In December 2001 the film world was enthralled by the first part of New Zealand Director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not since Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical epics of the 1950s had filmmaking been seen on such a scale as Jackson’s Fantasy adaptation. Going on to make close to $900 million worldwide and the recipient of four Oscars and five BAFTAS including Best Film, The Fellowship of the Ring helped to shape the way films began to be produced in the early part of cinema’s second century. Shot entirely in the Director’s home nation over several years the Lord of the Rings trilogy soon became one of the most successful and critically acclaimed film trilogies of all time and eleven years ago I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever seen.
Featuring a large ensemble cast the plot of the first film focuses on the grouping of nine individuals who team up to destroy a powerful ring that threatens to destroy peace in Middle Earth. Hobbits Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippen join Wizard Gandalf, Dwarf Gimli, Elf Legolas and men Aragorn and Boromir as they set out from the Elven city of Rivendell on a quest to Mordor to ‘cast the ring into the fiery chasm from whence it came.’ Along the way their progress is halted by suspicion, in fighting, and Orcs, a vicious Elf like creature, bred for war.
I’ve probably seen the film around five or six times now, once every couple of years or so and although I still enjoy the story, action and effects, my overall enjoyment diminishes each time. I also find I laugh a lot more with each viewing too. Back in 2001 I think the film was probably most noted for its special effects and overall look. A decade on most of the effects still look brilliant but occasionally the computer generated imagery shows its age. There is a slight shine to some of the CGI and sometimes it is really obvious which shots feature the actors and which are computer generated. Even so the CGI on the whole has withstood its first decade very well and the rate at which special effects are moving, you can’t expect things to look realistic forever. The physical effects have held up even better than the CGI. The make-up on the huge cast still looks incredible and the amount of preparation and organisation that must have gone into pre-production and shooting still boggles the mind. The vast majority of actors require some sort of prosthetics work and all look authentically realistic. The difference in height between characters is also well dealt with. Stand-ins, forced perspective, CGI and even different sized sets were used to give the impression of differing height and it usually looks great. There are a few too many shots of characters facing one another with obvious stand-ins but with a budget already at close to $100 million, I think Jackson judged the height issue well.
Another thing that the film is famed for is its location shooting. The film helped to put New Zealand’s natural beauty on the map and its varied locations are all stunning without exception. This film features some of the more scenic landscapes as the latter films went a little darker and the heli-cam shots are always stunning. Hobbiton looks like a cross between Telly Tubby Land and an Eighteenth Century English village but looks inviting and warm. The Hobbiton sets are also amongst my favourite, being exactly what I imagined from reading The Hobbit. (I never read LOTR). Rivendell is another sumptuous location but is also one of the locations in which the CGI has aged the worst.
The plot of the film has a good mix of quest like discussion and action although it is the least action like of the three films. I still really enjoy a lot of the dialogue between the likes of Frodo and Gandalf and Frodo and Aragorn but it isn’t overly heavy. Also, despite featuring words, names and places which are totally alien to anyone without prior knowledge of Middle Earth, I don’t ever remember getting confused between the likes of Isildur and Isengard, or Moria and Morgul. I’m always completely confused by Game of Thrones which I also really like so I was surprised that I picked up the lingo of Middle Earth quite so easily. My only problem with the plot is that it feels a bit like a story without an ending. Even though it is the first in a trilogy it should be able to stand up on its own. While I think overall the film can be watched on its own, the ending sort of peters out. In other successful trilogies such as Star Wars or Indiana Jones, each film has a definite end whereas here it sort of feels like there should be an intermission, rather than a year long gap. The impact of The Ring is extremely well handled though. The way that characters covert it and the way it seems to have its own drive and even personality leave the viewer in no doubt as to its power.
On the acting front the film is a real mixed bag. Some actors give terrific performances. Ian McKellen is wonderful as the wise Wizard Gandalf and Christopher Lee is one of the standout performers as Saruman. Ian Holm also gives a good performance. Of the more central actors, Viggo Mortensen is impressive and has gone on to impress in several films post LOTR. I also thought that John Rhys-Davis puts on a good show as the slightly comedic Dwarf Gimli. Other performances made me laugh due to a mixture of dialogue and acting. Each time I watch Orlando Bloom I laugh. His mannerisms and speech are so; well my girlfriend put it best when she said “he’s sooo gay...” There is also a homoerotic tension between Elijah Wood and Sean Austin which continues right the way through the series. Sean Bean manages to sit somewhere between the two camps, straddling the line between serious and tongue in cheek. What the more camp performances do do though is to take the edge of the quest like nature of the story and insert some humour into what may otherwise be a little dry or depressing.
As I’ve now spent about fifteen hours watching this film there are new things that I notice on each viewing. On about my third viewing I noticed that Legolas doesn’t sink into the snow like the others and on this viewing I spotted that when Arwen (Liv Tyler) first makes an appearance, the setting is between several trolls turned to stone, possibly a reference to The Hobbit. It’s things like that and the vast enjoyment I get from each viewing which brings me back to the film and the series every couple of years.