- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" doesn't take long to grab you. I felt an encouraging shiver at the point in the prologue where narrator Alan Howard intones, "History became legend, legend became myth." Director Peter Jackson liberates exceptional powers of cinematic mythmaking, an ability that becomes evident as soon as the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen in a magnificent impersonation) joins the esteemed hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) in a smoke-ring collaboration.

Gandalf puffs up a frigate from his pipe smoke that sails gracefully through Bilbo's beckoning ring. In a similar respect, Mr. Jackson and his collaborators use J.R.R. Tolkien's "Ring" novels, which have defied adequate movie adaptation for almost half a century, as an inspiring framework for heroic adventure spectacle. If "Fellowship of the Ring" the first installment in a three-picture saga that will continue during the next two Christmas seasons is blowing illusionary smoke rings our way, they prove state-of-the-art conjuring tricks, irresistibly vivid and exciting.

They're worthy of a wizard as prodigious as Gandalf and an adventurer as improbable as Bilbo and his designated successor in "Fellowship," a young cousin and adopted heir called Frodo (Elijah Wood). Frodo is entrusted with the safekeeping of a magical but terrifying ring that could spell enslavement for an entire kingdom if not returned to its place of origin, the distant Mount Doom.

"Fellowship" gives this season a stunner to rival "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" of last year. The stories share numerous heroic affinities and invite you to admire characters who exemplify the noblest of martial skills, aspirations and loyalties. The patience of Tolkien fans who were keenly disillusioned by Ralph Bakshi's half-baked animated feature in 1977 will be amply rewarded. Before that calamity, Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman had abandoned live-action versions, but the Bakshi debacle suggested that live-action solidity and interplay were indispensable to success.

Mr. Jackson is the New Zealander whose flair for supernatural depiction was clear in the murder chronicle "Heavenly Creatures" and the ghost thriller "The Frighteners." He reconciles an astutely chosen cast with sumptuous scenic design, imposing locations and impressive optical trickery. Evidently, an elaborate, stirring and accomplished movie digest of the Tolkien books is now securely possible.

Familiarity with the source material is not a prerequisite for being swept away. The prologue will give newcomers an incisive introduction to the struggle that overtakes Frodo and his companions, obliging them to stay one step ahead of capture or slaughter. Mr. Jackson keeps up a kind of marathon sprint. Chases and pitched battles start to accumulate, while ascending in suspense and ferocity. The movie seems to fly by, despite a running time of almost three hours. You appear to be riding the coattails of a breathtaking cliffhanger.

Mr. Jackson's belated triumph suits the lore of the books. They took decades to complete and catch on. Tolkien, a philologist and professor of English at Oxford University, wrote the "Ring" novels between 1937 and 1949, completing an epic storytelling urge that took hold when he conjured up Bilbo and the other inhabitants of the medieval realm called Middle-Earth in "The Hobbit," published in 1937. The "Ring" trilogy finally appeared in 1954-55. They became cult favorites in the United States in the late 1960s, concurrent with the emergence of the so-called counterculture.

Mr. Jackson and his collaborators have probably assured a prolonged longevity, appropriate for a world of fiction in which the characters live for even thousands of years. One of the director's soundest instincts was to recruit Alan Lee and John Howe, the most prominent illustrators of the books. Mr. Lee, emphasizing settings, and Mr. Howe, emphasizing action highlights, seem to have given the filmmakers an invigorating pictorial standard.

The Fellowship numbers nine, an alliance of hobbits, dwarves, elves, humans and wizard the little folk, big folk and magic folk of Middle-Earth, threatened with invasion and conquest by the marauding forces of an evil lord called Sauron. Sauron is not seen in the first movie. Nevertheless, he has an agent, a corrupted wizard called Saruman (a silver-maned and bearded Christopher Lee). At one point Gandalf is at his mercy a situation Mr. Jackson should have resolved immediately rather than intercutting to Frodo and his hobbit pals, preoccupied in another part of the territory by mounted menaces called Ringwraiths. A sequence in which the Wraiths pursue Liv Tyler as the elf princess Arwen also relies too heavily on dynamic editing to permit her to outdistance the pursuers. The culmination is marvelous: A Howe illustration comes alive as the Wraiths are engulfed in a cascade of water that suddenly resembles an onrushing herd of stallions.

Some stirring moments don't require a menacing pretext. A composition of the valiant nine arriving at the crest of a mountain is a heart stopper. So is the sound of Mr. McKellen observing, "There are other forces at work besides evil." Dialogue that might sound stilted in some voices becomes authoritative in his.

The culminating battles pit the heroes against the best loathsome monsters since "Starship Troopers." Parents should be aware that primordial danger and combat await in "Fellowship." It will probably be useful to have friends and family members to clutch during the scariest episodes, but regard the PG-13 rating as a borderline call, with an R just a whisper away.

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