Reviewed in Australia on 27 February 2018
J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was considered unfilmable for a very long time -- the story was too big, too fantastical, too expensive.
But in the late 1990s, New Zealand director Peter Jackson got the green light to shoot the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy. And though Jackson had previously done only low-budget horror movies, he had the vision and ability to bring Tolkien's imaginary world to life -- and while it has a few flaws, the astounding casting and complicated, spellbinding plot make this a modern classic.
In "The Fellowship of the Ring," eccentric hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) leaves the peaceful Shire at his 111st birthday, leaving all he has to his young nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) -- including a golden Ring that makes the wearer invisible. But the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) reveals that it's actually the One Ring, a tiny invulnerable token that the demonic Sauron has poured his essence and power into. If Sauron can regain the Ring, he will be able to conquer Middle-Earth.
So Frodo begins a perilous journey across Middle-Earth, accompanied by a fellowship of Men, Hobbits, Gandalf, an Elf and a Dwarf. Their destination is Mount Doom, the one place where the Ring can be destroyed.
"The Two Towers" picks up immediately after "Fellowship" ends. Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) are lost on the path to Mordor. Worse, they're being stalked by Gollum (Andy Serkis), who owned the Ring for centuries and is enslaved to it. But because he knows safe ways into Mordor, Frodo lets Gollum come along. Elsewhere, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) make a desperate stand against the orc armies with the kingdom of Rohan.
"Return of the King" brings the trilogy to a head. Frodo and Sam's friendship is threatened by Gollum's trickery -- and Frodo is led into a deadly trap. Elsewhere, Gandalf rides with Pippin (Billy Boyd) to Gondor, the kingdom that Aragorn is heir to. Aragorn summons an army of ghosts and attacks the heart of Mordor -- as Frodo and Sam arrive at the volcanic Mount Doom, where the Ring was forged.
"The Lord of the Rings" is a story that could have been adapted badly in many, many ways. There were just too many things -- goofy scripting, bad special effects, mutilated characters -- that could go wrong. Those fears turned out to be pretty much unfounded. Some characters are different from what they are in the book (Faramir and Arwen are altered and added to), and a handful are gone altogether. But for the most part, it's a rousing success.
Jackson and Co. outdid themselves with nearly every aspect of the films. The scripting is impeccable ("Let them come! There is still one dwarf in Moria who still draws breath!"), and Jackson uses the sweeping white-peaked mountains, expansive plains and murky forests of New Zealand to breathtaking effect. The battle scenes are dark, gritty and bloody, and Jackson's camera swoops like a hawk over every conflict, whether it involves giant prehistoric elephants or a vast force of grotesque orcs
Furthermore, Jackson lavishes it with details. Clothes, jewelry, even beer mugs are all exquisitely realistic. And the special effects are almost entirely convincing-looking, especially the gruesome Gollum. He's the first fully convincing CGI character, and after awhile you'll forget he is made digitally.
Wood is outstanding as Frodo, running the emotional gamut: fear, pain, horror, happiness, resignation, rage, love, lust and emptiness. Sean Astin is equally good as the steadfast Sam, who vows to never leave his friend 's side until his quest is done. Supporting hobbits Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd get to grow from immature pranksters into mature warriors, and Ian McKellen is excellent as the grandfatherly wizard Gandalf.
Really, it's hard to single out a single great performance, because all of them are great -- Sean Bean as the tormented warrior Boromir, Viggo Mortensen as a noble but conflicted king-in-waiting, John Rhys-Davies as the robust dwarf warrior Gimli, Orlando Bloom as the elegant acrobatic elf Legolas, and Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler and the gloriously sinister Christopher Lee in supporting roles.
Be aware that this collection is the theatrical version of this trilogy. And while it's hardly bad, it doesn't have the richness and smoothness of the extended editions.
The movie adaptation of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy would be difficult to top -- it's a powerful, richly-realized exploration of Tolkien's epic fantasy. A stunning achievement.