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'Lord Of The Rings' Premieres

The epic "Lord of the Rings" film was launched at a glitzy world premiere Monday with critics already hailing the mammoth fantasy as a masterpiece.

The J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy that attracted at least 100 million readers over the last half century has been turned into three movies costing $270 million. The project took New Zealand director Peter Jackson 18 grueling months to film and included a cast of 2,400.

"Fellowship of the Ring" is the first of the three films to be released and show business razzmatazz reigned supreme at the London premiere.

The film looks set to propel its diminutive hero, American actor Elijah Wood, to international stardom. Hollywood veterans such as Liv Tyler and British horror star Christopher Lee were on hand to watch Wood's turn as Tolkien's Frodo Baggins.

The only major actor missing was Cate Blanchett, who gave birth to her first son Wednesday.

Tyler, who plays elf-maiden Arwen Undomiel, was stunned by the reception. "I've seen nothing like this ever before," she said.

"When I read the book and the script I really longed to be part of this movie," she said as reporters lined up from all around the world to gather soundbites from the stars.

The film, a dark tale of the fight between good and evil played out by hobbits, elves, wizards and orcs, could go head to head with another magical mystery tale -- "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" -- when it is released Dec. 19.

But both films faced an equally tough time -- convincing readers, movie fans and film moguls that they could pull off the celluloid trick.

The first "Lord of the Rings" feedback from critics was euphoric.

"The movie works. It has real passion," Newsweek declared. "I really got a sense of awe and grandeur," said the film critic for Entertainment Weekly. "The effects are blended in extremely well with the fabric of the movie," Variety said.

Jackson said he felt nervous about how the public would receive the film but was heartened by the early reviews.

"I'll be relieved to have people finally see the film because it has been the buzz on the Internet, there have been spies (on set), it has been gossip and rumor for three years now," he told Reuters.

"Three years is too long. People have just got to see it. It is just a movie and it needs to have an identity as a film now and not as this Internet buzz. I'll be relieved when it is out there."

Christopher Lee, who plays the fallen wizard Saruman, said he was seeing the film for the first time at the premiere but was confident it was going to be fantastic. He declared the film would "go down in cinema history."

"No one has ever seen anything like it," added the veteran actor, who has been awarded the title Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to entertainment.

The 79-year-old actor called Jackson one of the greatest film directors of the age. "Someone asked me what my greatest ambition in life is and I replied that it was to lve to see the third film," Lee said.

Wood said the film was breathtaking and he hoped it would inspire a whole new generation to read the books.

"I love it, I think it is wonderful. Everyone involved has done such beautiful work."

The story follows the fortunes of Frodo, a gentle and diminutive hobbit, who takes a harrowing journey through Middle Earth under Gandalf's guidance. Frodo encounters legions of fierce goblins, a giant spider and winged wraiths in his quest against evil. In the end, Frodo must destroy the all-powerful ring that the dark lord Sauron covets.

Editing on the second movie, "The Two Towers," will begin shortly for release in December 2002. The third, "The Return of the King," is to come out a year later.

Last spring, executive producer Mark Ordesky, president of New Line's arthouse label Fine Line Features, said there was such a huge fan base for "Lord of the Rings" that the studio felt confident going ahead with all three movies at once. That allowed New Line to economize on travel, equipment and talent costs.

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