Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Review: "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" by David Pretty

Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring was so well-plotted and engaging, that the next two films in the trilogy feel weaker in comparison.  Admittedly, The Two Towers is rife with challenges that would task any director.

With the Fellowship now broken, Jackson is required to tell three separate stories.  Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), led by the sneaky Gollum (Andy Serkis), venture into Mordor on their quest to slam-dunk the One Ring into Mount Doom.  Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) attempt to rally the kingdom of Rohan against the growing threat of Sauron.  And finally Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) escape from their orc captors and encounter Treebeard the Ent (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), who they hope to turn against Saruman (Christopher Lee) in Isengard.  WHOOF!!!

This wouldn't be too bad if Jackson hadn't engaged in some bizarre deviations which actually lengthens the already cumbersome plot.  In the original novel, Faramir was always the antitesis of his flawed older brother, but here screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens make him just as horny for the One Ring as Boromir.  As a result, we're "treated" to a painful (and rather expensive-looking) detour as Faramir drags the hobbits back to Osgiliath.  The first time I saw The Two Towers in the theater this really pissed me off, but mercifully the "Extended Edition" reinstated scenes of Faramir chafing under the unreasonable expectations of his asshole dad.  Although the original story would have been better, these flashbacks do make Jackson's choices a lot more palatable.  

In fact, if the movie suffers from anything, it's the overuse of flashbacks.  For example, Liv's Tyler's Arwen is embedded in the narrative thread of The Two Towers like a glaringly obvious splinter.  I know that the original books suffer from a shameful dearth of interesting female characters so it makes sense to artificially inflate Arwen's importance in the film.  But the scenes between her and Aragorn, likely omitted from the first film for pacing reasons, have been awkwardly shoe-horned into this central chapter in the form of flashbacks.  This makes the film's already choppy narrative feel even more scattershot. 

Also, one of my favorite underlying themes from the original novel concerns the Kingdom of Men and how they're forced "grow up" and start fighting their own battles without the assistence of dwarves and elves.  I like to think that this was Tolkien's way of noting humanity's movement away from superstition and fear and into an era of enlightenment, self-determination and discovery.  Unfortunately, Jackson throws this right out the window by having the friggin' elves intervene during the Battle of Helm's Deep.

But given such a massive undertaking, I think that Jackson gets a helluva lot more right than wrong.  For example, Gollum is, without a doubt, the greatest CGI character in cinema history.  Having Andy Serkis on set to do live motion capture alongside Elijah Wood and Sean Astin is a technique that I really wish George Lucas had uniformally adopted for his generally Photoshopped Star Wars prequels. 

Speaking of our favorite ring couriers, you really get the sense that Sam's insistence in accompanying Frodo at the end of Fellowship is the single most pivotal moment in the entire trilogy.  I also think it's great that Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan get their own segment with the Ents, driving home a point once made by a certain diminutive Jedi Master when he famously intoned "Size matters not".  At face value, Merry and Pippin seem about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, but they end up having a major impact on the story.   

In the human camp, David Wenham is great new addition as Faramir, captain of the Ithilien Rangers.  If I didn't know any better I'd say that he was genetically manufactured in a factory specifically designed to produce siblings for Sean Bean.  He strikes an intense but honorable note as the family's Black Sheep and its heart-wrenching to watch him experience an epiphany that will alienate him even further from Denethor. 

The people of Edoras are also well-represented.  Before his triumphant turn as McCoy Mark II in the Star Trek reboot, Karl Urban was both commanding and authoritative as Eomer.  Veteran actor Bernard Hill (who also played Captain Smith in Titanic) is equally fantastic as Theoden, literally coming back to life right before our eyes and then rallying his people to war. 

Speak of the devil, Brad Dourif is appropriately slimy as the royal ear-poisoner Grima Wormtongue.  Finally the angelic Miranda Otto is hypnotic as Eowyn, which makes me wonder why Aragorn is so friggin' obsessed with the sniffly-looking Arwen.

The epic battle at Helm's Deep which culminates the film also ends up being something of a a mixed bag.  When Jackson pulls the camera back we get plenty of spectacle but he often frames the hand-to-hand combats in tight close up or, even worse, with inexplicable slow-motion.  And although the do-or-die heroics of Mortensen's Aragorn are truly inspiring his efforts are undone somewhat by the goofy, tension-shattering banter between Gimli and Legolas.    

The last few frames of the film pretty much sum up the merits and flaws of The Two Towers.  Even though his re-appearance is spoiled somewhat by yet another damnable flashback, a certain staff-wielding wizard leads us through a rousing finale.  It also gives him the opportunity to pre-sage the saga's finale by re-assuring us that "the battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle-Earth is about to begin".

It's almost as if Jackson and his screenwriters are speaking through Gandalf, asking us to stick with them through the clunky bits until we get to the mind-blowing final act. 

But, once again, this is a tale for another time...

     Tilt: up.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" by David Pretty

When I heard that Peter Jackson was going to split the economically-paced children's book The Hobbit up into three films I immediately thought of King Kong.  During production of that failed re-make, director Peter Jackson could often be heard extolling the ample virtues of the original 1933 film.  Which is why so many fans were perplexed when Jackson took a perfectly good, lean-and-mean, pulpy, thrill-a-minute action film and inflated the run time with needless subplots and endless CGI demo reels.

Which is why the announcement of a Hobbit trilogy filled me with Nazgul-like levels of dread.

Admittedly, there isn't very much fat in the film's rousing trailer.  P.S. The dwarf-song doesn't count as extraneous 'cuz it's awesome.

The Hobbit is J.R.R. Tolkien's precursor to The Lord of the Rings.  In an extended dance mix prologue we learn about how the human village of Dale was razed to the ground by the dragon Smaug, who then decided to take up residence in the gold-choked underground city of Erebor.  Over time the deposed dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) gathers together a rogues gallery of refugees for the express purpose of liberating their subterranean home from Smaug.

Knowing that such a mission will require a modicum of stealth Thorin is keen to hire a professional burglar.  Just like in the real world, landing a job boils down to who you know.  After getting a solid reference from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), understated Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) shoots to the top of the candidates list.  Yes, apparently nepotism is just as prevalent in Middle Earth as it is here.

Although Bilbo is more sedentary then a High School Vice Principal, Gandalf is convinced that there's more to the diminutive Hobbit then meets the eye.  Oblivious to the fact that he's been tapped for the job of professional pilferer, Bilbo ends up hosting Thorin and company as they map out their expedition.  After much hand-wringing and soul searching, Master Baggins eventually decides to join their quest.

The journey to Erebor leads the company through a variety of environments, challenges and random wilderness encounters (see: D&D Expert Set).  Trolls, mountain giants, goblins, orcs and wargs all menace the adventurers at various points in time.  Since the first film only takes us up to Chapter Six in the book, Unexpected Journey hangs it's climax on the Bilbo and Gollum riddle-off and the dwarves flight from the Goblin Kingdom.

Now, before I go any further I want to prove to you that Peter Jackson wasn't the first dude to split The Hobbit up into a trilogy:

In fact, the first issue of this 1990 comic book gives us less of the story then Peter Jackson does in his first Hobbit film.  Indeed, the comic ends just as Bilbo and Gollum are about to begin their EPIC RIDDLE BATTLE OF HISTORY.

So although I'm no longer pissed that Peter Jackson made The Hobbit into a trilogy I am pissed that An Unexpected Journey clocks in at almost three fucking hours long.  Which brings me back to Jackson's take on King Kong.  Like Kong, I've always seen The Hobbit as a propulsive bit of kinetic fantasy, not nearly so serious nor as epic as The Lord of the Rings.  Why weigh it down with a slew of exposition and action beats that look clever on paper but fail to further the story or the characters?  Honestly, there's no good reason as to why this film shouldn't be under two hours long.

So why is An Unexpected Journey the Bombur of book-to-movie adaptations?  Well, it's because Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro decided to take a veritable shit-ton of casual references in the original novel and spin them out into long-winded conversations and fully-realized flashbacks.  And this level of indulgence very nearly cripples the first half of the film.

Want some examples?  Well, a throwaway reference to Bilbo's parentage in the book gets chewed over at great length by Gandalf.  A casual nod to Thorin's grandfather Thror being killed by Azog the goblin in Moria becomes an entire revenge subplot.  A deus ex machina question posed to Gandalf about wizards results in a superfluous sequence introducing Radagast the Brown (so named, presumably because he has no problem with little woodland creatures pooping all over him).

All of this leads me to believe that Peter Jackson might be suffering from a mild case of Georgelucasitis.  After all, he had to fight and scratch to make The Lord of the Rings three films instead of two.  Now fully vindicated and let off his leash, Jackson seems to be running riot with his newfound sense of freedom.  It's as if Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) is here just to make up for Tom Bombadil's absence in The Lord of the Rings.    

I'd accuse him of living in Peter Jackson World for too long, but many of his alterations actually make sense.  Even though he nearly flat-lines his audience's attention span with an endless spate of prologuery, I'm glad he got it over with at the beginning of the film rather then derail the meeting scene via a Thorin Oakenshield flashback.  At least Jackson shows us what happened instead of telling us what happened.

It also makes sense to generate some more connective tissue between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Hell, even Tolkien himself was guilty of redaction.  Radagast investigates the sudden appearance of a mysterious necromancer who unearths a Morgul-blade-wielding Witch King.  Gandalf, Elrond, Sarumon and Lady Galadriel have a tense summit meeting about the possible return of Sauron.  Although it's great to see all of these accomplished actors in a scene together, it's superfluous to the central story and might have been better off in a home video extended cut.

The changes I liked most were the ones that empower the central character.  In the book, Gandalf practically has to root Bilbo out of his Hobbit hole with a Rake spell, but in the film Bilbo voluntarily runs to catch up to the dwarves after they leave the next day without telling him.  And instead of Gandalf pulling a Ben Kenobi to distract the trolls, it's Bilbo who jive talks them until the sun comes up.

Some of the other stylistic choices are a mixed bag.  When I first saw The Hobbit's dwarf-portrait poster, I thought that things looked a bit off but I couldn't put my finger on it.  And then, when I realized that the film wasn't going to have an Aragorn or a Legolas it finally dawned on me: actors made up to look like traditional bald n' bearded dwarves have absolutely no sex appeal whatsoever.  Hence the presence of Aiden Turner as Kili the Hawt Dwarf.  Not that I want to give the guy a hard time since he gives a decent performance and I thought he was good in Being Human.

Also kinda lame is the rock-fight between the "Mountain Giants" who look less like actual giants and more like the love children of Godzilla and The Thing from the Fantastic Four.  After the dwarves find shelter in a cave, they fall victim to a classic pit-trap and end up in the heart of the Goblin City.  And then, all of a sudden, all past transgressions fall by the wayside and the movie finally kicks into high gear.

A chief catalyst for this is the appearance of the Goblin King, voiced by the wonderful Barry Humphries.  Talk about inspired casting, who better to depict a bloated, vaguely-flamboyant monarch then the guy who played Dame Edna Everage for almost sixty years?  Weta's animation is equally game, bringing to life a fully CGI character who is by turns creepy, belligerent, decrepit and woefully overconfident.

From there on in, the film doesn't let up for a second.  Gandalf makes a timely re-appearance which sets off a frantic flight to the surface.  During this we're treated to some truly inventive and unrelenting action sequences involving a series of precarious catwalks, a pack of seemingly indestructible juggernaut-like dwarves and, by all accounts, approximately thirty-eight hojillion pissed-off goblins.  

And although Jackson still shoots a melee way too tight, he does give us some wondrous visual panoplies, dizzying camera angles and some gag-like stunts which flirt with the idea of slapstick.  But where Gimli getting crushed under an avalanche of dead wargs and goblins in The Two Towers seemed counter-intuitive to dramatic tension, the wackiness of the action here feels somewhat appropriate.  This is, after all, an adaptation of a kid's book.  A wildly imaginative, incredibly detailed kid's book, but a kid's book nonetheless.   

In terms of an effective application of style and crackerjack editing, nothing rivals the riddle-war between Gollum and Bilbo.  Fans who were blown away by Gollum in The Lord of the Rings will be thanking the technology gods for giving us ten years worth of character evolution.  Even more of Andy Serkis's brilliant performance can captured now, especially when it comes to facial expressions.  If I didn't think that it would result in the creation of a veritable host of vastly-inferior CGI creatures, I'd strongly suggest that Andy Serkis be given the inaugural Oscar for Best Motion Capture Performance in a Motion Picture.

Since I was already familiar with Martin Freeman's ample talents from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Sherlock, I knew that he was going to be perfect.  Above and beyond accusations of no-brainer casting, Freeman really does some exquisite work as Bilbo.  Not many actors can embody befuddlement, irascibility and indignation all in one line reading.  Above all, he's the perfect sounding board for the average shmoe in the audience who might be rolling their eyes at the sometime-ludicrous things happening on-screen.

Saying that Ian McKellan is great as Gandalf is like saying that Harrison Ford is great as Han Solo.  But at least Ian gets more to do here and fans are all the richer for it.  This time out you really get the sense that Gandalf is some otherworldly being who is gently trying to prod events away from ruin and towards the greater good of Middle Earth.  McKellen seems to be having a lot more fun in his "Grey" (as opposed to "White") persona since it gives him ample opportunity to carouse and be cheeky.  

As an appropriate Thorin Oakenshield, Peter Armitage has his warhammer jammed firmly up his ass.  Although a lot of his performance is filtered through a clenched jaw, he does start to defrost a bit as Bilbo begins to prove his worth.  Although Thorin is actually more of an asshole in the book, Armitage steers the character more towards Ahab.  You really get the impression that the loss of Erebor was a terrible affront to his family's honor and he's willing to do just about anything to get it back. 

Honestly, if a film is half awesome and half mediocre, it really helps that the second half is the superior one.  Even though I know that there's more appendix-plundering wankery to come I also suspect that the more tedious setup has dispensed with and there are better things to come.  

But a part of me really hopes that when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes to home video it'll be the first film in cinema history with a Director's Cut that's actually shorter then the theatrical cut.  

   Tilt: down.

P.S. To see how the film stacks up without all of its 3D / 48 fps bells and whistles I decided to see the film in a standard presentation.  Which is no mean feat in this day and age.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Movie Review: "The Dark Crystal" by David Pretty

Sometime in the early Eighties, I'm convinced that Jim Henson told George Lucas "Hey, look, since Yoda worked so well in The Empire Strikes Back why don't you make more muppet aliens instead of dudes in masks for the next film?"  I'm pretty sure that Lucas took his advice, which eventually gave Dante Hicks a reason to declare in Clerks: "All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets."

But what was a liability for the third Star Wars film is exactly what makes The Dark Crystal so remarkable.  Whereas a freaky-looking abomination like Sy Snootles stuck out like a sore thumb in Return of the Jedi, she'd probably be right at home within the framework of Jim Henson and Frank Oz's completely original and fully fabricated world.

Think about how important context is as you watch the film's trailer:

To be perfectly honest, the plot itself is no great shakes since it essentially boils down to a simple fetch-quest.  In a lengthy preamble we're introduced to a magical realm where a great, life-sustaining magical crystal once fragmented.  This resulted in the creation of two distinct races: the serene Mystics and the repellent Skeksis.  Wanna guess who's good and who's evil?   

We're soon introduced to our unlikely protagonist.  Like most fantasy heroes, Jen was orphaned at a young age but in this case he was adopted by a druid-like race called the Mystics.  At face value, he appears to be the last of the Gelflings, a small, slight, elven race that's been virtually eliminated from the world.  And, as you might expect, there's a prophecy floating around which maintains that a Gelfling will eventually overthrow the nasty Skeksis.     

From his deathbed, Jen's Master suddenly tells him that he needs to find a lost shard and re-unite it with the titular Dark Crystal before the three suns align.  If he fails in this task, the realm will be plunged into darkness and the Skeksis will rule supreme for all eternity.  Although Jen is understandably confused as to why no-one's ever told him this before, he strikes out on his quest in an effort to save his benefactors.

After the Skeksis Emperor dies in concert with Jen's Master, the sneaky Chamberlain squares off against the General in a Trial By Stone.  The General proves triumphant and the Chamberlain is promptly defrocked and exiled.  After he hears of the existence of Jen and his mission, the newly crowned Emperor dispatches the beetle-like Garthim to hunt down and capture him.

Meanwhile, Jen finds the crystal in the company of Aughra, an acerbic, one-eyed hippie astronomer in dire need of electrolysis and a sports bra.  Aughra's orrery is attacked by the Garthim and Jen barely manages to escape.  During his flight, he meets up with the winsome Kira, a female Gelfling who was taken in by a race of tiny farmers called the Podlings.  Together the two of them attempt to unravel the mystery of the Gelfling downfall, try and avoid the machinations of the wayward Chamberlain and strive to re-unite the shard with the Dark Crystal within the Skeksis castle.

Although The Dark Crystal didn't resonate with audiences enraptured by E.T. at the time, I think it had a tremendous effect on other film-makers.  Yoda's demise in Return of the Jedi is strikingly similar to the death of Jen's Master.  The Podlings are tortured like the the droids in Jabba's palace.  Jabba himself has a lot in common with the Skeksis, including abominable table manners and a predilection for eating little live things.  In fact, the Skeksis banquet sequence is nastier and more disturbing then anything glimpsed in the Hutt's throne room.     

And if I didn't see Avatar as derivative before, I certainly do now.  In fact, The Dark Crystal plays out like an analog version of James Cameron's inflated, desperate-to-impress sci-fi techno-fest.  Both films attempt to create a fantasy realm, but only one of them feel "real" and organic to me.  In The Dark Crystal every rock face, pond, ruined wall, blade of grass, underground labyrinth, creature and character was crafted, by hand, by skilled artist.  The "ecology" of Avatar exists only within a metric shit-ton of computer coding dialed up by a bunch of pasty-looking nerds.

The character designs are excellent.  Between the expert puppetry of Jim Henson, the voice acting of Stephen Garlick and the wide-angle costume work of Kirin Shah (who also doubled for Elijah Wood in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), the character of Jen comes across as a pretty authentic creation.  Although both Jen and Kira's faces and hands look a bit stiff and waxen at time, this is just a minor quibble.  The voice work of Kira by Lisa Maxwell is particularly endearing and it really helps bolster the character's appeal.

Looking like skinned vultures, the Skeksis ooze more degenerate evil then most "adult" movie villains.  Although their screen time is limited, Jim Henson and Frank Oz take great pains to invest each one of them with distinctive appearances and personality traits.  The General-turned-Emperor is vainglorious and boastful, flaunting dominance over his rivals yet coveting elixirs to retain his "youth".  The Scientist is gleefully sadistic, using the Dark Crystal to distill the essence of captive Podlings.  The Chamberlain is downright Machiavellian, getting a ton of mileage from his mantra of "Mmmm...MMMMMMM!!!" every time he hatches a new scheme.

In contrast, the ur'Ru *slash* Mystics are Zen-like and passive.  Their design is fantastic: like narcoleptic, New Age sheepdogs crossed with pygmy brontosauri.  At first glance, the Landstriders might seem like impractical evolutionary designs, but at least they're original-looking.  And the Podlings get two incarnations: first as little Greek party-animals and then as zombie-like slaves after the Skeksis sap them of their life force.

Of course, I'd be totally remiss if I didn't mention Kira's ferocious but scaredy-cat pet Fizzgig.  If you crossed Kevin Smith with an electrified tribble and then gave him a set of bear trap dentures, you'd have this endearing little scamp.  When he's not threatening to bite everyone except Kira or rolling around using his own unique form of locomotion, he's barking up a storm or Hulk-raging at the entire world.  Although he might seem all bark and no bite, he's quick to come to Kira's defense when she really needs help.  I say fuck hover boards, I want a pet Fizzgig. 

Aughra is also a fantastic creation, invested with so much verve and hutzpah that she reminds me of a certain diminutive, green Jedi Master.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the two were briefly married at one time.  Again, with Frank Oz and David Greenaway as her puppeteers, Billie Whitelaw providing her voice and Kiran Shaw in costume for long shots, the character truly lives and breathes with a slew of physical tics, vocal cadences and mannerisms.  Hell, most contemporary Hollywood flesh and blood actresses aren't nearly as expressive.

But perhaps the greatest character of The Dark Crystal is the environment itself.  The dusty, Arizona-like valley of the ur'Ru resembles a lived-in Navajo camp.  Aughra's planetarium is an incredible spectacle, especially when you consider that it's a practical set.  The background and foreground of the swamp where Jen and Kira first meet is practically teeming with "life".  The smoky, knock-down environs of the Podling pub are also quaintly authentic.

The most wondrous sets appear in the Skeksis castle.  From the subterranean tunnels underneath the keep to the majesty of the main crystal chamber, from the animal-testing lab of the Scientist to the degenerate opulence of the Skeksis dining hall, every frame of The Dark Crystal feels like a Moebius painting come to glorious life.  Indeed, this film practically begs to be witnessed on the biggest screen imaginable.

Something a bit more ethereal but no less important is the incredible score by Trevor Jones, who also provided the music for Time Bandits, Excalibur, and Labyrinth.  His main title for The Dark Crystal is extremely evocative, giving me the impression that I'm about to watch a PG-rated segment of Heavy Metal.   

Admittedly the film's plot is scant and predictable.  Find the shard, re-unite it with the Dark Crystal and we're pretty much done.  But when Jen and Kira discover the ruins of the Gelfling city and the ur'Ru and the Skeksis start to perish in tandem, the scenario begins to develop some real thematic heft.  The concept of diverse beings having the same progenitor is a comforting thought.  It's like a fantasy version of the classic Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within", in which Kirk gets split in two versions of himself: one passive and milquetoast and the other aggressive and cruel.  Although they're as different as night and day from one another, they're both undeniable a part of Kirk.

I think that The Dark Crystal wasn't a box office smash at he time because people had a hard time reconciling the film's sometimes dark elements with its muppet denizens.  Mercifully the film has since gained a cult following and it's now recognized as a genuine classic.  I just think it's sad that we live in a world where we've been spoon-fed two crap Phantom Menace sequels and we haven't even gotten so much as a single follow-up to this wildly original-looking film.

To hell with more Star Wars movies; The Dark Crystal really deserves more cinematic exploration.

     Tilt: up.

Monday, December 10, 2012

E.T. Roundtable - Episode Four: "Everything That Used To Be Cool Sucks Now"

In their fourth episode, the E.T. gang wax poetic about the following earth-shattering topics:
  • Disney buys Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion space credits.  With the greatest threat to Star Wars out of the picture (I.E. its own creator) will the franchise experience a Renaissance?  Addendum: Harrison Ford has mentioned that he's willing to return to the role of Han Solo.  Why is he fucking with us?!?
  • What creative property was awesome to you as a kid but is actually complete crap when seen through adult eyes?
  • New Star Trek Into Darkness trailer is out.  Why does every Star Trek film have to involve "vengeance" now?  Plus, is it safe to assume that Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan and, if so, will a single fuck be given?
  • The early word on The Hobbit ranges from "epic" and "spectacular" to "bloated" and "nausea-inducing".  Did we call it w-a-a-a-a-y back in Episode One or are haters just gonna hate? 
  • What's your single favorite "fantasy" game, comic, movie, book or T.V. show?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Movie Review: "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" by David Pretty

There've been a few rare but memorable occasions when I've been watching a fantasy-based cinematic adaptation and suddenly felt a giddy rush of excitement when I realize that the director's hit a home run.  It happened while watching Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie and it happened again while I was watching The Fellowship of the Ring.

Since a lot of fantasy literature offers up nothing in terms of real-world commentary or thematic relevance, I tend to avoid it like the plague.  Fortunately, the source material for these films is J.R.R. Tolkien's alpha and omega literary masterpiece.  Not only are the original books jam-packed with still-pertinent social commentary, they also launched the fantasy genre as we know it.  Let's face it folks, everything fantasy-related is just a thinly-veiled rip-off of what Tolkien did with The Lord of the Rings. World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons, and even cutting edge video games like Diablo III owe huge debts to Tolkien.

Adapting The Lord of the Rings has to be a daunting task.  Just ask Ralph Bakshi, who tried to animate the story in the late Seventies but came away with a muddy-looking, charmless film that always had a whiff of abandonment about it.  Now, I don't know the exact circumstances by which a relatively obscure New Zealand-based splatter-film director came to be the new cinematic interpreter of Tolkien's works, but just minutes into Fellowship of the Ring I was convinced that he was a solid pick for the job.  In much the same way as Bryan Singer rescued the long-maligned superhero genre, Peter Jackson has since been crowned the savior of modern fantasy films.

"Love me, love my carrot.  *URP!!!*"

Starting with the epic prologue and the introduction of Bilbo and Frodo in the Shire, pretty much everything in this adaptation is note-perfect.  Indeed, if Jackson hadn't bothered to sweat the small stuff, we could have been left with yet another cheese-ball fantasy flop like Hawk the Slayer or the truly execrable Quest for the Mighty Sword.  But everything we've come to expect from Middle Earth is brought to life here in vivid detail.  For example, instead of representing the village of Hobbiton as a green-screen mirage a la George Lucas, Jackson decreed that an actual hamlet be built in New Zealand.  Replete with overgrown hedges, authentic structures and detailed props, Hobbiton really feels like a genuine milieu.  As a result, the actors, clad in authentic costumes and realistic make-up, seem to be just as taken by the illusion as we are.  

The casting is an achievement unto itself.  Much in the same way that Daniel Radcliffe has supplanted my mind's eye portrait of Harry Potter, Elijah Wood is now and forever Frodo Baggins.  Ian McKellan also makes for a prototypical Gandalf: sagely, commanding and vaguely befuddled at times.  Frodo's fellow hobbits are also well represented.  Sean Astin is completely unpretentious and stalwart as Sam and both Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd lend tremendous distinction to their roles as Merry and Pippin.

"Don't worry, Mr. Frodo!  I managed to save all of the tomatoes and bacon!"  

In another odd parallel to X-Men, Peter Jackson got a very lucky bounce from some "eleventh hour" casting.  Just as Singer had to replace Hugh Jackman for Dougray Scott as Wolverine, Viggo Mortensen had to assume the role of Aragorn just days into production after Stuart Townsend turned out to be too young and freshly-scrubbed for the role.  Movie audiences were the big winners here since Mortensen's discovery proved to be a real boon for The Lord of the Rings.

By the time Aragorn leads the hobbits to Rivendell, we've already been treated to some spectacular scenery and witnessed several brilliantly realized threats like the Nazgul.  It's at this point when the movie really kicks into high gear.  For the sake of full disclosure, I've always liked the first book in The Lord of the Rings trilogy best since the group dynamic and intimate tale of the "Fellowship" is much more interesting to me then the epic mass battles that follow.

"Hello, tiny sirs!  Do you have a minute to learn about Sauron's Good News?"

The brilliantly-staged Council of Elrond sequence gives us three more iconic characters and the stellar cast members who have been chosen to inhabit them.  The delightful John Rhys-Davies makes for an appropriately acerbic Gimli, Sean Bean manages to make the role of Boromir very sympathetic and Orlando Bloom is so perfect as Legolas I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he was actually cloned in an elf factory.  In fact, the only casting that's slightly questionable is Liv Tyler, who's turn as Arwen is a tad overwrought, especially when coupled with some of the riper examples of her mock-Shakespearean dialogue.

As if the first half of the film didn't have enough evidence to convince jaded fans that Jackson was on the right path, his "hero shot" of the Fellowship cresting a hill together resulted in a geekgasm felt 'round the world.  Jackson then continues to pile on one spectacle after another.  The Fellowship's delve into the Mines of Moria is the highlight of the entire trilogy for me.  I love how the skills of this hastily-assembled group barely managed to sustain them through the "long dark" of Moria.  Well, most of them anyway.

"Look, just leave your pamphlets by the door and back the fuck off!!!"  

In addition to being a bona-fide gift to fantasy film fans, Fellowship of the Ring is clearly a labor of love for Peter Jackson.  Not only did he lay down some tremendous groundwork for the relatively intimate story contained in Book One, he would also prove to quite adept at prosecuting the epic "War of the Ring" which followed in The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

But, alas, that is a story for another day...