6a. The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Director: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian MacKellen, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis

Going to the movies is something we do to escape from reality, to push aside whatever madness is going on in our lives at the moment. Never has that been more true than with “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” When I first saw this movie the weekend before Christmas 2001, I along with the entire United States of America was still reeling from the effects of 9/11, an unspeakable national tragedy which had occurred only three months prior. For just under three hours that night, I didn’t have to think about anything but the amazing cinematic achievement that was being projected onto the screen in front of me. Going into “The Fellowship of the Ring,” my knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece was quite limited. I had seen the Rankin/Bass Productions animated films “The Hobbit” (1977) and “The Return of the King” (1980), but I had yet to read Tolkien’s original “Lord of the Rings” text. For me, this was all about witnessing what was bound to be the great fantasy event movie that seems to come along at least once in a generation. This was my “Star Wars” …which itself is, of course, heavily influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s work.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” is the first film I can think of that had me on the edge of my seat from the opening scene. The score composed by Howard Shore for this and the other two films in the trilogy could not have been done any better, and the opening cues alone are almost enough to erase any doubts the books’ fans had that the movie would do justice to its source material. The prologue is a visual stunner, as well, and it brings to mind the thought that it would not have been as effective had the movie been made only a few years prior. Actors who would normally be at least six feet tall play characters who are required to stand at half their height, more extras would have had to be hired than in any other movie ever made, and certain locations would be simply impossible to shoot without the advancements in the technology of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), and in all areas it succeeded beyond expectations.

As with “Star Wars,” the cast is so perfectly suited to their roles that I can’t imagine anyone else playing those parts, but it didn’t start out that way. Most specifically, because of the Rankin/Bass films, I came in feeling like John Huston was my definitive Gandalf. Huston is both a legendary actor and director, but his portrayal of Gandalf is left behind in the proverbial dust by Ian MacKellen (the Oscars liked MacKellen’s performance, too, nominating him for Best Supporting Actor). In the case of Elijah Wood, all I had to do was see his name on the title card to know he was the perfect Frodo Baggins. The same goes for Sean Astin as Frodo’s best friend, Samwise Gamgee. Viggo Mortensen is really impressive, with a commanding performance as Aragorn. I do admit to feeling a little disappointed at the time in not seeing much at all of the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), as I’d felt he’d been one of the highlights of the Rankin/Bass films. If I had only known what was to come…

My favorite scene in “The Fellowship of the Ring” comes before Frodo’s adventure has even started. It’s his uncle Bilbo (the hero of “The Hobbit”)’s 111th birthday, and he’s using this occasion to say farewell and be off on his own. It’s the following lines, with Bilbo referring to his neighbors and family in the Shire, that sell the whole scene: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” I have to laugh every time in watching the reactions of the other Hobbits. They can’t for the life of them figure out whether Bilbo has given them a compliment, or if they’ve just been insulted. With the exception of one particular “Star Trek” movie, the three “Lord of the Rings” films contain my favorite movie scores of all time, and my favorite track from “The Fellowship of the Ring” has to be “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum.” When I first heard the name Khazad-Dum, it made me think of the science-fiction TV series “Babylon 5” and its third season cliffhanger where the captain is warned of the mortal danger he will face if he travels to a world called Z’ha’dum. A similar fate awaits one of our heroes at Khazad-Dum. The writers of “Babylon 5” clearly were huge “Lord of the Rings” fans who had no problems with blatantly borrowing from Tolkien on a regular basis. Enya’s “May It Be,” which plays over the end credits, is also very pleasing to the ears, and is every bit as appropriate to the material as the Howard Shore score.

Because it’s the first movie of a trilogy, you go in knowing that you’re only getting a portion of the hero’s journey. Therefore, it’s important for the filmmaker to find the perfect place to leave you hanging. If you’re not exclaiming, “Wait! So what happens next?!” at the end, then they haven’t done their job. The wait between chapters was a quite excruciating 365 days, especially if you enjoyed yourself as much as I did. Granted, this is a reaction you would only have in seeing the movie theatrically, as owning the DVDs/Blu Rays allow you to instantly move the story right along.

It’s a shame that we can see movies like these for the first time only once. No matter how many times you go back to it, nothing can take the place of that initial excitement. I myself saw it theatrically a total of three times, and I would have gladly gone back more times if only I could find more people with which to share the experience. Because, when you’re dealing with an event movie, you just shouldn’t ever go alone. I was so enthralled by “The Fellowship of the Ring” that I dove right into the original books and had them finished before “The Two Towers” was released, just in time to be more impressed than ever before…

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