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THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Widescreen

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Elijah Wood, Ian McKellan, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin
Director:  Peter Jackson
Audio:  Dolby Digital EX 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  New Line Cinema
Features:  See Review
Length:  178 Minutes
Release Date:  August 6, 2002

“One ring to rule them all…”

Film ***1/2

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is a saga that has captured the imaginations of millions of readers generation after generation…so now might be a good time for me to admit that I’ve never read any of his works.  I apologize if that statement makes you recoil in horror; truth be told, I have no good excuse.  Some artists, no matter how good or influential, just happen to slip in underneath your radar, and for me, Tolkien is the one.

But the good news is that I may be able to offer a review of Peter Jackson’s epic fantasy film adaptation with a slightly different take than most.  I can’t compare the movie to the book; I can only talk about how it plays as a film.  And it plays darn well.

The movie is muscular and vivid from start to finish, but better still, it’s a throwback to classic storytelling on celluloid when special effects were used to heighten the tale instead of dominate it.  This is the kind of movie that you might have seen back in the era of Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, had the technology been possible then.  Everything about Lord of the Rings screams epic, from its imaginative production design to its running time, to the fact that this is, after all, only part one of a trilogy!

Accept a simple premise, and everything in the story falls into place.  The premise is that of a simple ring, designed to have power over all the world.  It was created by an evil warlord and originally thought lost in a massive historic battle.  But the ring still exists, and is in the possession of the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Holm), long since retired from his adventures in The Hobbit. 

The problem is, the dark lord Sauron is back and searching for the ring.  Upon the advice of a kindly wizard Gandalf (McKellan), Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Wood) begins a journey to take the ring to the center of the mount where it was created so it can be destroyed.  A big job for such a small Hobbit, but along the way, Frodo finds friends in all sizes and with all manners of abilities.  Together, they form the Fellowship of the Ring, and swear that they will complete their mission or die trying.

What an incredible set-up for a story!  And nothing in Tolkien’s tale or Jackson’s film disappoints.  The movie is filled with visual wonder (it garnered a well-deserved Oscar for Special Effects), epic battles, intense action…but most importantly, rich and wonderful characters.  Without them, the journey would be pretty, but empty.

The cast is first rate, starting with the always terrific Elijah Wood as Frodo.  He is the embodiment of the character’s search for courage within himself despite unspeakable odds, and extremely likable.  Also worth mentioning are the mangnificent Ian McKellan, the deliciously diabolical Christopher Lee, and the plucky Sean Astin.

But the film’s two real stars are Tolkien, who created the world of Middle Earth, and Jackson, who brought it to life with more detail and splendor than many thought possible.  He made the ultimate fantasy movie from what most consider the ultimate fantasy text, and delivered three hours of gorgeous, vibrant and engrossing entertainment.

I still may not have read the books by the time The Two Towers hits theatres, but at any rate, I intend to be one of the first in line to see this magnificent saga continued on the screen.

Video ***

New Line seldom disappoints in this department, and given the task of putting a visually spectacular three hour film onto a single disc, I have to say, they did quite well.  The look of the film is sumptuous with striking detail from start to finish.  Colors are plentiful, well-balanced and contained all the way.  There is an occasional light smattering of grain noticeable here and there, along with a touch of softness in a few of the darker scenes where the level of detail gets a little murky, but overall, this is a highly satisfying effort.  One can only assume that the forthcoming 4 disc set, where the film is spread onto two discs, will be even better.

Audio  ****

From the emergence of the DVD menu, you know this is a 5.1 soundtrack that means business!  This is one of the most outstanding audio efforts I’ve heard…powerfully dynamic and mixed to the nines to keep you in the middle of the action.  Whether it’s a battle sequence or one with dialogue, the audio track stays vibrantly alive in all directions.  The crossovers are smooth and plentiful, as the action goes over your head and back again, and comes at you from all directions.  Keep an eye on your breakables, though…when this mix gets loud, there’s going to be some sabers rattling.  100% reference quality, and easily the best offering of the year so far.

Features ***

The extras are somewhat of a mixed bag…quantity over quality.  Most of it is shamelessly promotional in nature, from “Welcome to Middle Earth”, designed for in-store play.  The other two documentaries are better:  the Fox TV “Quest for the Ring” and the Sci-Fi Channel special “A Passage to Middle Earth”, the most in-depth of the three.

There are 15 featurettes, only a few minutes in length apiece, that were originally created for the movie website.  Each features a specific cast member or behind-the-scenes moment.  There are also three previews to ready you for future spending:  a ten minute look at the sequel The Two Towers (quite cool), a peek at the upcoming 4 disc set for this film, and a preview for the LOTR video game.

Rounding out are the Enya music video, theatrical and teaser trailers, and six TV spots.  Considering the much more intense features package fans can expect from the 4 disc set, consider this collection of extras just a warm-up.

Summary:

The Lord of the Rings is a literate, beautiful, action packed fantasy that overlooked no detail in bringing the worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien to life.  It’s a superb combination of casting, direction, special effects, art design and cinematography that brings an epic fantasy to life.  Recommended.