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Vision Quest 

*Lord of the Rings, Part 1, The Fellowship of the Ring (PG-13)
New Line Cinema

What is it about a quest adventure that has so captivated audiences since our homeboy Homer wrote The Odyssey a cajillion years ago? Duh! It's the chance to vicariously defeat heinous monsters and meet hot chicks! Oh, and that whole allegory of life thing, too -- you know, the externalization of life's internal trials and perils, the whole journey as destination, etc.

It just doesn't seem to matter whether it's: a) a geezer hero trying to get back to his wife before a bunch of horny meatheads figure out she's been cheating on her latch-hook project; b) a coterie of speed freaks looking for the cosmic gizmo-zap-duh with no destination but the road and "Go"; c) a farm boy and his robots setting off to save his cranky princess sister and foil his heavy-breathing father's new habit of blowing up planets; or d) a midget with hairy feet traversing many barely pronounceable and perilous regions just to get rid of a naughty little ring. The quest adventure is a perennial favorite.

Oh, you wanted to know about The Lord of the Rings Part 1, The Fellowship of the Ring (LOTR1, FOTR for short).

As my 12-year-old cousin Ian (who'd actually read the book) said: "Cool. Very Cool."

Kathryn Eastburn, the Indy's frequent film reviewer, added to Ian's perfect assessment, noting: "Well, it kicks Harry Potter's ass."

With that out of the way, and my complete certainty that you'll go see this movie no matter what I say, let me go ahead and list a few minor complaints.

First, the Hobbit's feet weren't hairy enough. In the prologue to FOTR, the book specifically says: "Their feet had tough leathery soles and were clad in a thick curling hair, much like the hair of their heads, which was commonly brown." Not only was the hair sparse and blighted, it was also quite blonde. On top of that, though there were plenty of long close-ups of Frodo's poorly manicured fingernails, there were no close-ups of the would-be hirsute feet.

Second, for a production that cost $270 million much of which was devoted to painstakingly elaborate masks, props and costumes, you would think they would've held the camera still for just a wee bit longer so the audience could examine their handiwork. The Orcs, for example, who all looked like members of the band Slip Knot, were never on screen quite long enough for me to appreciate the brilliant varieties of their hideousness. Just to give you some idea of the efforts the physical effects team expended, consider these numbers:

Suits of handmade armor: 900
Everyday items and household items handmade by craftspeople: 20,000
Weapons made of rubber: 2,000
Pairs of prosthetic feet and ears: 1,600

I know that it's often the time-consuming yet fleeting details that make a film believable, but I wish they hadn't fled so fast.

Third, how did that sentimental Irish flute music from Titanic make its way onto the soundtrack?

Fourth there were, a few moments of unabashed Hollywood hokey-pokey, though honestly, there weren't enough of them to merit more than a shrug.

And fifth, a more general complaint with the book: Why are women always incidental characters in these quest narratives?

So now let's get to what's good without ruining it for the seven people who don't know the story.

First, director Peter Jackson made brilliant use of the camera to enhance the action. Unlike Harry Potter, which suffered from a framed stasis, FOTR was shot kinetically with swooping sweeps and dramatic vantages that capitalized on the thematic contrasts in scale. When Gandalf was in Bilbo's Hobbit house, for example, the camera looked up at him, and moved with the same stooped jerkiness that Gandalf had to exert in order to navigate the house. The choppy edits, though distracting at times, only added to the urgency and suspense.

I don't know what to say about the sets, costumes and digital animation other than that they speak for themselves magnificently. New Zealand is the velveteen backdrop of Tolkien's imagination, and it's often difficult to tell the difference between scenes shot with scale models and the digital sets. And even if it is obvious when a creature is digital, the WETA team managed to capture the texture and fluid movements of believably real beasts, aptly shaking off the "Shrek effect."

As for the acting, I can say that my disbelief was entirely suspended for all but a few moments. Beyond that, I just don't go to fantasy films expecting Oscar moments from the characters. Elijah Wood was just weird enough and cute enough with his new square jaw to pull off the earnest and sweaty Frodo. Liv Tyler looked totally hot in elf ears as Arwen, as did the bow-wielding blond elf boy Legolas played by Orlando Bloom. And I have to say I'd go see FOTR again just to see Cate Blanchett as Galadriel get all Tales of the Crypt on Frodo.

It's daunting to imagine the burden of trying to faithfully portray a book that's sold over 100 million copies and has spawned the equivalent of a religion. During filming, Ian McKellen apparently received threats of violence from Tolkien acolytes if he didn't properly portray the wizard Ganldalf (which he more than did!). Let the fanatics hash out the discrepancies with the book in their chat rooms. Peter Jackson did it. And this film is cool. Very cool.

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