Monday, 23 December 2013

by Chua Zi, Class of 2014, Form 4 Science 1

Having seen both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug several times — before I’d read the book and after — this is clearly Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, not Tolkien’s.

In its entirety, The Hobbit, unlike its sequel, was merely a serial that Professor J.R.R. Tolkien initially wrote to read to his three sons. After being persuaded by his colleagues at Oxford and a publishing company, he eventually completed it. 

It’s about a well-to-do hobbit - little people about half our height - named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who, thanks to a wizard named Gandalf (Ian McKellen), finds thirteen dwarves at his doorstep one day. He then accompanies them on a long adventure to recover the treasures of the dwarves’ ancestors. Along the way they encounter trolls, a dragon, orcs, elves, men, all the while singing rhymes and riddling their way out of trouble.

You don't need to read the Lord of The Rings trilogy to love Jackson’s movie adaptations enough to feel quite excited to see more. So from the first film of The Hobbit, it’s obvious why Jackson would try to adapt Tolkien’s classic children’s book into an epic on the scale of LoTR.

But from the second, not only was it nowhere close, but it seemed like he was aiming to imitate or top his past work and was failing at it. Jackson’s attempted adventure epic is a lot more ‘grown-up’ and tried to be a much darker tale than it actually is. It tried.

Naturally, the films should lack the structure they would have if the book was only split into two parts but really, it can easily be read as three. And considering the high production values demanded by this franchise — shooting in 3D, at 48 frames per second, the sweeping CGI landscapes, and keeping track of 13 dwarves — it's a wise decision. Even so, the tedious length of each film is uncalled for and due, in part, to the unnecessary additional material which are especially prevalent in this one.

We've reached a faster-paced part of the story where Bilbo and company are approaching the Lonely Mountain to face the dragon, Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), that guards it. 

Radagast is still being driven by bunnies, and Bard the Bowman is now a lowly bargeman, giving leeway to write new scenes only to reach the same conclusion 10 minutes later. Just as Thorin Oakenshield’s ‘death’ was written as a new denouement for the first film, a time-stalling action plan was written for the dwarves to carry out in hopes of defeating Smaug in the second one, only for him to emerge unscathed in the end anyway.

Orlando Bloom was also brought back to set as the silver-haired Wood-elf Legolas, only to be stuck in long choreographies of fight scenes. At first sight, I think back to the innate elven grace of the Legolas of LoTR, then the fighting starts to get a little tired. Scenes are written so he can swoop in and perform a dance of decapitating orcs except it’s less like So You Think You Can Dance and more like Dance Moms.

The lack of female characters always seems to be an issue whenever Tolkien’s works are being discussed. Although I don’t see the need for a main female character in The Hobbit, Jackson’s decision to write in the Wood-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who is almost as cool as Legolas, is a welcome change.

Alas, even the Middle Earth franchise couldn’t escape from the parasitic plot device that claimed the first Hunger Games movie: a love triangle. One of the reasons why the film fell short, even before I had read the book, is that it is cliched. Likely a half hour of footage was added to entertain the love triangle between Legolas, Tauriel and the young dwarf Kili. Due diligence was put into writing a string of scenes to develop her relationship with the dwarf, which seems all too reminiscent of a fanfic headcanon. The lesson here is: trying to appeal to wider audiences does not justify lazy writing.

Peter Jackson does still have a love and awareness of Tolkien. In the films, he expands on what is going on in the background of our little adventure story, in the wider Middle Earth, drawing from Tolkien’s other works about this fantasy world’s history.

Yet, the real strength of the films lies in the small interactions. These are the scenes where you catch a glimpse of the relationships between the characters or the different races. The emphasis on a more ignorant Master of Lake-Town (Stephen Fry) showed the unbalanced relationship between the ruler of men and the men themselves like Bard. That provided a relatable view in a world as far-removed from our own as Middle Earth. It was also interesting to see how coldly Thorin (Richard Armitage), the king of dwarves was treated by Thranduil (Lee Pace), the Elvenking, reflecting the Wood-elves’ aversion to interfering in foreign affairs.

If there’s one thing these films did right, it is casting Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins because he brings the warmth and lightheartedness that is what these films should embody. It is the iconic scenes like the riddles in the dark between Bilbo and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in the previous film, and the banter between Smaug and Bilbo in the echoing halls of Erebor in this one that are memorable. Sadly, in losing track of the spirit of the story, the film constantly loses track of the main character in a bout of fight scenes and backstory.

I still would take a hobbit film over another blockbuster almost every time. As Laura Hudson of WIRED admits,“Sometimes when you really love something, all you want is more, even if it’s less.”

Despite being riddled by a banal love story and blatantly overdone fight scenes, the film is decent if your attention span can take it. I’m sure the cast and crew of The Hobbit are big fans of Tolkien or are just having a lot of fun making these movies. Middle Earth still looks breathtaking through Jackson’s lenses, even being as CGI-ridden as ever. Smaug really does live up to his name as the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities.

However, while there is an inherent humour in the characters and especially the dwarves written by Tolkien, Jackson misses it and forces it. That is what these films are — forced. It is a shame that Middle Earth missed its chance to showcase the charm that endeared people like me to the world those many years ago.

Rating: 3.7/5
by Anonymous 22:44 23 comments | in , , ,


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