Review by Throwback
Other than The Passion of the Christ, I’m not sure there was ever a movie event more anticipated by Catholics than Fellowship of the Ring, the initial motion picture installment of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. If you’ve ever read the books, you should have a fairly decent grasp of the almost cosmic burden that Peter Jackson undertook in trying to make this movie and its sequels. If you haven’t read the books, then you are probably some kind of Philistine who is hopelessly mired in the throes of spiritual necrosis. You should remedy that by going out and reading them now, and please, please, please do so before you watch the movies.
Even those who haven’t read the books most likely have an idea about the basic plot. The One Ring, an object of unimaginable power and evil forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, was found by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins. Sauron is looking for it to restore himself to nigh-omnipotence. If he gets it back, it will be hell on Middle Earth. A group of adventurers, led by Frodo Baggins, Bilbo’s nephew and the new ring-bearer, are charged with the job of taking the One Ring into Sauron’s territory and casting it into the fires of Mount Doom to destroy it. While this doesn’t do the plot justice, it’s going to have to be enough. This is just a review after all.
The cast is a big-time ensemble, with a lot of talent going for it. Not many directors could have managed such a troupe, and I give Jackson a lot of credit for being able to tell the story while still developing the characters to the point where you can actually care about them. Whatever you might think of Ian McKellen as a person, he nails the role of Gandalf with about 99% accuracy. The other 1% is more a function of the script, I think, than anything that McKellen could have done about it. You could say similar things about Hugo Weaving as Elrond and Sean Bean as Boromir.
With that out of the way, let’s not get too swept up with the visuals here or the fact that it’s Tolkien. There are some definite weaknesses with some of these characters. Unfortunately, Elijah Wood as Frodo is one of them. It doesn’t take long to realize that the bulk of his lines are going to be delivered with the same whiny tone of voice. Annoyance sets in shortly thereafter. There’s a similar criticism due for Sean Astin, who plays Samwise Gamgee. Almost all of his lines are in the same pleading cadence with a “Mr. Frodo” tacked on to the end. This hurts the overall movie, of course, because these are two of the three main characters. If you want, you can give Jackson a pass for this. As mentioned above, this film was a tremendous undertaking. Nobody should have expected perfection. However, a bit more attention to such significant protrayals was definitely called for, though.
Overall, Jackson’s work is superb. He really does re-create Middle Earth on the screen. Calling the visuals stunning would be a tremendous understatement. The demonic servants of Sauron, the peaceful habitat of the elves, and the battles between good and evil are extraordinary. There is a lot of CGI, but it isn’t nearly as obnoxious as in the Star Wars prequels or even Jackson’s other works (King Kong, e.g.). As was the case with the acting, the high achievements across the board make any imperfections stand out all the more. What was actually the penultimate scene of the whole narrative is, in my opinion, completely botched. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but the whole thing just fell flat, and I can’t ascribe it to anything other than Jackson’s handling of the situation. I’m sure that I’ve just committed blasphemy in some people’s minds who think that each of the Lord of the Rings movies is flawless and beyond reproach at every level. To that, I simply note that I also know people who think that Phantom Menace was good.
The movie is long, but long movies are ok if they are good. Just know that you will be sitting around for three hours or so, and yes, there is maybe a legitimate gripe about it having too much walking in the forest. I find that people who focus on this are really just looking for something to complain about. This is one of the few movies that is made better in its extended version. The content that’s omitted is well-worth watching, so check any DVDs you buy/rent for that label, so you don’t get short-changed, especially if you are a fan of the books.
For fans of the books, Fellowship should be faithful enough to the telling for any Tolkien geek. Yes, there are some departures, but again, if you were expecting line-by-line retelling perfection, I think the problem is yours moreso than Jackson’s.
Catholic content is obvious in the whole Lord of the Rings telling. It’s why Tolkien wrote it, after all. In fact, if you want to have a good discussion among Catholic youths, point out to them the corrupting effects of the One Ring and how the hobbits’ humility is what staves off the corruption. As we quickly learn, nobody else could have carried the ring, whether man (Boromir) or elf (Elrond) or neither (Gandalf). It’s the lowly and humble nature of the hobbits that helps them to resist. I daresay that the Fellowship of the Ring is one of the few modern cultural items that youths are able to discuss in the context of their faith.
Content is not a big deal here. Naturally, there’s no sex or language issues. The violence can be pretty intense. Orcs and other such nasty things aren’t sugar-coated. They’re awful things and shown that way. Young kids probably aren’t a good audience, but once they’re ten or so, things should be okay.
I’m going long, so I’ll conclude by saying that this was the best of the Lord of the Rings adaptations. It’s a marvelous accomplishment from a filmmaking standpoint. Does it have very palpable and annoying flaws? Yes. It’s still something that every Catholic should look to expose themselves to and even use as a catechetical tool.