The best in a halfway decent series, a fully featured sword-and-sandals adventure with the good sense to feature ample amounts of blood, brooding, and battle.
Knowing next to nothing about Tolkien going in besides the fact that he apparently had too much time on his hands, Fellowship blew me away with its scope and uncompromising brutality and still ranks as one of the best times I've had at the movies so far. The film concerns a fantastical alternate universe called Middle-Earth populated by many strange creatures, some good, some evil, some human. One unlikely member of a midget-like race called Hobbits, named Frodo, over the course of a single eventful evening is tasked with traversing the known world and destroying an evil ring. As he makes his way toward the subtly named Mount Doom to toss it into the cleansing flames of a fiery pit, his band of travelers grows, as does the peril stacked against him. His enemies want the ring back, and the power it brings, and even his own friends are one after the other tempted by its dark whispers. Adventure ensues.
This is not the fairy tale bedtime story you were regaled to sleep with as a child, and I commend Jackson for using his budget to full effect; the costume design, the special effects, the language and the sweeping New Zealand landscapes are utilized to full effect. The violence is also shocking and welcome; baddies are decapitated, set on fire, shot through the face with arrows, cut down with throwing axes, impaled, and dropped from high places-- all par for the course these days, but keep in mind when the film was released this was pretty unheard of for this kind of story. It gives the whole thing an uncompromisingly dark, Dungeons and Dragons feel, and it works. There are many memorable set-pieces and characters, and in my opinion, the best ending in the trilogy featuring a messy chaotic battle and the heroes disbanded and stumbling apprehensively into a foreboding sunset.
It all feels fresh and invigorating, so its a shame Jackson got carried away by the smell of his own farts with the sequels, which fail to progress the story in any meaningful way. They are still fun, but they struggle to emulate the enjoyment of the original, where the shallow themes and one-note characterizations felt warm and reassuring, as they existed to compliment what is essentially a whimsical homage to the road-trip movie. Instead of mining these treasures in a compelling way for the latter films, Jackson and crew simply lathered on the spectacle and the sappiness, until it became predictable and exhausting. I can only see so many close-up shots of a person's face in place of genuine emotion, so many action hero cliches in place of actual character development, so many ham-fisted twists in place of meaningful writing, before my investment begins to waver. After a while, the whole ordeal becomes more concerned with the special effects and the illusion of grandeur than rounding out the journey in a compelling way. After the gratingly leisure-like pacing and climactic disappointment of Two Towers there is never any doubt about who is going to win in Return of the King, and every scene is diluted into serving only the purpose of berating us into submission as our heads roll in anticipation for the next inevitable battle scene. Snore.
Fellowship is a modern classic, a 100% film that is sadly lessened by the existence of sub-par sequels. Had it stood on its own, we would have been left to wonder about what could have been, which it turns out, is better than what we actually got. Of the three, it features the strongest writing, and there is no coincidence that it also features Golem the least. This is a blessing, because he is just as bad if not worse than Jar Jar Binks.