The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings

The first Hobbit film was released on DVD and Bluray this Monday so this seems the perfect time to review it while looking back on Peter Jackson’s previous sojourns into Middle Earth, three films that present the best that filmmaking has to offer: great performances, special effects, cinematography, score, script, make up and costume all coming together in a perfect storm of cinematic brilliance. There are better films than The Lord of the Rings trilogy but there isn’t much that is better cinema.

Prior to making The Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson was a relatively little known director who had made some splatter movies and one calling card film that told a story of a news event well known in one small country. No one would necessarily have expected him to turn out one of the greatest trilogies in movie history. It would be like the director of Lesbian Vampire Killers making a surprisingly good film about Roy Castle and then following it with The Dark Knight Trilogy.

Having said that the aforementioned film about the nationally significant news event, Heavenly Creatures was a fantastic piece of cinema so the memories of his earlier work, Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead were less fresh in the mind. Heavenly Creatures is the story of two teenage girls, Juliet and Pauline, who kill the latter’s mother and in depicting their relationship Jackson does include some fantasy sequences that suggested he could perhaps pull off the magical elements of Lord of the Rings. The Frighteners, made between Heavenly Creatures and The Fellowship of the Ring, also showcased his ability to do justice to parts of Tolkien’s world as the Grim Reaper character from that film is a clear precursor to the black riders. None of this though could have made anyone confidently anticipate exactly how right Peter Jackson was going to get it.

Tolkien’s book is an epic piece of literature that creates brilliant characters and sends them on wonderfully captivating adventures in a beautifully imagined world. It excellently deals with friendships, duty and responsibility in a way that can be identified with despite the fantastical setting. I didn’t read it until I was 26, as I was put off by all the swords and sorcery (I had a bad experience with Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster in my teenage) but it totally transcends the genre.

It is easy to see why the book had remained unfilmed for so long. There is much in the story that could have looked awful on screen if not done well (the Ents, the twee nature of the shire, trolls). Jackson, clearly loving and understanding the book, was able to manage these elements well while knowing what was better left out (sorry Tom Bombadil, I mean you with your yellow boots).

Early casting announcements prompted a mixed response. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee obviously had the gravitas to be good wizards but despite impressing in The Ice Storm, Elijah Wood was still largely that kid from Forever Young and Flipper. Sean Bean seemed the perfect choice for Boromir but although Cate Blanchett had been excellent in Elizabeth and The Talented Mr Ripley wasn’t Galadriel supposed to be the most beautiful woman imaginable? Wouldn’t it have been better to give that part to Liv Tyler who was little more than a pretty face? John Rhys Davies, then as now had a mixed CV and don’t get me wrong, I liked The Goonies but Sean Astin as my favourite character Samwise Gamgee? Of course as it turned out the casting was perfect, rounded out by Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, arrow firing, shield surfing, elephont slaying, just stepped out of a salon Orlando Bloom, Viggo Mortensen (replacing Stuart Townsend after shooting began – which must be unimaginably frustrating for Stuart Townsend) and Hugo Weaving (almost but not quite stepping out from the shadow of The Matrix’s Agent Smith). It is a fact that all of the visuals and spectacle of the film would not work as well if it were not centred around such a strong group of actors.

That spectacle starts with the amazing capture of New Zealand’s breathtaking landscapes. Much was made of the scenery in Avatar, which as regular readers of my blog (should there be any) and anyone who has spent any amount of time with me will know, is a film I hate. I find there little to be impressed by in computer generated scenery when there is already such beauty in the real world. The Lord of the Rings films serve as the best possible advert for the NZ tourist board. Clearly there is plenty of CGI in these movies but it is used to create the things that aren’t already there for the photographing.

The most impressive of the things created by Weta Workshops’ whizzy software packages and visual effects artists are the creatures. The cave troll battle in the first film is brilliant and the central monster is totally convincing, much more than its cousin battling underage wizards in a toilet in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Then minutes later, before we have a chance to raise our jaws, we are faced with the stunning mix of digital fire and horns that is the Balrog, something ancient woken in the bowels of the earth and stepping right off the pages of Alan Lee’s 1991 illustrations. Then there are the Nazgul mounted on winged Fellbeasts beautifully flapping around Osgiliath and across the Pelennor Fields.

Best all of the special effects though is clearly Gollum. George Lucas made much of creating the first proper computer animated main character in The Phantom Menace but all he managed was Jar Jar Binks who, despite the use of motion capture, is little more than a posh Roger Rabbit in both characterisation and technique. In that film you get people talking to and looking at the (offensively unfunny and annoying) character but proper physical interactions seem to be kept to a minimum. Gollum on the other hand is a properly integrated animation with a clear (split) personality, wrestling and fighting with his co-stars as much as with his conscience.

The three Lord of the Ring films are certainly a great cinematic achievement. As I said before, they use all the filmic tools but everything on the screen is there in service of Tolkien’s story. There are other movies that use the full cinematic toolbox in the same way, The Dark Knight trilogy being the first to come to mind, but none of them seem as epic at Peter Jackson’s magnum opus with its armies of orcs and sweeping vistas. Irrespective of whether it is your type of thing or not, Lord of the Rings is certainly a strong contender for best English Language film series of all time.

Despite this my thoughts on the announcement of a film version of The Hobbit were mixed. It simply isn’t as good a book as its successor and it is pitched at a much younger age range. Also, after being gifted with three such good Middle-earth movies did we need to go back? When Guillermo del Toro was set to direct my anticipation was very high. It is one of the great what ifs of modern moviemaking, the thought of del Toro playing around in this world is tantalising but delays in film production meant it wasn’t to be.

Even then the fact that the King Peter has returned is probably neater. Jackson’s films post Rings have been a little more flawed, King Kong was way too long and The Lovely Bones wasn’t properly honed, but his track record with Hobbits, Dwarves and Wizards is proven.

All of this is a lot of baggage to bring with you when you sit down to watch a new movie but when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey starts, you hear the familiar chords of Howard Shore’s score and see the hand drawn maps of Middle Earth and you just know that you are happy to be back in a place you love.

This isn’t the only way in which The Lord of the Rings Trilogy makes The Hobbit better though. In making it as a prequel rather than the original story, as was the way it was written, there are lots of references made to what comes later chronologically. In the book it seems as though the Dwarves are on a personal mission equally fuelled by honour and wanting to get back the money they are owed. It is never particularly clear why Gandalf is so invested in the quest. Now though we can see how this all relates to the bigger picture and the bigger threat and it gives the whole thing a much greater sense of importance. Tolkien could not do this himself because he hadn’t yet fleshed out the (fleshless) big bad Sauron.

In increasing the connections to the other films we also have Galadriel and Elrond wheeled out despite (if memory of a book I was never too fussed about serves me right) them not appearing in the original text. They are included here in a way that seems totally integral to the plot rather than just being there to please the fans, unlike young Frodo. You wonder if it was worth Elijah Wood putting the pointy ears and the hairy feet on for his little cameo although I’m sure he shot some stuff for the final film at the same time.

Other familiar characters it seems harder to shoe horn in so we get their characteristics laid out on others. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Okenshield is more Aragorn than Aragorn and Aidan Turner’s Kili is Legolas but with more personality. Curiously we don’t get much of Gloin, father of Gimli despite the fact that they probably could have actually given that part to John Rhys Davies and got away with it.

The star of the film is definitely Martin Freeman giving us his charming and bewildered but earnest everyman turn to good effect here, as he did in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. You can see why they went to great effort to fit this movie round his filming commitments to Sherlock although his part in that TV show still remains his greatest work.

There is spectacle too, the early troll scene has none of the impact of its equivalent in The Fellowship of the Ring but by the time you see the epic battle of the mountain creatures you are satisfied, and the escape from the Goblins is equally impressive. We only see the dragon Smaug in incomplete flashes though. He is obviously this film’s Gollum, waiting to be fully revealed in a later instalment. Speaking of Smeagal, he is obviously back with a very important part to play that did come directly from Tolkien’s pen and his scenes are a delight.

There is one issue: none of the main characters die which given the incredible scrapes they get into seems unlikely and does reduce the sense of peril you experience watching it. Clearly this is where the childish nature of the source material is problematic and it is at odds with the rest of the action where heads get lopped off with an abandon that would embarrass The Queen of Hearts. It seems odd that the first Lord of the Rings film was a PG and the first Hobbit film is a 12 but unlike before, the certification is entirely appropriate. The Doctor Who spin off Torchwood was odd in its early days as it felt like a kid’s TV show but with lots of sex and swearing. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is like a adult film but with the storyline of something you might have heard read on Jackanory. It is a mix of styles that doesn’t quite work.

Still, if you love The Lord of the Rings you will love The Hobbit and if you don’t love The Lord of the Rings then I don’t think you can have been paying proper attention.

Is this one for the kids?

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, the year before Spider-man was the first film to be given a 12A although I am sure it was one of the films that was instrumental in the creation in this new classification. It is one of those movies that fitted neatly in the gap between PG and 15 with its decapitations and multiple puncture wounds. As it is the film was awarded a PG with the ‘not recommended for under 8s’ label they started using with Jurassic Park. The BBFC partly justified this decision by saying the spilled blood was black so it was less disturbing. By that rationale I should enjoy sitting down with my young family and watching Psycho some time soon but I appreciate that these judgements are made based on very specific guidelines informed by extensive consultation with parents so I can’t really argue.
Still, the 12A certificate does exist now and every other Rings film and The Hobbit have earned this classification.

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