There and Back Again, Day 1: The Fellowship of the Ring
Join RT's tour through Middle-earth as our editors return to watch The Lord of the Rings -- in all their extended edition glory -- en route to this week's release of The Hobbit.
At last it arrives. Part one of Peter Jackson's epic Middle-earth prelude The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in theaters this week, and so, in preparation, we're taking the journey back through the movies that made the phenomenon. And lo, we're sitting through all three in their 12-hour extended edition glory. Yes, it's a hard job sitting around getting paid to watch movies. So pack some lembas bread, pour yourself some ent-draught, blaze up the halfling weed and join Ryan "36th Chamber of Rivendell" Fujitani, Luke "One of my trolls is named Teacup" Goodsell and Tim "Son of Tim" Ryan in their hole below ground as they embark upon the first chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring.
Luke: Okay, in the interest of full disclosure -- because there's always that one person -- I'm going to get this out of the way right now: I was one of the three people on the planet not especially awed by these movies when I first saw them in theaters. As someone who grew up loving Tolkien's trilogy, I felt Peter Jackson did as competent a job as could be expected -- the movies looked the part and covered the story's key action beats -- but due to their time constraints, or perhaps their tone, the sense of immersion I got from the books, that magic of getting lost in the rich worlds of lore, just wasn't there for me. So I've always been curious to see these extended editions, to see if that wonder might be restored -- or whether, you know, I was just missing something altogether. As we begin Fellowship I'm struck by how huge this backstory is in the prologue -- and how much, curiously, it covers in short form the events that will be expanded for The Hobbit. Tim?
Tim: What's kept me from revisiting the Lord of the Rings movies since I first saw them in the theater is not only their staggering length, but also the fact that I know only the barest outlines of Tolkien's mythology beyond what I've picked up from friends who are LOTR fans and from a casual listen to various Led Zeppelin deep cuts (in fact, I'm gonna listen to "The Battle of Evermore" as I pound this out). But I have to say that I'd forgotten how effective the opening sequence is in Fellowship of the Ring. I think the problem with a lot of sci-fi/fantasy tales is that they mistake complexity for depth, and Peter Jackson does a great job of avoiding this trap. The opening sequence is visually terrific, but more importantly, it does a great job of providing a basic explanation of the world we're about to immerse ourselves in. It's as if Peter Jackson is saying, "Here's the deal. Here's what's at stake. Here's why you should devote 12 hours of your life to this story."
And then we get the Shire, and what a wonderful way to establish the milieu of this epic. The Shire is teeming with life, and it's a place that looks enough like our world to draw us in, and otherworldly enough to make it seem magical (in lesser hands, the Lord of the Rings films could have looked like a New Age nightmare). And I know these movies are wall-to-wall with state-of-the-art special effects, but the first visual trick that blew my mind was how they were able to make Gandalf tower over Bilbo Baggins.
Ryan: Same here. Even when I watched the bonus features and witnessed the trickery they employed to achieve the effect, I found myself no less dumbfounded by it. It's really incredible and a testament to the time and effort Jackson put into the film. The visual aspect of this movie, from the gorgeous landscapes to the spiffy effects, is one of the best things about it.
Having said that, I have to confess that I, like Luke, was not head-over-heels for this movie when I first saw it in theaters, but that's mostly because, unlike many of my friends, I'd never read the books, so I wasn't heading into it with an entire childhood of expectations just waiting to be fulfilled. Also, it was a late showing and I was exhausted, so I fell asleep about two hours into it.
Of course, I've rewatched Fellowship several times since then, and let me be clear: I think this is a great movie. In fact, watching the extended version reinforced that even more for me, because while I expected the added material to bog down the storytelling, I was pleasantly surprised when I found that it didn't. Even in its longer form, the film felt satisfying to me.
Luke: Yeah, as we were watching this one, I felt that all of the additional and extended scenes were in harmony with the narrative structure. The biggest compliment I can pay this edition is that I didn't notice the changes, at least in an obvious way. I still think the movie has a sense of "checking off the boxes" about it, but coming back to it after all this time I can appreciate the craftsmanship -- and the apparent love and care that went into it. I mean, just the fact that so much of this -- with its interminable portentous speeches and glassy, widescreen eyes -- could play as camp, but doesn't, is a testament to the even keel Jackson keeps the movie on. As Tim says, it could have played as a New age nightmare (I'm politely ignoring all the pan pipes on the soundtrack typing that), and I think it's Jackson's horror training that gives these movies some of their ballast.
Speaking of the director's horror pedigree, some of the stuff in Fellowship is done really well. The Nazgūl (conjuring a little of Ralph Bakshi's rotoscopic menace, which Jackson saw at a formative age) are great indicators of what's to come, and if the cave troll still seems a bit weightless and cartoon-like, then that Balrog gets two clawed thumbs up from me -- if only for looking like it thundered straight off the cover of a Dio album.
Tim: Ian McKellen is such a terrific presence that he lends all the necessary gravitas to Gandalf. Ian Holm, as Bilbo, and Elijah Wood, as Frodo, look enough alike that they could be related. Christopher Lee exudes typical menace as Saruman, and John Rhys-Davies provides Falstaffian heartiness as Gimli. Still, the actor who made the biggest impression on me this time out was Sean Bean as the tormented Boromir. He doesn't have a ton to do, but Bean's expressive face conveys the degree to which the ring is a sought-after commodity, and what havoc it can wreak on weaker souls. (I also have to mention that when Bilbo's face goes all Mr. Hyde when he looks at the ring... man, I forgot what a shock that was).
Ryan: Complete agreement on Boromir (as well as the freaky Bilbo moment). If I were allowed just one nitpick with the film (and really, with the series as a whole), I'd have to go with the sometimes overwhelmingly simplistic "good vs. evil" theme prevalent throughout. There are only a few characters in the series who demonstrate any significant inner conflict, and -- Surprise! -- they're the most interesting ones to watch. I get that Tolkien basically defined a lot of these fantasy archetypes for generations to come, but for better or worse, a lot of these characters are, essentially, just archetypes, and they never waver.
As a viewer, I never once questioned whether Aragorn or Legolas or Gimli would ever betray Frodo the same way that Boromir, to an extent, kept me guessing he might. I never once questioned whether Saruman was going to come around eventually and honor some unspoken wizard code; he was always going to be bad news here. This is why Boromir was so interesting, and why, as we'll see in The Two Towers, Gollum is possibly the best character in the series. In the end, Fellowship is a success because it works anyway and effectively sets up the various storylines we'll see come to fruition later.
Luke: I'm with you here. Gollum is the best character in the movies, as he was in the books (and for me, that goes for The Hobbit, too). It's his complexity that makes him fascinating because, as you point out, Ryan, the world of Middle-earth is often black-and-white (though in fairness, it was something of an analogy for WWII.) Tolkien doesn't know what to do with his female characters, either ("as was the style at the time," ahem), which is an element that Jackson and his co-writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh try and address -- to varying degrees of success, as we'll see. (Though any movie that gives Liv Tyler elf ears in service of a bigger arc is fine by me.) I also think it's worth noting, in the Jekyll-and-Hyde stakes, Cate Blanchett's spooky tranformation from peaceful Lady of the Lake to ring-crazed specter. Blanchett's a big asset to the performances, alongside McKellen, who I agree was born to play Gandalf. Anyway, I think this movie's really set the quest on solid footing thus far. I'm optimistic for a reappraisal.
Stay tuned tomorrow when he head for The Two Towers.