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.

Dragonslayer (1981)

2010 #73
Matthew Robbins | 104 mins | TV | PG / PG

Back when he was still directing The Hobbit, Guillermo del Toro spoke a bit about his plans for Smaug, the dragon antagonist of Tolkien’s tale. Talking about the lack of “landmark” designs for dragons, there was one he did single out (I’ll give you one guess which it was)…

One of the best and one of the strongest landmarks that almost nobody can overcome is Dragonslayer. The design of the Vermithrax Pejorative is perhaps one of the most perfect creature designs ever made.

Indeed, the realisation of the spellcheck-bothering dragon is definitely one of the film’s high points. It’s an impressive creation, brought to the screen in those wonderful pre-CGI days through a total of 16 puppets, which included a 40-foot hydraulic model and the first use of “go-motion”, a computerised version of stop-motion designed to add motion blur. Of course it has that veneer of ’80s effects work, which is either nostalgic or amateurish depending on your point of view (and, most likely, age). Some of it looks expectedly dated — it’s nearly 30 years old after all, and hasn’t benefitted from the attention lavished on the likes of Star Wars (even discounting all the CGI Lucas has pumped into that) — but largely it remains effective.

Vermithrax Pejorative is a long time coming, however, wisely kept off screen by director Matthew Robbins. It’s not that the monster shouldn’t be revealed, just that, like Alien, it carries more power when glimpsed in parts and flashes, and the wait to see it builds the tension. It’s worth the wait, and it’s not as if the rest of the film is worthless.

Aesthetically, it’s got that nicely dirty, realistic feel to its depiction of the Dark Ages, which has been rather lost as swisher filming techniques have come along to make everything oh-so-stylised, particularly in genres like fantasy. The rough, practical effects add to this feel, in a way CGI is unlikely to do (not that it couldn’t, I’m sure, but it would have to be exceptionally well managed and I can’t think of an example).

A very young-looking Peter MacNicol leads the cast, being sporadically (shall we say, kindly) fresh. He’s been better served in character roles since. According to IMDb he’s embarrassed by the film and doesn’t include it on his CV. Particularly when one considers the kind of work he does now, it’s quite easy to see why. Being a US-produced medieval-ish fantasy film, everyone is English — except the two leads, of course. They’re all fine but, like every high-concept fantasy blockbuster, this is more about the adventuresome hijinks and giant monster than character development. Similarly, an interesting subplot about the move from The Old Ways of magic and superstition to The New Ways of Christianity feels like a good idea that hasn’t been fully integrated, made up of little more than a couple of passing nods and a negatively-inclined inclusion in the coda.

Dragonslayer is a little scrappy, in a way — the narrative, the acting, the effects — and yet, for that, it’s a minor treat. I don’t know what The Youth Of Today would think of it, but as someone who in his childhood watched many examples of this kind of film on video from the small rental place in town — films like The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story; you could even include big-hitters like the Star Warses or Ghostbusters — it fits nostalgically into that era. And there’s a lot to be said for nostalgia.

4 out of 5