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'Rings' on screen is big, ambitious, and not so magic

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Last spring, about 30 minutes of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" screened at the Cannes film festival. Several critics of my acquaintance were dazzled enough to make a fearless prediction: This, they said, would be the movie of the year.

It's no pleasure to report that they were wrong. Far from the movie of the year, the first installment of the long-awaited "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is an all-around disappointment. (For why fantasy fascinates us, see page 9.)

Not that director Peter Jackson and his team didn't try. The movie is long - about three hours - and crammed with carefully crafted sequences based on the characters, places, and adventures in J.R.R. Tolkien's legendary books. The acting is generally good, and special-effects fans will love the sword-swinging showdown near the end.

But oodles of technical talent are no substitute for plain old inspiration. Jackson has been working on the "Rings" project for years, and somewhere along the way his reverence for Tolkien appears to have intimidated his imagination.

It's often said that second-rate books make the best movie adaptations, since filmmakers aren't afraid to twist them into new cinematic shapes. Jackson illustrates the other side of this equation, plodding in the master's footsteps when he should be taking Tolkien's ideas into exciting new realms of sight and sound.

As generations of Tolkien admirers know, "The Lord of the Rings" tells an epic story centered on a modest character: Frodo Baggins, an everyday Middle-earth dweller who finds himself the custodian of a powerful magic ring.

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