'Rings' on screen is big, ambitious, and not so magic

Last spring, about 30 minutes of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" screened at the Cannes film festival. Several critics of my acquaintance were dazzled enough to make a fearless prediction: This, they said, would be the movie of the year.

It's no pleasure to report that they were wrong. Far from the movie of the year, the first installment of the long-awaited "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is an all-around disappointment. (For why fantasy fascinates us, see page 9.)

Not that director Peter Jackson and his team didn't try. The movie is long - about three hours - and crammed with carefully crafted sequences based on the characters, places, and adventures in J.R.R. Tolkien's legendary books. The acting is generally good, and special-effects fans will love the sword-swinging showdown near the end.

But oodles of technical talent are no substitute for plain old inspiration. Jackson has been working on the "Rings" project for years, and somewhere along the way his reverence for Tolkien appears to have intimidated his imagination.

It's often said that second-rate books make the best movie adaptations, since filmmakers aren't afraid to twist them into new cinematic shapes. Jackson illustrates the other side of this equation, plodding in the master's footsteps when he should be taking Tolkien's ideas into exciting new realms of sight and sound.

As generations of Tolkien admirers know, "The Lord of the Rings" tells an epic story centered on a modest character: Frodo Baggins, an everyday Middle-earth dweller who finds himself the custodian of a powerful magic ring.

Frodo is a hobbit, which means he's smaller and hairier than us humans. This aside, he's like us in his good habits - he's orderly, dependable, fond of common sense - and his bad ones, including a lack of foresight that brings him trouble at times.

Advised by the good wizard Gandalf, he sets off to rid Middle-earth of the ring by throwing it into the fires of Mordor, the malevolent land where it was made. His companions are a puckish servant named Samwise, a valiant fighter called Strider, a sturdy dwarf known as Gimli, and several others. They meet a wide array of friends and foes, ranging from ethereal fairies to terrifying trolls and vicious ring-wraiths, who'll stop at nothing to annihilate them.

This sounds like ideal screen material. Still, an earlier attempt to capture its magic - the 1978 animated version by Ralph Bakshi - vanished as quickly as Bilbo at his eleventy-first birthday party. And other filmmakers have found the saga too large, complex, or other-worldly to take on.

Jackson came to it with credentials in horror ("Dead Alive") and psychological drama ("Heavenly Creatures"), as well as a clear passion for Tolkien's work. If he hasn't succeeded, it's unlikely anyone will.

And he hasn't, as you start to realize before the opening titles have ended. Instead of launching the picture with a burst of excitement, Jackson instantly bogs down in a wordy introduction, giving more background than you need (or want) so early in the story.

Things get worse when you arrive in the hobbit-inhabited Shire a few minutes later. It's meant to be charming and gentle. Instead, it's boring, bogus, overflowing with clichés, and largely humorless, despite stabs at quaintly old-fashioned comedy.

Fortunately, the pace picks up when Frodo's fellowship hits the road, giving us a wider range of settings and characters to look at. And sometimes a strong performance perks up an otherwise pedestrian scene, as when fright-movie specialist Christopher Lee enters the picture as Saruman, a once-good wizard gone bad.

Jackson understands the time-tested truth that wicked characters are often more interesting than virtuous ones, and the movie works best when he acts on this. The fairies are boring, but the orcs and ring-wraiths seize the screen.

These are momentarily bright elements in a mostly drab experience, though. Elijah Wood is a gifted actor, but his Frodo is regrettably wooden. Samwise was a spiritedly Dickensian character on Tolkien's pages, but he makes hardly any impression here. The bittersweet finale is stretched to ludicrous length as Jackson struggles to give the movie a satisfying end, even though the story won't be resolved until the third installment of the series, not due for release until 2003.

I wish I had more good things to say about "The Fellowship of the Ring," since I've been a Tolkien loyalist for years. I've read "The Hobbit" and the "Rings" trilogy more than once, for myself and to my children. I know their ability to touch readers on different levels, and I'm stirred by Tolkien's skill at weaving his erudition - historical, mythological, linguistic - into an entertaining and intricate tapestry.

If Jackson had translated this achievement onto the screen, I'd be the first to celebrate. But he's come up short, and since the other two "Rings" installments were produced at the same time - at a total cost of almost $300 million - they're unlikely to save the series.

Rated PG-13; contains much fantasy-film violence.

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