The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53—55
Peter Jackson | 685 mins | New Zealand & USA / English & Sindarin | 12 / PG-13

For obvious reasons, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is usually listed as the three separate films it was released as. But in the same way J.R.R. Tolkien considered it one long novel that had to be split up for the sake of publication, so too the movies work well — best, one could even argue — as a single 11½-hour experience.

Having inducted the trilogy’s individual instalments into my 100 Favourites series over the past week (and a bit), I’ve covered most aspects of this epic moviemaking endeavour pretty thoroughly already, so here are links to each of my previous entries:



The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #55

The Journey Ends.

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 253 minutes (extended edition)* | 201 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13
* 263 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 17th December 2003 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2003

Stars
Liv Tyler (Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk)
Miranda Otto (Love Serenade, War of the Worlds)
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Blue Jasmine)
John Noble (The Monkey’s Mask, Risen)
Ian Holm (Alien, Hamlet)

Director
Peter Jackson (The Frighteners, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (Heavenly Creatures, King Kong)
Philippa Boyens (The Lovely Bones, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)
Peter Jackson (Braindead, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)

Based on
The Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of novels by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Story
The Ring’s evil influence over Frodo intensifies as he and Sam allow Gollum to lead them on a difficult path into Mordor. Meanwhile, Aragorn and Gandalf try to unite the world of men against Sauron’s forces, hoping to at least buy Frodo and Sam the time they need…

Our Heroes
It’s an ensemble cast so there are heroes aplenty, but this is the film where Sam really comes to the fore. Although wronged by Frodo, whose Ring-induced confusion allows him to be convinced by the machinations of Gollum, Sam repeatedly comes through to rescue his friend. “I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”

Our Villains
With Saruman out of the picture, the focus falls back on the Big Bad big eye, Sauron. In the extended cut we’re also treated to his rather disgusting Mouth. Special mention also for the Witch-King of Angmar, who reckons he can be killed by no man. Of course, despite Tolkien’s reputation, not every character is a man…

Best Supporting Character
Women get short shrift in Tolkien’s world on the whole, but Miranda Otto’s Éowyn gets a relatively strong role through Two Towers and Return of the King, here riding into battle (in disguise) and (spoiler alert!) avenging the murder of her uncle, the king.

Memorable Quote
“My friends, you bow to no one.” — Aragorn, to the Hobbits.

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Fool of a Took!” — Gandalf

Memorable Scene
With the Ring destroyed and Sauron defeated, the film takes the necessary time to walk us through the ultimate fates of the surviving characters. For the conclusion of an eleven-hour story, The Return of the King has a proportionally appropriate number of endings. Stop bloody whinging.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore completes his fantastic score. This time, memorable moments include The Realm of Gondor (in Ascension), heard best as Gandalf rides into and up the city of Minas Tirith; and The Edge of Night, sung by Pippin (Billy Boyd) as Faramir leads a futile charge on Osgiliath (another strong contender for Memorable Scene, that).

Technical Wizardry
The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the films that pioneered digital grading, a process which pretty quickly became standard (and now is fundamentally unavoidable, what with digital photography being the primary movie production format). Return of the King demonstrates the full power of the form, however: After the final battle, Pippin finds Merry on the battlefield. In the theatrical cut, the scene takes place during the day; in the extended cut, new and rearranged scenes means it takes place at night. It’s the same footage, graded differently, and it works seamlessly in either cut.

Truly Special Effect
Creating the trilogy’s many epic battle sequences required the ability to computer generate hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting, a gargantuan task and a problem that hadn’t had to be solved in filmmaking before. This is what led to the creation of MASSIVE — short for Multiple Agent Simulation System In Virtual Environment — a computer program which creates thousands of characters who are capable of acting as individuals, responding to their surroundings through the use of pre-programmed actions and animations. The kit has been used in many sci-fi/fantasy films since, including Avatar.

Letting the Side Down
I’ve never really bought all the stuff with the ghost army, and apparently Peter Jackson agrees. Although he hated it because it was so unbelievable, he kept it in so as not to disappoint fans of the novel.

Making of
Although most of the trilogy was filmed as part of one massive shoot before the first film was even released, pick-ups and additional filming were later done for both parts two and three. Ultimately, the final day of filming for the trilogy (to get one additional shot for the extended edition of Return of the King) actually occurred not only after the final film had already been released, but after it had swept the board at the 2004 Academy Awards, too. Apparently it amused Peter Jackson to be shooting footage for a movie that had already won the Best Picture Oscar.

Previously on…
The story began in The Fellowship of the Ring and continued in The Two Towers, of course.

Next time…
Jackson and co returned to Middle-earth to adapt prequel tale The Hobbit in three parts, which has a framing device that places it… before Fellowship. So this remains the chronological end of the line.

Awards
11 Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Makeup, Score, Song, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Visual Effects, Audience Award)
8 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor, Director, Music, Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound, Make Up/Hair)
9 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Elijah Wood), Supporting Actor (Sean Astin), Director, Writing, Music, Make Up, Special Effects, DVD Special Edition Release (for the extended cut))
5 Saturn nominations (Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Supporting Actor (both Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis), Supporting Actress (Miranda Otto), Costumes)
7 Teen Choice Award nominations (including Choice Movie Liar and Choice Movie Sleazebag (both for Gollum))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“the invisible wizard Peter Jackson makes use of every scene to show us the meaning of magnificence. Never has a filmmaker aimed higher, or achieved more. The third and last installment of the screen epic based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic redefines — steeply upward — the very notion of a major motion picture. […] To write about this culminating chapter of The Lord of the Rings is to risk gushing in a public place. Still, I’ve never seen a movie like it, or been so struck by a filmmaker’s generosity and the prodigality of what he has done. Yes, the running time is long, and yes, those many endings in a slow, dreamy coda left me feeling spent — better spent than I can ever remember.” — Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

Score: 95%

What the Public Say
“When I talk about any of the Middle Earth films, I’m referring to the extended edition because, despite Jackson’s dissembling, they’re the movies he always intended to release and are uniformly better than the theatrical cuts. Nowhere is this more true than with The Return of the King which, despite winning Best Picture, was made infinitely better by its extended cut, which does clock in at a whopping four and a half hours. It’s a wonderful end to one of the most epic tales in all of fiction (and if I hear anything about the “five million endings” I’ll reach through your screen and slap you unless you can tell me how you would have ended an 11 hour film better).” — David Yaeger, Killing Time

Verdict

Return of the King is widely regarded as the best Lord of the Rings film, which is an opinion I can’t agree with. At its simplest: there’s nothing I’d change about Fellowship to improve it, whereas RotK could stand to lose the Army of the Dead and (were it not for the fact it comes from Tolkien) no one would mind. Still, that element aside, this is a fantastic conclusion to Tolkien/Jackson’s epic saga, bringing numerous plots and characters to their conclusion, and rounding out one of the most impressive feats of filmmaking we will likely ever see. There are very few things I could imagine watching for 12 hours straight (without it feeling like a chore, anyway), but The Lord of the Rings is certainly foremost among them.

#56 will be… ロストイントランスレーション。

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Extended Edition (2014/2015)

2015 #180a
Peter Jackson | 164 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / R

I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it. You’ve got these massively complicated scenes, no storyboards, and you’re making it up there and then on the spot […] I went to our producers and the studio and said […] ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing now.’

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Extended EditionSo says Peter Jackson in the special features accompanying this extended cut of his trilogy-closing saga-ending sixth Middle-earth movie, as widely reported on the set’s release back in November. Similar comments are echoed repeatedly throughout the special features, like how on Lord of the Rings they had racks and racks of metal orc helmets finished a whole year before they were needed for filming, whereas on The Hobbit they were delivering such props to set on the morning they were required for the shoot.

Another revelation: by making the late-in-the-day decision to split the intended two Hobbit movies into three, Jackson gained a whole year to prep and shoot the gigantic (sub)titular battle scene that forms the climax to his telling of Tolkien’s story. Various reasons have been suggested for Jackson and/or the producers’ trilogy-making decision, from genuine artistic intent, to poorly managed storytelling, to pure greed. In the wake of those special features, this new one — that everyone was making it up as they went along, too deep in to see the bigger picture, and desperate for a way to gain some time to get a handle on what they were doing — seems the most plausible of them all.

In the end, The Hobbit films are what they are. What, if anything, does extending the last one by 19½ minutes bring to the table? Well, as with The Desolation of Smaug, the third film counterintuitively doesn’t feel as overlong (note: as overlong) in the extended cut as it did in the theatrical, but I’d attribute that more to the re-watch factor than the extra scenes and moments making it magically quicker. The new material isn’t scattered about as freely as it is in the Lord of the Rings extensions, but instead is largely confined to three or four wholly-new scenes and some short additions throughout the battle, plus largely-immaterial alterations to the effects in existing footage. Anyone interested in a six-page account of every little change can find those details here.

War, huh, what is it good for? Chariots.Most obvious, and most discussed, is the dwarves’ war chariot action scene, whose bloody decapitations saw the film earn an R in the US and 15 over here. A seven-minute action sequence in the middle of the battle, it’s by far the largest single addition, and is mainly notable for all that blood and its use of the word “jambags”. Somewhat ironically, the sequence was a last-minute addition (the physical chariot was the last thing built for the films), which even as they’re shooting it Jackson acknowledges is an indulgence, and then of course it got bumped to the extended edition for being just that.

Elsewhere: the brief funeral scene at the end is good; more Billy Connolly is more Billy Connolly; an extended fight at Dol Guldur proves you didn’t need the Smaug confrontation to provide some up-front adrenaline; some extra comedy is uncomfortably, inappropriately silly; I don’t think there’s more of Ryan Gage’s over-featured Alfrid, thank goodness, other than that he’s treated to a death scene — hurrah! Fans who had hoped for more of Beorn fighting in the final battle get their wish… for all of ten seconds (literally). No wonder they weren’t best pleased.

In the comments on my review of the extended second film, I assessed that film’s new scenes between Gandalf and Thorin’s mentally-fractured father Thrain should pay off in the third film when Gandalf re-encountered a gold-mad Thorin. And… they don’t. At all. Gandalf the warriorNot a sausage, unless I missed something. It didn’t bother me too much because, quite frankly, I can’t quite remember what it was all about; but when I inevitably watch the extended trilogy back to back one day, it may do then. That said, I can’t imagine it’s a major fault, but again highlights the built-on-the-fly, ill-thought-through state of expanding The Hobbit 2 into The Hobbit 2 and 3.

That The Battle of the Five Armies feels less overlong on a second viewing demonstrates how draggy films come about in the first place: sat in an edit suite for weeks or months, watching a film over and over (and over) again, the material must become so familiar that you lose any sense of perspective about its length or pace. Nonetheless, I still feel The Hobbit would’ve been best served in two films, or by allowing Parts 2 and 3 to run considerably shorter than your usual Middle-earth excursion. Fans have already cut together book-faithful edits of the entire trilogy, which I believe run something like four hours. Maybe that would’ve been best of all.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

2015 #36
Peter Jackson | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesPeter Jackson’s epic Tolkien adaptation blunders its way to a conclusion with an instalment some have declared the trilogy’s best, presumably because they really enjoy watching someone else play video games. That’s what about half of this sextet-completing movie feels like, as it concludes the three-part Hobbit narrative with a CGI-riddled rendering of the titular battle. It’s the shortest film in Jackson’s Middle-earth magnum opus, though it comes to something when a film the best part of two-and-a-half hours long is described as “short”.

Before said battle, the movie finds itself with some business to attend to: we pick up immediately where the second part left off, with giant dragon Smaug flying towards Laketown with destruction on his mind. Kicking things off with a gigantic ten-minute action sequence isn’t a wholly bad decision pacing-wise, but this particular sequence is the wrong way to do it. Really, it’s the second film’s climax displaced — once Smaug is dealt with, a whole slew of new developments and subplots grow out of it, and that’s where the material that feels like it belongs in this film commences. Of course, that means there’s a lot of talking and manoeuvring, both politically and literally as people and troops shuffle about the board. Were it not for the big opening, there wouldn’t be an action sequence for about half the movie, and I guess that’s not considered acceptable in the modern blockbuster environment.

Now, if you were to watch all three films in one sitting, I suppose it wouldn’t matter precisely where the breaks fall. But how many people are actually going to do that? Not first-timers, that’s for sure. And then you’d get the problem of massive action sequences butting up against each other: the one that opens this film, right after the dwarfs-vs.-Smaug sequence invented during reshoots to take its place at the end of Film 2. Surely there were two other options available to Jackson when he made the decision to extend from a duology to a trilogy: he could have ended Film 2 before it even reached Smaug, Smaug attacks!or he could have ended the second film with Smaug defeated and added more material to this third film to reach his desired running time. Or not even bothered adding stuff: if you lost the Smaug opener, The Battle of the Five Armies would still be over two hours long, which anywhere but Middle-earth is considered a decent length for a movie.

The rest of the film is a mixed bag for different reasons. For instance, Ryan Gage’s Alfrid is given a significant role — that’s the Mayor of Laketown’s assistant, if you’ve (understandably) forgotten who he is. Every minute that’s spent on his “comic relief” part is a minute wasted, and there are far too many minutes of it. Why that wasn’t left to the extended cut is anybody’s guess. It wouldn’t be particularly palatable there either — he’s just irritating, his actions predictable and unfunny — but longer versions are where there’s time for such indulgence. Conversely, Tauriel and Legolas are underused, wandering off on a completely aimless mission before wandering back for the battle.

Said battle feels a long time coming, but when it arrives… well, it’s a long time happening. It’s an epic by default, due to its sheer length. There are good bits, like the effort that has clearly been put into working out the armies’ tactics and the ebb and flow they would create. Wide aerial shots showing legions of troops swarming in formation, directed by generals with flags and horns mounted on high, are rather effective. Generals mounted on highOn the ground, the meat of the conflict only occurs when individual heroes are parcelled off into one-on-one duels. None of these particularly stand out, however, other than Legolas athletically jumping around a collapsing bridge that’s all so much CGI. This is where my earlier video game comparison really comes into play.

Some characters die. The impact is little-felt because of all the noise and bluster. That’s partly because there’s not really enough time for all the characters, of which there are more than ever. As with the second film, there’s been criticism that Martin Freeman’s eponymous Bilbo is barely featured, and, as with the second film, I disagree. Freeman’s not especially well-served in the acting stakes — Bilbo’s character development remains completed by the first part — but there’s still a focus on the actions of the little hero, some of which are pivotal.

Coming out of things best is Richard Armitage as Thorin, who succumbs to the paranoid madness that has afflicted generations of his family. Can he overcome it to do the right thing? The extent of this is sometimes laid on a little thick, but that’s the filmmakers’ fault (maybe this is another place that would benefit from a few trims) rather than Armitage’s performance. As the leaders of two of the titular armies, Lee Pace (elves) and Luke Evans (humans) also get a bit of a part to play, but the remaining dwarfs are given short shrift. That includes those played by James Nesbitt, Ken Stott and Aidan Turner, He loves only gold...all of whom I’d thought would have more to do in the second and third parts of the trilogy. Turner, in particular, should have expected a bigger boost from Jackson’s decision to enrol him in an interracial romantic triangle, but it feels like they pulled back from that story thread a little after it proved unpopular in the previous film. It’s still obviously there, I just expected more of it.

On balance, The Battle of the Five Armies is probably the weakest of the three Hobbit films. Really, it’s just one big battle with a lengthy preamble. I can sort of see why Jackson felt like he could extend his original second film into a second and third — if you imagine them shorn of the reshoot-added bits, there’s still too much material for a single feature. The better solution, I suspect, would have been to accept splitting it into two shorter (i.e. regular-length) films, applying a bit of restraint in the process, rather than padding things further in an attempt to create two epics out of one ultra-epic.

As the credits begin, we’re treated to a sequence that emulates the one from Return of the King, with pencil sketches of the main cast alongside their names. On the Lord of the Rings concluder, it felt earnt; a special ending to a grand adventure. Here, it doesn’t. If anything, it feels like a reminder that the story we’ve just seen may have pushed to reach Lord of the Rings-level epicness, but is really just a tale of a small group going on an eventful hike, capped with a fairly large skirmish. A contemplative, momentous credit sequence does not feel warranted.

Legend tells of a ring...I was something of a defender of Jackson’s version of The Hobbit at first. I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey and stand by my comment that, while it’s not The Lord of the Rings, it is the next best thing. As the trilogy has dragged on, however, it’s been dragged out, and the shine has gone off it. I still think there are elements to commend it, but I also think it could have been executed better. It’s hard to imagine an even longer version will improve much this time.

4 out of 5

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.

My review of the Extended Edition can now be read here.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Extended Edition (2013/2014)

2015 #35a
Peter Jackson | 187 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Extended EditionAt the start of their audio commentary on The Desolation of Smaug, co-screenwriters Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens note that, when the decision was made to extend the already-shot Hobbit duology to a trilogy, it wasn’t a third movie that need to be created but a second. That is to say, it was the middle instalment that required the most extra material, including a new prologue and climax. The theatrical version rather felt like that had happened, too, and now we have a cut with 16% more again.

Fortunately for new-stuff spotters, most of these additions come in the form of whole scenes, rather than tiny extensions here and there. In total, there’s almost 27 minutes of new material, plus a little over 90 seconds removed (all of it moments that seem to have been added to the theatrical edition to cover for now-reinserted scenes). That’s a pretty significant amount, and it does impact on some facets of the story, but not enough to change the overall feel. That said, I did like the film a little better, but I’d attribute that as much to simply watching it again: things that bugged me last time felt less irksome, like how long was spent on Legolas fighting orcs at the end, for instance.

One thing I never had a problem with, unlike some others, is the film’s proportion of Bilbo: some say the titular hero is sidelined, with too much focus on Thorin and Gandalf as a result. Two things: one, despite the title, this is clearly structured as an ensemble movie — of course other characters are going to get some of the focus. Second, there’s actually loads of Bilbo! He saves everyone from spiders in Mirkwood, he saves everyone from imprisonment by the wood elves, he’s the one who finds the keyhole at Erebor, he goes into the mountain and has a long confrontation with Smaug, he’s the first face we see after the prologue and the last we see before the credits. And those are just the highlights. Better BilboThe extended cut amps him up even more, with an extra part in Mirkwood and a moment where he stands up for Thorin in Laketown. In fairness, he doesn’t have as much character development in this film as the first, while Thorin is on a definite arc and Gandalf is off on his own side-plot, but he’s undoubtedly a key character. I really don’t understand that complaint.

Of the new stuff, however, the best addition is more Beorn, authoritatively played by Mikael Persbrandt. He felt underused and half-arsed in the theatrical version, like they’d cut out a book character to make way for more film-added stuff later on. I have no idea how big his role is in the novel, but Tauriel and her dwarven love triangle aren’t in there at all, so I can well imagine some would rather have more of the skin-changer (whether from the novel or not) than the interspecies romance. Here, we get more of a sense of him as a character, with two whole worthwhile scenes supplementing his sole one from the other cut.

Other notable additions include an extended bit in Mirkwood, where the party have to cross a river; some more of Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown; and a whole additional character encountered by Gandalf at Dol Guldur, played by renowned actor Sir Antony Sher, under so much make-up you’d never even know. There are more bits and bobs, including additional lines that set up some of the aforementioned new scenes, but nothing as significant as these. Some build on storylines first included in the extended cut of An Unexpected Journey, others are just on the level of “we shot this so here it is”.

Beorn againEven if some of the additions are worthless, on balance this is a better version of the film: more Beorn, more of the atmospheric Mirkwood, an additional character whose appearance will hopefully pay off in the extended Battle of the Five Armies (presuming it can’t have done in the theatrical version); plus simply watching the film for a second time helps iron out some of the pacing and emphasis problems I had on my first viewing. It’s still the weakest of Jackson’s Middle-earth films, and there are many issues with splitting one film in two (which I expect to rear their head again in the third film, with how some of the decisions pan out), but it isn’t all bad.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The concluding part of the trilogy, The Battle of the Five Armies, is 2015’s #36. It’s released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US tomorrow and in the UK on 20th April. I’ll have a review nearer that time.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

2014 #17
Peter Jackson | 161 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: An Desolation of SmaugThe Desolation of Smowg-not-Smorg begins in the same way the preceding part of the Hobbit trilogy ended: with a glaring logic hole. After the giant eagles carried our band of heroes many miles away from the party of orcs that have been stalking them — but not all the way to Erebor because… um… — we begin Part 2 with our heroes being chased by… that party of orcs that had been stalking them. You what now?

Unfortunately this is a sign of what’s to come: the ensuing 160 minutes (shorter than An Unexpected Journey, but feeling far longer) are littered with odd and borderline-nonsensical decisions. Thus we have a film that skips briskly past some parts of the novel it’s adapting, but later throws in massive new subplots all of its own. Unlike some audience members, I don’t have a problem with the very idea of Jackson embellishing this tale in its telling, but rushing parts of Tolkien only to find room for new asides strikes me as an odd choice.

And there is an awful lot of stuff in the film. If the first instalment was indulgent in setting up the adventure we were about to embark on, this middle part is restless to the point of distraction. It buffets us from action sequence to action sequence with barely a chance to catch our breath. Rather than making time fly, however, this has the unfortunate side effect of making everything feel much longer than it actually is. However, I accept that this may be “Two Towers syndrome”: a film that left me clock-watching the first couple of times, but which I eventually came to accept and enjoy on its own merits.

Sting in the taleIt’s my understanding that the originally-planned (and shot) two-part version of Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation was transformed into a trilogy by, essentially, taking what was to be film #2 and splitting it in half. That might explain why individual sections are allowed to go on so long here: to bulk up the running time to the kind of epic proportions audiences expect from a Middle-earth movie. Anything less than two-and-a-half hours isn’t going to cut it. But when your climax is a battle between a giant dragon (cool!) and a small army of dwarves (kick ass!) around a deserted underground city (hell yeah!), but my main thought afterwards is, “God that went on a bit”, then you’ve failed at something.

The other headline action scene is the dwarves’ river-based escape from an elf city, pursued by both elves and orcs, who fight each other over and around the river even as they chase our heroes. It’s a visual cacophony; a whirling dervish of elements that becomes hard to follow, much less enjoy. We’ve come a long way from the grounded realism of Helm’s Deep — this is full-on, cartoon-style, obviously-computer-generated bluster. This extends right to the climax: while most of the dwarves are having a runaround with Smowg-not-Smorg, Legolas fights some orcs — well, quite a few orcs; which is rather my point: it gets numbingly repetitive. Less can definitely be more, a lesson the filmmakers must have forgotten by this point.

The already hefty cast is padded out further here, several of the additions battling against strange new accents, particularly Evangeline Lilly’s elf warrior(ess) Tauriel, though at least Lee Pace’s elven king is supposed to be haughty. It ain't 'elfyMeanwhile, Luke Evans’ Bard is as Welsh as the actor’s name suggests, which is a little bit of a surprise. But then the dwarves’ accents have all the rest of the UK covered, so why not. Benedict Cumberbatch sounds like Benedict Cumberbatch playing ‘big’ as Smowg-not-Smorg. It feels like this should be an iconic villain performance but, while good, I found it somehow lacking. Expectation may be scuppering him; maybe I’ll warm to it on future viewings.

Yet for all that, the most surprising thing, at least to anyone not versed in the original story, is where the film ends. Clearly there’s more tale to get through, but not two-and-a-half-hours’ worth, surely? Co-screenwriter Philippa Boyens has said she “got a shock when the audience got a shock” about where this part ended, adding that “if you can imagine what transpires next and what’s coming, it’s quite a huge chunk of storytelling.” I’ll take her word for it for now.

One thing you can’t fault these films on is their production design and the craft in bringing it to life. During production the studios were a 24/7 operation, dismantling, building and re-arranging sets overnight to be ready for the next day’s shooting; while the prosthetics department had to work continuously, and at a 98% success rate too, just to keep up with demand. I suppose that’s what happens when every actor in a large ensemble cast has at least some small thing stuck on them. As with Lord of the Rings before it, this is a fully-realised world, with Laketown being perhaps the most impressive setting… but then maybe that’s because I know they essentially built it for real, and I alway feel that’s more impressive than rendering a ginormous hall in a computer.

I'm Grey da ba dee da ba diI haven’t picked apart everything that’s wrong with the film (what purpose is there switching from one made-up-for-the-film orc general to another?!), but then nor have I praised everything that works (there are some quality actors in amongst all that crashing and banging). It seems a fair few people liked this Hobbit instalment more than the first; the best explanation I can find is, “because it’s got more action”. Far be it from me to accuse other film viewers of being shallow, but… really? I genuinely enjoyed An Unexpected Journey as a return to the beloved realms and peoples of Middle-earth. The Desolation of Smowg-not-Smaug has some of that, and the charm of introducing us to new parts of the world too, but it’s drowned out by so much aimless noise. Here’s hoping it improves with repeat viewings and/or the inevitable extended edition, because this time I nearly slipped down to a lowly 3 stars.

4 out of 5

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, Monday 7th April, and in the US tomorrow.

My review of the Extended Edition can now be read here.

The concluding film, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is in cinemas from December 12th in the UK, December 17th in the US, and a whole host of random dates everywhere else.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Extended Edition (2012/2013)

2014 #16a
Peter Jackson | 183 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended EditionFew would deny that Peter Jackson’s extended versions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy are the definitive cuts of those films, restoring passages initially cut purely for time. Naturally he’s pulling the same trick with The Hobbit trilogy; but whereas Rings had condensed huge tomes, leaving material on the cutting room floor (or never filmed) even after the extended cuts, The Hobbit is a much slighter work; one that has already been stretched to breaking point by adapting it across three movies. In fact, as I noted in my review of the theatrical version, that already felt like the extended cut — how much more do we need?

Jackson thinks 12 minutes and 53 seconds, to be precise. That’s an extension of 7.6% — not very much, really, but is what’s there significant? The short answer is: not really. While watching I spotted one all-new scene, a few extra bits here and there, and there was at least one part that the Blu-ray’s scene selection says is new but I thought I remembered.

Fortunately, this Amazon review has us covered with a full list of 10 extensions. A couple of bits contribute to where things will go in The Desolation of Smaug, which seems moderately essential to me, though I suppose only if you’re managing to follow every subplot across all eight or nine hours (unlikely when watching once a year at the cinema, perhaps). There’s a couple of character-building extensions, a couple of extra songs, and more of the dwarves having fun (much to the elves’ displeasure) at Rivendell. One sword to rule them allThere’s not as much extra time with the dwarves as I expected, though, with most of the character time still going to Bilbo.

I’ve read at least one review that says the longer version makes the film lesser; that the theatrical cut is definitely superior. I don’t hold any stock in that opinion. Extended, An Unexpected Journey is not a better film, it’s not a worse film, there’s just slightly more of it. I know some people think the first version was too long as it was, but an extra 13 minutes on something already that length is almost neither here nor there. That said, looking back over what was added in the wake of seeing the second film, I can’t help but feel that, when viewed as a trilogy, the little extensions that feed into events of The Desolation of Smaug (and presumably this December’s third film too) make the extended edition a marginally preferable version.

Also, I think that a second viewing improves the experience of the film, whichever cut you watch. I liked An Unexpected Journey the first time round, of course, but I felt even more at peace with it on the second— I was able to just enjoy it, rather than constantly be comparing its scope and style to Lord of the Rings, or trying to assess how well it measured up as a decade-later return to a beloved world. I was also able to appreciate just how good the performances are. Series stalwarts Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis are as good as ever (even with McKellen’s widely-cited unhappiness at Bofurhaving to work alone on a green screen for many of his scenes with the smaller characters), but newcomers Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and James Nesbitt shine too. This is Freeman’s film to be the centre of attention, but Armitage and Nesbitt will have much more to do in the follow-ups, and the groundwork is nicely laid here.

For those who hated An Unexpected Journey, watching again in any form might not be enough to bring about a conversion; but for the less sure… well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say watching it again can be revelatory, but I think it could be pleasantly surprising. Whether you have the patience for an extra 13 minutes of it is down to personal preference. I think that, in the scope of the entire trilogy, several of those few short moments will ultimately pay off.

5 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

The second part of the trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug, is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK next Monday, April 7th, and in the US on Tuesday 8th. I’ll have a review soon.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

2013 #27
Peter Jackson | 170 mins* | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneySo here we are: nine years after his last tour of duty in Middle-earth, and after a Guillermo del Toro-shaped attempt at not having to serve again, Peter Jackson returns to the world of hobbits, dwarves, elves, orcs, and the rest, to tell the tale some have been clamouring for him to make since Fellowship of the Ring turned out to be a film of landscape-changing brilliance over a decade ago. Well, a version of that tale, anyway.

The Hobbit, as I’m sure you know, sees a younger Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm in The Lord of the Rings and a prologue here; Martin Freeman for the bulk of the film) coerced by the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen again, of course) into joining a party of dwarves setting out to reclaim their gold and/or homeland, stolen by the dragon Smaug (that’s Smowg, not Smorg). In this version, emphasis is firmly on “homeland” rather than “gold”, and there’s a bunch of other stuff drawn in from the masses of appendices and associated material that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about Lord of the Rings. In the process, Jackson and co have mutated The Hobbit from a simple tale of adventure that happens to take place in the same universe as The Lord of the Rings and has some shared characters and locations, and turned it into a film (well, a trilogy) that is both standalone adventure and grand prequel to his already-made epic.

There’s endless discussion to be had about the choices Jackson and co-screenwriters del Toro, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens have made in this transformation of a beloved novel (and there’ll be even more in future parts, I should imagine, when they start introducing new characters they’ve created themselves). I can sympathise with those who wanted a single-film, straightforward, faithful adaptation of the novel (I sincerely hope there’s a fan edit to adequately fulfil that desire once the trilogy is complete); but there’s also so much in Tolkien’s world, much of it with direct (if inessential) relevance to Lord of the Rings, that it might have seemed a shame to miss this opportunity to get it on screen. Gandalf surveys the running time aheadAnd, I have to say, as someone who hasn’t read the novel since primary school, I couldn’t spot the joins. I could take some guesses, but not many, and considering how long the film is I’m sure there must be quite a lot added.

Putting aside questions of adaptation (others have already discussed that at great length and with much more authority than I), how does it survive as a film in its own right? The reviews have been mixed, but I would say it fares very well. It may lack the epic world-changing grandeur of Lord of the Rings, but as an epically-scaled action-adventure fantasy I found it to be most entertaining. It treads a tricky path mixing action, humour, world-building, politicking, legend, and plot, and some would assert some elements dominate more than they should, or are mishandled — I’ve heard the humour called too childish, the action too like a videogame, and so on. For me, the balance worked. It’s not perfect — it takes forty minutes for the cast to leave the opening location of Bag End, which is fine in a fan-pleasing extended edition but feels excessive in a theatrical cut — but it ticks enough boxes and hits enough bases to entertain. And at the end of the day, it is an entertainment.

I have to wonder if viewing at home affects one’s perception of The Hobbit’s length and pacing. For one thing, from a personal point of view, I saw all of the theatrical Lord of the Ringses in the cinema, and the Extended Editions only on DVD — coming to The Hobbit first on DVD, am I automatically associating it with the extended experience? Even as I write it, I think that’s a pretty spurious argument. More so, however, there’s all those factors of the home viewing experience that are often cited in its favour over the cinema: you can start when you want (no trailers!), pause for a snack or the loo or just the hell of it; and it’s also commensurate with, say, marathoning TV shows, where you might watch several hours in one go anyway. As it is, I didn’t pause The Hobbit once, watching it right through in one go as per the cinema — Gollum has a bigger role aheadbut I could have, and knowing you can do something makes all the difference. There’s also the little timer on the Blu-ray player, which means I can know that it took forty minutes to get out of Bag End rather than just thinking it feels like it. Does that somehow make it more palatable? Would I have been as bothered as others by the film’s length and pacing had I seen it in a cinema initially? It’s tough — nay, impossible — to say, because while there are those other subliminal factors, I also felt like I flat out enjoyed the film for itself, not just for my potential ability to escape it. But it is long and it is episodic, so maybe the association of watching individualistic episodes of TV back to back feeds into the acceptance of that? It’s a circular argument, so we’ll leave it there.

Besides issues of faithfulness and length, the film’s other big controversy (as if it didn’t have enough!) is the whole HFR argument, which seemed to plague all previews and early reviews. I can’t enter into that, but I can say it hasn’t filtered down to the Blu-ray experience — if it should look clearer and sharper and less motion-blurred-y, it doesn’t to any extent that stops it feeling like a Movie. The whole thing looks gorgeous, as you’d expect, though I won’t credit that to the cinematography lest Christopher Doyle comes round and gives me what for. In other technical fields, the make-up, models and CGI are all as up to snuff as you’d expect from this team. They’re probably exceptional, in fact, but hamstrung by the fact we expect them to be. If they’d fluffed something people would have noticed, but what could they do to stand out? Gollum may be better-realised than ever, but he was so good before that few will notice; other sequences, like the fighting rock giants, are awesome but perhaps get lost in the mix.

Thorin awaits the enemy aheadHoward Shore returns to deliver another fantastic score. After he composed the iconic Fellowship theme for, um, Fellowship, I thought he could never muster anything else as monumental. And, in fairness, that theme is still the defining aspect of the series’ score (its absence here is at times felt, by me at least); but he produced another excellent motif for Two Towers (Rohan), and Return of the King (Minas Tirith), and once again here, this time related to the dwarves. Much like John Williams on the Star Wars prequels, Shore is charged with retrofitting his score to begin before but ultimately dovetail with the following/preceding trilogy, and I think he pulls it off (as much as a musical dilettante like me can spot such things). Locations and characters familiar from Lord of the Rings come with their musical cues intact, which blend seamlessly with the new material. I hadn’t bothered to pre-order the soundtrack CD, but I hopped online to get it as soon as the film finished.

The Hobbit film trilogy will long remain a controversial subject. It was always going to. The book is a light children’s adventure tale, while Jackson is making the film in the context of a successful blockbuster epic set in a dark/realistic fantasy world — he couldn’t have made it too whimsical and still had it gel with the existing films. Plus: if he’d done a straightforward adaptation in a single film, would it have felt underwhelming? Does it need a ramped-up sense of the epic in order to compete with its chronological sequel? For Tolkien fans, no; for a mainstream audience, perhaps it does. And for the latter it clearly worked, taking over a billion dollars worldwide, albeit aided by 3D ticket prices.

Bilbo reads aheadWithout the breadth and world-changing story of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit was always going to be a somewhat smaller experience. By emphasising the backstory of the dwarves’ stolen homeland and the hints of war-to-come that will ultimately lead in to Rings’ story, Jackson has made it considerably more epic — for good or ill. For me, the whole experience clicked. I don’t think it’s as good as Lord of the Rings, but it is the next best thing.

5 out of 5

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is available in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and via on-demand services from Monday 8th April.

My review of the Extended Edition can now be read here.

* According to the BBFC, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey runs 32 seconds longer on disc than in cinemas. I’ve no idea why. ^

Ringers: Lord of the Fans (2005)

2007 #64
Carlene Cordova | 98 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Ringers: Lord of the FansMade by the people behind the large Lord of the Rings fansite TheOneRing.net, you’d expect this documentary to focus itself on Lord of the Rings fandom. To a degree it does, but it also encompasses a history of the books and their popularity, as well as various thematic issues contained within them, and also takes in the various adaptations (though, criminally, doesn’t even mention the BBC radio version).

It’s a bit unfocussed, sometimes coming across as a selection of featurettes strung together with occasionally random linking interviews. There’s stuff of interest in here, but certainly not to everyone — only fans need apply.

3 out of 5