The Pitch: Middle Earth, Episode 3: The Madness Of King Dwarf
The Review: Can you remember what you were doing in 2001? That’s more than half my adult life ago – and a decent chunk of anyone’s, frankly – but that’s how long it’s taken us to get there and back again, in a very roundabout sense. For all the judgements on the wisdom of Peter Jackson returning to the scene of his greatest triumph and whether or not it was right to magnify a single, slim children’s book into the same three volume epic as the Lord Of The Rings films, this thirteen year cinematic journey is at an end, and we can now make a judgement on Jackson’s achievements as a complete entity. Trying to take this last chapter in isolation is tricky, not least because the lack of real story structure makes this feel less like a complete film and more a vastly extended episode of a lavish TV series. In its favour, this film does clock in at fifteen minutes less than the previous shortest film in the Middle Earth series, but it’s given over almost entirely to the titular battle.
This Hobbit has taken a leaf from the book of another famous trilogy capper, Return Of The Jedi, when considering story construction. We open the film with a succession of resolutions to the cliffhangers set up at the end of The Desolation Of Smaug, which having been fairly neatly wrapped up see a brief amount of exposition with the series’ more senior figures before the film simply becomes a gigantic battle. However, where the Star Wars films have always clearly delineated the separate plot strands at work in their climaxes, here we end up skipping from character to character and the film suffers slightly as a result. The wrap up of the second film’s dangling threads is dealt with quickly enough that it forms this film’s prologue and were it not for the fact that Jackson and his co-writers’ script plays out events described in the book in a more strict chronological order (mainly seeing what Gandalf and crew’s been up to as it happens, rather than in the flashback of the last chapter of the book) this film would be pretty much all battle.
Sadly, what this film most evokes is another element of a Star Wars trilogy film, but here it’s the over-reliance on CGI from Revenge Of The Sith that breaks the illusion somewhat. It’s unfortunate in a way that the battle lines in the film are drawn with the characters spread out across a valley, as that proves an apt metaphor for the uncanny valley in which much of the CGI exists. In the earlier films computer graphics were an embellishment but they have now become a staple, and too often characters move with the distracting jerkiness that gives the game away; or, the case of CGI Billy Connolly as a dwarf leader riding a pig, they have a dead eyed coldness that makes you wonder if The Polar Express ever happened. In the attempts to trump previous battle scenes and provide more excitement in this climactic chapter, basic physics take an increasing pounding; characters are tossed about like rag dolls or fall hundreds of feet without injury, and one scene on a collapsing tower is near farcical as the tower itself collapses like hot butter, but still somehow retains the structural integrity to remain wedged hundreds of feet above a chasm. Much of the battle itself is engaging if you set aside these flaws, but it never scales the heights of Pelennor Fields or other previous engagements in the series. The script stays true to the usual Tolkein developments, such as the return of one of literature’s greatest winged deus ex machinas, but does occasionally feel like it’s overworking some of the additional material added (necessitated in part by the fact that Bilbo is unconscious for the final stretch of the battle in the book which would feel like a cheat on film).
The other trilogy capper I found being regrettably invoked was the last chapter in the Matrix series, Revolutions. The problem there was the sidelining or casual disposal of most of the characters you actually cared about, only for them to be replaced by new, less interesting characters. Due to the nature of the chapters being adapted, Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and the dwarves – at least six of whom I still couldn’t identify by name if my life depended on it – are offscreen for long stretches, while more minor characters such as the snivelly Alfrid (Ryan Gage) crop up seemingly every five minutes. It also doesn’t help that those characters brought to the fore are the less interesting actors, as if you were watching a Vulcan spin-off from a Star Trek movie (all ponderousness and anti-emoting) and it’s only in the last twenty minutes or so that any actual emotional engagement kicks in. I’m sure there’s a good film in among the three Hobbit films that we’ve been presented with that a good editor could find, but it’s certainly one wildly variant in tone from its original source. That’s no matter, but with much of Jackson and team’s personal additions feeling redundant and the bloated length becoming more wearing than productive, I suspect that history may not regard the Hobbit trilogy with quite the same affection as its bigger brother. Let’s all just hope that Peter Jackson now gets back to his life outside Middle Earth, rather than thumbing the pages of the Silmarillion looking for inspiration.
Why see it at the cinema: Your last chance for a while to see the magnificent New Zealand countryside covered in CGI madness, and the scope here is as epic as it’s been at any point in the series. As with the previous films, seeing this in a cinema with a decent sound system will also help to immerse you in the plot enormously.
Why see it in 3D: It’s not essential, but the 3D avoids being a distraction without adding too much either. 3D highlights were the increased sense of depth as the dwarves watch Smaug attack in the distance, and a final battle between two of the leading protagonists which sees the occasional object poking out of the screen at you.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence, frequent threat. If you don’t like hours and hours of often CGI fighting, then this one’s not for you.
My cinema experience: Bit of a bad back, so I was very glad of the large, spacious seats in screen 9 at Cambridge Cineworld. As I was settling in for the long haul, I treated myself to a hot dog and an ice cream. Being a midweek day, even in the first week, the cinema was somewhat empty and it’s a slightly damning comment on the film itself that the biggest laugh I heard all evening was for the Kevin Bacon EE advert that plays in the gold spot after the trailers. I may have been doing some of Kev’s “buffer face” myself at points in the middle third of this film.
The Score: 6/10
The Pitch: Middle Earth Episode II: Not Yet There, And Back Again Next Year.
The Review: Last year, audiences around the world were treated to the first of a new trilogy of Middle Earth films after a nine year break. Showered with awards, the originals are generally held up as pinnacles of modern film, but An Unexpected Journey arrived last year to a noticeable measure less of acclaim. There were problems, some with the 48 FPS experiment but not least because a film just shy of three hours had been spun slowly and painfully out of five chapters of what was ostensibly a children’s book. While the look and feel of Middle Earth was as magical as ever, nothing felt hugely fresh and the roster of returning characters from the original trilogy – seven in total – and the return to original trilogy settings such as Rivendell, coupled with the relative lack of forward momentum from the plot, made watching significant stretches of part one feel close to a chore, an accusation that could never be levelled at the originals (despite being shorter than any of them). The Riddles In The Dark climax gave the trilogy a sense of propulsion, but the question remained as to whether Peter Jackson could recapture any of that old magic.
So last time we left them, Magneto and John Watson once again set off with Guy Of Gisbourne, Rebus, the one I always confuse with John Hannah, the bald one, the fat one, the young fit one and his brother, the one inexplicably still wandering around withwith an axe in his head and probably about five others that I defy any rational person to distinguish from one another unless their name is an anagram of Jeter Packson had just escaped from the caves with Gollum in and had a ride on some convenient eagles. (I think. It’s been a year, leave me alone.) Where the first instalment creaked along, The Hobbit Part II fairly rattles along at breakneck pace from the start and never lets up. Gandalf decides to disappear off and do his own thing once again, leaving the vertically challenged remainder to tangle with elves, men and a giant, fire breathing dragon.
Where the previous episode felt almost apologetic in its reliance on familiar elements, The Desolation Of Smaug strikes more of a balance. Many of the franchise faces seen last time don’t recur, and the only new / old character to come back is Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, coming across more than ever like a cross between a Vulcan and a ninja. He’s pitched up against Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel in a slightly daft love triangle involving them and the young fit dwarf (Kili, Aidan Turner) and it’s just one of the plot developments that highlights how much this chapter has veered away from Tolkien’s narrative; you could almost refer to this as “inspired by” rather than “based upon”. I’ve no issue with that if it’s providing solid storytelling, and thankfully interspecies crushes are a minor distraction. Desolation is a chance to explore further facets of Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth and the likes of Lake-Town, and the men Bard (Luke Evans) and the master (Stephen Fry) and while the continued pursuit of Azog (Manu Bennett) drives them forward, what the group are encountering is eminently more interesting than the first part of their quest on almost every level, from character to action.
There are minor gripes: Weta’s CGI seems to be going backwards rather than forwards and in particular anything around water has taken a trip through the uncanny valley and is now standing on the other side, hanging its head in shame. Although Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is necessarily sidelined by his excursion to see what lurks in Dol Guldur, there are points in the second act when it also feels as if Bilbo has been forgotten in his own story, and it’s never as clear as it was in Lord Of The Rings exactly who we should be rooting for. There’s also no getting away from the oddness of the title, especially when the only real appearance of the Desolation is the dwarves waving at it from a distance as they wander past. (It almost feels a bit, “Let’s not go to the Desolation. It is a silly place.”) Finally, while there aren’t the painful longueurs of its predecessor, Desolation did make me look at my watch once, oddly in the Smaug section which feels about five minutes too long. But that shouldn’t detract from the genuine magnificence of the beast, ominously voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, or indeed the success of both that sequence and some earlier action sequences such as the barrel ride down river. Jackson continues to take the slender Hobbit tome and recast it in the image of his masterpiece, but that’s more successful second time out, even with a slightly portentous tone that has only flecks of humour. Despite its flaws The Desolation Of Smaug is a much more entertaining ride and while still not quite at the level of the Rings films, come the cliff-hanger ending you’re more likely to be relishing the third part than you would have been three hours earlier.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’ve seen the previous four Tolkien adaptations, you’ll know what to expect, and this is no less epic. Particularly impressive is Lake Town, but the big screen is also the only way to really appreciate the true magnificence of Smaug.
Why see it in 3D: More positives than negatives, in 24 FPS (the way I chose to see it) there’s not a huge brightness issue, even in the murkiness of Mirkwood. Jackson’s good at depth of field and throws in a couple of cheeky in-your-face moments, but still hasn’t quite learned that quick cuts in action editing don’t work in 3D as your eyes don’t have enough time to focus.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. Again, fans of the trilogy won’t have any nasty surprises here, although arachnophobes who struggled with The Return Of The King might be advised to take a valium before heading out. (Thankfully I lived in Leicester when I saw The Return Of The King at the Odeon there; hopefully the several families who brought very young children will not have been replaced by a new generation there, or indeed anywhere else.)
My cinema experience: A work trip to Exeter saw me taking in the comforts of the Exeter Picturehouse. A beautiful bar in a lovely location complements the venue, and the spacious screen 1 is well set up with a bank of sofas at the back and well spaced rows of seating. I was nervous about booking a seat in the middle of a row, done to minimise ghosting and other odd effects on the 3D, but the ample legroom – even for someone 6′ 3″ like myself – was very welcome and the reclining seats still had plenty of give. The projection and sound were also up to the normal standard I’d expect from the Picturehouse chain. An Apple Tango at just over £2 with my members’ discount helped to keep me hydrated through the lengthy running time, and I look forward to my next work trip there to sample the other screens. Random thanks also to the person who helped me look for my car key after the screening, which it transpires I’d left at the hotel. (Sorry.)
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Pirates must have the best PR people in the world, based on their current profile and perception. Never mind general thievery and seafaring atrocities on a scale that’s probably only outdone by the Vikings, from International Talk Like A Pirate Day to the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow these days it’s cool to roam the high seas with a parrot and a heavy West Country accent. The Pirates! and their obligatory exclamation mark are only likely to make that worse, given that the Captain is the world’s most famous stuttering Englishman, his first mate is Tim off The Office and they’ve been brought to us by the same firm that brought us Wallace, Gromit and Arthur Christmas.
Yes, The Pirates! is the latest from the wizards of Plasticine from Bristol, and like their most famous man and dog creations both the Pirates! and Scientists! of the title are carved from the same clay and they share the same very British sensibility that has characterised every big screen adventure that Aardman has embarked on to date. (Sorry, I’ll stop with the exclamation marks now.) While their philosophy has always been that it’s better to see the thumbprints, the better to appreciate the quality of the craft, it’s never stifled their ambition and Pirates is rich in quality from the tiny background details to the beautifully realised characters. Aardman have also managed to apply their distinctive style to the story while allowing the material to retain a feeling of freshness.
There’s also wall to wall quality in the voice department, with the biggest surprise being Hugh Grant. Casting aside his trademark foppishness and instead channeling a gruff yet playful tone, almost like a younger, more coherent Brian Blessed (who also pops up as the Pirate King), Grant is a thoroughly cheerful presence who keeps the story rolling on his bountiful charisma, and he’s ably supported by his pirate crew, including standout Russell Tovey. The other star of the extensive cast, which ranges from Jeremy Piven to Lenny Henry, is David Tennant as the fraught and slightly scheming Charles Darwin. As with Darwin, the real world characters (such as Imelda Staunton’s Queen Victoria) are not particularly faithful but are all the more fun for it.
However, fun is actually where The Pirates! is sadly a little lacking. While it’s all entertaining enough and will happily while away an hour and a half with the rest of the family, the humour and the peril are both just a shade underdone and there won’t be the repeat value of the likes of Wallace and Gromit or even Chicken Run. There’s a couple of decent set pieces and some moderate chuckles, but the only thing that truly soars is a whale which crashes a pirate get-together early on. It’s so frustrating when we’ve seen what Aardman can do when on top of it’s game, and like Pixar the disappointment is even more acute when the treats on offer aren’t as fulfilling, knowing how high their bar is normally set. Since writer of the original stories Gideon Defoe provides the screenplay and Aardman stalwart Peter Lord direct proceedings, it’s maybe a surprise that it’s all a bit flat in places, but despite the consistently gorgeous animation the occasional pacing issues and the lack of a steady supply of truly great gags mean that you’ll probably enjoy plundering Pirates once, but the treasures here are in somewhat limited supply.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s amazing how much the lumps of clay can be moulded into epic vistas, albeit with a little CG augmentation, but as well as the fantastic visuals, allowing you to see every fingerprint, there’s just enough laughs to make it worth seeing with a big audience.
Why see it in 3D: While animation still seems to hold an advantage over live action in terms of clarity of image in 3D, there’s nothing here that stands out (if you’ll pardon the pun) in terms of a compelling reason to see this in 3D. 2D absolutely fine this time.
The Score: 7/10