It’s every bit as good as you’ve heard and actually justifies all the hype surrounding it, which is nothing short of amazing. Is it the best film of the year? No, probably not. I can think of at least four films this year that surpass Lord of the Rings. Is it better than Harry Potter? Most definitely. Lord of the Rings is better written, better acted, more seriously intended, shows more conviction and is far more imaginatively designed and directed than Harry Potter. However, it’s worth noting that it’s fruitless to compare the two. They’re both fantasies. They’re both super-huge productions. They both have pre-sold audiences. They’ve both been hyped beyond all bounds of reason. Beyond that, there’s not much reason to compare them. If you’re intent on finding something to compare Lord of the Rings to, it might be more profitable to think in terms of a David Lean epic — like Lawrence of Arabia, because, yes, it has that kind of scope, grandeur and intelligence. But the truth of the matter is that it’s not necessary to look any further than director-co-writer Peter Jackson’s own filmography, especially the fantasy sequences depicting another world in his Heavenly Creatures. A lot of people looked askance at the idea of Jackson bringing the Tolkien books to the screen, thinking only of his outrageous horror films — Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive — and his attendant penchant for the most over-the-top gore known to film. That assessment failed to take into account not only Heavenly Creatures, but the fact that his horror films had all been wildly inventive, extremely clever and, most of all, succeeded in the one thing most necessary to make Lord of the Rings work: creating a believable separate world. In a sense, that’s the glory of Lord of the Rings. It really seems to be taking place in a world of its own creation. And a truly magical world, it is. Of course, this is in part the result of perhaps the most amazing CGI effects ever to grace the screen (some of which are so subtle that you may not realize they’re effects). But it’s not an effects-driven film. Rather, the effects are what makes it possible to bring this kind of imagination to the screen. Do Jackson and his technicians successfully bring the world of Tolkien to the movies? I can’t say, since I’ve never read the books, but I can say they do succeed in bringing a marvelously detailed fantasy world to the screen — a fantasy world with worlds within worlds (each kingdom has its own distinctive and invariably amazing look and identity). And with that world, they bring a true vision. In a story about a quest to transport a wholly evil “ring of power” back to its source to destroy it, the most essential element is to convey the importance of that quest, and here Lord of the Rings truly scores. The urgency of the mission to destroy the ring is never in doubt, simply because the film imparts a genuine sense of palpable evil about the ring and those who would possess. It may, in fact, be the most compelling, convincing depiction of evil ever committed to film. Then too, the film is splendidly performed by a flawless cast. Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is a performance for the ages, while young Elijah Wood (The Faculty) is almost impossibly good as Frodo Baggins, the story’s unlikely hero. Special mention should be made of veteran horror icon Christopher Lee as the evil Saruman: The film does right by him and he does right by the film. It may just be the 79-year-old actor’s best work. At 178 minutes, the movie ran the risk of being just too much. Worse, as the first episode in a trilogy, it ran the greater risk of seeming anti-climactic. Jackson handily overcomes both obstacles. The movie is never dull, and while it doesn’t have a big ending in the sense of bringing the story itself to a close, it has one that reaches just the right emotional high point and wisely leaves it there (something Harry Potter completely failed to do). It sounds like more hype, but Jackson’s film truly is a triumph.
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