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Force of Hobbit

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

Along with co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Jackson is mostly faithful to Tolkien's storyline, but several sequences are lifted directly from Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version (which is pretty enjoyable once you get past the Smurf music). Whatever the scene -- the party in Hobbiton, the clamor in Bree, the skirmish at Weathertop, the fracas at Durin's grave -- it's abundantly obvious Jackson was using Bakshi's movie as a blueprint, very often expanding on specific shots. Given that Bakshi's Rings concludes before reaching Tolkien's third book, it'll be interesting to observe Jackson navigating his third installment without a map.

Niggling snipes aside, there's incredible spectacle here, surrounding formidable talent. Particularly noteworthy are the settings of Isengard and Lothlórien. The former is the immense headquarters of the wizard Saruman the White (Christopher Lee, sensationally sinister), who's breeding a hideous orc-human hybrid, the Uruk-Hai. If the rush of swooping through Saruman's Uruk-mills could be bottled, Starbucks would go bankrupt. Lothlórien, on the other hand, is an arboreal New Age paradise the Ewoks might have created if they weren't stupid, inhabited by the ageless elves Galadriel and Celeborn (Cate Blanchett and Marton Csokas). Best of all, the mines of Moria represent a directorial peak for Jackson, a chilling, thrilling underground sequence to give the stodgiest critic shivers.

There are many fine nuances from the cast as well. For instance, we discover that Liv Tyler -- as Galadriel's granddaughter and Aragorn's squeeze, Arwen -- can don pointy ears and emanate elfish pathos without eliciting a single chuckle. As her father, Elrond, Hugo Weaving also commands attention, holding court in the enchanted refuge of Rivendell, bemused by the hobbits one minute, racked by painful memories the next.

For sheer scale and ambition, Fellowship is one of those rare films that actually deserve to be called "a triumph."
For sheer scale and ambition, Fellowship is one of those rare films that actually deserve to be called "a triumph."

Stylistically, Fellowship marks a quantum leap for Jackson, proving that working long and hard on a well-told story is more impressive and potentially lucrative than grinding out disposable pap. Through director of photography Andrew Lesnie, the director allows himself his trademarks -- wide-lensed close-ups, gory violence -- but this classic tale also affords him a glowing aesthetic (an Alan Lee painting here, a swan boat there) to balance the adventure's requisite grunge (bloody faces, dirty fingernails). Kudos to editor John Gilbert, sound designer David Farmer and the musical talents of Howard Shore and Enya for blending it all together like a fantastic dream.

Jackson and company have chosen to discard much of Tolkien's whimsy, focusing primarily on action and atmosphere, but, happily, the author's philosophies survive in Frodo's fortitude, Gandalf's fatefulness and the self-tests of all who confront the ring. Even Saruman's mad command to his orcs to tear out all surrounding trees speaks to an increasingly rootless postindustrial society. Seen from a world of similarly insane felling, The Lord of the Rings becomes utterly vital.

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