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: Come closer, come right in, and I’ll tell you a tale. A tale of a youngster and his faithful companions on an epic adventure, which has been in the hearts of millions for many, many years. A tale of how a newly discovered map could prove crucial to success or failure. A tale of an attempt to recapture former glories and past treasures. There’ll be highs and lows, and familiar faces in unfamiliar situations. Yes, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed up to bring Tintin to Hollywood for the first time, and to hopefully find him a position in cinema for many years to come. It’s famously renowned that Hergé himself said that Spielberg was the best person to adapt his tales for the big screen. With Lord Of The Rings director Jackson on board as well, what could possibly go wrong?
First then, to the tale of the youngster and his companions. That youngster is Matt Smith, and his adventures in Doctor Who for the past two years were what drew original screenwriter Steven Moffat away from Spielberg and back to Blighty. But the most recent series of Who has not been without its critics, especially of the Moffat-scripted story arc episodes; many find them too dense and too complex, filled with set pieces and big moments but a little lacking in heart and soul at crucial moments, or indeed time to just stop and breathe occasionally. Tintin suffers a little from the same flaw; it’s set-piece after set-piece, exposition often delivered on the run, and the pace is so frenetic at times all you can do is cling on and hope things continue to make sense. After Moffat left, Spielberg brought in two other Brits (and why not – who knows Belgium better than, er, the British?), Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish. There’s a whole host of witty asides and in-jokes which will be picked up which feel in tune with their writing style, but it cranks along in top gear for a little too much of the running time. You can’t help but feel that the decision to attempt to condense elements of three Tintin novels into one story was maybe one too many.
What then, of the map? Yes, this particular treasure is not gold or jewels, but believable motion-capture animated characters, and according to the map they can be found on the other side of the uncanny valley. If you look at the lines on the “map” to the left, you’ll see two upward curves. Apparently, we humans feel more responsive to something the more human it looks, but there’s a gap – if you look just short of believably human then that becomes more disconcerting to the viewer and we actually find ourselves repulsed. Problems with earlier mo-cap from the likes of Robert Zemeckis suffered from dead-eyes; the eyes are right here, but it’s the faces that are wrong. Somehow, Tintin actually falls into a double uncanny valley and it’s one the film unfortunately calls attention to. Not only do the facial expressions, and also the shape of Tintin’s head, feel just slightly wrong, but an in-joke of Hergé’s original drawing makes you realise that there’s a Tintin valley at work here as well, the character looking generally right, but whenever the camera settles on him in close up, you can see it’s not quite Tintin and not quite human; doubly freaky, in fact. Consequently Tintin works better whenever the camera is set back and the characters are mid-set piece, which is where the cranked-up pacing starts to work to the films advantage, keeping the number of character close-ups down to a minimum as events progress.
There are familiar faces, although they often don’t relate to the voices in question, one of the joys of the technique. Those that work best at creating a believable character include, somewhat unsurprisingly, Andy Serkis as Captain Haddock, who practically steals the entire film, a Nicholson Joker to Jamie Bell’s somewhat bland Keaton Batman. Oddly, Daniel Craig seems more animated here than he normally does in real life, somehow finding liberation but still retaining an edge; other than that, the voices could have been pretty much anyone and you may not have noticed. In particular, the third collaboration (of sorts) between Edgar Wright and the Pegg / Frost combo suffers from Simon Pegg seemingly not settling on one particular voice for any length of time, with random levels of gruffness affecting his performance. And the former glories and past treasures? Those are being sought by Spielberg, who was the master of this type of thing for much the Seventies and Eighties, but has lost his lightness of touch in recent years and many feel he still has to atone for the last Indiana Jones film. This shares a spirit with the likes of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but where that’s pacing and storytelling perfection, this feels over-egged and over-enthusiastic, and doesn’t quite hit the same marks. Overall it’s a brave attempt, and it’s a lot of fun if you’re prepared to just sit back and cling on for the ride, but the problems mean that Tintin’s first Hollywood adventure doesn’t quite come up with the goods.
Why see it at the cinema: It is a visual feast, and you couldn’t ask for more in terms of the visual spectacle. You might actually ask for a little less, if anything.
Why see it in 3D: If this was made entirely with 3D in mind, it doesn’t show. There’s a few “wave a giant stick in the face of the audience” moments, but the editing isn’t always with 3D in mind, and the vertiginous shifts and sweeps of the opening titles could leave the odd person feeling seasick in 3D. So 2D will be fine if you fancy it.
The Score: 7/10