Today I did something I've never done before. I went to see a 3-hour movie for the SECOND time.
I'm not the only one. As I waited in line for "Lord of the Rings," a teenaged boy asked his friend, "How many times have you seen it?" The answer came, "This'll be three." Now these were not your strereotypical science fiction/fantasy geeks, but guys wearing high school varsity jackets complete with football letters.
With FAR less hype than "Harry Potter"-- or even "Pearl Harbor"-- the wondrous film adaption of J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring," is the first movie since "Titanic," to become a genuine pop culture event. Not that everyone in America will see this great film, but nearly everyone who attends the cineplex-- and a few who have all but given it up-- INTENDS to see it.
Why? I think there are several reasons for the amazing success of a 3-hour film based on a trilogy of 45-year old novels.
First-- It's a great film. If this seems too obvious a point, I challenge you to find one, just ONE, critic's Top Ten list that correlates with the years ten top grossing movies. Even the unanimous collective weight of the critical elites can't make monster hits out of "Reds" or "My Dinner with Andre;" and in its entire theatrical run, "American Beauty" only grossed a similar amount to the opening two weeks of "Lord of the Rings"
My favorite movie review website, "Rotten Tomatoes" (www.rottentomatoes.com) lists 100 reviews of "Rings" and only five are negative. This is not unprecedented, the "Toy Story" movies were 100% positive-- who could NOT like them? But this is a long fantasy with a definite director's vision that, unlike "Harry Potter," actually takes some risks. To have nearly everyone thinking they paid off is an extraordinary feat; and director Peter Jackson should get a medal, not just an Oscar.
This is one time when critics and audiences agree. From the cast, to the look of the film-- which wisely does not over rely on digital special effects-- "Rings" has nearly perfect pitch. Ian McKellen's magnificent Gandalf the Grey may have future movie fans saying, "Obi-Wan Who? Dumble-what?"
Second: This is a great movie for nearly all ages. The very young, say under 9 or 10, may not have the attention span required; and some scenes will be too terrifying; but "Rings" is in the grand tradition of when films were made to attract the widest possible audience.
In this age of niche marketing combined with high ticket prices, movies are specifically marketed to attract the mere 5% of the population it takes to be a big hit. That means that almost no film becomes a crosscultural event. Think about it. How often is a movie or television show the main topic of conversation around YOUR water cooler? A majority of the country watched Lucy give birth to Little Ricky. Now, if a quarter of television sets are tuned in, those are huge numbers. I like having lots of choices; but something is lost when very little good art is designed to appeal to most people.
"Rings" is broadly entertaining in the tradition of classics like "Ben Hur" and "The Great Escape."
Third: The timing is right. I mean this in both the micro and the macro sense. This is the perfect Christmas vacation movie-- a magical pilgrims' progress with plenty of Christian philosophy on display. This is also when people have a little more time on their hands, and the weather is such that three hours indoors doesn't sound like such a bad idea.
But I believe an even more important factor, is that as Hollywood struggled with the tone to take in the wake of September 11, along came an epic and inspirational film about an intrepid band who travel long distances at great risk to combat a horrible evil. When in the last generation was there better timing for a film about fighting for something greater than our own narrow interests, and which recognizes a higher power than ourselves?
Now get thee to a theater and see what everyone is talking about!