Okay, sour grapes aside, this film really should be experienced on the big screen, but my humble 32-inch widescreen TV set had to suffice for this viewing. I also decided to watch the original theatrical version in lieu of the extended edition. Although both were available to me, I reasoned that, for the purposes of this project, I should consider the same version that the Academy voters considered... Plus, it's 30 minutes shorter...
With that in mind, here are my thoughts on the 2001 Best Picture nominee...
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens & Peter Jackson
(based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkein)
Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, 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
4 wins, including Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects
You don't get much more epic than The Lord of the Rings. The first instalment of the Tolkein trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, introduces us to Frodo Baggins, a young hobbit who, thanks to his uncle Bilbo, is lumped with the task of disposing of a very powerful and magical ring forged by the evil wizard Sauron. Coming along for the ride are three of his young hobbit friends, who are mostly interested in eating rather than staying out of trouble. And trouble is exactly what finds them as Sauron sends all sorts of nasties in an attempt to reclaim the ring. Friendly wizard Gandalf introduces the hobbit gang to what can only be described as the United Nations of Middle-Earth, a council that assigns an Elf, a Dwarf and two Men to accompany Gandalf and the hobbits on their dangerous journey to destroy the ring, thereby destroying Sauron himself.
All the stops are pulled out in this fantasy tale. The production values are simply spectacular, from the stunning sets and costumes to the majestic music and sound. The visual effects are also phenomenal, but ironically, they are almost too good. As impressive as they are, it's a tad distracting to constantly wonder, "How do they do that?" when you should be concentrating on the story. Adding to the list of breathtaking qualities is the cinematography, which owes a lot to the diverse landscapes New Zealand has to offer. The Kiwi tourism board will never find better promotional material.
Now, it's lucky the film has all these wonderful visual and auditory elements because, just like Moulin Rouge, it suffers from a certain superficiality with respect to its characters and dialogue. Everyone just seems so one-dimensional. The language may be pleasantly poetic, if a little flowery, but it doesn't make up for the lack of depth. Why must everything be so black and white? Is it too much to ask for a bit of subtext beneath all those hollow words? It's just not real. Now, before you start saying, "But, Matt, it's not meant to be real - it's fantasy," I understand that. And the fantasy elements of the story are excellent. It's not the wizards and goblins and orcs I have a problem with. Even with fantasy-land characters, there still needs to be emotional content. They may not be human, but we are, so if you hope to engage an audience at a deeper level than just, "Wow, that looks amazing," then you'll need characters that are less plastic than this.
In spite of all that, I did find myself drawn in to the magic and fantasy of it all. In retrospect, it was mostly the sequences that had very little or no dialogue that had the most impact. The battle sequences were particularly gripping and all those sweeping shots of the Fellowship on their journey do make for a rollicking adventure. I definitely can't fault the cast, either. There are several moving scenes for which the performers, along with the stirring score, deserve credit. Ian McKellen, with his classical actor presence, is notably affecting as Gandalf. Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean also manage to forge their own depth to their characters despite the script. Hugo Weaving occasionally becomes reminiscent of Agent Smith, which is unfortunate. And Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett are just perfect as Elves, if only because of their ever so slightly unconventional beauty. I mean, they just look Elvish.
So, just to be clear, I still believe that The Fellowship of the Ring is a well-made film. It's just the general lack of real substance in the dialogue that bothers me. The film has some lofty themes - friendship, love, bravery, destiny, good vs. evil. But they are just treated too artificially for my liking. Fortunately, all the other elements of film-making combine to create something that is entertaining to watch. Just goes to show what you can do with a bit of money...