Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Road Goes Ever Ever On

In case you haven't seen the movie yet - spoiler alert! Also, you can see my reviews of the first two films here and here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies marks the end of an era that began thirteen years ago with The Fellowship of the Ring. It makes seeing this movie and talking about it a little sad - it's all over! As a fan, in spite of my reservations about (and outright objections to) Peter Jackson's interpretations of J. R. R. Tolkien's stories, it is hard to approach this film with anything resembling objectivity. Knowing that it is the last one* makes it all the more difficult.

BotFA is the only one of Jackson's six Tolkien films that I did not see on opening weekend. Partly because work has been so busy, partly because I have a toddler, and partly because this holiday season was a little more hectic than usual, I just did not have the time to see it right away. But there was another thing that held me back: I was simply reluctant to get out there and put a final end to all of the hopes that I had had for these six movies.

Before FotR was released in 2001, the anticipation of what these films might look like, how the stories would be adapted, and how these movies would be received thrilled me and my friends, and speculating about all of these things was an endless source of excitement. So when The Hobbit was announced as a two-movie treatment (later updated to three), my enthusiasm was rekindled. But after five films had come and gone, my own hopes and dreams for these movies had been thoroughly replaced by the reality of PJ & Company's imaginings. There is a colonization of sorts that takes place when you see someone else's interpretation of a beloved work, and part of me wanted to keep alive the visions I had for a film version of The Hobbit by holding off seeing BotFA for just a little longer.

Of the three Hobbit movies, I enjoyed BotFA most. The high notes of the film - the dragon's assault on Laketown, the dwarven phalanx facing off against superior numbers, the death of Thorin, Bilbo's return to the Shire - brought the story to a satisfying conclusion. But I can't sit here and say it was a good movie: once again, it neglected its own story, cluttered itself with way too much action, and depicted far too many physics-free CGI acrobatics performed by Legolas. And significantly, by appropriating Tolkien's supplementary material to address plot issues in the original tale, the filmmakers wound up introducing more problems than they solved (I'm thinking here of the Arkenstone, the Battle of Dol Guldur, Thorin's madness, and the Earth-Eaters aka Were-worms).

For me, the best scene in this film comes about halfway through: Bilbo, having realized that Thorin has succumbed to his madness and greed (the "dragon-sickness"), decides to slip away and meet with Bard and the Elven-king Thranduil in order to give them the Arkenstone - the jewel with which they might barter for a peaceful settlement. The writing was straightforward and Freeman's note-perfect performance restored a breath of fresh air into the overwrought action and stuffy haughtiness that fills too much of the movie. It needed more of this plain Hobbit sense.

I thought the opening action was great, but it wasn't really a movie opening: it was the end of the last film. In fact, BotFA is the only film of the six that doesn't have a true opening sequence. I guess that makes sense, given that the last movie didn't really have an ending. It speaks to the problems of writing two movies and then expanding the story into three.

There are plenty more nits I might pick, but as I said, overall, I enjoyed the experience of seeing this movie - as a fantasy-action film, it has a lot to recommend it. Looking at the series as a whole, my main gripes can be summed up very succinctly: (1) PJ & Company needed to answer more of the questions that their own script posed, and (2) they needed to dial back (and even remove some of) the extended CG sequences, especially those which ignore the Laws of Motion. As for my second point, given Jackson's work in the 21st century, I can say with tolerable certainty that he's just not going to make this change -- he's too enamored of those tricked-out antics. But as for the first, it needed to happen in order for the Hobbit Trilogy to really shine, and the biggest disappointment is that they didn't do more with such great source material.

ETA: apparently, Aragorn agrees with me:  "Mortensen thinks - rightly - that The Fellowship of the Ring turned out the best of the three, perhaps largely because it was shot in one go... "Anybody who says they knew it was going to be the success it was, I don’t think it's really true," he says. "They didn't have an inkling until they showed 20 minutes in Cannes, in May of 2001. They were in a lot of trouble, and Peter had spent a lot. Officially, he could say that he was finished in December 2000 - he'd shot all three films in the trilogy. The first script was better organised... really the second and third ones were a mess and needed massive reshoots... " he says. "Also, Peter was always a geek in terms of technology but, once he had the means to do it, and... the technology really took off, he never looked back. In the first movie, yes, there's Rivendell, and Mordor, but there's sort of an organic quality to it, actors acting with each other, and real landscapes; it's grittier. The second movie started ballooning... and then by the third one, there were a lot of special effects. It was grandiose, and all that, but whatever was subtle, in the first movie, gradually got lost in the second and third. Now with The Hobbit, one and two, it's like that to the power of 10."

Not all that is gold glitters, my friend. 

*Note: Some have speculated that there will be more films and/or a reboot. They are almost certainly right. But Peter Jackson has pretty much exhausted the Middle Earth materials that he has the legal right to depict on film. So unless and until the rights to The Hobbit and LotR are secured by someone else, PJ & Company's work will stand as the definitive films. And given how many artists and craftsmen were involved with the making of these movies, and their care and attention to a myriad of details, it's not difficult to imagine that the influence of these films will weigh heavily on any attempt at a new telling of the story in the medium. 

No comments: