Monday, January 4, 2016

Hail To The Dwarf King!

Because I am at my core a completist, I picked up the extended dvd cut of Peter Jackson's third part of the adaptation of  J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I have reviewed the movie several times over the last three years as segments have been released into the wild for us to sample, but as with all of the Tolkien projects out of New Zealand, the roads goes on and on until the extended dvd hits the shelves and then we have our definitive version.

In  previous installments we have met Bilbo Baggins, seen contracting into the company of Thorin Oakenshield and his fellow twelve dwarves to ramble to the Misty Mountain, and there to defeat the dragon Smaug who chased the dwarves out centuries before. Along the way we encounter elves, trolls, shapechangers, spiders, fish-eating ghouls, wizards, and assorted men of various motivations. It's a children's book filled with vivid wonder and lovely thoughts.

But in the hands of Peter Jackson, who performed a wonderful service when he beat the behemoth novel The Lord of the Rings into a delightful trilogy, we get here mostly a reprise of that enterprise, with fantastic special effects, outstanding film craftsmanship both in front of and behind the cameras, and some true visual splendor. What we don't really get is, aside from some signature sequences, a particularly deft adaptation of a whimsical novel. The sleek sword of The Hobbit is beaten into a mighty plowshare to more greatly resemble its offspring The Lord of the Rings. That's it problem, that and the atrocious decision to make three movies when two would've sufficed nicely.

The change of title in the third movie (once the second) from There and Back Again to The Battle of the Five Armies tells anyone paying attention what goes wrong. We enter a delightful high fantasy and we get stranded in a dark fanastical war-themed video game, with extended battle sequences which go on and on and on forever. Dwarves die, but then so do thousands of Orcs, Elves, and Men as the yarn becomes a rather difficult to decipher animated game of Risk.

Why did this happen? Well, you can learn a lot watching the documentaries and they are very revealing, in ways even in which they might not intend to be.

There's no doubt that the success of The Lord of the Rings movies was a great boon to New Zealand, both economically and socially. The country, a little-known distant outpost was given worldwide attention as its magnificent landscapes became Middle Earth for many if not most of the vast audience who latched onto the original movies. A whole film industry, built up to make those movies by Peter Jackson and his associates, was in place, and ready for more.

More was King Kong, a movie which was not quite the success of the Rings movies, but nonetheless pointed the way forward. Jackson made no bones about the fact he did not want to direct The Hobbit, when that project presented itself almost as an inevitability. But as we learn in the making-of videos, the timing of the making of the vast movie (originally two films) made keeping director Guillermo Del Toro an impossibility. So despite his early contributions, Sir Peter descended from his producers loft and set about directing. And as we learn it was all without much really in the way of planning.

What is constantly amazing to me as I watch the background videos is the sheer adulation his colleagues seem to hold Jackson in. Some are downright obsequious about it. As I said, they owe a livelihood to what he developed early on, so loyalty is understandable, but there's a devotion that almost supersedes that. There's a fawning to whim that smacks of idolatry.

I am reminded of the infamous Iron Man nose incident. The story goes that Stan Lee, largely an absent figure from the Marvel Bullpen in the late 70's, saw some drawings of Iron Man and made some offhand comment about making sure there was room in the mask for his nose. No one can say for sure what he said, but what he meant was to make certain the flat plate of the mask didn't appear to shallow. But somehow that was translated into Stan ordering Iron Man to get a honker on his mask. The devoted Bullpenners followed and one of the great boners in all of comics appeared. Later Stan saw the nose, was appalled and the appendage soon vanished.

That's what it sounds like when folks in the New Zealand studios talk about Peter Jackson, as if his every syllable was pregnant with deep meaning evidence of long and careful thought. The ramshackle way The Hobbit was ultimately produced, sparing no expense and catering to every frolic, shows what happens when a  powerful creator has no one who can say nay. Notably Billy Connelly, who played a dwarf king in the movie seems himself to have little regard for Tolkien, a refreshing counter in a world in which the great writer is seemingly universally loved. What Connelly's attitude about Jackson is, is less clear. Connelly isn't on the dvd all that much either.

Like Thorin Oakenshield or King Thrandruill, Peter Jackson appears like a lord of the manor, sprawled akimbo in his lair (a fully-stuffed living room chair carried to each remote location despite its clear plush design) plugged into headphones or hidden behind wacky 3-D specs or both and the movie fragments unfold before him. He breezes into meetings and passes through departments offering up moments of time and ready opinions which trigger days of action, much of it going to waste as the whim which started it all doomed to pass.

Despite all its many many charms The Hobbit trilogy fell on its face, especially in the third part because no one could tell Sir Peter no. Two films was the limit of this story with space for all the necessary beats, but once the expansion to three became reality (and it became a reality according to the documentaries because the team ran out of time to finish the story properly in two parts) the story had sprawled beyond its proper borders and became something other, a passable entertainment, but not really an adaptation of Tolkien anymore. Hubris too played a part as the creators counted on their past experience and their new wealth to overcome the challenges they self-created, and then they were not able to deliver, at least not in the proper tone.

I don't say these things to be unduly critical of movies I genuinely appreciate and find interesting much of the time, but to say that in all things limits inspire creativity and problem-solving and a creator minus limits will by necessity create new ones as he or she just keeps on going. Writers need editors, coaches need athletic directors, movie directors need producers,  everyone needs someone to keep them in check, at least a little bit.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is in fact a story which is all about limits. But that's an irony which has eluded the Kiwis in their latest epic. I wish them well on the next project. I just hope it has nothing to do with Tolkien.We've all had quite enough.

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  1. JRRR Tolkien's son, Christopher, has condemned Peter Jackson for turning his father's books into action movies - surely "The Battle of The Five Armies" is a perfect example of what he means. Dragging out The Hobbit to three 3-hour films was just ridiculous - they even invented scenes and characters not in the novel just to pad it put as much as possible. Peter Jackson needs to learn how to make shorter films - his King Kong was 3 hours long in contrast to the 1933 original which was just over an hour - and I'd rather watch the 1933 version.

    1. I think the sins are more evident in The Hobbit, which is further from its original tone. Clearly the effort was to replicate the success of the LOtR films. It was a misguided effort ultimately.

      I agree on the shorter film thing, but with modern ticket prices people anticipate more epic scope. King Kong was too long no doubt. Jackson needs to trust his audience more to pick up character details with single beats. It's amazing how often the same info will be communicated with no development. We got it move on.

      That said, I do love some of the action sequences, I just wish they didn't wear me out. Enough already.

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