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REVIEW: The Lord of the Rings features action over plot

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–New Line Cinema has transformed J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative “Lord of the Rings” into a trilogy of live-action feature films — “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers,” and “The Return of the King.” The three separately released installments will mark the return of “cliffhanger cinema” for the first time since the serial adventures of decades past. [The second two installments are due out in ’02 and ’03, respectively.]

“The Lord of the Rings” will collectively re-tell the story of Frodo Baggins, who battles against the Dark Lord, Sauron, to save Middle-earth from the grip of evil. In their adventures across the treacherous landscape of Middle-earth, Frodo and The Fellowship attempt to rid the world of Sauron’s greatest strength, the One Ring — a ring that can only be destroyed by being thrown into a lake of fire.

Up front, I admit it. I have not read the books this film is based on. That caused me great consternation trying to figure out what all these characters with pointy ears and big, flat, hairy feet were talking about. Concocted, otherworldly names of people, places, and things were bandied about in nearly every line. It was similar to listening to technical jargon shouted on the deck of “Star Trek’s” Enterprise. It was all gobbledygook to me. And it never ceased.

I understand that scholars of Tolkien’s mythic anthology find ethereal messages contained in the books, as if Tolkien was providing Christianity in code. In the film version, you can find a good vs. evil theme. And I’ll grant there is an example of how good men can be tempted by evil. But I found the allegories overshadowed by one deafening battle after another, one gruesome and very frightening-looking ghoul after another, and a somber narrative that could have been told in 96 minutes rather than its three-hour length.

The film does have a great look. In fact, the shire where the little people with furry feet live reminded me of a Thomas Kinkade lithograph — all lush and glowing. The special effects are indeed special. And Elijah Wood has an elfin look that must come close to how Tolkien pictured his Frodo Baggins.

Unfortunately, Frodo never moved me. He’s so awestruck throughout that he actually contributes very little. But then, the focus of the film is not on character development or spiritual insights. It’s about outrunning horseback-riding demons. And there’s the rub. I think it’s always a mistake for filmmakers to emphasis action over plot and character, as if those elements were something to be left in books.

After expressing concern about the witchcraft contained in the recent Harry Potter film, I was distressed to find wizards calling upon some unseen force to cause destruction in this film, as well. Had it been the symbolism of man struggling against an evil wizard, I would not object. But, Frodo and his pals have their own “Merlin.” He’s kind of like Karnac the Magnificent without the jokes. And be assured, there are very few jokes in this movie. What made similar action adventure films like the Indiana Jones series so much fun was the ever-present humor. Here the laughs came so infrequently, that the screening audience paid them no mind.

Also troubling is the amount of violence in this film. Believe me, you’ll get no inkling of the film’s ferociousness from the family-friendly merchandising tie-ins. But it is one of the most violent films I’ve seen in quite some time. Not much blood, but there’s torture, duels to the death, main characters are killed, nightmarish sequences pop up every time someone puts that ring on, and there are hordes of demonic-looking villains bent on eliminating our little band of wood imps. One such evil group looked like they could scare off the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

If your tykes are expecting the gentle world of the Keebler elves, you’re going to leave the theater with some very spooked little ones. I’m not all that sure I won’t be sleeping with the light on tonight, myself.

PG-13 [constant violence and many nightmarish sequences, but no inappropriate language or sexuality].

The Lord of the Rings. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Sean Bean, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davis, and Liv Tyler. New Line Cinema. Opens 12/19/01

Video Alternative (for children): The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. (Public Media Video). A group of children discover a closet that leads to a far-off land called Narnia. The tale is full of Christian analogies and symbolism. This is truly a 4-star adaptation of the C.S. Lewis classic tale. It is complete with terrific special effects, animation, as well as live action, musical score, and costumes.

(For teens and adults): Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Funny, thrilling, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford are terrific as squabbling father and son searching for the Holy Grail. PG (lots of violence, some sensuality, and one profanity, for which the culprit is immediately punished, sending out a very clear message that the misuse of God’s name is wrong).

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright