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Film review: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The

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It almost seems unfair that the year's biggest film — in terms of scope, budget and vision, as well as audience expectation — may also be the year's best.

Actually, strike "may be." "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is jaw-dropping, breathtaking, incredibly exciting — and surprisingly weighty for a fantasy. And its ability to take audiences to a completely different land and time may remind them of how they felt when they saw "Star Wars" or "The Wizard of Oz" for the first time.

In fact, if there is a problem with New Zealand director Peter Jackson's ambitious film, it's that this is only the first of three, since Jackson has adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved trilogy with three big movies filmed back to back, and we won't get to see the second until next Christmas, and the third a year after that. (A warning to parents: For a PG-13-rated movie, this one is pretty violent — though not necessarily gory — and there are at least a few scenes that may terrify young ones.)

The film's subtitle refers to a party of Middle Earth dwellers dispatched to destroy the One Ring to prevent the Forces of Evil from having access to its seemingly unlimited powers.

That ring has come into the possession of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), a Hobbit who may be the only one capable of resisting the temptation to use it. However, destroying the ring is another matter. To do so requires a perilous trek to its place of origin, which Frodo reluctantly undertakes, accompanied by his best friend, Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin), as well as the bungling duo of Pippin and Merry (Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan, whose goofiness adds much-needed humor).

He also needs help from a sympathetic wizard, but having his own business to attend to, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) sends the mysterious Ranger Strider (Viggo Mortensen) to protect our tiny heroes. They are soon joined by dwarf warrior Gimli (John Rhys Davies), elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and human Boromir (Sean Bean).

However, there are Ringwraiths and murderous orcs dogging them every step of the way. And at least one member of the party will succumb to the temptation of the One Ring.

That is, obviously, a too simplistic recap of the story, and it certainly doesn't do justice to the surprisingly faithful screenplay (written by Jackson, his frequent collaborator Fran Walsh and two others).

And Tolkien devotees might cringe at some of the cosmetic changes made to the material — some characters have been combined and some deleted altogether.

But such changes were necessary to move the story from the printed page to the big screen. Also, unlike the first "Harry Potter" film, this awe-inspiring fantasy hardly feels like it's three hours long.

Technically, there's so much to look at here that it would normally threaten to overwhelm the performances — if the cast wasn't solid as it is.

In his first opportunity to carry a major-studio film, Woods seems surprisingly at ease — though his co-stars help with the burden (especially McKellen, Mortensen, Astin and Ian Holm, whose tortured Bilbo Baggins emerges as perhaps the most tragic character).

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is rated PG-13 for violence (scenes of warfare involving swordplay, arrowfire and hand-to-hand combat) and some gore (not graphic). Running time: 178 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com