Hooked to the silver screen – back to Middle Earth

Having spent many years of late hardly visiting the cinema at all,  I have recently gone through a positive orgy of movie-watching.  Some might conclude from this that I have rediscovered my movie mojo and have finally tired of watching stuff on DVD or via scabby internet downloads.

However, there is another more plausible explanation and that involves the enduring appeal of a number of movie ‘franchises’, all of which – spookily –  seem to have invaded local multiplexes just in time for Christmas.   Who would have thunk it?   And, like a moth drawn to a flame, I have ventured out into the city to catch up with the latest exploits of two very different heroes – one standing about 3 foot 6 inches tall, with curly hair and furry feet, the other a gaunt and haunted relic of a United Kingdom that has long since disappeared.  I have also managed to catch up with ‘The Guardian’s  Movie of the Year, but that’s another story…..

Let’s start with hobbits.  Peter Jackson’s ongoing exploits with characters made famous by the late J.R.R. Tolkien have now brought him to ‘The Hobbit’, the slight and whimsical children’s tale that serves as a precursor to the more adult concerns of the ensuing ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Many people wondered how Jackson would cope with  ‘The Hobbit’, a slim volume detailing the adventures of Bilbo Baggins in earlier, simpler days  when ‘quests’ were just ‘adventures’ and a magic ring was nothing more than a device for concealing oneself from prying eyes.

The answer is that he has seemingly re-invented it as another movie trilogy, the first part of which – ‘An Unexpected Journey’ – has just opened in cinemas worldwide.  The second part – ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ – will follow next December and the final part – ‘There and back again’  – in the summer of 2014.

‘An Unexpected Journey’ has been released in 3D; a flavour whose month seems to have been going on for a couple of years now.  Having begun with ‘Avatar’, my enthusiasm for 3D has decreased exponentially. To be quite candid, I have yet to see a movie that is seriously enhanced by its use.  IMAX screens are a different kettle of widescreen fish, however and having recently seen and been duly gobsmacked by  ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ at my local IMAX,  I was quick to book the entire household in to see ‘An Unexpected Journey’  at the same venue.  Some types of movie are definitely improved by being viewed on these giant screens and Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies certainly fit that bill.

Bilbo & Gandalf

Bilbo and Gandalf  at Bag End

But that wasn’t the full story by any means;  the cunning local  IMAX entrepreneurs hit on a pre – ‘Hobbit’   stratagem that probably qualifies everyone in this house for some kind of psychiatric evaluation.  They emailed me to say that they were screening all 3 of Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies on their big screen and in their extended versions in the week prior to the arrival of ‘An Unexpected Journey’.  We were like putty in their hands and booked ourselves in immediately for a ‘Hobbit-athon’ of truly epic proportions.  Thus, on successive nights we spent 3.5 hours,  then 4 hours and finally 4.5 hours journeying to and from The Shire in company with the Fellowship.  A kind of fellowship emerged in the theatre as well; we would see the same couple of dozen faces each night and there would be vague, amused nods of semi-recognition – the acknowledgement of one obsessive for another.  Of course, the movies in their elongated versions looked magnificent on the giant screen and we were well & truly primed for Saturday night and the main event.

So, let me say first of all that I really enjoyed ‘ An Unexpected Journey’, though not without certain caveats.  First and foremost, it should be said that 3D is totally unnecessary for this film.  I could have watched it in standard format and been just as happy.  The film has many positives; Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis and Hugo Weaving all return to great effect – in fact the scenes with Serkis’ Gollum and Martin Freeman’s Bilbo are probably the strongest in the entire film.  The film, like its predecessors, is beautifully dressed and the photography again makes the best of the New Zealand locations.

Gollum

Andy Serkis returns as Gollum – as bipolar as ever….

Of the new elements, Martin Freeman makes a splendid ‘young’ Bilbo Baggins, through whose eyes we experience these new Middle Earth adventures.   However, Peter Jackson and his writers struggle – as anybody would – to familiarise us with no less than 13 dwarves, whose effect for much of the film’s length is purely comedic in nature. Richard Armitage’s Thorin would probably be the exception here – he cuts a most undwarvish figure for most of the movie.  Otherwise, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner stand out from the crowd, but the others, frankly. seem to be there only to make up the numbers.

Apart from the orcs of the ‘Goblin City’, the travelling party have a new and powerful enemy in Azog the Orc, who is big and evil but more like a character from ‘Shrek’ when compared to the Uruk-Hai.  Sorry, just nowhere near as scary as Saruman’s Uruks.

Azog

Azog the Orc attacks – but he’s no Uruk-Hai….

The source material for ‘An Unexpected Journey’  does offer some real dilemmas – the encounter with the 3 trolls would be typical – where the tone  fluctuates between the whimsical comedy of the original text and the far more serious ‘back story’ of  Sauron and the  truly evil elements of Middle Earth.  Jackson’s three trolls are like giant caricatures of the Warwickshire farm labourers Tolkien would probably have encountered as a child whilst living at Sarehole Mill, to the extent that they rejoice in names like Tom,  Bert and Bill.   Having ‘petrified’  the trolls with sunlight, Gandalf then confides that something evil must be happening to drive trolls down from the mountains.  Similarly, the Goblin King, as voiced by Barry Humphries, is somehow a far less threatening character than the Moria orcs or Uruk-Hai of the ‘Rings’ movies.   In fact, the whole ‘Goblin City’ with its chase scenes along  elevated walkways  is more like something from a computer game than  the equivalent scenes from the novel.

So, not all of ‘An Unexpected Journey’ works and there are some fundamental reasons behind that.  In expanding the story of ‘The Hobbit’ to a trilogy of circa 3-hour movies, Peter Jackson now faces a challenge that is the complete antithesis of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – there, he had to make some tough choices about what to leave out; so, no ‘Scouring of the Shire’, no Tom Bombadil etc. etc.  Here he must inflate the available material to fill the screen time and cover aspects of  Middle Earth’s history that  played no part in the original text of ‘The Hobbit’.  Whilst I am sure that he will manage it eventually, he’s not going to get everything right.  The next movie will bring further challenges – for example, how to integrate the expanding repertory of Brit character actors – to James Nesbitt and Sylvester McCoy, we will soon be able to add Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as welcoming back Orlando Bloom’s Legolas.  Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into one of those dreadful movies  like ‘The Towering Inferno‘  filled with celebrity vignettes of little worth.  Whatever the case, Jackson doesn’t seem to have  had any problem so far in expanding the running time – ‘An Unexpected Journey’ weighs in at a hefty 169 minutes and there is plenty to suggest that the second and third films in the cycle will be of an equivalent length.

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