Review: The Hobbit Trilogy

Lengthy, bloated, frustrating.

And as for the films…

Hobbit

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With the recent release of The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy reached its conclusion. A hefty, in-depth review was planned on my part, but, like the films themselves, it was proving tiresome in both task and content long before it was complete, so I decided to break it up into a few pros and cons of the whole ordeal; three of each specifically, one of each generally, and one overall highlight/low point. I recognise the irony that it’s still long and drawn out, but I choose to waive such recognition and feed my need to get it all out. Publicly, of course.

Just to be clear, although I had of course seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy prior to viewing The Hobbit, I have not read any of Tolkien’s original works. Therefore this review is based solely on the films themselves, without any previous solid knowledge of the story, many of the characters, and the various fan-based analysis and debates that no doubt exist on various forums and stoner sofas alike…

gandalf

The Pros

Gandalf/Ian McKellen
Gandalf is probably the only character intrinsically and consistently linked with the more interesting aspects of Middle-Earth mythology projected during The Hobbit series (non-book reader here remember). By that I mean his presence usually indicates that something genuinely key to the plot will either be told or shown to us, almost always directly through him. As it’s typically something evil he has to discuss or deal with, the gripping nature of his character both thrives in, and drives scenes of murmured conversation and high intensity alike. We won’t talk about the ending. I jest, I moan about it great detail below.

Despite the well publicised behind the scenes problems McKellen experienced in green screen isolation, particularly during filming of An Unexpected Journey, the grand old man is marvellous in his reprisal of the grey wizard. It’s a performance that, unlike those of most others brought back to reprise their roles, doesn’t feel forced.

Smaug/Benedict Cumberbatch
The revelation of Smaug is a wonderful moment, with his early stalking of Bilbo amongst the vast golden caverns of Erebor one of the highlights of the series. Thankfully the CGI, woeful in parts, is up to par here, aided by Cumberbatch taking a leaf or two from the book of Andy Serkis and producing not only sterling motion-capture work, but also a memorable vocal performance – a confidence boost for fans prior to his apparently inevitable involvement in the upcoming Star Wars Whilst visually stunning and certainly intriguing to a point however, Smaug’s character and overall portrayal are overcooked, resulting in numerous downsides (see below).

Sauron
As someone who hasn’t read the books or anything into the origin story of Middle-Earth, Sauron is just fantastic mythology. All seeing, but faceless evil, the concept of him is terrifying. Despite the fact that he can’t seem to put together a strategy capable of achieving his evil goals to (quite literally) save his life, his lingering presence as a threat of corruption, and of corruption itself, match the might of his physical presence throughout. His resurrection during The Desolation of Smaug gave me my one and only Lord of the Rings-related shiver-down-the-spine fanboy moment: a glimpse of that As for the man behind him, the aforementioned praise Cumberbatch received for Smaug can only be echoed here.

sauron

Other General Pros
There aren’t many, granted, but a few spring to mind. Richard Armitage, Ken Stott and Peter Hambleton stand out in their respective dwarf roles; Thorin, Balin and Glóin. Armitage in particular has great presence, enticing both support and loathing throughout. Thorin grates as the story progresses, but it’s as designed rather than a flaw, so you still find yourself willing him to pull it together, in spite of his increasing susceptibility to being a bit of a moaning bastard at times. Peter Jackson, for all the problems with The Hobbit, does deserve credit here. Like with McKellen, he was able to get great performances from the key actors, namely Armitage, Cumberbatch and, to an extent (see below), Martin Freeman.

The Highlight

The Original Trailer
Yep, seriously. Depressing I know, but there you are. If you can’t remember it, watch it back. I’m a fair-weather LOTR fan at best, but three years ago this got me going a little, as a good trailer does. It’s difficult to class it as another genuine fanboy moment per se, but it certainly comes close. The limited dialogue, next to nothing being revealed plot-wise, the dwarves sombre song, the spine-tingling exchange between Bilbo and Gandalf (“You will promise that I will come back?”/“No. And if you do, you will not be the same”) as the ring pans into view, and finally the shadowy utterings of Gollum. Sadly however, despite the trailer’s epic nature, overall it’s also an ode to the fact that The Hobbit is a far weaker story than LOTR – a story that, film-wise, at this point in time, should really have remained an intriguing, mythical concept, rather than a mediocre reality.

The Cons

The Story
The main problem with The Hobbit trilogy is that, to be honest, it’s pretty dull. Now, again, I haven’t read a single volume of either tale, so I’m basing this solely on the films, but LOTR at least had drive. The Fellowship of the Ring divides opinion, with some saying nothing happens and others claiming it to be the best of the series. I personally prefer The Two Towers but I’m firmly on the side of the Fellowship Despite the pacing it’s a demonstration of magnificent build up, conceptual intrigue, stunning cinematography and great direction. An Unexpected Journey contains these features only in drips and drabs (as stated, the trailer is the highlight). Things pick up a little in Smaug but, ironically, it peaks and quickly goes to pot once they encounter the beast himself (see below). The length of the first two films is also seriously questionable. Whilst, in my opinion, Fellowship and Two Towers justify their length, AUJ and Smaug do not. I know they’re ‘epics’ etc, but so much of it could have been cut out. The encounter with Gollum is a perfect example. Yes, it’s Gollum, yes it shows how Bilbo acquires the ring, but it could easily have been trimmed slightly. The main problem is that we learn the character of Gollum inside out in LOTR, to the extent that nothing of note is added here. The company’s trek through the evil forest in Smaug is another affair of little consequence. The whole trippy/spider segment could have been avoided. Just have Legolas capture them and move on. I mean the barrel chase was tensionless and stupid, but at least it was mildly entertaining and rather amusing.

Essentially, it should have been two films, as originally planned. LOTR has an identical quest theme going on, but there’s a defined goal to destroy evil, with said evil hunting the good guys from the very beginning. And the evil their trying to destroy is really fucking evil, like the evilest thing ever. Scary stuff, and rightly so. People die along the way, the Fellowship is frequently separated, and Frodo and Sam are regularly in real danger. In the back of your mind you know they’ll succeed, but the nature of the story and the quality of the films keeps such thoughts back there, with the excitement and tension up front. When you compare the basic plots of the two trilogies, The Hobbit consists of an exiled band of rebels trying to get somewhere and gain entrance to it. The challenges they encounter along the way come across as minor annoyances compared to those in LOTR, and the general insignificance of their overall quest, considering how easily Smaug is defeated, is made all the more frustrating by the fact that you know throughout the first 1.5 films that they’re going to reach Erebor and gain entry regardless. There’s zero danger of this not happening, and it was at the forefront of my mind constantly. If it had to be made, The Hobbit should have had its strengths played too, with the narrow plot kept at a decent pace in order to keep the audience engaged. This is where Jackson and his fellow writers really shot themselves in the foot.

The CGI
Little explanation is required here. Just look at it. In fact, watch the original LOTR trilogy, specifically Two Towers. Look at the Urak-hai. Then look at the Orcs in The Hobbit.  It can never be overstated how specifically crafted use of CGI, rendered against real locations and sets with real people, STILL looks so much better than the vast majority of full CGI characters used in film today. Just make it like that and put the required man-hours in. Alternatively, write scenes that can be shot using more realistic or efficient effects. Audiences today are so used to computer-generated special effects that anything lazy or sloppy produced instantly takes most people out of the picture. It’s not all bad news sure, Smaug looks great, as do Sauron and some of the battle moments, but on the whole the films pale in comparison to their older cousins. Some of the cinematography is of course excellent, but it’s let down in this department. When you think about it, it’s hard to believe that Jackson sat watching the finished cut and wasn’t thinking at times, “Hmm, this looks a bit shit actually”.

Smaug
More Samug talk. As noted, I’m a big fan, but only to a certain extent, as the character unfortunately becomes tiresome soon after his magnificent entrance, despite Cumberbatch’s best efforts. His arrogant, but also apparently rather dim nature causes confusion, and the manner of his demise is irritating. Now he’s obviously pretty legendary in Middle-Earth, as we’re informed that everyone was aware of him before he originally arrived at Erebor, which implies he’s been around a pretty long time and probably stolen and slept in piles of gold before. But apparently no-one’s been able to outwit or kill him yet, despite the fact a few dwarves and a hobbit give him a serious run for his money, before he’s shot down just a few minutes later by an arrow strung on a makeshift bow aimed via a quivering child’s shoulder. For the most feared living thing in the entire realm of Middle-Earth, it’s all a bit easy in the end. Why didn’t they just make some more black arrows? There’re not many of them apparently, but we’re not told why. It’s similar to the end of Return of the King, when the ghost army conveniently shows up and saves the day all too easily when one side is getting completely annihilated. You can argue that it’s the ‘destiny’ of a certain character etc, but in reality it dissolves all the tension and makes you wonder what all the fuss was about.

A small side issue, and I may be alone in this view, but one particular bear bug was the implication early in the film, during the spider hunt, that the ring, as well as making Bilbo invisible, allows him to decipher the communication of beasts, as we hear the spiders chattering away whilst he’s wearing it. Cool, nice concept. So then he’s in the caverns of Erebor, you know, trying to avoid waking up the deadliest living force in Middle-Earth. After ten minutes of everyone in the cinema mentally suggesting “PUT THE FUCKING RING ON”, he does so. Now Smaug’s awake by this point and begins to speak, something I wasn’t expecting. It appeared to be an awesome extension of the ring’s power, with Smaug speaking dragon or whatever but Bilbo being able to interpret it in a language he can understand. Then he takes the ring of, but Smaug continues chattering away in the Common Tongue. Now obviously his ability to speak at all, let alone the same language, is hardly the fault of the filmmakers, but the irritation lies in the way the ring was used earlier, which tricked me into believing the same power was in use during Smaug’s entrance. Rather pedantic I know, and like I said, I’m probably alone, but it irked me.

I’ll stop now. Basically, the concept of Smaug is awesome, the reality of Smaug due to prolonged exposure is not (a demonstration of why Sauron is such a great villain).

smaug

Other General Cons
I’ve barely mentioned the title character so a quick word is warranted. Simply put, Bilbo comes across as a bit of prick at times and it’s therefore difficult to root for him. Not really Freeman’s fault of course as he actually does a pretty good job. This is what I don’t really understand; is Bilbo supposed to come across as fairly unlikeable in places? Because it happens quite a lot. Yes he holds the ring, not exactly a giver of goodwill, and yes he has to do questionable things at times (whilst of course pulling off plenty of brave, noble acts also) for, what he believes, is the greater good. He is a ‘burglar’ after all. But this is a fantasy tale, and if you get too ensemble-like in the fantasy genre, allowing one of your main (and in this case, title) characters to drift into darker territory, you have to make sure balance is maintained or you lose focus too easily, resulting in a restless experience in which you risk the emotional attachment being severed. LOTR maintains this balance well. In fact, it’s one of its greatest strengths. The Hobbit does not; as at times everyone appears either incompetent or an arsehole. Apart from Legolas, who’s just invincible and therefore deathly dull.

Speaking of which, another major downer is the ridiculous manner in which every single character previously seen is LOTR is introduced. It’s all sweeping close-ups, epic scoring and a flash of light. Yes we get it; you were able to convince the same actors to come back, hurrah. These are prequels, act like it. The Phantom Menace might be one of the worst films ever made, but one thing Lucas actually did well was to not so blatantly throw already famous characters in our faces when introducing. Obviously they were all a lot younger and therefore required different actors, but still, the intros, for the most part, are subtle, including Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Yoda (although the droids still draw a cringe).

Finally, and this is a small point, please stop typecasting Stephen Fry in Hollywood productions. He can play slightly different roles you know. Don’t just shove him in there because of his voice and token, quirky British fame. He’s a great chap for sure, and turns in one of the greatest television comedy performances of all time in Blackadder Goes Forth, but the majority of his big-budget appearances always seem so forced. He’s a good actor certainly, but not as good as people make out. It annoys me that I’m even discussing him in this way because I have a lot of time for him. Perhaps, however, because I’m British and therefore exposed to him a great deal on television, or more likely because he’s essentially typecast and can sometimes look rather awkward in this sort of production, it’s always just a case of, “Oh, look, it’s Stephen Fry”, and I’m out of the film. This was the case here. An actor shouldn’t have that effect, and simple, overlooked miscasting shouldn’t happen at this level. As with the CGI however, it’s amazing how often it does. Like I said, minor point in the big picture, but when the minor points start to stack up, they all count.

The Low Point

The Battle of the Five Armies
The whole film. It’s just awful really, with few redeeming qualities. The ‘Story’ section above was long enough already, so I reserved discussion of this disaster for my own finale. Whilst ROTK was the weakest of the LOTR trilogy, Five Armies is at least merciful in terms of length (and even then it’s still way too long), but that’s hardly surprising considering it consists of nothing but a dire battle and Christopher Lee really obviously tying up his later involvement with Sauron in a nice, tidy bow. Helms Deep was a truly epic battle, but here the Orc army, which is fully prepared and has timed everything perfectly, is defeated by a foe constantly seemingly to be making its last stand. According to history, such a scenario should either result in a quick, crushing victory for the Orcs, or a long-ish drawn out battle (certainly longer than a few minutes), not a swift, conclusive defeat of the superior army. Gandalf’s pet birds love getting involved just at the right time, but were they seriously all it took to completely wipe out the entire second wave of Orcs, you know, the second wave that is their whole key to victory and that the armies holding Erebor only find out about at the last moment? As I’ve said throughout this review, I have no idea how the battle plays out in the book, but the manner in which it’s portrayed in the film is just fucking stupid.

To boot, all the aforementioned factors come into play during the finale; lack of excitement, over the top references to LOTR, crap CGI, it’s all here. Although we’re spared the three or so separate endings of ROTK, the ending here is still ruined by the final kick in the teeth that is the continued inconsistent use of the ring as a plot device. As they depart, Gandalf reveals that he is aware Bilbo discovered the ring, that he has used it, and that he likely still has it in his possession. At the beginning of Fellowship Gandalf nearly shits himself when he learns that the ring belonged to Sauron, which of course starts the whole quest eventually resulting in its destruction. Erm, do you want to check out that ring there, Gandalf mate? You know, take a quick peak at the instrument famously linked in nature to the most of evil thing of all time, which, coincidentally, HAS JUST WOKEN UP and had you in a cage a few days ago. It’s revealed earlier in the trilogy that Gandalf can read Black Speech, so he would probably recognise the ring’s inscription. Instead, knowing it’s potential evil and power to corrupt, he lets Bilbo walk off with it. Maybe he thinks it’ll be safe with someone as apparently incorruptible as Bilbo, or that maybe it’s not the One Ring, but just double check first, yeah? This is all completely out of character for Gandalf. If it was in the book, it should have been left out. If it wasn’t in the book and was written in, then it pretty much sums up the whole production; that of a confusing mess.

Final Thought

I’ll make this quick, as I’ve put university professors through less pain than I have here. My final thought is that, whilst I remain sceptical about whether the films should have been made at all, hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. I believe that, having viewed them; they were not a completely lost cause, but that, if they had to be made, the filmmakers simply needed to be both more creative and, more importantly, ruthless. Firstly, there should have been two films instead of three. Despite not having actually read the source material, this remains painfully evident, and it’s clear everyone involved felt the same way until the last minute. Finally, on a similar note, having been tagged to direct and continuing to play a major part in the writing after dropping out, it would have been very interesting to see how the project would have turned out had Guillermo Del Toro been in the chair. Jackson did a marvellous job on LOTR, and has his moments here, no question about it. Nevertheless, a fresh creative take from someone experienced in, and equally as dedicated to the story and the genre, could well saved the trilogy. Instead Del Toro made Mama, which was shit, so I could just as easily be wrong, but we’ll never know.

Jackson, del toro

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