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So that's what the fuss is all about. I mean the passion, the devotion, the obsession of people for whom the fate of fictional characters who live in Middle-earth - players named Frodo and Gandalf, Aragorn and Elrond, Gollum and Sauron - means more, at times, than the fate of the real people who live next door. It's not usually necessary, or shouldn't be, to announce one's lack of familiarity with literary source material in order to assess a movie's qualities as a movie. But, remembering the ferocity of high school classmates - boys, mostly - who steeped themselves in Elvish arcana while the girls wallowed in Salinger and Sylvia Plath, I open by saying that I have never read the fantasy series by the tweedy British scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, the modern lit classic known as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
And I follow quickly by saying that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is thrilling - a great picture, a triumphant picture, a joyfully conceived work of cinema that (based on this first installment, with two more ready for release in the next two years) would appear to embrace Tolkien's classic with love and delight, and rewards both adepts and novices with the highest compliment of all: an intelligence and artistry as a movie independent of blind fidelity to the page. The Middle-earth of this Fellowship - as directed by Peter Jackson with all the graceful inventiveness hoped for from the maker of Heavenly Creatures - is vibrantly, intricately alive on its own terms. This is what magic the movies can conjure with an inspired fellowship in charge, and unlimited pots of gold.
One of the Fellowship's most exemplary attributes is the ease and good instinct with which Jackson regularly shifts perspectives, both structurally and visually, from the epic to the intimate and back again: Thousand-year-old, thousand-creature battles (depicted with of-the-moment computerized assistance) really do look and feel as awesome as such mythological battles ought to but rarely do - and then the focus shifts to the tenderness expressed in the close-up half smile of a gentle wizard. Having laid out the saga's prehistory in a thunderous yet (blessedly) comprehensible prologue - the Great Rings of Power created by the Dark Lord Sauron, the Elven Kings, the Dwarf Lords, the Mortal Men, the one master ring capable of shifting the balance of power in the world, the whole fantastical yada yada - Jackson carries us to the Shire, home of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), his young cousin, Frodo (Elijah Wood), and all their pint-size, hairy-footed, pointy-eared fellow hobbits, living in an idyllic village of excellently cozy wee homes such as Real Simple magazine would swoon to photograph.
As Frodo greets the return of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the hobbits' wizardly protector who has returned for Bilbo's 111th birthday party, the boy and the graybeard share a wagon ride together into a village detailed enough to delight Munchkins, Breughel, and the kitsch painter Thomas Kinkade alike. Frodo is the hero-as-average-fellow in Tolkien's tale, the very opposite of a strapping action figure, to whom will fall the saga's great heroic assignment - and Wood imbues the role with such a serious, kindly, unmannered goodness that he holds his ground easily even against such attention-getting costars as McKellen, Cate Blanchett as the impossibly dreamy Lady Galadriel (queen of all elves), and Viggo Mortensen (impossibly dreamy himself) as the broody and mysterious Aragorn.
The cast take to their roles with becoming modesty, certainly, but Jackson also makes it easy for them: His Fellowship flows, never lingering for the sake of admiring its own beauty. There's no time, anyway. Despite the fact that this first episode runs some two and a half hours - and despite the fact that (scholars tell me) some characters from the book have been excised in the mellifluous screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Jackson - there's a massive amount of story to cover. Every detail of which engrossed me. I may have never turned a page of Tolkien, but I know enchantment when I see it.