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Tolkien Movie Review

The hobbits, wizards, elves, and orcs of Middle-earth might all be elements of pure fantasy, but the meaning and emotion tied to their famous stories are all inexorably linked to the real-life experiences of their creator: J. R. R. Tolkien. It is those early hardships and joys that director Dome Karukoski's biopic, "Tolkien," aims to examine, tracing the events that helped inspire "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. But while these scenarios are relatively engaging, as presented here the writer's own personal story rarely manages to carry the same originality or impact as his fictional works.

Primarily focused on the author's early life, the bulk of the film takes place as Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult, "Rebel in the Rye") is a student at King Edward's School, following him through his teens and then into college at Oxford. Though at first a bit of an outcast, Tolkien soon forms a close friendship with three other students. Together the group forges a secret "fellowship" called the T.C.B.S. (Tea Club and Barrovian Society), named in honor of the Barrow Stores where they meet. At the same time, a romance starts to blossom between Tolkien and Edith Bratt (Lily Collins, "Rules Don't Apply"), a young woman who lives with him at the same boarding house. But when World War I breaks out across Europe, Tolkien's journey takes an unexpectedly dangerous turn, placing all of his relationships in jeopardy.

Evoking the classic hero's journey structure that fuels Tolkien's own fantasy novels, the biopic takes a similar approach to the man's personal story, weaving a tale of growth, friendship, setbacks, and triumphs as Tolkien gradually embraces his strengths, finds love, and reaches his ultimate goal. Scenes with the T.C.B.S. prove to be some of the most affecting, often taking on a feel similar to Peter Weir's "Dead Poets Society" as the group encourages one another to pursue their artistic dreams.

Tolkien's romance is also handled fairly well, allowing Edith to shine as a character with wants and desires of her own. With that said, the movie's drama can feel a bit unearned at times, and though the score is quite beautiful, a few music choices comes across as a tad overbearing in relation to the emotions at hand. The ensemble all does a fine job and there is some genuinely impressive craftsmanship on screen, but the basic plot rarely differentiates itself from countless similar stories about friends who are shipped off to war.

As one might expect from a biopic about a famous writer, however, Tolkien's various conflicts at school and war do frequently point toward themes and events found in the author's books, giving fans an idea of which real life events may have influenced "The Lord of the Rings." At best, these parallels can feel like natural and organic elements of the story, subtly implying connections to Middle-earth without nudging the audience too hard. At worst, though, these winking references can be too forced or on the nose, seemingly molding experiences to fit bullet points and locations from the novels.

At times, director Dome Karukoski even takes these narrative connections one step further, actually sneaking fantasy imagery and sound effects into Tolkien's reality. Thankfully, this stylistic choice ends up working pretty well, helping to engender a faintly dreamlike quality throughout the film. The war sequences, in particular, present some visually powerful sequences as dragons and wraiths momentarily invade the battlefield, contrasting the fantasy horrors of Mordor with the all-too real horrors of No Man's Land. And even beyond these otherworldly detours, the movie's overall aesthetic helps to establish an appropriately lyrical mood with slow motion, drifting camera shots, and ethereal lighting.

Though some elements of the narrative fail to carry the emotional weight they strive for, and certain fantastical parallels feel more like half-hearted fan service, this is still a handsomely crafted film. As presented in this biopic, Tolkien's personal story never offers the same appeal or emotional weight as the fictional adventures of Frodo and company, but the overall journey is still worthwhile.

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