The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring arrives from Middle Earth just in time for the holidays. Perhaps it's not as great as the J.R.R. Tolkien book on which it is based, or even the original Star Wars movies, but it's an imaginatively mounted, impeccably cast fantasy epic with gravitas, and we need that now. As our world seems poised on the brink, it is easy to identify with the plight of the hobbits, elves, dwarfs and humans whose civilizations are threatened by evil wizards and the One Ring that confers absolute power.

Director Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures), who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, takes great pains to recreate Tolkien's imaginary world, from the cozy, round-doored hobbit homes to the Art-Nouveau curves of the Elves' elegant kingdom, Rivendell. He is aided by the pristine New Zealand scenery that convincingly conveys the prehistoric world of Middle Earth, from its jagged, snow-capped mountains to its bucolic meadows. However, computer-enhanced graphics and other special effects, while often facilitating the director's phantasmagoric vision, sometimes lead to overkill. Too much screen time is spent on gruesome, slimy monsters (Orcs, etc.) hacking away at our heroes. Yes, Tolkien described battles, but Jackson's protracted swordfights become tiresome. The film is strongest when it concentrates on the relationships between its characters, and the invidious power of the ring. The early sequences featuring the brilliant English actor Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, the first to find the ring after years of obscurity, are especially successful. Holm, occasionally assisted by special effects that grotesquely transform his face, brings acute intelligence, vulnerability and wit to his role as an aging hobbit resisting the corruption of the ring.

With his searching blue eyes, Elijah Wood is perfect as the Ringbearer, Frodo Baggins, who must destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom. Though he steps with the hobbits' trademark bare, hairy feet, and rises a mere three and a half feet high, his heroic stature is assured. His mentor, the tall wizard Gandalf, eloquently played by Ian McKellen, tries to protect Frodo from the evil sorceror Saruman (Christopher Lee) and other dark forces determined to steal the ring and enslave all of Middle Earth, but it's an uphill battle. Eventually, Frodo teams up with Gandalf, two humans (Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean), a New Age-looking elf (Orlando Bloom), a hefty, bearded dwarf (John Rhys-Davies) and three fellow young hobbits--the fellowship of the ring--on a quest to Mount Doom. Along the way, they briefly meet the only women in the movie: the elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), who loves Mortensen's Aragorn, and the enigmatic elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who tests and guides Frodo. Perhaps it's inevitable given its source, but the picture lacks girl-power. It's especially hard to see Blanchett, with her edgy blonde beauty, leave the screen after so short a time.

The Fellowship, the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (all three films were completed within 15 months at a cost of $270 million), is an ambitious, long, rather dark fantasy that takes itself seriously. Though the pace slackens here and there, it is always gorgeous to look at and intelligently acted and, most important for a trilogy, one leaves the theatre wanting to know what's going to happen next.

--Wendy Weinstein