Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Random Rants: There and back again ... sort of

It’s been about a week since I finally saw “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies,” and I’ve taken some time to reflect on Peter Jackson’s adaptation before putting my final thoughts down.

(Note: If you haven't read "The Hobbit" or seen the films and don't want spoilers, it's probably best not to proceed. Then again, if you haven't read "The Hobbit," what are you doing here? Go read it. Now.)

I’ll start by stating what most regular readers of this site already know. If I had to pick a single book as my favorite of all time, it would be “The Hobbit.” So, going in, I knew there were going to be things about this adaptation that I didn’t like.

That said, I was at first thrilled to hear that Jackson was going to take on the project. I still believe that he created a masterful film adaptation of “The Lord of the Rings.” I understood the reasons for the tinkering and deviations in the story and thought most of them were well done.

My first bit of nervousness came when it was announced that the movie would be split into two parts, but I still thought it could work. The first movie ends with the escape from the wood elves, and the second movie begins with the Lonely Mountain. Then came word there would be three movies, and I was afraid that vanity had gotten the best of him.

I’ve always felt that the political wrangling that happens after Smaug’s death and the Battle of Five Armies were a bit anticlimactic in the book, and I didn’t know how it could be made into a compelling movie. My fears proved true, at least from my perspective.

The first two films, I thought were good. Actually, I quite liked “The Desolation of Smaug.” It was a three-hour movie that didn’t feel like a three-hour movie. “The Battle of Five Armies,” on the other hand, felt like about a five-hour film. I was ready for it to be over long before it was.

I grumped and groused at Jackson’s “True Blood” approach to the adaptation throughout, but I tolerated the Azog storyline, the attempts to tie it in to “The Lord of the Rings” and all of the other deviations because the first two movies were entertaining. I tried to divorce them, as much as I could, from the book that I love.

Some things I understand. It’s a different time from Tolkien’s and you need to beef up the roles of the female characters, as he did in LOTR, or even create some where there are none, as he did in “The Hobbit.” Other changes, I couldn’t dismiss so easily, such as making the story more about Thorin Oakenshield than Bilbo Baggins.

Still, I was pleased overall with the first two movies in the trilogy and hoped that my fears about the third would be unfounded. I was disappointed.

Jackson lost me about the same time that Smaug died, a few minutes into the movie. My one criticism of the book has always been that the whole narrative leads up to the confrontation with Smaug, then after he dies, it just seems to kind of wind on. That was even more evident with the movie.

I lost my suspension of disbelief a bit when Bard was able to find the weak spot in Smaug’s armor in the chaos of a dragon attack at night with no prior knowledge of where it might be. But I also understand a message from a thrush might not play well with modern audiences. After the wyrm plunged into the lake, though, the movie got murkier than its waters, in many cases turning into an excuse to see how much CGI Jackson could get on the screen, despite his recent remarks that technology was hurting the film industry.

As gorgeous as the battle scene with Smaug was, some of the CGI scenes late in the movie were completely absurd. Two, involving Legolas and Tauriel, stand out. The first is when Tauriel tumbled down the mountainside with the orc Bolg. The illogical, rag doll way she fell was painfully fake. But the worst scene in all six of Jackson’s Tolkien movies came as steps crumbled under Legolas and he managed to continue to run up them as they fell. Apparently, he can fly now. It was one of the most ridiculous CGI scenes that I’ve ever seen anywhere and makes his battle scene on the Oliphaunt in “Return of the King” look downright believable.

The real problem, though, is that there were many times when I was watching the movie, and I could not have cared less about what was happening on the screen. I felt no real connection to many of the characters or much of the action.

I thought that Jackson shortchanged Beorn in the second movie, and “Battle of the Five Armies” didn’t do anything to improve that, as Beorn drops in off the eagles for a cameo during the battle, but it’s Legolas who gets his glory.

Beorn wasn’t the only character I thought was undermined by some of Jackson’s choices. Even Thorin himself was not immune, despite being promoted to the star of the story for a large portion of the films. The Jackson-created Azog the Defiler storyline, I felt, kind of cheapened Thorin’s death. In the book, I always saw it as a noble sacrifice to make amends for the things that he did during his madness. In the movie, I felt like he died in a battle over a personal vendetta.

There were lots of little annoying things through the course of the three movies – the rams that just happened to show up when Thorin and his best warriors needed to climb a cliff to go after Azog, are a good example. I can look past those. Even Tolkien had his big deus ex machina, after all.

And let’s not even talk about the horrible disco-inspired, flashing-light sequence when Sauron revealed himself to Gandalf. I halfway expected Sauron to start dancing.

In the end, the biggest problem that the trilogy had, though, is that “The Battle of Five Armies” just wasn’t a very good movie. It felt like the vanity project it was, and instead of sending the trilogy out with a roar the way “Return of the King” did, it closed it with a whimper.

In fairness, Jackson did a lot of things right in “The Hobbit,” too. Holmes and Watson, umm, I mean Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch were the perfect choices to bring Bilbo and Smaug to life, and I really did like the whole treatment of Smaug. He was one of the most well-done CGI dragons that I’ve ever seen, and I thought Jackson really captured the essence of the character.

I just think that things got away from Jackson along the way. Bigger, louder and longer doesn’t equal better. Though I still appreciate what he did with “The Lord of the Rings,” I’m also glad that Jackson’s stay in Middle Earth is now over.

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