The Hobbit trilogy

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Rating: B-

Dir: Peter Jackson
Star: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Graham McTavish

The long-awaited follow-up to Lord of the Rings feels, in some ways, like its opposite. With Lord, even for someone who hadn’t read the books (like me), there was a sense that this was a condensation of the content, with much that simply couldn’t be fitted in. Here, however – again, despite not having read the book – it seems more like the meat is sliced rather too thinly. You get to the end, after almost three hours, and looking back, very little has actually happened. Bilbo (Freeman) has met Gandalf (McKellen) and a dozen or so dwarves, and gone off to help them reclaim their mountain. On the way, some stuff happens. But the Big Bad – the dragon Smaug – is all but invisible. We see the effects of its fire-breathing attacks, and that’s it. Otherwise, there’s a lot of walking, interspersed with battles. But actual plot development? That would be largely notable by its absence, in this first of three parts. One hopes that more will show up as we move on, since it’s a weakness not seen in the first part of the Rings trilogy.

That said, the technical aspect remain marvellous, with Jackson creating a fully-featured world that seems complete in every aspect. Mind you, when they show up in Rivendell, it’s interesting to compare it to the version seen in Fellowship, and realize just how much further effects have come in 11 years. As a feat of movie-making, it’s still almost without parallel, perhaps reaching its peak in an underground battle between the party and an endless stream of goblins. However, in terms of heart, the only scene that really sticks in the mind sees Balbo encountering Gollum (Andy Serkis) for the first time, and has to engage in a battle of with with the creature, to avoid being eaten – this Gollum seems a good deal more theatening than the one with which we’re familiar. While this never becomes anything close to a chore – even if nothing much is happening, the visuals are easily lush enough to stave off anything approaching boredom or disinterest – I can’t think of many recent Hollywood films that are more in need of a severe encounter with a sharp knife. God knows what else the inevitable “Extended Edition” could possibly include.

The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Rating: B-

Dir: Peter Jackson
Star: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly

The second part is something of an improvement over the first, but on the other hand, there are still a couple of issues, which loom even larger this time around. We do get a slight “story so far” introduction, but we then bounce forward to follow Bilbo (Freeman) and the Seven Dwarves (or however many it is; I lose track) as they continue on their mission to… Er, what was it again? Something about a dragon? Oh, yeah. That rings bells. This time, they go through the Mirkwood, fend off giant spiders, get captured by wood Elves, escape, are pursued by Orcs – and that’s all before they get to the mountain with the sleeping dragon in it. Meanwhile, Gandalf (McKellen) peels off and leaves the little folk to the perils of the wood, for some inadequately described reason, but ends up going head to head in another part of Middle Earth, against what turns out to be proto-Sauron. It all ends – or at least, points towards the third and final installment – not quite with the “desolation” promised in the title, but I guess “Smaug gets a Bit Peeved” wouldn’t have got as many bums on seats.

Problem #1 is the sense, again, that they’re stretching a story too far. This is over 150 minutes, even discounting the ten of credits at the end, and a good chunk of it – in particular, the faffing around Esgaroth with Bard (Evans) – could be heavily shortened without any significant impact. Problem #2 is perhaps related, in that all that has been added, provides absolutely no extra heart – which makes sense, since it was basically JRR’s footnotes. Rings had any number of strong, interesting characters to carry the story; here, we’re two-thirds in, and we have not much more than a selection of interchangeable short people, plus a love triangle that seems more inspired by Twilight than Tolkein. But I don’t want to be too harsh, and I can’t honestly say the lengthy running-time dragged in the slightest. There are some excellent set-pieces, most notably the barrel-icious escape from the elves and what ensues, as well as the final encounter with Smaug, and I’ll be interested to see the third part. But that’s perhaps the biggest difference between this and Rings: I am merely “interested,” rather than “eagerly anticipating with a passion.”

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Rating: B

Dir: Peter Jackson
Star: Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ian McKellen, Lee Pace

Between the LotR trilogy and this one, Jackson has been working in Middle Earth for 17 years. When he started, I was single and living in London. Got to wonder what he’s doing now. After a couple of relatively shaky entries, this does at least finish strong, without the same sense of padding which was a major problem in the first two movies. This hits the ground running – or, more accurately, flying and incinerating – with the attack of Smaug, and while the middle is largely waiting for the titular armies to show up, it doesn’t feel laboured. Instead, there’s steadily escalating tension, with the dwarves holed up in the mountain, the elves laying siege from outside, and the orcish hordes also heading to join the fray. Once things kick off, the battle ebbs and flows, a typically Jacksonesque spectacle. But with the orcs eventually prevailing, the dwarves under Thorin (Armitage) mount a desperate raid designed to ‘cut the head off the snake’.

By this point, you should know what to expect from Jackson, and he delivers: sweeping vistas, majestic battle scenes and a storyline that might as well have “epic” printed between each word. At 144 minutes, it’s the shortest of the six movies, but that’s not exactly a criticism. The focus here is better maintained, with a reduced tendency to drift off onto supporting characters of questionable purpose (though the interspecies romance between Killi and Tauriel still seemed odd: isn’t that, like, bestiality?). It was nice to see Christopher Lee show up [man, he’s sprightly for a 92-year-old!], though seeing him as a good guy was odd. Just throwing this out there, but in hindsight, Jackson might have been better to make this first, then LotR, considering how much foreshadowing goes on here. If this doesn’t entirely deflate the unnecessary bloat from what has gone before, it does at least leave you feeling somewhat sorry it’s the end of the road. Now, what about Meet the Feebles 2, Peter?