by Ed Symkus

Move over Harry Potter. You are kids' stuff. Literally. And there's nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with a well-made, true-to-its-source adaptation of a novel that a lot of people have read and a lot of purists -- most of them around the age of 10 -- have the highest hopes for.

The difference between that film and this one -- based on the first segment of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, written almost 50 years ago -- is that while Harry Potter is a very good film, The Fellowship of the Ring is a great one, instantly achieving masterpiece status on numerous levels.

The purists for this one -- young followers of fantasy as well as aging hippies (the trilogy found its first and biggest fan base in the 1960s) -- may be a little persnickety about certain details and plot points being left out, but those naysayers won't really have a big, hairy foot to stand on. If New Zealand director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners) had attempted to catch it all, he would have had a fat, unwieldy, ultimately boring film. Instead, he and his writers condensed, snipped and shaped the book into a solid, exciting, visually stunning, fast-moving three-hour exercise in creative, imaginative filmmaking that succeeds at capturing what, who, and especially where Tolkien was writing about. In other words, Jackson nailed it.

The story's locale, Middle-earth, is of another time (long ago) and another place (recognizable as our planet, but with an alien feel). As always in an adventure saga, the story is of utmost importance, and the twisting, turning, perilous one at the center here hardly gives any time for anyone watching to take a breath.

Briefly, it's about a race of small, peaceful, big-footed Hobbits, one of whom, Bilbo, has found a gold ring, which, unbeknownst to him, bears a great but malevolent power. It gives him special abilities, but after being lost for countless centuries, it now also calls out across vast distances to its evil maker, summoning him and his followers to retrieve it, and in turn, take over the world.

Enter into the picture the all-knowing wizard, Gandalf, Bilbo's nephew, Frodo, and a multitude of other mythic creatures, along with mighty but otherwise normal men and a couple of females. There's a lot of talk and many introductions and all kinds of narrated back history and breathtakingly photographed scenes of fields and mountains and forests and rivers, and a horrific place -- all red and black -- called Mordor (be sure to listen to Led Zep's "Ramble On" before seeing the film). Then, about 90 minutes in, the film kicks into high gear with an explanation of what must be done with the ring to maintain world order (destroy it) and how it's to be done (sorry, that won't be revealed here).

There's a long, tumultuous journey, huge battles, relationships that range from close friends to arch rivals, and a hint of romance. They're all blended together seamlessly into a kaleidoscope of digital effects, models, life-size sets and people -- all of it encompassing a mood and scope that Tolkien himself would have been awed by.

What's most amazing is that Jackson pulled it off. The first line of dialogue is, "The world has changed." So, possibly, has the art of epic filmmaking with the way Jackson has so triumphantly realized his and Tolkien's visions. This is a film of immense power and beauty. It delivers a message concerning the importance of our connection to nature just as it unflinchingly accosts us with hideous monsters and violent, gruesome fighting (beheadings and arrows to the body become almost commonplace).

Its physical components alone are knockouts of the grandest scale. And with those as a backdrop, Jackson then fills the film with a marvelous cast of actors, each of whom knew that this was a story and film not to be messed with. Each gave it his or her all throughout 15 grueling months of filming. In a role that stands as the story's tent pole, Frodo, Elijah Wood delivers on the most demanding performance of his still young career. And as the wise and powerful Gandalf, Ian McKellen perfectly gets across everything equally well, be it with a deep-seated bellow or a slight twitch of an eye.

But will The Fellowship of the Ring turn into the box office gold it deserves? It sure should. The Tolkien books have reportedly sold over 100 million copies; that's a large number of fans. But the film absolutely stands on its own; reading the book first is not imperative. If memory serves (it's been 25 years since I read them), the series gets better and stronger in books two and three. So, likely, will the films. They're all shot, and editing on The Two Towers has begun, with a release date of Christmas, 2002, and The Return of the King following a year later.

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