There is no fantasy until you hear the “Once Upon a Time,” which the French director Jean Cocteau wisely knew was the same, to the childlike spirit, as “Open Sesame.” You must cross these words as a ring of salt, a barrier to wonderment that you believe in every fiber to be real, as though you’re one of the chosen few who remembers them. J.R.R. Tolkien’s monomyth (or, his one fairy-tale to rule them all) understands what it means to say “Open Sesame.” “Much that was, is lost,” a voice regrets, “for none now live who remember it.” This is the invitation to waft into his parchment tapestry, his wondrous wild ride of humorous darkness and fairy-tale breakfasts and trolls.
A wearying task falls on me, however: to separate J.R.R. Tolkien’s wonderment from Peter Jackson’s presentation of it. More on this later.
For now, let’s go to the Shire, a grassy little town beveled here and there with hovels, which are laid with unassuming sod floors and upon which rest the knick-knacks of generations and the soft-padded hairy feet of the Hobbits, probably well on their way to fifth breakfast. You could scarcely point a finger and open your mouth before one of the stout little fellows would go off on a history of his veneers or the antiquity of a particular walking stick. Not the sort of place you’d expect to start a high fantasy adventure, but that’s rather the point. Like if “Star Wars” began in Amish Pennsylvania.
Numinous and playfully powerfully, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) seems to like the little Shire like a New Yorker likes Enid, Oklahoma. He’s thankful that the world’s never heard of it, lest the potato pancakes and turnip festivals and elevensies luncheons be mussed by war and treasure and the muddied monster uteruses of the shadowed deep. When he bends down into the hovel of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) Jackson makes a choice that shows how big of a man he is: he makes the effect of Holm’s height and the enclosed space of the house an effect mostly in-camera, using the illusion of distance and the shape of furniture to communicate size as much as with post-edits. Now that we’ve finally gotten to his “The Hobbit” trilogy and its less effectual computer-generated sleights of hand, and he shows just how big and bloated and blown of a man he turned out to be, it’s nice to take a visit back to the practical ol’ Shire, and the believable props and prosthetics and people of “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
And who comprises this fellowship, anyway? Behind the scrappy Hobbit called Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) trains a whole menagerie of misfit kings and British actors, of races and temperaments that range from a stolidly barely-acted elf (Orlando Bloom, the most perfectly carved statue in a film full of them) to goofball tension-deflating Hobbits played by Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan. Rowdy John Rhy-Davies plays a Dwarf, Sean Bean a human, Sean Astin another Hobbit, and Viggo Mortensen the heir to some distant throne, and inheritor of the greatest cleft chin in Hollywood since Cary Grant.
Why not mention their characters’ names? It occurs to me that there’s a paradox of interests in a film like this, where the only people who would care at all to know such names already know them indelibly, forever and ever after since the first time they heard them on someone’s knee. More important anyway is that all these creatures act like people. Some of them are immoveable action heroes but as the story implies from the first words spoken into myth by the imperious Cate Blanchett, action heroes are not the center of this story.
On Blanchett’s periphery stand other ivory towers of the film world’s antiquity, elves played by Liv Tyler and Hugo Weaving, a Hammer Film’s wizard played by Christopher Lee, as menacing as we always saw him and now with the production budget to make it seem on purpose. Set around its board, “The Fellowship of the Ring” moves these pieces around to tell its lore in tidbits, partitioning the kingdoms of its tone and history and language, building out of empty spaces generational tombs and ancestral cities, where its contemporaries in the “Star Wars” prequels left themselves standing in an empty field.
In considering its breadth, however, we might also note its length. At three hours, “The Fellowship of the Ring” demands much of an audience invited into its house for the first time, as you might be overtaken by twelve courses of potatoes during your first visit to the Shire. At this length, why Jackson chose to repeat flashbacks of the opening flashback is beyond me, particularly since, if Blanchett could tell, no one supposedly remembers it. By point of fact, everyone they meet seems to know just exactly what they’re talking about.
This leads me to Jackson, whose film is a well-acted transcription of Tolkien, but not its literary successor. McKellan and Blanchett shine, and so does the film, whenever it’s taking place in a room. But ten pages of written action is not the same as a half-hour of action in film. To the extent that “The Fellowship of the Ring” is an action film merely cosplaying as a fantasy epic, it’s an overture whose breadth casts a shadow over the first verse, full of happenstances that spoil the tension (Hobbits being dumb and oblivious always get the gang into deathly trouble) and invincible action heroes playacting as sages. There are a few wide pans of computer-generated stews that curdle the stomach, thinking about “The Hobbit” films to come. The story’s breadth may be three novels long, but the plot’s mystery is not, as it pretends to be, a ten hour ordeal in film.
Perhaps the fairy-tale owns the sacred “Once Upon a Time” for a good reason, being the total figure in words and in pictures of the feeling of fantasy. “The Fellowship of the Ring” is boldly earnest in this age, where every board game uses Tolkien’s orc and elf and wizard as though there were no others. But Jackson’s competent presentation of fantasy leaves out some essential magic, as one might discover in light or in space, in film as more than an adaptive medium, behind the camera as well as in front of it. A symbolist would still cling to “La Belle et La Bête” (1946), a masochistic dreamer to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” What Jackson makes is high-falutin’ fantasy, fantasy without symbolism, ambiguity, or wonderment, the swashbuckler’s playground the likes of “The Thief of Baghdad” and “Star Wars.”
So the triumph of “The Fellowship of the Ring” is not that it cooks the carbonara of our storybook imaginations. In the realm of wonderment, this is the instant ramen. The special ingredient is not Jackson’s but Tolkein’s: that the hero striding its compass rose is a little guy, that honest-as-apple-pie neighbor you never thought anything of. It could have been you carrying that ring, and that, for all its faults, makes it all the braver, and wiser, and tastier, to think that such a big film would have you in its mind (and even on its knee) as it opens onto those misty mountains and the real world seems as unimportant as a dream. As distant as a wardrobe in Tolkien’s wine cellar.