By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Dec 19, 2001 at 6:01 AM

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" is everything that "Harry Potter" is not. Magical, epic, moving, scary, awe inducing and extraordinary. It is a remarkable achievement.

Based on the much-loved novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, it's carefully and lovingly made. Unlike other motion pictures, it is not a business franchise looking to cash in. Fans of the book and those who have never turned a page will love it.

The beginning quickly and thoroughly explains the history of the ring. The Dark Lord Sauron created it in the fires of Mount Doom thousands of years ago. But he loses it in battle (a jaw-dropping sequence) to the human king of Gondor.

Fast forward to Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who finds the ring in a cave. 60 years later he has not aged a day because of it. His small town is preparing to celebrate his "eleventy-first" birthday (111th).

Now the time has come to get rid of the ring. Sauron wants it back so he can take over the world. The friendly old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) has requested Bilbo to pass the ring onto young Frodo (Elijah Wood).

Frodo receives instructions from Gandalf. He must travel to an inn and meet up with him. But first Gandalf will visit a colleague, Saruman the White (Christopher Lee).

Joining Frodo for his journey are his close friends, Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). Hot on their trail are the Nazgul, nine kings who long ago enslaved themselves to Sauron. Huge, faceless and quite frightening, they wear black capes and ride black horses while seeking the ring.

At the inn, Gandalf doesn't show because Saruman has betrayed him. Frodo and company are saved from catastrophe by the human ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). They escape with the Nazgul not far behind. They are never far behind.

After being rescued on horseback by Arwen (Liv Tyler), an elf, Frodo and friends meet up with Gandalf (who has escaped Saruman). They are brought to the kingdom of the elves and meet Elrond (Hugo Weaving), a leader.

Here, it is decided that the ring must be destroyed. And the only place the ring can be destroyed is where it was created. So a fellowship is formed, and they will go to Mount Doom and throw it into the fires. The fellowship consists of Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, Aragorn, Gandalf, ax-wielding dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), an elf and bow expert and human Boromir of Gondor (Sean Bean).

Thus begins a long and arduous journey. The Nazgul are the least of their problems. They must travel through treacherous mountains and tough terrain. They must battle horrifying creatures out to destroy them and seize the ring. They are vastly outnumbered, and they must use every available resource and work as a team in order to succeed.

"TLOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring" has been brought to the big screen by co-writer and director Peter Jackson ("Heavenly Creatures"), a New Zealand native. It's the first part of a trilogy. Filmed back to back to back entirely in New Zealand, the next two are scheduled for release around the same date in 2002 and 2003.

If there is any justice in this world, Jackson will at the very least be nominated for Best Director, and he probably should win. The scope of this movie is enormous, and to not only pull it off, but create such a magnificent film is astounding. This isn't merely a good fantasy or a good action/adventure film. It's much, much more than that.

For starters, you genuinely care about each of the characters, especially Frodo and Gandalf. Friendships are carefully drawn and each member of the fellowship is a three-dimensional character. They become a family that you grow very fond of, and you gladly follow them on their journey.

That you care for each of these individuals makes the battle sequences that much more effective. It adds a heightened sense of danger and suspense to the proceedings.

And what of the battle scenes and special effects? They are like nothing that has been on the silver screen before. Eye-popping, majestic and beautiful only begin to adequately describe it. It would be an understatement to state that they are among the finest special effects we've ever seen. The amount of detail is staggering.

The cast is perfect, particularly Wood, McKellen and Mortensen. Frodo is the main player, and it is vital that you feel for him. Wood makes him smart, cautious and noble. McKellen brings humor and wisdom to his role and is fantastic. Mortensen plays Aragorn with quiet courage and protects Frodo like a father would. They are all heroic and brave.

"TLOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring" takes you to another world and places that have only existed in your imagination. It is an astonishing movie that needs to be seen more than once. You will be captivated and emotionally involved from the first frame to the last. Do not let the long running time scare you off. This is a must-see.

Note: The movie is rated PG-13 and is often extremely intense and frightening. Due to this and a few violent scenes, it really isn't appropriate for kids under 13, unless accompanied by an adult.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings" opens at theaters everywhere on Wed., Dec. 19. Click here for showtimes.