Die-hard fans and the uninitiated will be thrilled by Peter Jackson and company's exciting yet reverent vision of Tolkien's fantasy classic. 

Praise the Lord

Let me fess up fast. I am not now, nor have I ever been a Hobbit-hound, a Frodo-freak or a wide-eyed Tolkien acolyte. Although the elvish arcana and the denizens of Middle Earth enthralled me in high school while reading J.R.R. Tolkien's revered Lord of The Rings' trilogy, once the last page turned so did my interest. So believe me when I say that the much-anticipated big-screen adaptation of the first of Tolkien's literary trinity is, indeed, a thrill to behold.

The Fellowship of the Ring casts its own magical spell, deftly crafting together the tenets of good old-fashioned storytelling with fantastic special effects and inspired casting. Those who revere the original telling of Frodo Baggins' perilous quest will not be disappointed. Nor will those who queue up for this sword-and-sorcery twist on good vs. evil.

The downside? AT 178 minutes, or two minutes shy of three hours, Fellowship runs nearly as long as Tolkien's 1,000-page classic. But to quote a Hobbit-habitue and pal of mine, That's long for a movie, but not for an epic.

And epic it is. Tolkien, a British philologist and professor of medieval lit, in 1938 began to write a sequel to The Hobbit, his novel that first introduced the furry-footed, peace-loving Hobbits. Nearly two decades later, Tolkien's task was done. The vividness of what he imagined the mythical, prehistoric world and the endearing characters he created have entertained millions and inspired more than a few imitators. But bringing TolkienOs entire work to life has proved a daunting task.

Until now. For whatever reason and a final bill of some $400 million New Line Cinema greenlighted the daring proposal by the extremely talented but relatively unknown director Peter (OHeavenly CreaturesO) Jackson. Filmed simultaneously with its two sequels. The Two Towers and The Return of the King Fellowship is so well-done that one can put aside any reservations or concerns about the rest of Jackson's once-in-a-lifetime creation.

Fellowship begins with an eight-minute prologue recounting the history of the powerful ring forged thousands of years ago by evil lord Sauron and the battle to stop him. Swiftly, Jackson relates the events in Hobbit, where the adventurous Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) fatefully finds the ring. Sixty years later, having not aged a whit because of the ring, Bilbo is celebrating his eleventy-first birthday. But in the midst of the party, he leaves; setting off to give the magical ring to his cousin Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) at the behest of wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen).

Frodo, being the unadventurous opposite of Bilbo, has no desire for the ring that could bring doom to his people. The first half of Fellowship deals with the journey of Frodo and his boon companion Sam (Sean Astin) as they leave home with the ring after some terrifying evil knights enslaved to Sauron come seeking it. Along the way there are more travails and death-defying escapes, including Frodo's spectacular rescue on horseback by the beautiful elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) who calls up a flood to sweep away the evil knights. The second half of the movie follows Frodo after he comes to realize he can't get rid of the ring and must head to Saurons realm.

The film is masterfully paced, and Jackson accomplishes the near-impossible, making Fellowship better and better as it progresses, almost justifying the movies long running time. The real pain that Frodo feels at putting his friends in danger, as well as his fears and doubts, provides the emotional arc necessary to make Fellowship more than just another sorcerers apprentice. Wood seems born to the role, as do Holm, Astin and the marvelous McKellen to theirs. Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving are equally involving as two immortal elves.

If die-hard fans quibble at all, it will be over the expanded importance of Tyler's Arwen and the removal of other characters including Tom Bombadil and Glorfindel. If newcomers to Tolkien take exception to anything, it may be the movie's episodic, Odyssey-like structure. For some, the repetitiveness may become tedious as our heroes endlessly battle foe after foe. Do we really need to see every skirmish? Every battle with the Orcs, Ringwraiths and Uruk-Hai?

But despite all that, this first installment of Jackson's monumental take on Tolkien offers willing viewers a joyous spectacle with both an epic scope and an intimate feel. The end result is nothing short of


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