A Three-RING Circus
I’m old enough to remember when going to the circus was one of the biggest thrills most kids looked forward to every year. Exotic animals, brave lion tamers, daring tightrope walkers, magnificent horses, and assorted clowns promised a day of escape and excitement. I was probably the only youngster on our block who didn’t enjoy “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Of course, I couldn’t admit it. After all, I didn’t want my friends thinking I was a weirdo.
I’m feeling much the same now about The Fellowship of the Ring. This movie version of the first part of “Lord of the Rings,” the late J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythological good-versus-evil classic, is winning almost universal acclaim by critics and hobbit fans alike. And, on the afternoon it opened, the audience applauded enthusiastically at the end of the showing I saw. If I write anything negative about such an eagerly-awaited film, most people will suspect I’m out of my gourd, and they might be right. Still, being a bit more courageous as an adult, I must stand up for my beliefs. (Rather fitting here, since the name “Tolkien” means “foolishly brave” in its Germanic origin.)
Like those old Big Top shows, The Fellowship of the Ring overwhelmed me visually. Too much to watch at one time. And yet, I have to admit the images are stunning. On their journey to destroy a powerful ring much sought after by evil forces, Frodo (Elijah Wood), the little hobbit who could, and his brave roadies meet some of the most incredible creatures ever filmed. A giant spidery-like sea serpent, a monster who looks like a cross between King Kong and Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and sinister horsemen on fiery black steeds are among amazing sights that practically jump off the screen in 3D-like presentation.
Also, there’s no denying the impressive production design in The Fellowship of the Ring. Although I haven’t read Tolkien’s original material, I’ll wager this cinematic creation of Middle-earth, a make-believe world resembling ancient England, complete with massive dwarf caves and the fantastic Elfin kingdom will please most Tolkien devotees. With a 90 million dollar budget and 120 technicians assigned to director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures), moviegoers deserve nothing less.
Playing a kind of special effects ringmaster, Sir Ian McKellen (X-Men) excels as the wizard Gandalf who helps Frodo begin his terrifying quest. To me, he’s just as serious and effective in this fantasy as in any play by William Shakespeare. But sometimes I think I’ve seen too many movies. Right in the middle of Gandalf’s sorcery battle with the corrupt wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), I couldn’t help thinking of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff squaring-off hilariously in The Raven, a satiric look at Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem --- and that almost spoiled the entire scene for me.
No quarrel from me about the rest of the cast either, except for Wood (The Faculty) who simply looks wide-eyed most of the time. Frodo’s fellow travelers are played earnestly by Viggo Mortensen (28 Days), Sean Bean (Don’t Say a Word), Sean Astin (The Last Producer), Billy Boyd (Urban Ghost Story), Dominic Monaghan (Monsignor Renaud), Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), and John Rhys-Davies (Dune). Although appearing only briefly, Cate Blanchett (Bandits) and Liv Tyler (One Night at McCool’s) exude ethereal beauty as Elfin royalty in gorgeously photographed sequences. Combining impishness and concern, Ian Holm (The Sweet Hereafter) steals the film’s early scenes with his sprightly portrayal of 111-year old Bilbo Baggins. Unfortunately, all these characters play second fiddle to almost three hours of mind-boggling special effects and gory battle scenes that reminded me of The Mummy Returns.
I think some stories are meant to be read, not to be seen. Before seeing this Oscar-nominated movie, Tolkien’s son Christopher said, “My own position is that The Lord of the Rings is peculiarly unsuitable to transformation into visual dramatic form.” Filmmakers disagree. Two sequels based on Tolkien’s Rings characters, filmed at the same time as The Fellowship of the Ring, are scheduled for release in 2002 and 2003. Ah, yes. The franchise cometh.
(Released by New Line Cinema and rated “PG-13” for epic battle sequences and some scary images.)