(2001, Fantasy-Sword & Sorcery, color)
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy
Hobbits are essentially teenagers with huge feet.
In a nutshell:
A small, sprite-ish person must traverse a dangerous fantasy world to destroy an evil magic ring.
(I’m not sure why I bothered to summarize this film in such detail. If you’ve seen this before, or read the book, then you already know all of this. If you haven’t, then the complicated summary below will make one of the best fantasy films ever made sound silly and confusing. I apologize in advance for what you are about to read, and hasten to point out your option to skip ahead to the “Thoughts” section.)
In the distant past, the Dark Lord Sauron sent hordes of hideous orcs to conquer all of Middle Earth. Armies of men and elves drove them back to Sauron’s lair on the slopes of the volcano Mount Doom. Things were going pretty well for the good guys until Sauron showed up in person. He used the power of his magic ring to slaughter men by the dozen, until a prince named Isildur cut the ring away from Sauron’s hand. Seeing as how the ring can only be destroyed in lava-filled chasm at the mountain’s heart, he should have melted it down then and there. But, since the ring’s evil also corrupts anyone who wears it, he decided not to.
Later, Isildur (now the king) rode with his subjects through the countryside. A remnant of the orcish forces attacked and slaughtered them. The ring fell from Isildur’s hand into the river. Later still, the ring was found by a small riverbank-dwelling creature, which it twisted and corrupted into a vicious little troglodyte named Gollum. Even laterer, Gollum lost it in his cave to a hobbit (hobbits: a diminutive, hairy-footed race of people dedicated to the pursuit of alcoholism and obesity) named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm). Bilbo used the ring’s powers to make himself invisible during his following adventures, unaware that it was extending his life while slowly corrupting him as well.
This, after endless Cate Blanchett-narrated flashbacks, is where our story begins.
In the hobbits’ homeland of the Shire, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) visits his good friend Bilbo to help celebrate the latter’s one hundred and eleventh birthday. The entire hobbit population attends the party. Fireworks, dances, gluttony, and binge-drinking ensue. Bilbo delivers an obliquely insulting thank-you speech, declares his intention to leave the Shire forever, and uses the ring to vanish.
Gandalf catches Bilbo packing for his journey. Having observed certain alarming oddities about the way Bilbo acts with the ring, he bullies his friend into leaving it behind. Bilbo is reluctant, but finally agrees. The ring passes to Bilbo’s nephew Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood).
Gandalf rushes to the archives of Minas Tirith (means “Tower of the Guard”; it’s the last great city of Gondor...look, if you don’t already know this, just nod and smile, okay?) where certain ancient documents confirm what he already suspects: the ring in Frodo’s possession is none other than Sauron’s evil trinket. He rushes back to the Shire to explain the danger. Sauron has risen again and has gathered hordes of orcs to renew his campaign to conquer all of Middle Earth. The only thing he lacks is his ring—if he finds it, he will “cover all the lands in a second darkness.” Moreover, the ring cannot be carried by anyone that possesses real power (e.g. Gandalf) because its power would corrupt him. After some discussion, they agree that Frodo and his hobbit friend Sam (Sean Astin) will take the ring to Rivendell, the hidden city of the elves, where Sauron’s former enemies will decide what to do with it. Gandalf has to rush off again and to consult with the head of his wizard order; he agrees to meet them halfway in the village of Bree.
Shortly into their journey, Frodo and Sam run into Frodo’s dim-witted and juvenile cousins Merry (Dominic Monoghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), who involve them in an ill-advised plan to steal produce from a local farmer. This goes awry when a hideous black rider arrives. They hide beneath a tree, but the rider’s presence sends Frodo into a trance. His friends drag him along while they run for the borders of the Shire. They finally leave their pursuit behind at the ferry.
They make it to Bree, but Gandalf has not yet arrived. Sinister folk have been looking for Frodo, so he gives a false name, but Pippin gets drunk and lets it slip anyway. Frodo puts the ring on accidentally, and is accosted by a ranger called Strider (Viggo Mortensen). Strider declares that he is a friend of Gandalf’s, sent to guide him to Rivendell. At his suggestion, they put the black riders (called ringwraiths or Nazgul) off their trail by filling their beds with false hobbits made of pillows and fur. Then he leads them into the wilderness.
They stop halfway at a ruin called Weathertop. Perpetual numbskulls Merry and Pippin start a campfire while Frodo’s asleep and Strider’s out scouting; the black riders see it and close in. One of them stabs Frodo in the shoulder while he attempts to take the ring. Strider arrives to drive them off. He examines Frodo’s wound and declares it to be poisoned. They run through the night, searching for herbal medicine as they go.
Strider’s elvish girlfriend Arwen (Liv Tyler) finds them. She volunteers to take Frodo ahead on horseback. After a lengthy chase, she flees across the river that marks the border to elvish land. The black riders try to follow, but the river turns into watery horses and drowns them. Frodo collapses.
Frodo recovers; he wakes up with Gandalf at his bedside, and we are treated to a flashback in which the head of Gandalf’s wizard order, a white-clad wizard named Saruman (Christopher Lee), turns traitor and declares his fealty to Sauron. He imprisons Gandalf while his orcs tear down the surrounding forest to turn his tower into a monster-manufacturing plant. Gandalf sends a message to his giant eagle friends via moth. He eventually escapes, but not until he’s missed his meeting with Frodo and company in Bree. He apologizes for his lateness.
There’s some exposition woven into the introduction of several other major characters but everyone eventually ends up at a meeting of Sauron’s enemies. Frodo presents them with the ring. Human warrior Boromir (Sean Bean) leaps up to ask them to use the ring on his city’s behalf (the aforementioned Minas Tirith...never mind). Rivendell’s ruler Elrond (Hugo Weaving) replies that a) the ring cannot be used against Sauron, as it will corrupt anyone who tries to use it, and b) the ring can only be destroyed in Mount Doom, near the heart of Sauron’s lands. The council devolves into bickering, as each race turns against the other.
Frodo silences them all by offering to take the ring to Mount Doom. Gandalf agrees to go with him. So do Sam, Merry, and Pippin. Strider, now known as Aragorn, joins them along with Boromir. An effeminate elf named Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and burly Scottish dwarf named Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) round out the party. They call themselves The Fellowship of the Ring, and set out on their quest.
Their first task is to cross a perilous mountain range. An attempt to go through the main pass goes awry when they realized it is being watched by the traitorous Saruman. An attempt to take a higher pass fails when Saruman calls down a blizzard to block it. Gimli suggests that they cut through a mine owned by his cousin. Gandalf is reluctant, but agrees take them through.
They solve the enchanted riddle that opens the mine’s back entrance, only to find a lot of dwarvish corpses, riddled with goblin arrows. They try to go back, but a tentacled lake creature blocks their way. The tentacle monster collapses the cavern entrance, forcing them to continue.
During the underground journey that follows, they discover the ring’s previous owner Gollum following them. Later, Gimli finds his cousin’s tomb, and weeps over the sarcophagus while Gandalf reads the history of the dwarves’ fall from a handy nearby journal. Pippin pokes an armored dwarf corpse, which rattles down a well, which alerts the goblin squatters to their presence. A small goblin force leads a huge cave troll into the tomb for a battle sequence. The Fellowship eventually defeats the goblins and the troll, but not before the troll skewers Frodo with a trident.
But he was wearing a shirt of magic chain-mail he picked up in Rivendell, so he’s okay. Everyone runs for the mine exit, but goblins surround them before they can make it out. An enormous fiery demon (called a balrog) arrives to drive the goblins away. The Fellowship flees over a gorge. Gandalf pauses to shout “You shall not pass!” He breaks the bridge behind them. The demon falls into the gorge, but manages to drag Gandalf in after him.
Aragorn leads the rest of the grief-stricken Fellowship out of the mines and into a neighboring forest to seek protection from the wood elves. They are greeted by Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) who offers them rest, protection, and cryptic visions of the future before reoutfitting them and sending them on their way. They canoe down a river and camp between some giant ruined statues and a waterfall.
Meanwhile, Saruman’s monster-manufacturing efforts have paid off with the man-eating Uruk Hai. He sends a troop of these bestial minions to kill the Fellowship and bring him the hobbits.
Also meanwhile, Boromir has succumbed to the ring’s corrupting influence. He pursues Frodo into the forest and tries to take the ring away from him, but Frodo uses the ring’s invisibility power to escape. He tries to leave for Mount Doom on his own, but Sam insists on coming too. They paddle off towards Mount Doom together.
Also, also meanwhile, the Uruk Hai overrun the camp. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli fight them off, but not before they’ve kidnapped Merry and Pippin and mortally wounded Boromir. Boromir confesses what he’s done and apologizes before he expires. Aragorn decides to let Frodo and Sam go on alone to protect the rest of the company from the ring. He leads Legolas and Gimli along the Uruk Hais’ trail, intending to rescue Merry and Pippin.
To be continued...
My one complaint against this film is the way it portrays the hobbits as irresponsible juveniles. The literary hobbits are all fifty-some-odd-year-old men, slightly mischievous, but brave and competent in their own way. The movie hobbits are idiots. I might give Sam a dollar and ask him to pick me up a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup at the local convenience store, but the rest? Pippin would forget what he was supposed to do, mistake my dollar for pipe weed, and sit under a tree to blow smoke rings with it. Merry would make it to the store, but would probably come back with a half-eaten Snickers Bar instead. Frodo would press my dollar into his palm, stare at it sadly for a moment, and then burst into tears. The only reason to make a hobbit carry the ring is because if it corrupts him, he’ll be too small and pathetic to do any damage with it. The only reason to bring three more of these helpless, bumbling little creatures on a desperate quest to save the world is for use as spares. (Then, if the ring-bearer buys it, you can just hand the ring off to the next one down the line.) The second half of the trilogy raises them above this kind of behavior, but it bothers me the way the movies imply that all hobbits start out with an unrelenting native stupidity.
That issue aside, I have a great deal of affection for this film. Tolkien’s books are flush with detail, and the fact that the filmmakers managed to include many of these without making the whole thing incomprehensible is nothing short of amazing. Everyone plays it absolutely straight, resisting their target demographic’s love of ironic humor by refusing to wink at the audience. Everything important is emphasized and visualized, so we don’t lose our way in the labyrinth of names, languages, and mythologies. And, though this weighs in as the longest movie appearing on Rifftrax thus far (at 178 minutes), it’s expertly paced, so you don’t really feel the time pass. Compare this with Star Wars: Episode I, which ends forty-five minutes earlier but feels twice as long.
Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy appear to share my appreciation for this film in the commentary track. Many, many references to obscure Middle Earth lore reveal them both as huge Tolkien nerds. There’s plenty of mockery as well, but most of it has to do with character foibles and cracks at the role-playing culture this story inspired. At the beginning, when “The Lord of the Rings” flashes across the screen, Kevin declares, “The Liberace Story!” Nicknames are handed out liberally, as in “Boy-toy elf” (re: Legolas) and “The violent Keebler” (re: Gimli). Later on, Mike comments on the poor aim of the goblin archers with, “They couldn’t hit an Ent if it was standing still.” When the end credits start, Mike finishes the track with, “May the dwarf be with you.” With or without the commentary track, this movie’s worth seeing.
(2001, Fantasy-Sword & Sorcery, color)