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Force of Hobbit

Frodo lives, amid outlandish spectacle, in The Lord of the Rings.

Since the horrors of the dominant Hollywood culture -- destruction, devastation, dumb-assness -- do not appear to be receding of their own accord, there's a great poignancy to the new cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The film succeeds as massive, astonishing entertainment; enthralling us is its chief goal. Yet for all its special effects, regal performances by the likes of Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen and its teensy bit of media hoopla, the project's biggest wow is inherent in the source material. Tolkien's vast narrative, involving a threatened world and the awful peril faced in restoring its balance, wouldn't lose much thrust if performed by finger puppets.

Fortunately for discriminating viewers, director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures) has been boning up on epic adventures and FX extravaganzas, from David Lean to Ray Harryhausen to the recent Mummy movies. Via the magnificent designs of fantasy artists Alan Lee and John Howe, Tolkien's mystical Middle Earth is brought to life courtesy of the wilds of New Zealand and the toil of Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger and Jim Rygiel of the Kiwi effects workshop known as WETA. As your eyes will tell you, this is a formidable Fellowship.

At the risk of flogging a dead orc, the story goes something like this: In a happy, verdant land called the Shire, a diminutive, eccentric hobbit known as Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm, chortling zestfully) is throwing a big party for his 111th birthday, and, at the firm suggestion of a fusty wizard named Gandalf the Grey (an otherworldly McKellen), he bequeaths to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) his quaint burrow called Bag End, plus a magical and highly covetable golden ring. The problem is that said ring is way evil, having been forged epochs ago in the fires of a volcano called Mount Doom by a satanic jerk called Sauron (voiced by Sala Baker).

Frodo on the go: Elijah Wood gets caught in the middle of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings.
Frodo on the go: Elijah Wood gets caught in the middle of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings.

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There are several other rings of power -- nine for men, seven for dwarves and three for elves -- but the One Ring is the doozie. In fact, it's such a lulu that Jackson approaches the story of its origin not less than four times, presumably for the talkers in the back. Since Gandalf -- one of the immortal Istari, or wizards -- can't touch the ring lest he be corrupted and transformed into a monster like Sauron, it's up to Frodo to nip over to the land of Mordor (pronounced with a Transylvanian accent) and pitch it into the lava from whence it was formed. Easy, right?

Not so. Sauron -- now basically a huge, disembodied cat eye or flaming vagina, depending upon your specific fears -- wants the ring back so he can trash Middle Earth. To this end, he has dispatched a sortie of nine equestrian Ringwraiths, called Nazgûl, as well as armies of orcs (goblinlike creatures) and a nasty mutated former hobbit called Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis), who chases the ring and its bearer with a murderous lust. Accompanied by his gardener, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin, perfectly pudgy), and two bumbling hobbits named Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Billy Boyd) and Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan), Frodo sets out upon a pathless course that's essentially a treacherous variant of the Yellow Brick Road.

As the adventure -- all three hours of this first of three films -- unspools, the fellowship forms by way of eclectic casting. The hobbits' first stop is the homely village of Bree, where they meet a rogue named Strider (Viggo Mortensen, all stubble and rasp), who's quickly revealed to be Aragorn, the heir of Isîldur, a pugnacious king who ages ago chopped the evil ring off Sauron's claw but stupidly neglected to destroy it. Thus, Aragorn wanders and broods. Soon enough, he and the hobbits are joined by a similar-looking but spiritually depleted warrior named Boromir (Sean Bean, buff and somber). Rounding out the fellowship are an earthy dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies, grunting aplenty) and an ethereal elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom, vogueing). They forge an unlikely interracial alliance, perhaps due to their shared penchant for Ren Faire costumes and braids.

For sheer scale and ambition, Fellowship is that rare kind of film that actually deserves to be called "a triumph." Yet the project is so unwieldy that it simply cannot be perfect. First off, hobbits are very short, so -- effects or no effects -- casting vertically challenged actors would have been a good idea. (Plus, Wood is simply too young to be Frodo, and he only acts in two modes: insipid awe and horrified nausea.) Next, those unfamiliar with Tolkien's complex invented languages and nomenclature may have difficulty discerning colloquialisms from expectoration. And plotwise, there are plenty of stretches and assumptions: Helpful eagles appear and disappear; Gollum slips through an impassable landslide. Logic lapses at times.

The Nazgûl themselves provide a few unintentional laughs. These vicious specters are sometimes afraid of flowing water (although in the Rankin-Bass animated Return of the King, they can fly), and they're easily hoodwinked by rustling foliage. Most amusing, when they stab the hobbits' empty beds in the inn at Bree, we must wonder: Are they instinctively drawn, per Aragorn's warning, to feather pillows, or did they pause to inquire politely of the concierge, "Good evening, we are wicked Ringwraiths. Might you direct us to the halflings' bedchamber?"

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