Somewhere, there are future Hollywood directors who will tell magazine feature writers that they first decided to make movies as they watched “Lord of the Rings.”
It is that good. It is that once-to-a-generation, not since “Star Wars,” transcendent reminder of why we tell stories, why we have imagination, and why we must go on quests to test our spirits and heal the world. And it is a story that invites us into a fully-realized world with many different civilizations, all so thoroughly imagined that we do not only believe that they each have complete languages, but that they have dictionaries, histories, mythologies, schools, music, and poetry.
Our hero, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), comes from one such culture. He is a Hobbit. And he is on a quest to return a powerful ring to the place where it was created, so it can be destroyed. A great wizard called Gandalf has told him that the ring can be the source of great evil. But of course this makes it very sought after by all kinds of scary folks, so Frodo has a lot of adventures ahead of him.
Peter Jackson, who directed and co-wrote the script, has created a movie that seems astonishingly inventive and new and at the same time somehow seems as though it always existed inside us. Every detail, from the tiniest plant to the hugest battle, is exactly, satisfyingly right. The bad guys, all thundering hooves and billowing capes, seem to have come from the core of every nightmare since the world began. All three movies in the series have already been shot, so we can expect his singular vision to carry us through to the end.
A couple of caveats — like Harry Potter, Frodo is a character who is more interesting on the page, where we can share his thoughts, than in a movie, where he is primarily called upon to look amazed, scared, or sad. And like Harry Potter, there were benefits to producing a series of films at the same time (continuity, commitment to getting all of the details right), but some drawbacks, too. So, we get glimpses of people who will be important later but now are somewhere between placeholders and distractions. I know they were there first, but I could not help thinking that all the women in the movie dress like Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks.
Parents should know that the movie might be overwhelming for younger children who are not familiar with the characters and story. I recommend preparing anyone younger than 12 with some background or encouraging them to read the simpler first story in the series, The Hobbit (about Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo). Characters are in severe peril and there are intense battle scenes.
Families who watch this movie should discuss why it is that only Frodo seems immune to the ring’s power to corrupt even honorable, wise, and powerful people and the notion that “even the smallest person can change the course of the earth.” If you were going to form a fellowship for a grand quest, who would you want to be in it?
Families who enjoy this movie should read the books, starting with the prequel, The Hobbit, with beautiful illustrations by Michael Hague. They may want to read more about New Zealand because its extraordinary topography provides the settings for Middle Earth or look at the gorgeously imaginative illustrations by Maxfield Parrish that inspired some of the art direction. They will also enjoy the “Star Wars” movies, Labyrinth, and Dark Crystal. I enthusiastically recommend the BBC audio version of the books, which might be just the thing to keep kids patient until the second movie in the trilogy opens up in December of 2002.