Original US release date: December 19, 2001
Production budget: $93,000,000
Worldwide gross: $871,530,324
We are creeping up on the fifteenth anniversary of the first installment in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. It’s hard to believe that it’s been that long since Frodo stood tall and set out on his quest to save Middle Earth from the ever-looming threat of Sauron. But he couldn’t do it alone. And therefore the Fellowship was born.
I’m not sure which of the three Lord of the Rings films is my favorite; they all have unique elements that the others don’t, setting each of them apart from the others. Fellowship lives up to its title and is the most personal film of the three. Friendships are formed, tested, and ended. It’s about as small-scale as a film of this type could be. That sounds like an unusual word to use to describe such a huge film, but I find it appropriate. Though there are a lot of characters and battles in this initial chapter, Fellowship is driven by what’s happening on the inside, not what we can actually see with our eyes.
The story begins when the great wizard, Gandalf the grey (Ian McKellan), becomes aware of the growing danger of the evil Sauron, long thought vanquished. Gandalf takes a proactive stance and begins to assemble a fellowship to take the source of Sauron’s strength, the One Ring of Power, and destroy it in the only known possible manner: by throwing it into the fires of Mount Doom.
The fellowship consists of nine members: four Hobbits, a dwarf, an elf, two men, and an Istari (Gandalf). Their relationships and interactions are the heart of this first chapter of the story. The characters are what hooks the general audience – the unconverted who have never and will never crack open a J.R.R. Tolkien tome. The fellowship isn’t full of perfect people, but they’re believable and endearing. Only Boromir (Sean Bean) garners true suspicion, which is the core of his character arc.
And each of these characters have their own arc, which is pretty astounding. For those who make it far enough, their arcs breach two or three films. But, regardless of life span, no character is simply window dressing. Everyone has a role in the greater mythology, which is one of the things that makes the saga so beloved.
Upon its release, The Fellowship of the Ring received mounds of praise for its visual effects, due in part to the entirely computer-generated character, Gollum (voiced and motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Technology has advanced in the fifteen years since Gollum first appeared but, even by today’s standards, he still holds up well, though he appears very little in this first installment and really became the talk of the town after The Two Towers. In Fellowship, more so than Gollum, there are epic battles that tingle the spine and there are creatures galore. The Orcs are a sight to behold and would be convincing in a real-world setting. My favorite sequence in the entire six-film mythology (counting the trilogy of The Hobbit films) is that which takes place in the Mines of Moria. Moria features one of the aforementioned battles, an impressive troll, and the ominous Balrog. As great as the film is regarding the important things (story, character, etc.), it’s also a thrilling spectacle that throws one challenge after another at our heroes.
The design of the film is unmatched on every level: costume, set, character . . . all of it is beautiful and immersive. Director Peter Jackson and the location scouts earned their pay when they decided upon filming in New Zealand (it was also extraordinarily inexpensive to film there. Take a look at that shockingly modest budget up above!). If I could live in any fictional town or city, it would absolutely be the elven village of Rivendell. Middle Earth feels like an actual world, fully-realized and brought to us courtesy of Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Being the first of a planned three-part story, The Fellowship of the Ring naturally leaves unresolved plot elements, but it also does a nice job of telling a self-contained story. There’s no cliffhanger, per se; there’s just more story to tell. But this one – the story of the fellowship of nine – is encapsulated here in its entirety. Along the way, the film features everything a good film should and the audience vicariously experiences the highs and the lows through these perfectly developed people. You rejoice in their victories and agonize over their defeats. And you want to see more. As I said, I’m not sure which chapter in this tale is my favorite (all three were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Award, with The Return of the King winning), but The Fellowship of the Ring probably holds the dearest place in my heart. It has my favorite scene, keeps the focus on characters and relationships, and – quite simply – has the benefit of being the first part, thereby feeling fresh and unlike anything that had come before. Audiences may be jaded now, but Fellowship is a classic that will live on forever and threw down the gauntlet in raising expectations for giant tentpole films.
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