Monday, January 09, 2017

Revisiting "The Hobbit"

One of the things I did over the Chrismas holiday was to watch through the three Extended Editions of the "Hobbit" movies. For the most part, I hadn't bothered to watch these since shortly after purchasing them, and so memories had faded a little. My recollection of these was that in the first two cases, the Extended Editions significantly improved the films, while the third one I just didn't rate at all. But how did they hold up?

Well, "An Unexpected Journey" was considerably better than I remembered. I very much enjoyed the return to Middle Earth, and the world-building on show is good stuff. Further, the key weakness of the film that I recalled from the cinema was in the form of Radagast's chase against the Worg riders, which seemed much shorter than I remembered - maybe an effect of being in a longer film, perhaps?

However, the film does start to suffer a bit towards the end, with the Escape from Goblin Town and the subsequent battle against Azog's orcs being problematic, each for different reasons - although in both cases the scenes just went on too long.

The weakness of the Escape from Goblin Town scene lies in something that comes to plague the films more and more as they go on, which is a failure to take the material seriously. To a large extent, the success of the "Lord of the Rings" films, and indeed "Game of Thrones" is that they take the material seriously - there's a feeling that the events depicted could (mostly) have happened as described, and where something is fantasy it is generally called out as such.

But not so here - the dwarves run and jump through the tunnels with not even a nodding recognition of physics or sense, or anything like that. As I said at the time, it all feels more like them showing off the level design for "Lego Hobbit: the Video Game" than a serious take on the subject. This culminates in a long fall that absolutely should have killed our heroes - the only way they could have survived is if they were made of rubber.

In the battle against Azog's orcs, the issue is instead one of pacing. Once the orcs have the dwarves pinned and in trouble, Thorin strides forth to make his heroic stand - only to be casually over-matched by Azog. But, just as everything seems lost, in rushes Bilbo to save him! Only then, Bilbo is himself casually over-matched. But, just as everything seems lost, in rush some of the dwarves to save him! Only, then, those dwarves are casually over-matched. But, just as everything seems lost, here come the eagles to save them! It's too long, and too repetitive.

Still, "An Unexpected Journey" is by far the best of the three films, and genuinely improved with the Extended Edition.

"The Desolation of Smaug" starts well, and indeed has a significant amount that is very good about it. And, again, it is significantly improved with the Extended Edition over the theatrical one.

But DoS also suffers from the same issues as UJ, only moreso - the Barrels Out of Bond scene is laughable and the scenes with the dwarves in Erebor are worse. In both cases, these are far too long, and destroy the sense that this could in any way happen. Worse, those scenes take elements from the book and change them utterly, and not for the better. A real shame, since those scene are some of the best in the book (and, indeed, the scene between Bilbo and Smaug is quite close to the book, and is quite excellent).

However, the biggest problem with DoS lies with the elves, those being Legolas! and, particularly, Tauriel.

The big problem with Legolas! is not what he does, but rather that he utterly over-shadows the dwarves who should be the stars of this show - Legolas! got to steal the show in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, so he didn't need to do so here. (Though it also doesn't help that his insertion necessitates the addition of suitable orcish foes for him to defeat, vastly padding out the running time for little benefit.)

But Tauriel is a whole other level of trouble. The big issue here is that they felt the need to insert a prominent female character into a story that didn't really have one (and, in fairness, the lack of good female roles in cinema in general is indeed a problem). And making the captain of the guard of the wood elves female is indeed a good choice to do that.

But the problem comes when you start looking for something for that character to do, because by inserting Legolas! into the storyline they've already swallowed up all the obvious material - had he not been there, Tauriel could have been commander of the squad that captured the dwarves, she could have been the captain of Thranduil's army in the third film, and she could have led the negotiations with Bard's forces. Oh, and she could have been given Bolg to fight and, ultimately, to defeat.

But since Legolas! has already stolen the show, they needed something for Tauriel to do, and so she gets landed with the most cringe-inducing movie romance since "Attack of the Clones". Everything about that plot-line sucks.

But the suckiest element of the whole thing is what that does to the characters. Another one of the weaknesses of "The Hobbit" is that, in truth, it really has too many characters. Most of the dwarves are there just to make up the numbers. And the film team have done a reasonable job of expanding the roles, of differentiating the characters, and making it work. Kudos to them.

However, they can only do so much, and so a lot of the characters remain a bit thin. The consequence of which is that Fili is largely reduced to a "boy in a refrigerator" - for most of the second and third film, he exists almost entirely to provide motivation for Tauriel to act. And then, when he dies, the roles shift immediately, and now it is Tauriel who becomes the more-traditional (and sexist) "girl in a refrigerator" to motivate Legolas! in his heroics. Which isn't terribly good, really.

So, anyway, that's the second film - mostly good for the first couple of hours with a couple of bad scenes, and then a terrible conclusion.

And then there's "Battle of the Five Armies". Oh dear, what a mess that is.

Basically, this entire film is one long scene that goes on way too long, defies all sense or logic, thumbs its nose at even the slightest hint that it is to be taken seriously, and generally sucks. (My personal pet peeve is that it shows trained warriors breaking their allies' shield walls not once, but twice.)

The film also feels the need to shoe-horn in yet more stuff for Legolas! to do, brings the Tauriel/Fili storyline to its cringe-inducing end, and basically pads out a far-too-long battle with lots of other extraneous stuff. Oh, and the Extended Edition throws in yet more dross.

By this point it's all starting to feel like some guy telling you about his epic D&D campaign that he ran when he was a teenager... for nine hours. (And I play D&D and I like D&D, but even I don't want to endure that, not even for 20 minutes, never mind nine hours!)

As a technical achievement, I don't doubt that BotFA is impressive. As an exercise in story-telling? Not so much.

So, yeah, it turns out that my opinion of the films some year on is pretty much as it was when I first saw them. On the plus-side, having watched the prequels, I get to enjoy watching the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as a reward. Which is nice...

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