‘Fellowship of the Ring’ review

ndsu spectrum: movie review

‘Fellowship’ more long-winded than epic

By JOHN HANSEN
Jan. 11, 2002

 

There have been plenty of films over the years to provide heroes for oppressed groups — women, blacks, teenagers — but “The Fellowship of the Ring” is one of the first to provide heroes for nerds. That’s essentially what the hobbits represent. They live in hobbit holes and over the years have learned to fear actual physical adventure.

In a telling moment a little ways into the journey, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) stops and tells Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood): “One more step and it will be the farthest I’ve ever been from home.”

While the rest of the Fellowship — including two humans, a dwarf, an elf and a wizard — have an undeniable coolness to them, how else would one explain the appeal of the four hobbits except to call them audience surrogates? Sure, they are cute and lovable, but that never won the Ewoks many fans, at least not vocal ones.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who once admitted that he considered himself to be somewhat of a hobbit, himself was perhaps the first and the ultimate role-playing game geek. He spent over a decade planning out the world of Middle-Earth — the geography, the various species and the languages. His final, sprawling epic, “The Lord of the Rings,” had to be split into three books, each of them quite sprawling on their own.

“Fellowship” is the first leg on the journey of Frodo, the nephew of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who has possessed the ring — which makes the wearer invisible, while also seducing them into lusting after dark power — for many years. He unloads the ring on Frodo, fearing that he’ll eventually give in to its dark power otherwise (he practically drools with a lust for power every time he speaks of the ring). Frodo must go to the hellish land of Mordor and throw the ring into the fiery chasm where it was created; it’s the only way to destroy it.

The film starts very slowly and is half over by the time the Fellowship forms in Rivendell, the land of the elves. The film delivers some quite memorable action scenes with monsters — the heroes face ugly Orcs in mountain caves and later in the woods, along with a giant-size Orc, a huge squid-like creature and a demonic Bolrag. The rest of the time, director Peter Jackson holds our attention with the breathtaking scenery of Middle-Earth, a combination of grasslands, woods, snowy mountains, caves, castles and wicked-looking lava pits where the Orcs dwell under the command of the human traitor Saruman (Christopher Lee).

Too much characterization is delivered through exposition and not enough through acting, but Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is immediately appealing; the wizard has a combination of intelligence and a sense of fun (he brings a wagon full of fireworks to Bilbo’s birthday party to start the film). Frodo is the Luke Skywalker character, and it looks like he’ll eventually be tempted by the ring’s dark power as the saga continues. Sam is a likable best friend, Legolas the elf (Orlando Bloom) is an expert archer, and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), the bowling-ball of a dwarf, provides a dose of comic relief with his angry demeanor. The two humans have their own little saga to play out: Elrond (Hugo Weaving) is the current ruler while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the exiled king. The two humans therefore have an interesting relationship of rivalry and camaraderie, if you are willing to look for it.

As a film, there are scenes and characters in “Fellowship” that seem redundant; they could have easily structured it to fit into two hours instead of three. The characters played by Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett don’t serve much purpose. It’s odd that such a widely-loved series focuses almost completely on white male characters. Are there no black hobbits in Tolkien’s world? Are female characters forbidden to embark on adventures?

As an adaptation of a book, “Fellowship” is very faithful. However, it should be noted that this story, essentially a series of episodes, works better in book form (when you can set it down after each chapter) than in the running narrative style of film. While Tolkienites will savor every second of the journey, the uninitiated might find the film to be more long-winded than epic.

Title: “The Fellowship of the Ring”

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Hugo Weaving, Sean Bean, Ian Holm

Written by: Frances Walsh, Peter Boyens, Phillips Boyens

Director: Peter Jackson

Grade: B

***

ndsu spectrum: movie commentary

Is one black hobbit too much to ask?

By JOHN HANSEN

Dec. 6, 2002

 

In my capacity as an entertainment critic, video store clerk and all-around geek, I’ve had two questions thrown at me a lot in the past year: “How can you possibly like ‘Attack of the Clones?'” and “How can you possibly hate ‘Lord of the Rings?'”

At first, my responses stuck to the realm of plot, character and style. Sure, “Lord of the Rings” is more stylish, I’d argue, but “Star Wars” has fully developed characters and more complex plotting. But that argument just couldn’t outweigh the fact that C-3PO says “What a drag” at one point in “Clones.” So I decided on a new, more controversial, approach: “Star Wars” promotes diversity, while “Lord of the Rings” is racist and sexist.

Admittedly, this argument was born from my enjoyment of arguing about fantasy films, especially when the other side takes personal offense to my case. But this is also an issue that needs to be aired out, especially considering Lucas and Jackson’s portrayals in the media.

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas is portrayed as an evil Emperor by the mainstream media–film critic David Thomson is one of many who accused Lucas of ruining cinema because “Star Wars” created a blockbuster mentality in Hollywood. Meanwhile “Rings” director Peter Jackson is the media’s cuddly little hairy-footed hobbit. As Entertainment Weekly described Jackson: “If you poked him in the tummy, he’d probably make a noise like wee-HEEEE!”

“Rings” creator J.R.R. Tolkien is treated with similar reverence, partly because he’s dead — criticism of the author is restricted to the scholarly realm.

Go to an Internet search engine and type in “Racism in Star Wars,” and you’ll be flooded with sites. Type in “Racism in Lord of the Rings,” and you’ll find a few posting boards discussing the topic, but almost no mainstream media coverage. Considering that there are zero minority characters in “Lord of the Rings” while “Star Wars” is filled with numerous races (alien and Earthbound), this is perversely backwards. But remember: Jackson good, Lucas evil.

Since the 1999 release of “The Phantom Menace,” Lucas has been deflecting accusations of racism like a blindfolded Luke deflecting laser blasts aboard the Millennium Falcon in “Star Wars.” Some common refrains are that Watto, the junk dealer, is a negative stereotype of Italians, the Trade Federation leaders are negative stereotypes of Asians, and Jar Jar Binks is a negative stereotype of Jamaicans.

To show how absurd this has gotten, the Detroit News did a story on some Latino critics who charged that the clone army in “Attack of the Clones” represents American fears about Mexican immigration. When it was pointed out that Temeura Morrison (Jango Fett and the prototype for the clones) and Daniel Logan (Boba Fett) are both New Zealanders, one Latino critic responded, “(Jango Fett) looked totally Latino.” Added another, “His kid looked even more Latino.”

Furthermore, consider the focused lens that these critics look through: it’s only Lucas’s treatment of minority and world cultures that gets heat. Little is said about the fact that most of the Empire consists of English actors, including the Emperor himself, played by British actor Ian McDiarmid.

Most of these critics don’t believe Lucas is racist; they think he is merely ignorant and unaware of the messages he’s sending. Actually, diversity has been in Lucas’s mind dating back to the casting for “Star Wars” in the 1970s, before the advent of P.C. America. Original plans had the Luke character as an Asian girl, and a black actor was among the three finalists for the Han Solo role. When it was pointed out that there were no blacks in “Star Wars” (except for a couple of cantina patrons and James Earl Jones’s voice), Lucas created a role specifically written for Billy Dee Williams in the next film.

Many of the alien dialects in the “Star Wars” films are based on world languages. The Ewoks sound somewhat Vietnamese, and so Lucas was charged with promoting the stereotype that Vietnamese are primitive savages. (In the Ewok cartoons, Lucas had the Ewoks speaking English.)

Today, Lucas is less like a Jedi-in-training and more like Yoda — he isn’t taking crap anymore, and good for him. His goal is to show a diverse galaxy, and his films are richer for it, whether it’s casting Sam Jackson as Mace Windu or giving Watto an Italian-sounding dialect. Because of the P.C. world we live in, he gets criticism for his efforts. If there existed a race of people that spoke backwards, Yoda would be lambasted as a negative stereotype.

Now let’s look at “The Fellowship of the Ring.” On the Web site “50 Reasons Lord of the Rings Sucks,” the seventh entry is “Racism.”  Their case is as follows: “Percentage of protagonists in ‘Fellowship’ who are white: 100. Meanwhile, the black antagonists and their black crow spies and their black glass seeing ball inhabit their black towers and perform black magic. Gosh, I wonder if there’s some symbolism there?”

That’s more like it. If Lucas is going to have to explain why Jar Jar, a completely good-hearted character whose friendship is valued by Qui-Gon and Anakin, does not represent racism, then Jackson should have to field equally absurd charges about the Orcs.

Like Lucas, Jackson and Tolkien are almost certainly not racist. Nonetheless, “Fellowship of the Ring” does a horrible job of promoting the concept of fellowship. All nine members of the fellowship are white males. Granted, the group consists of hobbits, humans, a dwarf and an elf, but would it have severely altered Tolkien’s vision if one of the hobbits were black? Just making the fourth- or fifth-string hobbit black would have spiced up the film. Even if he’d received no characterization, we’d at least have wondered, ‘What’s that guy’s story?” and it would’ve added richness to the film.

It’s not as if Jackson hasn’t modernized Tolkien’s work already. There is only one woman of any consequence in “Fellowship”  (Liv Tyler’s elf Arwen), and as shallow as her role is (she’s the love interest for one of the humans), it was actually beefed up a lot from Tolkien’s novel. Arwen will be back in the second film, even though she doesn’t appear at all in Tolkien’s second book.

“Fellowship’s” other notable female character, played by Cate Blanchett, is even more unnecessarily to the film. She is there to inform the viewer for the billionth time that the ring is evil.

Granted, the percentage of females in “Star Wars” isn’t much higher than it is in “Rings,” but at least they have a purpose. Sure, Leia has to be rescued by the heroes and Padme has to be protected by the Jedi, but these women characters also have power (both are influential senators) and fighting skills (both wield blasters effectively).

Additionally, several of the Jedi who wade into battle against the robots in the “Clones” arena sequence are women, but the idea of having a woman in the Fellowship is apparently too absurd a topic to even be breached. “Okay, we’ll take a dwarf with us, but a woman? Are you crazy?!”

But remember: Jackson good, Lucas evil. The lesson to filmmakers in our P.C. world is clear: trivializing women and having no minority characters whatsoever is much safer than trying to make your film diverse and vibrant.