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Ringers: Lord of the Fans

Until Peter Jackson launched his epic film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien fandom lurked outside of the mainstream. Strange that it should, as everybody seemed to have read the books and pop culture had been referencing Tolkien's masterpiece for decades. It was worse than being a comic book reader.

Then of course came the films, and it was all out in the open. Fans lined up in a display of affection not seen since Star Wars, costuming themselves as outrageously as any Lucas Drone or Trekkie.

But as Ringers: Lord of the Fans makes clear, they were always there.

A sometimes awkward hybrid of historical documentary and celebration of fans, Ringers provides a fairly extensive look at the Lord of the Rings phenomenon. Impressively, it does so without relying too heavily on footage from Jackson's film. Though many of the stars make appearances, and Dominic Monaghan ("Merry") narrates, it's not about them. It's about us.

Make no mistake, the fans shown here could fit in with any type of following. Their passion matches the most dedicated of sports nuts. Which is weirder, really, the guy who paints his face his team colors and goes topless to a stadium, or the gentle soul that puts on pointed ears and at least somewhat warm clothing?

Ringers puts it all in historical perspective, even digging up footage of Leonard Nimoy singing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins." Director Carlene Cordova takes pains to be a completist about the background of the novels, including a brief foray into the controversy over unauthorized American editions.

Along with co-writer Cliff Broadway, Cordova can be forgiven for mocking the critics that trashed Tolkien's work. It seems a bit unfair, though, when so many legitimate literary lights weigh in on the side of Tolkien's quality, including Clive Barker, here rehabilitated into strictly a fantasy author, instead of one of the most deliriously bloody horror writers of the 20th Century. No real dissenting voice actually gets heard. Instead, the books' harshest critics are literally reduced to cartoons.

In general, the staged portions of the documentary come off the weakest. A "recreated" protest pales in comparison to footage of the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade with Green Party Ents marching around. The real fans need to remain the focus.

That includes celebrities, which Ringers draws from several different walks of life. Writers, actors, rock stars and even comic book artists weigh in on how Lord of the Rings has influenced them. For some of us, it's a bit surreal to hear Lemmy Kilmeister of Motorhead expound rationally on the importance of the books. Heck, he seems more reasonable than Viggo Mortensen. Conservative Fanboys might not find that a stretch.

The influence of Tolkien's work on rock music gets the strongest segments and its own DVD extra. Geddy Lee of Rush weighs in, but the high point really is the modern cover version of "Where There's a Whip There's a Way" from the Rankin-Bass version of Return of the King. If only the DVD came with an mp3 of it.

Also among the extras are fan confessionals, taken from a booth that the producers set up at Comic-Con a couple of summers ago. Though the film smoothly integrates many of these segments, the Klingon Tolkien fan does need to be appreciated separately.

There's an issue never quite dealt with, how fandom crosses over. The film owes a debt of thanks to Comic-Con and features not just a Klingon but footage of a Star Trek actor. Even Executive Producer Tom DeSanto, though no doubt a devoted Tolkien fan, has many passions - he helped attach Bryan Singer to the X-Men franchise, stirred up interest in Battlestar Galactica and has Transformers on his docket.

Even the OneRing.net has had to find other things to focus on; so where's the bigger picture? Cordova might be trying to make the case that it all falls from Tolkien, and that might not be a bad thesis. But Ringers jumps around too much, yet simultaneously keeps too narrow a focus, to explore such ideas.

Still, it is fun, and if you can't take the trip to New Zealand, Ringers is still a decent way to demonstrate your appreciation.

Derek McCaw


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