The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Review
The dust has settled and nine months on from its cinema release and with The Two Towers on the horizon, is it time for reappraisal of The Fellowship Of The Rings, questioning the overwhelmingly positive critical reaction to it? Or is this really an outstanding opening chapter of what could be the greatest trilogy yet filmed? Well, sadly, for those who disliked it, the answer is that The Lord Of The Rings, when completed, will very likely be a landmark in cinema - an indication that storytelling and visual style do not have to be sacrificed in a film production of this size.
The release of this two-disc version and a four-disc version in November indicates that The Fellowship Of The Ring be a similar landmark in home entertainment. Assuming you will buy one – and really, you should - which version is the one for you. That will depend entirely on how devoted you are to Middle Earth and the story of a small group of hobbits facing the greatest evil yet known.
The Fellowship Of The Ring is the story of how, many years before, the dark lord Sauron and the Elven-smiths forged the Rings of Power and distributed them among the races of Middle Earth. Sauron, however, deceives them all and creates for himself the Ruling Ring that reigns over all the others. With the power of this ring, Sauron overruns Middle Earth but is defeated by Isildur who is seduced by the power of the ring and cannot destroy it. It, however, destroys him and all others who come to possess it.
Years later, a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, finds the ring and keeps it amongst his possessions, unaware of its power. Sauron is beginning to stir in Mordor but cannot yet take physical form but through his servants, the Ring Wraiths, and his armies of orcs, he has gathered all other Rings of Power to him and now only seeks the Ruling Ring. The wizard Gandalf, old friend of Bilbo, on discovering the whereabouts of the ring, urges Bilbo to leave at once and, as the ring’s power over him is too great, to entrust the ring to his nephew, Frodo Baggins. Frodo is urged by Gandalf to take the ring, leave the Shire and go to the elves at Rivendell.
Accompanied by three fellow hobbits, Samwise (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) Frodo does as he is instructed. At Rivendell, seeing the power of the ring over men, dwarves and elves, Frodo volunteers to destroy it. He cannot do so alone, so the hobbits are joined on their quest by Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Gimli the Dwarf (John Rhys-Davies), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Boromir (Sean Bean) and Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom). Together this fellowship will journey into Mordor, the territory of Sauron, and in the Crack of Doom finally destroy the ring and the evil within Mordor.
The Fellowship Of The Ring is only the opening part of a trilogy. It runs for 2hr51m but passes by quickly, due to the strength of the central story that presses on through set pieces but is not afraid to rest for a moment and to illuminate stories at the edge of the source novel without ever breaking the rhythm of the entire piece.
Visually, The Fellowship Of The Ring positively sparkles on screen. This is grand storytelling with a visual sweep to match. It's truly a beautiful film, almost hypereal in its depiction of the environment. The Shire appears as we would imagine England to be on a warm summer's evening and Rivendell is lit up with sunlight, waterfalls and architecture linked inextricably to the landscape. This might be little more than quick visual tips to hobbit and elvish heritage but it looks superb.
When the film is required to be sinister it does so with ease. The forest on the approach to Buckleberry Ferry is intensely dark with the presence of the Ring Wraiths increasing the oppression therein by being constantly on the heels of the hobbits. When the camera sweeps through Mordor and Isengard, each frame is intense with detail, filled with activity before falling deep into the earth.
Are there faults in the film? A few but many of these are linked to the source material which the screenwriters Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh possibly could have removed. Subtle hints are rarely employed within the fantasy genre when mile-wide signposts and warnings will suffice. When the fellowship leaves Rivendell before entering the Mines Of Moria, there is no doubt that going into the mines would be a grave mistake and when they do, Saruman leaves no mystery as he views an illustration of the Balrog and speaks aloud of danger the fellowship will eventually face.
It is to the director’s credit though, that the inclusion of these scenes are quickly developed and taken advantage of. When the fellowship is within the mines, tension is increased slowly through the approach both of the orcs and a cave troll, out of sight and only heard through the walls of the mine. Even when we know the Balrog is coming and what its appearance will be, the flight to the bridge at Khazad-Dum is remarkable, the camera keeping pace, both leading and following the fellowship as they make their escape, circling them as they are surrounded by orcs and remaining stationary as they watch the slow approach of the Balrog through the great hall. When the Balrog finally appears, the effect is still stunning as the build up has been superbly paced and structured.
The sense of the epic is maintained until the very last scenes. Unlike another opening chapter in what was once a trilogy, The Fellowship Of The Ring is closer to the ending of The Empire Strikes Back with members lost, the fellowship broken and uncertainty of the future.
Peter Jackson made a great decision in casting good, sometimes excellent, actors in every role. Individually, Ian McKellen, as Gandalf, brings a surface of light-hearted bemusement to Gandalf but develops his role with humour, anger, fear and determination, always subtly present as well as unrestrained flashes. Gandalf also brings a deep love of mankind and hobbits to the role - such a thing seems deeply unpopular in Middle Earth – so much so that never once do we question his motives.
As Boromir, Sean Bean also impresses as, on viewing the film again, it is only through his presence that conflicts exist within the fellowship – he is mistrusted by Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen, whose character grows when challenged by Boromir. As portrayed by Bean, mankind's desire for power is given form and although it is occasionally overplayed, the role is effective. The rest of the cast are sufficient in their roles but Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm can look embarrassed at times as, unlike Boromir, their desire for the ring is never really convincing. Blanchett and Holm are attracted to the Ring as a two year old is to a chocolate bar but Bean is helpless in his need to have the Ring, utterly consumed by desire, impotent without it before finding the strength he needed elsewhere.
The film is assisted, but seemingly never dependent on its special effects, although Peter Jackson insists otherwise in the extra features. The visual effects are never added excessively and only serve to assist the story which, at all times, remains the principal reason for watching the film. The CG characters actually impress as they do look to have weight and momentum in their movements unlike the players in the Quidditch match in Harry Potter, also released at the same time. The brief glimpses of Gollum, however, are disappointing, as he looks clearly CG. Hopefully this will be improved on as he plays a much larger role in The Two Towers. The weaponry, make-up and costumes are all outstanding.
The picture is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and has moved to DVD without much change. It is a film that deserves as big a TV screen as possible but it looked great on my 28” widescreen set and on the PC monitor. The transfer bitrate has been criticised as being low but I was checking at is remains at a normal level in line with other releases fairly consistently. The layer change is well placed just before the meeting of the council of Elrond and may be unnoticeable unless you watch for it to happen. EIV could not really get away with a poor transfer as it is one of the best looking films of recent years and it has not disappointed.
There are two English channels, one presented in Dolby Digital EX 5.1 and the other in Stereo Surround. The stereo is sufficient if you do not have a 5.1 system but neither produces a demo disc. The stereo surround effects are restrained, there is good use of the rear channels when required but it is only when Frodo puts on the ring that they come alive, with the sound swirling around the room using audio effects to describe being in the spiritual world. The subwoofer is also given a workout in many sequences but the overall effect is one of subtlety.
Welcome To Middle Earth: Houghton Mifflin In-Store Special, 16min 47s – This is an expanded promotion for JRR Tolkien books in the US published by Houghton Mifflin with some footage from the production sets included with cast and crew interviews.
Quest For The Ring: A Fox TV Special, 21min 28s – This repeats much from the second half of the Houghton Mifflin feature, padding it out with an increased number of interviews with the cast.
A Passage To Middle Earth: A Sci-Fi Channel Special, 41min 40s – Where Quest For The Ring was the last 8 minutes of the Houghton Mifflun feature padded to 21minutes, this is the same feature stretched to breaking point. There is nothing new in this that either of the previous features has not already covered.
Lordoftherings.net Featurettes: 2-5min each – Much of the information presented in the Sci-Fi feature is also shown here, broken into fifteen featurettes all of which were available on the www.lordoftherings.net website during the production and promotion of the film.
Theatrical Trailers – Trailer One, 1min 37, is focused on the epic nature of The Lord Of The Rings without detailing the story. Trailer Two, 2min 15s, is about around the darker side of film, all battles and close-ups of orcs and the final trailer, 2min 40s, is the most rounded of the three with a greater view of the story.
TV Spots: 32s each – Six TV spots made for US television.
Enya “May It Be” Music Video: 3min 38s – A typical video for a song from a film – shots of Enya singing cut with footage from the film – nice if you like Enya but inessential.
Special Extended DVD Edition Preview, 3min06s – This preview offers brief glimpses at some of the footage which will be added to the film for the later release – an extra 30min – as well as a little of the extra features including storyboard-to-film comparisons and the development of special effects including the Balrog and the Cave Troll. Overall, there is little here which you wouldn’t have guessed will be coming it’s nice to see it confirmed.
Behind The Scenes Preview of The Two Towers: 10min44s – Beginning with Peter Jackson driving his car on the way to the set, this mixes scenes from The Two Towers with production footage, interviewing both cast and crew and finishing with a minute of film from the second part of The Lord Of The Rings. The preview covers Gollum and the sets and locations used including Edoras and Helm’s Deep. There is an overview of the battle of Helm’s Deep and the software used in the CG battle sequences.
The Two Towers Video Game Preview, 3min 2s – Actually, this game combines both The Fellowship Of The Ring and The Two Towers but this is not mentioned in this interview with the game producers at Electronic Arts interspersed with footage from the game.
Did I enjoy it? You bet, it’s an amazing film and, although reviews giving it less than five stars are now starting to appear, ignore them - this is a fantasy film which succeeds in breaking out of its genre by its ambition to tell an epic story in a appropriate way. On the whole, it does not fail and watching it again brings back the magic and excitement felt when first viewing it in the cinema. Although the marketing of The Two Towers has already begun, go back to The Fellowship Of The Ring and enjoy a stunning piece of film.
However, which version of the DVD to buy, this or the 4 disc version coming in November? If you feel like buying this DVD, do so for the film alone. The length of this film was always going to be a problem as it is impossible to put it on a single DVD with any extras. A two-disc set, a special edition elsewhere, is really not very special here. Think of this set, therefore, as the bare-bones release that those seeking only the superbly presented film with a fair number of middling extras, which you will not watch twice, would buy. If you don’t care about extra features, save yourself £5 and buy this set. If you have previously waited for special editions, then wait until November for the four-disc set, as this will not satisfy you now unless you have an urgent desire to see the film again.
In their defence, New Line have, unlike many other distributors, always said there would be two versions allowing customers to select which edition to buy. Not once was the release of the four disc box denied to boost sales of this set. So buy both - reward New Line for producing this film and Peter Jackson so he can make enough money and write/direct Bad Taste 2, after all we have to find out what happened to Derek.