Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Six

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#6 — The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
Forget for a moment the Oscar attention, the box office tallies, and the awestruck acclaim from unlikely quarters. Think instead about the context when The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was first released, particularly the cinematic stature of director Peter Jackson. It had been over five years since the release of his previous film, the soundly underwhelming The Frighteners. Before that, he presiding over a film of true beauty and artistic depth, 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, but his cult following was largely built on the earlier meagerly budgeted exercises in shock he’d made in his native New Zealand, films that had devotees to be sure, which doesn’t mean they held promise of the capability to handle, much less master, filmmaking of the scope he confronted in adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary fantasy trilogy. The masturbating puppets of Meet the Feebles might be good for a drunken laugh or two on a Saturday night. That doesn’t track directly to confidence in the same director making Middle Earth and all its denizens come convincingly to life. In other words, there was some risk involved here.

All that worry and preemptive second guessing were sandblasted away once the first installment made its way to theater screens. Jackson’s film is a colossal achievement, a thundering spectacle that effectively redefines how and when the term “epic” should be used to describe a movie. If it doesn’t measure up to this in ambition, breadth, vision, and grand emotions that dance ever so delicately across the screen, then it’s a mere pretender, an aspirational epic at best. It authoritatively announced that Peter Jackson was prepared to take his place among the upper echelon of film directors, those who could take on seemingly impossible projects and emerge with something worthy and memorable.

First of all, it can be held up as a stellar example of the art of adaptation. Jackson and his screenwriting collaborators, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, had no small task before them. They’re dealing with a trip of tomes that are not merely acclaimed. They’re beloved, held to the breast by a multi-generational legion of fans who were ready, perhaps even inclined, to pounce upon any unsavory deviations from the text a fervor that outstrips that of the most fervent Bible-thumper that feels scripture is being misused. And while Tolkien provided them with an abundance of raw material, an entire world to work with, that gift was fraught with its own dangers. There’s a heaping mound of places, unique creatures, and heavily detailed histories all elbowing for attention within this simple story of good versus evil. It’s so easy for this sort of material to get irreparably bogged down, dramatically deadened as the backstory piles up like scrap metal in a junkyard. The screenplay is an expert job of pruning, cutting away the unnecessary material while leaving the original shape intact and even improved in the process. It has fidelity to the original work without being slavish. Even when material must be sacrificed, the spirit remains, the soul of the work is intact and lovingly brought to the forefront.

Jackson was justifiably lauded for the entirety of the project–three films, totaling over nine hours, released in three different calendar years, but actually all within a two year span–yet even if he’d stopped at the end of this film, inconclusive as it is, with the members of the title fellowship split apart and the major quest to bring the all-powerful ring to be destroyed in the molten fires of Mount Doom, thereby ending the threat of Sauron’s evil rule left unfulfilled, Jackson still would have been able to claim a modern classic. Tolkien may not have invented the archetypal characters that populate this story–the reluctant warrior with a hidden noble heritage, the wise oracle who guides noble souls against forces of darkness, the naive innocent who finds himself suddenly the only one who can save the world–but he surely perfected them. Jackson collaborates with his actors to realize these characters on the screen in full-blooded fashion. We believe in these individuals, making their journey marked by magic and improbable endurance fully believable, as well. Indeed, it is even urgent, almost palpable, the snowy passes and sooty caverns feeling as though they invaded the viewing area. It all reaches an ideal balance in this film, the various introductions marked by the happiness of discovery rather than the tedium of exposition, the horrific images as sly and heart-stopping as shadowy figures caught briefly in one’s peripheral vision, the battle sequences laden with sweat and danger and the feel of heavy steel swung in desperation. Everything from the tragic romance to the comic relief plainly works in the film, the earnest investment of everyone involved coming through, frame by glorious frame.

Indeed every part of the filmmaking process is handled with the greatest care, almost as if there was an abiding certainty that this would be a film that would stand for some time, the film everyone involved would truly be remembered for, and it was imperative to make certain the work matched that impending legacy. Howard Shore composed a music score rich with the sort of inspired sonic signatures that have typically been the sole domain of John Williams in recent decades. Andrew Leslie’s deep, vibrant cinematography, John Gilbert’s muscular, exhaustive editing, and the production design, art direction, costumes and makeup all added to the stunning pictures that Peter Jackson framed with an uncommon merging of sturdy storytelling craft and consistent invention. Then there was the embedded revolution of Jackson’s own effects house, Weta Workshop, serving as a glue that held it all together, proving conclusively that the finest use of digital magic involves making it subservient to the story instead of the sadly standard approach of cooking up pixelated mayhem and then cramming in afterthought characters and follicle-thin plot as tired filler between set pieces. When something as striking and majestic as the Balrog shows up in a film, it’s certainly not accurate to term it an invisible use of special effects, but at no point does it feel like Jackson and his team are just showing off. Instead, they’re clearly using their own considerable wizardry to realize something they believe in, just as assuredly as Frodo, the brave Hobbit at the center of the film, believes in the necessity of his mission. It’s a credit to Peter Jackson and all involved with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring that it’s a thrill to believe right along with them.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)