Blog Directory CineVerse: How "Fellowship" set the new template for fantasy films

How "Fellowship" set the new template for fantasy films

Friday, January 28, 2022

What makes The Fellowship of the Ring—the first part in Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy, which celebrated a 20th anniversary last month—the fantasy film to rule them all? Read on for compelling evidence substantiating why Fellowship was a complete game-changer for the fantasy-adventure subgenre as well as the movie business (and click here to listen to the latest Cineversary podcast episode celebrating this film's 20th birthday).

Why is The Fellowship of the Ring film worth celebrating 20 years later? Why does it still matter, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • Even though special effects have significantly improved over the last 20 years, and despite the fact that we’ve been bombarded as viewers with a glut of films of the fantastical kind over that span, the Fellowship of the Ring and the movie trilogy as a whole stands as the piece de resistance, the magnum opus in this fantasy adventure subgenre.
  • Many believe it’s better than any other such film released in the 21st century, including any of the new Star Wars episodes, Harry Potter pictures, DC or Marvel movies, Narnia features, or, for that matter, Hobbit adaptations.
    • Some contend that the Rings trilogy is the greatest film trilogy of any genre. Of the first three Star Wars movies and three Godfather films, the third installment has some weaker moments, the man with no name Dollars trilogy has one chapter three masterpiece although two very good predecessors, and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is a marvelous achievement in intimate filmmaking filled with wonderful surprises but the scope and the stakes involved were much smaller.
  • It has stood the test of time, as well, because Fellowship doesn’t feel like a soulless tentpole production designed to pad the pocketbooks and portfolios of its creators and bankrollers. The extreme attention to detail and respect for the epic nature of this story is clearly evident in every frame.
    • Cases in point: It’s amazing to think that the production team consisted of over 2,400 people and 26,000 extras participated in this trilogy, more than 40 seamstresses fashioned 19,000 costumes for the three movies, the principal actors engaged in weeks-long training for sword fighting, horseback riding, boating, and Tolkien-speak, and Minas Tirith was the biggest set ever built in the Southern Hemisphere.
    • You can tell that Peter Jackson and his collaborators went to extreme lengths to build this world and rely heavily on old-school effects and techniques wherever possible, using CGI as but one of the many tools in their arsenal alongside tricks like forced perspective, miniatures and bigatures, and matte paintings.
    • So many fantasy films today are preoccupied with perfect visuals that heavily accentuate snazzy but overblown computer graphics, which discerning viewers can quickly grow tired of and numb to.
    • The Fellowship of the Ring never forgets that its most valuable components are the characters in the conflicts motivating them. The filmmakers are to be commended for prioritizing personalities and story over eye candy, although they don’t shirk their duties in that department, either.
    • This movie is replete with showstopping creatures, awe-inspiring battle sequences, and jaw-dropping visuals that required plenty of digital tools to come to life. While a few examples of the CG may appear a bit dated in 2022, the vast majority hold up very well and fail to break the spell of suspended disbelief cast on the audience.
  • Fellowship also still matters because the acting is a cut above what you’d probably expect from a fantastical film featuring wizards, elves, dwarves, trolls, goblin-like creatures, and other figures that some contingent of the audience may not take seriously due to the trappings involved with this Dungeons and Dragons-like domain of geekdom.
    • The characters are well cast, all the more impressive considering that most of these actors were unknown or at least underappreciated at the time.
    • Remember that this is the film that announced the arrival of thespians we cherish more dearly today, especially Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, and Orlando Bloom.

In what ways was this film influential on cinema and popular culture?

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy, including Fellowship of the Ring, made audiences more accepting of live-action fantasy films featuring magic, wizards, and mythological creatures like elves, trolls, and dragons, which were previously not taken as seriously by critics and moviegoers alike.
    • Prior to Fellowship, except for a handful of fantasy-adjacent pictures like The Wizard of Oz and the Star Wars movies, fantasy was a genre that didn’t get as much attention or respect as, say, sci-fi or superhero films.
    • But in the wake of the Rings trilogy, we saw plenty of imitators and close cousins like Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, Shadow and Bone, Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans, The Golden Compass, the Percy Jackson films, Beowulf, King Arthur, etcetera.
    • Today, The Fellowship of the Ring ranks as the fourth most popular film ever on IMDb based on IMDb rating.
  • Remember, too, that this trilogy proved that fantasy films could capture the attention of cinema elites.
    • Fellowship all by itself earned 13 Academy Award nominations, which at that time was a record for a genre film, winning for Best cinematography, original score, makeup, and visual effects.
    • Among all the awards across the world for which it was nominated, the trilogy received 475 awards out of 800 nominations, earning The Lord of the Rings the title of the most awarded film series in movie history.
    • Fellowship scores a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
    • Also, most recently, The Fellowship of the Ring was officially included in the National Film Registry, only two decades after its theatrical debut.
  • Certainly Fellowship raised the bar in the visual effects department.
    • Weta Digital, responsible for the CGI, created MASSIVE (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment), a cutting-edge computer animation and artificial intelligence software employed in Fellowship and the subsequent two movies to create crowd-related visual imagery, making sequences like the second age war against Sauron and the Battle of Helms Deep possible and realistic.
    • Weta also famously used special motion capture technology to bring characters like Gollum to life. These digital tools have since been used in plenty of big-name flicks, from the 2005 King Kong and 300 to Wall-E and Avengers: Endgame.
  • The way this trilogy was authorized by New Line Cinema demonstrated that committing to several movies in a series at the same time was the right decision.
    • In other words, they didn’t wait to green-light The Two Towers until after The Fellowship of the Ring proved to be a box-office hit. They gave Jackson the go-ahead to film all three movies at the same time, which hadn’t been done in Hollywood up to that point.
    • This was one of the greatest gambles and highest risks ever taken by a studio, and it paid off.
    • Nowadays, studios are more eager to follow suit on approving multi-film projects and bestowing them with budgets and the hundreds of millions, whether it be Disney or Amazon Studios.
  • The Fellowship filmmakers also weren’t afraid to end with an unresolved conclusion as opposed to a self-contained story with an upbeat dénouement.
    • The success of this picture showed that, if you make a quality fantasy adventure movie and get the audience fully vested in the story and characters, they will come back in droves for successive chapters.
  • This trilogy, particularly Fellowship, also made extended editions cool, even though they expanded an already elongated runtime.
    • The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition clocks in at 208 minutes versus 178 minutes for the theatrical version, and most fans prefer the longer cut.
    • Likewise, the home-video releases of Fellowship and the trilogy set the standard for box sets, offering up to 26 hours of extra footage and bonus features in the three-movie package.
    • Think about all of the extended cuts and loaded box sets we’ve seen over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to the Rings films.

Why and how was Peter Jackson the ideal director for this movie and the trilogy? What special qualities does he bring to the film?

  • Jackson and his team weren’t afraid to condense the story so that its primary focus was Frodo and the quest to destroy the ring.
    • That meant they had to eliminate unnecessary characters, subplots, and events and streamline some of the timelines and sequences to produce a more cinematic narrative that could fit within three films.
    • So even though Fellowship dispenses with or pares back interesting characters from the book like Tom Bombadil, Farmer Maggot, Glorfindel, Barliman Butterbur, and Gwaihir the Windlord, the key narrative drive and essential figures are not sacrificed or diluted in any way.
    • This task alone, of deciding what to keep and what to discard from the text as well as the reworking of some of the characters, dialogue, and actions without disrespecting Tolkien’s vision, demonstrates why Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens were the right artists for this project.
  • Jackson’s ability to shoot all three films consecutively and manage all the countless details involved, overlapping storylines, and technical and logistical challenges, is no small movie miracle. The man sacrificed sleep, family time, and probably long-term health over many years to bring this trilogy to fruition, and the stunning on-screen results speak for themselves.
  • Jackson often relies on many extreme close-ups of the actors to give the viewer a more intimate look and feel for these characters and to emphasize the personal conflicts and emotional challenges faced by each.
    • With so many picturesque vistas, majestic landscapes, impressive architecture, and unique planes of battle to showcase, it’s easy to focus on the dazzling longshots and high-angle camerawork that immersed the spectator in this marvelous middle earth universe.
    • But it’s these medium and extreme close-ups that make us care about the people involved and reinforce the human element at work, even if some of these figures aren’t humans.
  • Rafael Motamayor with Rotten Tomatoes wrote: “What makes Lord of the Rings so special is the fact that, despite the big production effort, it still feels like a Peter Jackson film through and through. For one, Jackson infuses the trilogy with moments of sheer horror that reflect the filmmaker’s roots, whether it’s a fight against a giant spider or the grotesque designs of the orcs and Uruk-hai. In The Fellowship of the Ring alone, Jackson puts the audience in a constant state of terror in the first half, making viewers identify with the hobbits who venture out into a dangerous world for the first time and encounter unspeakable horrors like the Nazgûl, who are shot mostly in extreme closeups like the most iconic horror monsters, and the giant Watcher in the Water creature outside of the Mines of Moria.”

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in The Fellowship of the Ring?

  • The corrupting nature of power, and the fallibility and vulnerability of mortals.
    • The potency of the ring infects, taints, and undermines everyone who comes in contact with it, even a humble and altruistic soul like Frodo. Time and again we are shown how men, women, wizards, elves, dwarves, and hobbits alike are tempted by the allure of this seemingly insignificant trinket.
  • Even the smallest person can change the course of history, as Galadriel says.
    • The fact that a diminutive, relatively powerless figure like Frodo can bear the ring for so long without completely succumbing to its persuasion underscores a meaningful moral: Selflessness, courage, willingness to sacrifice, and empathy are among the most incorruptible virtues and mighty traits an individual can possess.
    • It is these qualities that made the rest of the Fellowship appoint and trust in Frodo as the leader of their quest and their ultimate hope for salvation from Sauron. They know that Frodo doesn’t seek glory, rulership, or revenge. It is his humility, decency, and compassion, and the fact that the enemy would underestimate Frodo, that make this hobbit the best candidate for this impossible job.
  • All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us, in the words of Gandalf.
    • These words remind us that life and our time in it are precious, and each of us can make a difference in this world depending on the actions we choose to take, which can be for good or evil.
    • Frodo wishes the ring had never come to him and none of this had happened, but Gandalf suggests that Frodo was meant to have the ring, due to factors beyond his control. But what is in Frodo’s control is what he chooses to do with this responsibility.

What is this movie’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Perhaps The Fellowship of the Ring’s greatest gift is that it helped make the fantasy adventure subgenre respectable and legitimate.
    • Consider those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when these types of movies were relatively popular among the young demographic but they weren’t widely accepted by the masses or made with lasting quality.
    • Back then, you had films like the Conan movies, Dragonslayer, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Heavy Metal, Clash of the Titans, Krull, Legend, and other similar fare. But many adults downgraded and dismissed this material, and the majority of these were empty-calorie entertainments without cinematic sustenance. Most of these films lacked the necessary budget, believable special effects, impressive cast, effective filmmaking talents, and marketing push to appeal beyond the teenage and comic book crowd.
    • But Fellowship and its follow-up chapters completely reset the template for fantasy adventure and forever changed the paradigm by raising the bar quite high.
    • Unlike 1977, when Star Wars: A New Hope was released, there was a lot more clutter and competition to break through in 2001, an era when CGI was already widely accepted and film franchises like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, X-Men, and Harry Potter dominated or were coming into their own. There was no guarantee that Fellowship would become a game-changer just because of all the publicized hype and anticipation, the kind of picture that would sell a lot of tickets, please the critics, and be fondly remembered.
    • But of all those series, and many that came later, including the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the Rings trilogy today stands as a collective work of consistent excellence in which each of its chapters is consistently first-rate throughout. The filmmakers don’t slack off in The Two Towers and deliver a subpar outing, nor for that matter is any sequence, storyline, or subplot in Fellowship a letdown.
    • For fans, it’s a joy to revisit this movie every few years, and the adventure is always enthralling, the tension is ever palpable, the epic scale envisioned is unfailingly breathtaking.
  • Another greatest gift is that it introduced Tolkien and his mythology to a much wider audience and new generations of fans.
    • To date, more than 150 million copies of The Lord of the Rings books have been sold. Whether packaged as a single novel or three individual books, the text had already been one of the world’s all-time bestsellers between 1954 and 2001. But the films made the story a worldwide pop culture phenomenon all over again.

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