Devotees will surely quibble and some will staunchly resist anything involving elves. But New Zealand director Peter Jackson — who came to this mega-project (three epic films, to be released at one-year intervals) with a resume composed in equal parts of low-budget horror and offbeat art-house pictures — took the mythical beast and wrestled it into solid entertainment.
In the mystical land of Middle Earth (which resembles the English countryside filtered through a particularly rosy haze of nostalgic longing), many beings co-exist in relative harmony. There are diminutive, home-loving hobbits; powerful forest elves, who command magical forces; squat, belligerent, cave-dwelling dwarves; human beings and a fabulous bestiary of creatures great and small. But there are also sinister forces, concentrated in the region of Mordor. In the legendary past, a ring was forged by the dark lord Sauron; its evil power helped his armies win a series of bloody battles, but a coalition of elves and human warriors defeated him. A human king tore the ring from Sauron's finger, but gave in to its malevolent allure and refused to destroy it. Lost for many lifetimes, the ring found its way into the possession of hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), in whose gentle hands it lay dormant. Bilbo is eventually advised by benevolent wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to pass it on to his nephew, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). Gandalf, who knows evil is afoot and that the ring must be kept out of the fray, entrusts Frodo with the task of transporting it to Mount Doom, where it was forged and where it can be destroyed. Frodo's companions in this momentous quest include three naive but stout-hearted hobbits (Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd); the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies); Elfin archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and two men, warrior Boromir (Sean Bean) and exiled king Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). Arrayed against them are the spectral Ringwraiths, astride black horses that scream like tortured souls; wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), who's breeding a monstrous mongrel army; a troll, goblins, bounty hunters and — most frightening of all — their own worst impulses, which the ring magnifies and exploits. Let it be said at this juncture that this sort of thing is hokum, favored by those for whom real life is too harshly utilitarian, lacking moral rigor and magic. But it's top-of-the-line hokum: A scholar, medievalist and linguist, Tolkien knew his classic heroic quests and understood the heart of their enduring power. The cult of his own books is only one measure of their cultural significance; without them there would be no Star Wars or Harry Potter, no Everquest or card-based role-playing gaming. Jackson's film is richly imagined and cast within an inch of its life with master thespians and youthful talents: There's no Arnold Schwarzeneggar turning every overwrought utterance into a ready-made punch line, and the characters are sufficiently developed that their travails have some weight. Above all, Jackson evokes an almost palpable sense of the will to power trapped within the ring. Without this evocation of the ring's insidious ability to sniff out the potential for corruption and capitalize on it, the entire enterprise would be precious drivel.
The three-and-a-half hour version of Lord of the Rings released on DVD in 2002 restores several short sequences trimmed from the theatrical version — including Galandriel's bestowal of gifts on each member of the Ring fellowship, Bilbo Baggins's history of hobbits and Aragorn serenading his love, Arwen (Liv Tyler), with an Elvish ballad — as well as portions of several other scenes.
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