They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

2018 #234
Peter Jackson | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & New Zealand / English | 15

They Shall Not Grow Old

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum to see what he could do to make their old World War One footage more engaging for a modern audience, director Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson’s initial tests at restoring the footage were so successful that the project was eventually worked up into this feature-length documentary. It tells the story of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary Tommies living and fighting on the frontline, using only footage from the period (plus photos, posters, artwork, maps, and so on) and narration taken from interviews with men who were really there — no historians to provide context or analysis here.

This presents two distinct things to consider when looking at the film: not only its success as a documentary, but also the methods Jackson and co have undertaken to produce it. In terms of the latter, what Jackson and his computer wizards have done goes far beyond the normal realms of “restoration”. For starters, the original footage has been cleaned up (removing scratches and dirt, stabilising the image, etc) — so far, so normal. But that original footage was shot on hand-cranked cameras, giving it a frame rate of anywhere from 10 to 18fps (sometimes varying within one piece of film). So, computers have created additional frames to bring all the footage up to a standard, smoother 24fps. Then the footage has been painstakingly colourised, and also converted into 3D (if you see it at a 3D cinema screening, anyway. Maybe there’ll be a Blu-ray). The goal of all this is to make it seem more immediate and real; to try to connect modern viewers to these men in a more direct fashion, without the distancing effect of watching juddery, indistinct black & white film.

Before and after

Calling the work Jackson and co did to old footage “restoration” has been controversial in some circles, because it goes beyond mere “restoration” and into the realm of revisionism, like the colourisation of old movies that came to prominence in the ’80s and was widely criticised (though it still occasionally rears its head today — try buying a Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life without both black & white and colour copies of the film). Jackson has a different and specific aim with his work here, however. He’s not saying this is a better way to view old film footage fullstop, but rather is looking for a way to bring these past events to life for a modern viewer; to try to erase the past 100 years and put us in their shoes, to make us see how much these people, though separated by so much time, were really very similar to us. The effectiveness of the end result in achieving this goal — of bringing that long-gone war vividly to life — is undeniable.

Indeed, anecdotally, a lot of people do find the addition of colour to be revelatory — after the film’s screening on BBC Two last night, I saw many tweets talking about the “extraordinary”, “breathtaking”, “jaw dropping”, “spine tingling”, “astounding” moment when colour faded in. Personally, however, it rarely seemed like more than a special-effects veneer painted over the original footage. Well, that’s exactly what it is, in fact. It’s not necessarily a criticism, either — it may be for the best, even, because this isn’t a kind of ‘restoration’ we want to see applied across the board to old films. Either way, I do agree that it added a new perspective to see the war presented in this way; but the idea that it’s a perfect, genuinely lifelike ‘restoration’ didn’t quite wash with me. In fact, I thought one of the film’s most striking, identifiable moments came early on, before it had made the transition to colour: as the narrators talk about how young they were when they signed up, we’re shown closeups of soldiers’ faces, and you can really see how young they were — many of them literally just boys. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, although the age to sign up was 19, lads as young as 14 lied to get in, but seeing it so clearly is another matter.

Faces

Moments like that prove that They Shall Not Grow Old’s success as a documentary doesn’t just lie with its “restored” footage. The film’s worth lies as much in the way the story is told — the voiceover narration taken from genuine soldiers’ testimonies, recorded by the BBC and IWM in the ’60s and ’70s; the editing of certain sequences — as it does in the “modernising” of old footage. The added colour and clarity do bring some bits to life and make them feel closer to today, as per Jackson’s stated goal, but a lot of the time the smeary, blurry quality of the colourisation makes it feel as much like a painting come to life as it does real footage. Nonetheless, the truthfulness of what we’re being told burns through that, and it’s the combination of visuals and audio that aids our understanding of what life was like for those men in that place at that time.

It’s quite a dense film too, packed with information, constantly surging forward with the images, an imagined soundtrack to match them, and almost non-stop narration. At times it becomes like a tone collage, where you almost absorb it more than process it, getting an impression of life on the front more than specific experiences. In this interview, Jackson says the film uses about 120 narrators, edited together to sound almost like they’re telling one story — the “common story” of the experience of a soldier on the Western Front, with extreme or uncommon anecdotes having been edited out. It means a lot of the war isn’t touched on (other fronts, other experiences, like the Navy or Air Force), but there were budgetary reasons for that as much as anything (they originally offered Jackson enough money for a film about 30 minutes long).

Western Front

While those other stories are undoubtedly worth telling too, I think it was wise of Jackson to retain a degree of focus here. Rather than attempt to cram a wide-ranging account of a complex conflict into the brief running time of a single film, he’s instead painted a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary Tommy in the trenches of Europe. This is not the story of commanders and generals, of presidents and kings, but of ordinary blokes on the ground — the people most of us would’ve been, had we lived 100 years ago — and Jackson’s methods help make that story as real and relatable as it’s ever been.

5 out of 5

They Shall Not Grow Old is available on iPlayer until Sunday 18th November. A documentary about the making of the film airs on BBC Four tonight at 7:30pm.

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 Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #54

The Journey Continues

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 224 minutes (extended edition)* | 179 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13
* 235 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 18th December 2002 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2002

Stars
Andy Serkis (Burke & Hare, Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
Bernard Hill (Titanic, Franklyn)
Christopher Lee (Dracula, The Wicker Man)
Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, V for Vendetta)
David Wenham (The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, 300)

Director
Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Lovely Bones)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (The Frighteners, The Lovely Bones)
Philippa Boyens (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Stephen Sinclair (Meet the Feebles, Braindead)
Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, King Kong)

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

The Story
Frodo and Sam continue on their way towards Mordor, guided by the duplicitous Gollum. Meanwhile, the surviving members of the Fellowship attempt to bring the kingdom of Rohan into the fight against the hordes of orcs Saruman is assembling.

Our Heroes
As the Fellowship go their separate ways, you could argue that The Two Towers is where Aragorn really comes into his own: the self-exiled royal unveils his leadership qualities as he persuades the people of Rohan to abandon Edoras for the safe haven of Helm’s Deep, and leads the defence of that stronghold.

Our Villain
Once-good wizard Saruman is lent villainous credence by Christopher Lee — really, who else could it be? In one of Jackson’s few missteps, he deleted Saruman’s defeat from the theatrical cut of Return of the King… but the extended cut restores it, so that’s alright then.

Best Supporting Character
Although he’s covered by CGI in the final film, it’s Andy Serkis that really brings Gollum — and his alter ego, Sméagol — to life. It may have led to Serkis becoming the go-to expert in performance capture, but it’s also a great acting performance, full of light and shade, and creating sympathy for an ultimately villainous character. (See also: Truly Special Effect.)

Memorable Quote
“Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?” — Theoden

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“Po-tay-toes! Boil ’em, mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew.” — Sam

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“My precious…” — Gollum

Memorable Scene
The climactic battle of Helm’s Deep is surely one of the greatest battles ever put on screen, as thousands of orcs attempt to storm a fortress defended by a small force of soldiers supported by a ragtag gaggle of old men and boys. Like the ninth episode of a season of Game of Thrones, it plays out over about an hour, but doesn’t flag because it’s so well realised.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore’s excellent score continues to evolve and develop, with the stand-out theme this time being for the realm of Rohan. Also of note is the track that plays over the credits, Gollum’s Song, hauntingly sung by Emilíana Torrini.

Technical Wizardry
Although Lord of the Rings features expanses of excellent CGI, much of it was also created with miniatures — or “Bigatures”, as production nicknamed them, due to the massive scale of some that they built (the largest was 9 metres tall). It lends the final images a physicality and realism that demonstrates why a combination of multiple techniques is often the best way to create a superb end result.

Truly Special Effect
Just a couple of years after The Phantom Menace featured the first major all-CGI character, Weta perfected the form with Gollum, a fully believable creature and an essential part of the narrative. (See also: Best Supporting Character.)

Letting the Side Down
The problem with being the middle part of a series is the story can lack a beginning or an end. Two Towers handily makes up for the latter with the epic battle of Helm’s Deep and the Ents conquering Isengard, but the former is an issue — the film takes a while to get up to speed.

Making of
The prop gate of Helm’s Deep was so well built that a real battering ram failed to knock it down. The door had to be weakened to get the required shots. On the film’s commentary track, Peter Jackson notes that if he ever had to defend a castle he’d want Weta Workshop to build the door.

Previously on…
The story began in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Next time…
The story ends in The Return of the King.

Awards
2 Oscars (Sound Editing, Visual Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Sound)
3 BAFTAs (Costume Design, Visual Effects, Audience Award)
7 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Sound, Make Up/Hair)
4 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Andy Serkis), Costumes (tied with Star Wars: Episode II), Make-Up)
6 Saturn nominations (Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Younger Actor (Elijah Wood), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
1 Broadcast Film Critics Association Award (Best Digital Acting Performance (Andy Serkis, obv.))
4 MTV Movie Awards (including Best Virtual Performance (Gollum, obv.), Best Action Sequence (Helm’s Deep))
1 Kids’ Choice Award nomination (Favorite Male Butt Kicker)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form

What the Critics Said
“Gollum is a wonderful creation: voiced by Andy Serkis, and given the most heartbreakingly expressive face, he’s far more than a digital effect: he’s really there, taking up space, displacing air (part of the impact comes from the meticulous care with which all the creatures of Middle Earth are scaled relative to one another). Gollum is a vile mixture of servility and malice, yet watching him being beaten, throttled, kicked by almost everyone he encounters is as distressing as watching a child being hit. Frodo, for all his faults, is kind to Gollum, seeing in him his own disturbing likeness; Sam, for all his virtues, is cruel.” — Suzi Feay, The Independent

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“The tricky thing with being the second film in a trilogy is that there is no beginning and end. It is almost as if the entire story arc is getting sidetracked by some other battles and new creatures and characters to be met. The film is a intense adventure film but the emotional pull of the two main characters and their journey is out on hold. What makes the Fellowship of the Ring one of the most completely amazing films is because there is a both an emotional and a physical journey the characters take. In the Two Towers we are constantly being told by an assortment of characters that a real war is coming and what they are experiencing are just small skirmishes. Are the filmmakers deliberately teasing us with the excitement of the next film or attempting to do the story its rightful justice?” — Brian Baumann, brianbaumannmoviereviews

Verdict

I was less than impressed by much of The Two Towers when I first saw it — the first hour or so drags, and the intercutting of the deathly dull Entmoot slightly hampers the momentum of Helm’s Deep. Nonetheless, there’s an awful lot to commend it, and the pace becomes less jarring with multiple revisits (when the Extended Edition first came out I even watched both cuts back to back on the same day, which is very unlike me). Some of the trilogy’s best characters first appear here, bringing with them plenty of plot developments that make my notion it was all almost done at the end of Fellowship seem suitably foolish. And, of course, the Battle of Helm’s Deep can’t be beat.

A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship… but it is not in #55.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #53

One Ring To Rule Them All

Country: New Zealand & USA
Language: English & Sindarin
Runtime: 208 minutes (extended edition)* | 178 minutes (theatrical version)
BBFC: PG (“Battle violence and fantasy horror may not be suitable for under 8’s”)
MPAA: PG-13
* 228 minutes with the interminable fan club credits.

Original Release: 19th December 2001 (UK, USA & others)
First Seen: cinema, December 2001

Stars
Elijah Wood (The Ice Storm, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
Ian McKellen (Richard III, X-Men)
Viggo Mortensen (G.I. Jane, Eastern Promises)
Sean Bean (GoldenEye, Black Death)
John Rhys-Davies (Raiders of the Lost Ark, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale)
Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Kingdom of Heaven)
Sean Astin (The Goonies, The Colour of Magic)
Dominic Monaghan (I Sell the Dead, X-Men Origins: Wolverine)
Billy Boyd (Urban Ghost Story, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)

Director
Peter Jackson (Bad Taste, King Kong)

Screenwriters
Fran Walsh (Meet the Feebles, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey)
Philippa Boyens (King Kong, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug)
Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)

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

The Story
Legend tells of a ring, created by an ancient evil that gave its wearer the power to enslave the world. Believed lost for centuries, it has now been found… in the possession of one Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire. With an evil force thought long-defeated on the rise, and hunting for the Ring to cement his power, Frodo will do what few of his kind have ever done: venture beyond the confines of their homeland. Joined by eight companions, they must travel across Middle-earth to destroy the One Ring once and for all.

Our Heroes
Frodo Baggins lives a quiet life in the countryside idyll of the Shire, where the greatest drama is stopping his relatives from stealing the cutlery. When a dangerous artefact is found to be in his possession, however, the honest and good nature of his people comes to the fore. On his quest, he has eight friends and protectors: his best friend / bodyguard / gardener, Samwise Gamgee; two rambunctious but pure-hearted Hobbits, Merry and Pippin; the powerful wizard Gandalf the Grey; a mysterious ranger from the North, Strider, aka Aragorn; from the world of Men, warrior Boromir; elf Legolas, a skilled archer; and an axe-wielding dwarf, Gimli.

Our Villains
The Dark Lord Sauron is an almost intangible threat, though his manifestation as a giant flaming eye atop an imposing tower is pretty freaky. Of more immediate danger to our heroes are his armies of orcs, as well as former allies who may have been converted…

Best Supporting Character
In many ways the strongest character arc of this first film belongs to Boromir. From the kingdom of Gondor, who are on the front lines defending the world from Sauron’s forces, Boromir is understandably frustrated by the lack of support his people have received, and is eager to use the Ring — a power he is denied, because it is too dangerous. But the Ring’s temptation is hard to resist… At one point a threat from within, which ultimately tears the fellowship asunder, Boromir comes through in the end with a helluva death scene. (He’s played by Sean Bean, of course he dies.)

Memorable Quote
“One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them. One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #1
“Keep it secret. Keep it safe.” — Gandalf

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation #2
“He is seeking it, seeking it, all his thought is bent on it.” — Gandalf (well, I use it all the time…)

Memorable Scene
In the Elven city of Rivendell, representatives from Middle-earth’s various kingdoms and races gather for a council to decide what to do with the Ring. Concluding it must be destroyed, they bicker over who will make the dangerous journey into Mordor to do so. As the arguments grow louder and more heated, a small voice pipes up: to Gandalf’s dismay, but not surprise, Frodo offers to carry the Ring.

Memorable Music
Howard Shore’s score across the trilogy is incredible, a well-considered and developed work of art that he’s even turned into a symphony. There’s at least one memorable motif in each film, but the first has the best of all: “The Fellowship” theme, which naturally resurfaces regularly throughout the film, is (for my money) one of the greatest pieces of film music ever composed. (For more information on the score, try this dedicated Wikipedia article.)

Technical Wizardry
The production’s dedication to creating the world of Middle-earth is extraordinary. It’s not just the faultless design work, which perfectly imagined the locations, costumes, weaponry, creatures, and so on, but the amount of effort that then went into realising those designs: they produced over 19,000 costumes, including linking 12.5 million plastic rings by hand to create all the chainmail; 48,000 swords, axes, shields, and other pieces of armour; 500 bows and 10,000 arrows… the numbers go on. Also, because Hobbits walk around barefoot, shoe-like fake feet were created for the actors — of which they got through 1,800 pairs.

Truly Special Effect
One of the biggest challenges for realising The Lord of the Rings on screen are the heights of the various races — Hobbits are under 4-foot tall, dwarves are a little taller, and men are… well, man-sized. Jackson and co achieved this by employing various techniques, including forced perspective, body doubles, and split screen, which of course necessitated building two versions of some sets, one of which had to be a precisely scaled up/down version of the other. Fortunately, all of the Hobbit actors were quite short and Gimli actor John Rhys-Davies is quite tall, so they were able to lump the Hobbits and Gimli together as being the same scale. On screen, the results are seamless.

Making of
Viggo Mortensen Method-ed his way through playing Aragorn, including living in his costume outside of filming, insisting on doing his own stunts and using a real steel sword instead of the significantly lighter aluminium and rubber duplicates, bonding with the horses before filming, and having the script revised so that more of Aragorn’s lines were in Elvish.

Previously on…
The Lord of the Rings was adapted as an animated movie in 1978, which I think has its fans but generally isn’t that well regarded. For various reasons it didn’t tell the whole story, either, leading to a TV movie adaptation of The Return of the King being produced in 1980. On radio, it was adapted by the BBC in 1955-6, in the US in the ’60s and again in the ’70s, and, most notably, by the BBC again in 1981. That last adaptation was so acclaimed that Jackson has said it was an influence on his film version.

Next time…
The Two Towers and The Return of the King complete the story. A decade later, cast and crew returned to adapt Tolkien’s preceding novel, The Hobbit, as a prequel trilogy. There are other Middle-earth books, but their film rights reside with people who aren’t fans of Jackson’s films, so that’s probably that for Middle-earth on the big screen.

Awards
4 Oscars (Cinematography, Score, Makeup, Visual Effects)
9 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Editing, Song, Sound)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Director, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair, Audience Award)
8 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Ian McKellen), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Sound)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen), Director)
6 Saturn nominations (Writing, Music, Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Cinescape Genre Face of the Future Male (Orlando Bloom))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Jackson has given himself a mountain to climb in tackling Tolkien’s obsessively multi-layered fantasy (intricate back-stories, made-up languages and all). On the whole he copes beautifully. The Fellowship of the Ring honours the text without being enslaved by it. The explanatory dialogue may creak on occasion, but the action scenes have a snap and pace that suggests a film-maker not scared to bring his own touch to the material. Physically, too, the film is a triumph: an art-department’s dream during its lovely interior sequences and a potent advert for the New Zealand tourist board when it heads into the great outdoors. […] Jackson’s serious, high-minded approach looks defiantly out-of-fashion; worlds away from kid-friendly Harry Potter (the season’s other big fantasy film about wizards). Instead, The Fellowship of the Ring boasts some more unlikely influences. At times, Jackson’s film could almost pass for the Anglo-Saxon cousin of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; lacking the dark, liquid exoticism of Ang Lee’s Chinese-language epic, but compensating with old-school blood-and-thunder and a rash of fairytale monsters.” — Xan Brooks, The Guardian

Score: 91%

What the Public Say
“everything about the film is of the highest quality. Both the visuals and audio blend together so well, to create an incredible onscreen world. The set designers did a wonderful job; iconic locations from the book became iconic film locations, such as the rolling green hills of The Shire, pulling you in like a dream, or the mystic and elegant Rivendell or the deep dark of Moria. All of these places and more truly are another world, and no matter what you think of the film the images of these places will stick with you forever.” — Ben Foster, BFFRAP

Verdict

Now that it’s fêted as one of the greatest film trilogies ever made, it’s easy to forget what a gamble a three-film, $300 million adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfilmable novel seemed back when production started in the late ’90s; especially as it was to be made by a director whose track record was low-budget horror films, with a cast mostly without star names, filmed on the other side of the planet, where little news leaked out to the wider world, and with all three films shot at once — no backing out if the first flopped. Then it was released and became an instant global phenomenon.

Watching it for the first time, unfamiliar with the story in all but the broadest sense, was an incredible experience. I remember it ending and having no idea how there could be two more films — it felt like Frodo and Sam were almost at Mount Doom already! Oh, how naïve I was. Anyway, for me Fellowship remains the strongest of the trilogy; the only one that feels like a complete work in its own right — even though it’s clearly nowhere near the end of the overall narrative, an awful lot of the plots and themes reach suitable climaxes. Finiteness aside, the quality of the work is unquestionable: this is exciting, funny, emotional, transportive, epic filmmaking of the highest order.

Next… nobody tosses #54.

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 Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

2014 #134
Steven Spielberg | 107 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | PG / PG

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn1981: Steven Spielberg reads a French review of his movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. His high-school-level French serves him well enough, although there’s repeated use of one word he doesn’t know: Tintin.

25 years later: Spielberg has been struggling to make a film version of Hergé’s character for quarter of a century. While developing a live-action version that would feature actors under heavy prosthetics so as to resemble their comic book counterparts, he realises Tintin’s famous dog, Snowy, will need to be computer generated. He reaches out to Peter Jackson and Weta, fresh off their ground-breaking work on The Lord of the Rings. Their test footage is so successful, it gives Spielberg another idea…

2011: after 30 years, Spielberg finally brings the boy reporter to the big screen as a motion-captured animation. Reviews and public reception are mixed, particularly in the US, but they’re all daft because The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is bloody brilliant.

Combining events from three of Hergé’s original albums, the story sees Tintin (Jamie Bell) purchase a model ship that is highly desired by the mysterious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). A riddle hidden inside the model sets the ever-inquisitive reporter on a quest to find out what nefarious deeds Sakharine is planning, along the way bumping into drunkard Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis), who holds the key to the entire mystery. Cue a globetrotting adventure that, yes, is very much in the Indiana Jones mould.

Tintin and HaddockApparently some Tintin purists weren’t so keen on the actual adaptation — elements of The Crab with the Golden Claws have been mixed in to a plot primarily taken from The Secret of the Unicorn, the sequel/second half of which, Red Rackham’s Treasure, is reportedly used sparingly. Plus, in the original tale Sakharine is a minor character who wasn’t responsible for much, apparently. As someone who’s only read one of those three volumes, and even then not since I was young, such things didn’t trouble me. What superstar screenwriters Steven “Doctor Who” Moffat, Edgar “Cornetto trilogy” Wright and Joe “Attack the Block” Cornish have captured is the spirit of Tintin: an engrossing mystery-adventure, laced with gentle satire and smidgens of slapstick comedy, but with real stakes and peril too.

A talented cast are up to the task. Bell adopts a posh-ish accent for the titular hero, and while some of the accusations of blandness aren’t wholly misplaced, he’s plucky and determined enough to make for an appealing lead. The king of mo-cap, Serkis, is able support as Haddock, while Craig makes for a very effective villain — I hope his post-Bond career, whenever that arrives, sees him playing villainous roles more often. Interestingly, it was his mannerisms that have survived the animation process the most. I mean it in an entirely non-critical way when I say every other character could have any actor behind the mo-cap baubles, but Sakharine’s face and body move with all the recognisable movements and expressions of his actor.

Of course he can't talk, he's a dogThe slapstick is mainly hoisted by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as the physically-identical Thomson and Thompson — a true advantage of animation, that. I imagine some find their parts tiresome because of their inherently comic role, but they’re likeable versions of the characters. Even more joyous is Snowy, though. Well, I would like him, wouldn’t I? His internal monologue, such a memorable part of Hergé’s books, is omitted (as it is from every film version to date, I believe), but he’s full of character nonetheless. Some of the best sequences involve Snowy running in to save the day. I don’t think they quite got the animation model right (the one glimpsed in test footage included in behind-the-scenes featurettes looks better, for my money), but his characterisation overcomes that.

Bit of an aside, but I think there’s something notable about almost everyone mentioned so far: Moffat, Wright, Cornish, Bell, Serkis, Craig, Pegg, Frost… All British. I know that’s because we’re awesome ‘n’ all, but I think it’s also indicative of Tintin’s status in the English-speaking world — which more or less boils down to “unknown in America”, but also “pretty darn popular in Britain”. At least Spielberg, the man who wanted to cast an American as Harry Potter, seems to know this (further evidence: they’ve hired another British screenwriter for the sequel). For whatever reason, Tintin has never clicked in America, while the books remain very popular over here. It therefore feels like there’s a better chance for the films’ fidelity by using Brits (who have the correct tone and style almost ingrained) than by using people coming to the stories entirely for the first time, and perhaps bringing a more generic blockbuster sensibility. On the other hand, this might just be a horribly xenophobic way of interpreting a coincidental appearance by so many Brits in key roles — after all, Tintin’s Belgian, so it’s not like using Brits is “true to source”.

Action directionOf course, one very important person is neither British nor Belgian: Spielberg. The screenplay’s balance between peril and comedy is spotlessly enhanced by his peerless direction. In a world stuffed to the gills with lesser blockbusters that palely imitate the groundwork Spielberg and co laid in the ’70s and ’80s, work like this should remind people why he’s still the master of the form. The film is shot with an eye for realism (so much so that some viewers have been convinced it was filmed on real locations with real actors, with some CG augmentation for the cartoonish faces, of course), which helps lend a sense of plausibility and also genuine jeopardy. It’s easy to get carried away when working in CG animation, but often the most impressive works are ones that behave as if they’ve been shot largely within the limitations of real-world filmmaking technology.

That said, Spielberg isn’t afraid to make use of the freedom afforded by working in a computer-generated realm when appropriate: there are some spectacular individual shots, the most obvious being a single-take chase sequence down a hillside through a town. Even better are some of the transitions, which would be literally impossible to realise in live-action — without resorting to effects work, anyway. They’re hard to accurately describe, especially without ruining them, in part because each instance is different; but they do all look incredible, and, again, serve the story rather than being flashy for the sake of it.

It always went ok on Flight Simulator...The tone on the whole is resolutely PG — actually, like many an action-adventure blockbuster used to be before everything went slightly darker and PG-13. So, for example, Tintin wields a gun on occasion, but never at another human being. The focus is on the story, which happens to lead to some adrenaline-pumping sequences, rather than a lightweight excuse to link together a bunch of punch-ups and chases. Ironically (though, for anyone who knows what they’re talking about, entirely expectedly) this makes the action all the more exciting. It also mean there’s a lighter touch than many current blockbusters offer; a greater presence for humour, including among the action. I guess that’s not fashionable these days, when everyone’s become so po-faced about their big-budget entertainment. However, with the likes of Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy proving immensely popular, perhaps the tide is turning, and maybe the still-on-the-cards Jackson-helmed sequel will find itself better received because of that.

I genuinely don’t understand the muted reaction to this first Tintin, though. It perhaps shows where blockbusters have gone awry in the last decade or two, and perhaps the incidental disdain animation is viewed with among some — I wonder: if the same movie had been produced in live-action, would some of those critics have been better disposed to it? I don’t think it would have actually been a better film, and perhaps it would even have been slightly worse (some of the visual impact would be lost), Herge's Adventures of Tintin!but some viewers would have seen it (even subconsciously) as more of a “real movie”.

As I said at the start, those people are Wrong. The Adventures of Tintin is a fantastic adventure movie, and should prove to anyone who doubted Spielberg after Kingdom of the Crystal Skull that, when it comes to globetrotting action-adventures, he’s still the man to beat.

5 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn is on BBC One today at 4:25pm.

It placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

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.