Unfathomable though it may seem, it takes even more time to watch "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" than it does to say its title. Clocking in at just under three hours, this is a long film by anyone's standard. And, as it is merely the first installment in a trilogy of big-screen epics based on British fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien's massive novel "The Lord of the Rings," the movie cannot offer anything resembling closure. Its 178 minutes wind down to a final reel that doesn't even attempt a narrative resolution. With its second and third chapters not due to hit theaters until Christmas 2002 and 2003, respectively, Fellowship is an exhausting exercise in denied gratification. Why subject yourself to that?
Because it's magnificent. Director/co-writer Peter Jackson ("Heavenly Creatures," "The Frighteners") has taken up a challenge of page-to-screen alchemy unmatched since David Cronenberg tackled the "unfilmable" "Naked Lunch" -- and has produced a magic elixir of enchantment bound to be eagerly gulped down by Tolkien readers and newbies alike. Every frame of "Fellowship" bursts with finesse and imagination, demonstrating what miracles a moviemaker can accomplish with his head, hands and heart fully engaged.
In the pastoral village of Hobbiton dwell (naturally) the Hobbits, a race of wee folk distinguished by their hairy feet, pointed ears and love of food and drink. On his 111th birthday, a weary but restless Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) departs his home for points unknown, reluctantly leaving behind a certain piece of jewelry: the One Ring. The power of the ring to turn its wearer invisible is the most benign indicator of its ability to wreak unspeakable evil on the world. The Hobbits' protector, the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), convinces Bilbo's heir, Frodo (Elijah Wood), that the ring must be returned to the land of its creation to be destroyed. Thus begins an epic journey that vaults from the lushest forests to the depths of damnation.
Material of this sort is a volatile mixture of potentially laughable elements; just add mescaline, and you get Led Zeppelin. Jackson's smart script (written with the help of collaborators Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens) hews to the spirit of Tolkien's words, yet resists being hamstrung by them. Jackson changes the story order in spots to keep things moving ahead, dispenses with overly precious and/or stultifying details and plays up the suspense of the more urgent passages -- everything not done in that cowardly cash-in, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
A further distinction: Fellowship is among the most visually arresting films ever lensed. Whether evidenced in Bilbo's funny, circular little home or the vast armies that clash in the film's sweeping, historical prologue, the completeness of Jackson's vision is a marvel to share. Fantasy movies that don't look like glorified DreamCast games are rare indeed. This one just looks like money, in all of the best senses of the term.
But is it too much of a good thing? Tolkien devotees are loud and many in number, and one gets the feeling that, were their appeasement not an issue, a good 20 minutes or so might still be trimmed here and there. Newcomers to the tale may be confused by the appearance of not one but two unshaved, raven-haired warriors -- namely, Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn and Sean Bean's Borom ir. (Did I say Led Zeppelin? When these two are on the screen together, it's a veritable Manowar video.)
Keeping the players numerous and the running time lengthy, though, preserves the small moments of personal interaction that are "The Fellowship of the Ring's" secret treasure. Note the tender exchanges between Holm's tortured Bilbo -- driven close to madness by the Ring's ineffable pull -- and McKellen's powerful but pitying Gandalf. Beneath its sword-brandishing trappings, this is a story of friendship and trust -- experienced, it just so happens, by a bunch of Hobbits, elves, horsemen and dwarves. If the very thought of it makes you snicker, see this film at your earliest opportunity. If it doesn't, the odds are that you're already in line.