Balrogs! Cave trolls! Hobbits!

Critics get to see a 25-minute preview of December's much-anticipated "Lord of the Rings" movie.

Topics: J.R.R. Tolkien, Movies,

New Line Cinema showed clips from “The Fellowship of the Ring” — the first part of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which is scheduled to hit theaters Dec. 19 — to critics this morning. The 25-minute reel suggests that the ambitious production may well be worthy of some of its advance ballyhoo.

The footage was the same stuff shown to the world film community at Cannes earlier this year. It begins with director Peter Jackson sitting in a horse-drawn cart with the noted actor Ian McKellen as Gandalf, the trilogy’s towering wizard. Jackson apologizes for not being at Cannes but says he hopes viewers like the following scenes.

Jackson, the New Zealand director of “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners,” has helmed perhaps the most ambitious film production ever undertaken, filming both “Fellowship” and its two sequels, “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” with a reputed $300 million budget and a cast and crew of 2,500. Actual filming began fully two years ago. The studio plans to release the chapters over successive Christmases, with the first coming in December and the others following in 2002 and 2003.

The film’s supposed to be about two and a half hours long. It stars Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, McKellen as Gandalf and Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, with Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif, Viggo Mortensen, John Rhys-Davies and Liv Tyler along for the ride.

In the preview, viewers see three major scenes, and then a five-minute collage of other footage. In the first one, we see Gandalf visit Bilbo, the title character in the Ring prequel, “The Hobbit.” We see a merry hobbit celebration and watch as Bilbo disappears on his journey to Rivendell, and Frodo, his hobbit nephew, gathers a band together and goes off with Gandalf. It’s all very nice, and after a few seconds of slightly unnatural footage you don’t even notice how the filmmakers have the towering Gandalf sharing screen space with the diminutive hobbits.

The two middle sequences, however, make a strong case for the film’s high-toned special effects and distinctive vision. The two scenes are from the book’s battles in the Mines of Moria, an old abandoned dwarf kingdom.

In the first, Gandalf, Frodo and their cohort of hobbits and humans battle a horde of monsters in an underground dungeon. While it’s edited frenetically in the modern style, the sequence has terrific production values and is breathlessly exciting. When a blunt-headed cave troll rushes in and starts whirling a mace around the room, with sonic shreds of concrete flying about the theater, viewers duck their heads in alarm.

The second set piece finds the group chased into a towering cave and then forced to rush down a crumbling concrete stairway hundreds of feet tall, which begins shaking apart as a new and gigantic monster — a balrog, to be precise — comes after them. The running heroes on the crumbling bridge scene is an action-adventure staple, of course, but it has seldom been done with such jittery vision.

Beyond that we see a collage of other scenes, snowy mountaintops and fog-strewn marshes, portentous utterances and teeming CGI battlegrounds.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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