The Fellowship of the Ring has many things I like, a few that I don’t, and a lot that I absolutely love. It is the beginning of my favourite film series, and I feel compelled to start off with that statement because so much of what I have to say about this film rests in the light of its place as the first of a film trilogy. I’ve heard (actually, read) it said that the Best Picture Oscar awarded to The Return of the King was in essence awarded to the entire film trilogy, and based primarily on viewing all three movies as a whole film-story (the actual statement was phrased more negatively, opining like the third film won the Oscar only because the Academy was also taking the merits of previous two films into account, and because 2003 was a bad year for movies). Although on a personal level I would like to disagree with that statement (and on an objective level the commentator did have a couple of fair points to make: the Best Picture nod did feel like a nod to the film trilogy as a whole, and 2003 – from what I’ve seen – certainly didn’t seem like a good year for film), it strikes a true chord: The Lord of the Rings needs to be watched in its entirety, for true enjoyment and also to truly appreciate the remarkable journey that Peter Jackson and his amazing crew (that Peter Jackson is amazing is an irrelevant statement, so I don’t feel the need to affix an adjective in front of his name; besides, it’s not great for sentence structure) have undertaken to bring this beloved work to literature to screen.
My personal journey started in the middle. The first Lord of the Rings film I watched was The Two Towers, (and here I’m going to skip a whole portion on my experience with that one, because I feel it’s more suited for the review of the second film) and then I jumped, at the first opportunity I got, straight into the first and third films. My first time with these films wasn’t exactly the life-changing experience it was supposed to be: I watched the first one on VCD (can you imagine? the HORROR) and I specifically bookmarked the Orlando Bloom scenes (I AM SORRY. I was a very impressionable 15 and only just starting to get my movie-legs.). Well, you can imagine how that turned out. I found the movie reasonably good, but was not overly impressed. To this day I am still envious of folks who have not watched the trilogy and have not lost the chance of first foray. There’s something so… sacred about these films, I think, that I didn’t feel I was ready to review them (part of the reason was also because of procrastination) until I’d watched them a few times, at least, and preferably after discussion with a friend. So on my third run of this film I invited a friend – who’s NOT a film buff, or even a movie person – over, and I’ll make references to her reactions to the film now and then in- oops, the second review, not this one.
Just goes to show how interconnected the films are, doesn’t it? Well, watching these films nearly back-to-back as a whole really shows how Jackson has learnt from each film and strove to improve on its merits and to reduce its demerits in making the next film. For me, I felt the second film improved on the epic-ness of the first film, making the epic fantasy adventure even more heart-stoppingly and brain-blowing-ly epic. The first film had a couple of cheesy moments that I really didn’t like: first and foremost being Galadriel’s test when Frodo offers her the Ring in Lothlorien. I absolutely hated the special effects done on her voice, and her very posture (arms lifted, clothes flying like an industrial fan just mysteriously appeared below her), and how the whole scene made it feel as though Galadriel was suddenly physically possessed, rather than warring with personal demons internally – as I felt it should have been, for a film with so much subtlety and foreshadowing. It’s doubly embarrassing (and doubly damning) when you watch that scene with a parent and a grandparent who hadn’t read the books and wouldn’t understand why Galadriel does what she does here, because for someone who doesn’t understand the power of the ring and its corrupting influence, this scene relegates the movie to the ranks of those tiredly made, poorly designed, and in general just terrible sword-and-sorcery flicks with bad effects. It has become sort of a necessity for me to preface this scene with a disclaimer, every time I watch it with a friend. Speaking of cheesy, in general that’s the only complaint I have about the film. The frantic, back-and-forth editing applied to the orcs hunting down the Fellowship on the final leg of their journey also hearkens back to the cheesy days of fantasy, where film-makers tried to make monsters menacing by swishing the camera around them rapidly and making shots all stiff and blurry. I hated it. There are a few couple other cheesy dialogues, but I won’t call them out here. Gandalf’s fight with Saruman was a tad awkward the first time round, but pretty okay in hindsight. (Gandalf does the windmill! Ahh, can’t get that Tumblr caption out of my head.) Arwen’s scene with Aragorn in Rivendell, on the bridge, is certainly not one of my favourites (I mean, why middle of the bridge? Why is always the middle of a bridge?) but in the context of the era and other such things, it actually grows on you. And Boromir’s death could have been so much worse, but because of the acting and directing and editing, you really feel the bone-crunching impact of the arrows, and Sean Bean’s fine portrayal makes it plausible that Boromir doesn’t fall immediately, or die dramatically at the third arrow. The whoosh and thud of the arrows, the unbalanced way he fights after that- these all highlight his perseverance. After all, it takes time to die from an arrow shot (sadly) – now, actually, I don’t know whether this is true, but I think logically speaking it’s a good guess, and the way the scene is shot, it lends even more credibility to the slow death theory, and that’s all that matters here. Now, I’ve seen some pretty terrible Chinese martial arts flicks in my time, where the tragic hero and heroine run to each other amidst a flurry of arrows, and cling together declaring their love most sappily and embarrassingly as tens of arrows continue to hit them. IT IS NOT TRAGIC. It is laughable and you wish they’d just die already. No, people don’t take so long to die from arrow wounds, and the most pathetic fake-bravado groan after each arrow hit – not to mention the most fake-looking blood trickling from the corners of their mouths (why is it always the corners?!) – does not help matters.
The effects are completely believable here. The devil is in the details, they say, but the devil has got nuthin’ on Jackson. His scenes are beautiful and intricate down to the last leaf, and the attention paid to tiny details is astounding. Reading about the production process makes it all the more so. In the Council of Elrond scene, for instance, every leave floating down was single-handedly painted and thrown down as the council went on. A large part of the credit goes to the set designers, who made the fantastical backgrounds and effects so real because they were real. Crafted by hand, physically existing, tangible objects and sceneries. But even so, the computer graphics are the real deal. The Balrog, anyone? Menacing and a true beauty at the same time, and really, in no way reminiscent of poor video games. The Nazgul? The Elfs? All distinctly recognisable and perfectly evocative of the emotions they are supposed to evoke in the viewers: terrifying (stately so, not cringingly, in false bravado) for the Nazgul and ethereal (uhh, a bit more cringingly so here).
The cast is pitch-perfect in their respective roles. Elijah Wood’s eyes help Frodo’s case a lot. Not to disparage Wood’s acting – he does a fantastic job as Frodo, and I can’t imagine anyone else in that role – but those eyes imbue so much sympathy and empathy for Frodo in his task as a Ringbearer. The wealth of personalities in the Fellowship accentuate so many of the themes highlighted in the books, and which have been covered extensively in documentaries about the film, so I’ll just execute a touch-and-go here: Frodo for, well, a truly unique and in-depth character study (more on that in the second review), Sam for loyalty and the best kind of friendship, Merry and Pippin for mainly comedic effect here but for character growth in the later films, Legolas and Gimli for friendship in spite of differences in (ethnic) backgrounds, Boromir to illustrate the weakness of man and redemption, Aragorn for nobility and a different facet of man, Gandalf for wisdom and the infallibility of power. Essays can be written here, but I won’t bore you readers with that. And then there is Orlando Bloom. He’s been said to be a terrible actor, and while I can’t say that, I do think his acting wasn’t terribly great here. I only liked Legolas for his action scenes, and not the stuff he had to say. I found the inflection in his words distracting and prone to knocking the acting off-course. Still I can’t say his acting was terrible here – serviceable and decent are the words, I suppose.
Another thing about these films are that they are endlessly quotable, a fact already obvious with the first film. There are so many inherently human themes here, that elevate this fantasy tale into more than just a sword-and-sorcery epic, nor simply of study of the human condition, but the best of both worlds. And it is epic, in every sense of the word. The cinematography is a wonder and a marvel of invention. One of my favourite shots, I think, is the one where Frodo trips and drops the Ring as the Fellowship is making their arduous trek through snow-capped slopes. There’s this particular shot here, where the ring is on the far right of the screen, in the extreme foreground, and Frodo huddled on the snow on the left background, and the camera is focused on the Ring and the length of chain threaded through it, right before Boromir picks it up. Epic cinematography there, no?
Another of my favourites is this scene where Frodo trips in the Prancing Pony and the Ring falls onto his finger.
The biggest praise I have to offer is perhaps this: I can watch these films over and over again. Jackson’s trilogy is so endlessly rewatchable, and presents the best kind of film in my opinion: the meaningful blockbusters that are both immensely entertaining and deeply insightful. Pleasure, in the sheerest sense.
Rating on Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Rating on IMDb: 8.8
Viewing history: Seen 3x. Once rental, twice DVD.