“The world has changed, I feel it in the water.”
With these prophetic words spoken in Cate Blanchett’s Elven baritone, the face of cinema was virtually changed overnight as Kiwi movie god Peter Jackson crafted the impossible right before our very eyes and brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s ageless tome to the big screen. It was a seismic blockbuster event that hadn’t been seen since the likes of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy and was made all the more impressive by the fact that the entire trilogy was filmed in one, epic production period with no guarantee that it was even going to work.
I always had faith, however, but not because I was a fan of Tolkien’s legendary work. No, I knew Lord Of The Rings was going to work because I believed in Peter Jackson, whose entire career – from homemade gore comedies to weird-ass murder biopics – seemed to be leading him here on a quest of his own.
In the realm of Middle-Earth, a young Hobbit named Frodo Baggins discovers that the ring his eccentric uncle Bilbo has left him has something of a checkered history and is, in fact, the final conduit for the lifeforce of the dark lord Sauron who was originally vanquished eons ago. Benevolent wizard Gandalf the Grey urges Frodo and his friend/gardener, Sam, to take the ring to the city of the Elves in order to keep it from the malevolent, hooded figures that stalk the countryside, ever hunting for the enchanted item of jewelry. On the way, they manage to collect more allies; Merry and Pippin, two fellow Hobbits and a mysterious, rugged, human Ranger named Aragorn who’s bloodline may finally hold the balance of the kingdoms of men in his hands.
After numerous near squeaks and close calls, this raggedy band make it to the Elves, but instead of finding that his mission is over, Frodo finds that his simple, Hobbit spirit is perfect to stave of the corrupting power of Sauron’s insidious bling and he’s charged with escorting the ring to the enemy’s homeland of Modor and casting into the volcano from whence it was forged. Of course, wandering into the backyard of a land of dark lords, orcs and various other ugly bastards in order to destroy a villainous trinket isn’t exactly a job for a single Hobbit and so his five companions, joined by Elven archer Legolas, grumpy Dwarf Gimli and morally compromised human Boromir, form the Fellowship Of The Ring who set out to purge evil from the land, but numerous, lethal, obstacles stand in their path that includes a new breed of orc bred by wizard turncoat Saruman and a fateful trip through the Mines of Moria that stirs an ancient evil that none of this newly formed Fellowship may be able to survive.
The Fellowship Of The Ring is one of those movies that came loaded with a ridiculous amount of expectation and yet somehow not only managed to live up to the Frank’s rabid desires but also managed to change the face of how a franchise could be filmed. These days back to back sequels are fairly common place but the concept of belting out an entire trilogy in one go was a plan that sounded like madness, but its precisely because New Line was willing to take such a huge risk is one of the major reasons that the Lord Of The Rings trilogy hangs together so well. Director Jackson and his writing team of Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens managed to pull off the coup of having each story end at prime moments while making each movie feel like it’s own beast and nowhere in the series does this feel more effective than in this first film.
When you take a step back and look at the movie objectively, Fellowship doesn’t actually start properly until all the characters are assembled together and head out for their quest and that doesn’t happen until we’re about half way through the damn thing; and yet Jackson takes us by the hand and leads us through this lush, fantasy world while seamlessly weaving in the plot and exposition as we go. You don’t have to immediately know every detail about Middle-Earth any more than you needed to be instantly familiar with a Galaxy far, far away when you first watched the original Star Wars, as the plot deftly fills you in as you go so you learn things neither early or late, only precisely when you mean to.
On top of this, Jackson’s choice to go as natural as possible (utilising New Zealand’s legendary back drops and having costumes and props made by hand for maximum believability) and using a variety of effects techniques to realise the more outlandish denizens means that it stands as some of the greatest works building ever seen on film. For example, the simple tranquility of the Shire is so beguiling that it genuinely makes your heart ache, while the industrial hellscapes where the orcs labour at the foot of Saruman’s tower are metal AF.
Matching the lived in feel that Jackson brings to Middle-Earth is possibly some of the finest casting you’re ever likely to see in a blockbuster with Elijah Wood’s huge, sensitive eyeballs leading a cast that perfectly embodies every character the film has to offer. Viggo Mortensen, Ian Mckellen, Liv Tyler, Sean Bean, Sean Austin, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys Davies, Billy Boyd, Ian Holm and Dominic Monaghan all disappear within their characters effortlessly. However, great characters and flawless world building are all well and good, but Jackson has the presence of mind to not only keep things from getting too stoic by employing his weird sense of humour into proceedings and his horror roots rise to the surface too, thanks to some legitimately impressive action sequences that sees a fair share of limbs get detached and a jump scare involving Holm that must rank in the top five of all time cinematic pant crappers. In fact the entire Mines Of Moria sequence may be one of the finest instances of fantasy cinema ever made that sees us follow the Fellowship through encounters with bug eyed goblins, rampaging cave trolls and the Balrog, an ancient, flame leaking demon that claims one of our heroes in the film’s most heart stopping moments.
Sometimes the fantasy tone may admittedly be too earnest for it’s own good (is it really that wise for Frodo to regularly test the trust of so many people by simply offering the ring that could kill them all?) and there’s an argument to be made that the movie shoots it’s blot a tad early with Moria, but even after twenty years, Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring is still light years ahead of 99% of anything featuring elves, orcs, goblins, dwarves wizards and various other beasties that’s was or have been since.
In fact, you could say it runs rings round them…