously protective caretaker of his father’s estate, fiercely critiqued the films as cheap and sensationalist which in effect had “eviscerated” the novels. Nevertheless, The Fellowship of the Ring is an amazing film that introduced the fantasy epic genre to a new generation of movie-goers. The meticulousness of the film was the product of years of preparation, training, deep study in the works of Tolkien –it is truly rare to see such an impressive unparalleled epic of this scale in modern cinema. For a film with so much complexity and weight, the first installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy could have been a catastrophic failure, however it succeeds on nearly every level as a modern cinematic masterpiece.

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