Tag Archives: Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Hobbit2

The Desolation Of Smaug, the second and middle part of Peter Jackson’s ludicrously over-extended adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is just as padded out as its predecessor with gratuitous sequences of horrible orcs hunting our heroes but nonetheless seems to flow considerably better. This may be because it’s starting to feel that Bilbo and his dwarfy mates are actually getting somewhere in their convoluted journey to the Lonely Mountain and the usurping dragon within, or it might have something to do with the variety and richly textured realisation of the places we get to visit: a spooky, cobwebby forest, the treetop palace of an Elven lord, the damp and rundown platforms and walkways of Laketown (particularly liked this location, a bit like a Poundland Venice in the Fens) and finally the treasure strewn halls of the dwarves’ former kingdom. We get man-eating spiders, spectacular flypasts round forbidding ruined castles precariously balanced on the sides of mountains, about half a dozen long and complicated battle bits in which Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly prove over and over and over again how great elves are at kicking goblin butt and, as the master of Lakeland, Stephen Fry doing his addled aristo routine in a quite awesomely preposterous wig. Best of all we eventually get a one to one between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and the Benedict Cumberbatch voiced dragon Smaug (Watson, meet Holmes), and like its counterpoint Bilbo/Gollum scene in the first film it stands head, shoulders and menacing scaly appendages above everything else – it’s creepy, unbearably tense and was the only point in the film when even the young children in the audience I was in fell silent. Elsewhere, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf continues his tradition of abandoning his charges just when they need his help most in order to keep mysterious appointments in pointlessly perilous places, and Richard Armitage’s Thorin carries on managing his team badly with a winning mixture of impulsiveness, resentment and arrogance, like he’s been hastily over-promoted. This is a film that there’s really not much recommending, as you’ll either not be interested or will have bought your ticket and ordered the DVD already, but it delivers more or less everything you require it to and once someone’s done a fan edit that cuts out all the endless crossbow and beheading bits it’ll be pretty damn zippy. My chief worry is that we leave the story very close to the end of book, if I’m remembering it rightly – how on Middle Earth is Jackson going to wring a final three hour film out of one dragon attack, one battle and a bit of mopping up? Will it turn into a musical?

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

HobbitShort review:

Hmm…alright if you like this kind of thing.

Longer review:

Sorry, that was churlish. As a point of fact, I do happen to like this kind of thing. You may already be vaguely aware that there was a mildly successful three part adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings out a while back, and while I’m as sneeringly dismissive of wizards, goblins and dwarves as the next hipster there are times when I start to wonder whether these just might be the greatest movies ever made. Sure, there are moments when they get a bit cheesy, and some of the elven interludes remind me of shampoo commercials, and I could certainly live without Orlando Bloom using his shield as a skateboard, but the sheer massiveness and confidence and verve and downright beauty and magnificence of the locations and the sets and the models and the costumes makes any criticism of the odd bit of new age indulgence seem piffling. The fact that Peter Jackson and his cohorts managed to carve out such a thrilling and dynamic throughline from such distinctly stodgy and over-detailed source material is a minor miracle: these three films run to over eleven hours in their extended versions and there’s no noticeable sag or longeurs at all, at least not until you get to the famous multiple endings.

The last part of Lord Of The Rings came out nearly ten years ago, and at the time the feeling was in the air that after knocking that ball out of the park so decisively surely it wouldn’t take much longer than a couple of New Zealand bank holidays to bang out a matching version of Tolkien’s earlier, and much less complicated, children’s classic The Hobbit? Turns out it wasn’t nearly so easy. First there was a legal tangle-up concerning which studio held the rights to resolve, followed by a whole bunch of vagueness about how many films were going to be made, and which bits of Tolkien’s other Middle Earth writings might be considered for an adaptation, and whether Jackson was going to direct or produce (at one stage Guillermo del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy fame was assigned as director), and who out of the Rings cast might be available to reprise their roles. Eventually, it was settled as two films, with Jackson directing…until fairly late in the game, when it mysteriously became a trilogy. All of this shuffling about didn’t really inspire much confidence.

Anyway. Now it’s here, the first part anyway, and what with the calendar getting a bit stuffed with pre-Christmas commitments I sloped off to catch an 11am screening along with a lot of other skivers and orc-fanciers. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is what it’s ended up being called, and it’s…well…alright if you like this kind of thing, but I’d struggle to make a case for it to anyone Tolkien-sceptical. The good news is that it’s very much of a piece with the earlier films in terms of how it looks, and how it feels, and how it plays. The fabulous New Zealand landscapes are present and correct, Bilbo’s house is exactly as it was ten years ago and continuity is respected to the degree of rehiring actors from the Rings trilogy to recreate roles that don’t even appear in the book of The Hobbit – say hello again to Elijah Wood as Frodo, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman and Ian Holm as the older Bilbo. We also get Ian McKellen returning as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and, in probably the film’s best sequence, Andy Serkis gets to voice and motion-capture Gollum again. A Star Wars: Phantom Menace reboot fiasco this is not – if you loved the world of Lord Of The Rings this is absolutely a return trip. You even get to hear a few of the old music cues, like those for The Shire and the ring. Casting’s pretty sound in the new roles too, with Tim-from-The-Office aka Martin Freeman a canny everyman pick for Bilbo Baggins.

So everything’s reassuringly sumptuous, and when the story gets going Jackson and co handle everything with the surefootedness and invention that they displayed before, with advances in CGI technology meaning they can deliver spectacles like the thunder battles on the misty mountains and trolls turning to stone and our heroes fleeing from armies of goblins with aplomb. The problem, and it’s a glaringly obvious one, is that they’ve got three hours to fill and only about a hundred pages of a light and charming children’s book to fill it with. Everything takes AGES, even after a lengthy prologue setting up the motivation of the dispossessed dwarves who reluctantly recruit Bilbo on their mission to reclaim their homeland and various other interludes I don’t remember from the book (Sylvester McCoy’s turn as the nature-loving wizard Radagast is particularly trippy). They’re in Bilbo’s kitchen for ages, then they’re being hunted by orcs for ages, then chased by goblins for ages in a sequence that reminded me of disinterestedly watching someone else playing a computer game, then they’re being hunted by orcs again. For ages. Before Gandalf once again gets them out of a pickle through his wizardly wisdom.

And it doesn’t help that there are so many of them. Dwarves, that is – thirteen of them, and despite the production crew’s best efforts in differentiating them by giving them different beards and accents you don’t really find yourself bothered about working out which one is which. The only ones to really register are Richard Armitage’s glowering King Thorin and Ken Stott’s faithful retainer Balin.

So in the end I’ve got to confess that I found this film a bit of a trudge, and I’m not sure I’m looking forward to finding out how they’re going to pad out the next two installments. This is one case where I might be tempted to buy a special edition DVD, but only if it had a shorter running time rather than a longer one. Like about two hours shorter.

The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn

I was feeling a bit queasy about going to see the new Tintin film, having read some decidedly mixed reviews, including a couple which lambasted it as a downright travesty, a horrible descration of Hergé’s widely beloved, and painstakingly executed comic book series. I’m a big fan of Tintin, twice over: once as a child, when I loved the books for their vibrancy, wit and invention and then again as an adult, when I could better appreciate Hergé’s skill and care as a graphic artist and his skill at convincingly placing his realistically flawed and human protagonists into exotic, but always meticulously well-researched, locations. Tintin first appeared in the 1920s as a serialised cartoon strip running in a Belgian newspaper, and while the early stories were somewhat basic, both in terms of draughtsmanship and plot, it wasn’t too long before Hergé was rolling out sophisticated, intriguing yet entirely accessible adventures and mysteries that commented on geo-political issues of the day and also served to sympathetically introduce a young audience to other societies and cultures. In later years the books became less and less frequent as the author spent more and more time and resources on getting both the overall stories and the individual panels as perfect as he could possibly get them. It was worth it – his albums from the 50s and 60s like The Calculus Affair, Tintin In Tibet and The Castefiore Emerald have the richness of great novels or films.

Efforts to bring Tintin to the screen have never been very satisfying. Up until recently, film-makers had the choice between attempting live action, which would lose much of the charm and precision of the books, and traditional animation, which would always carry the risk of just being an exercise in filling in the missing frames between the carefully selected points in the story that Hergé chose to render as panels. Nowadays, however, the tools of the trade have evolved to the point where big-name directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson (who gets a producer’s credit here) can achieve a middle way: via extensive motion-capture technology, it’s now possible to produce something that looks “real” but is populated by characters who closely resemble those seen on the printed page (as I understand it, it involves filming real actors who are wearing sensors at strategic points of their bodies and then generating animated on-screen characters via computers which have analysed the actors’ movements). I first saw this type of technique used in the film of Beowulf a few years ago, where it just looked odd – you could recognise the actors, like Anthony Hopkins, but they looked liked they’d been wrapped in clingfilm – but in this film, it kind of works, once you get used to it.

As the title suggests, the film is more or less an adaptation of The Secret Of The Unicorn, which came out in 1943, but it also contains quite a few elements from a previous album, The Crab With The Golden Claws, which have presumably been included because the events of Unicorn take place entirely within Belgium, and the Middle East set sections of Claws provide an opportunity to “open out” the action a little. This cavalier mixing and matching of the source material may be one reason why the film has met with a snooty reception in some quarters, but I don’t have a problem with it, as the movie’s plot, which does make significant alterations to that of the book, seems as logical and thought-through as any you’re likely to come across in a Hollywood blockbuster. Said plot concerns a mystery bound up with three models of a 17th Century sailing ship, The Unicorn, which various shady parties are trying to obtain. Tintin starts to investigate, like a plucky young journalist should, and uncovers a connection between The Unicorn and a drunk and defeatist ship’s captain called Haddock that he encounters on a boat headed for the Gulf states. The story whips along at a fair pace, although it seems a lot more focussed in the early stages when Tintin starts his sleuthing in his home town than in the inevitable setpiece action sequences that occur later. The tone of the film is not too dissimilar to that of the Indiana Jones films (not surprising, given the director), or 1970s comedy crime capers like The Pink Panther films, and like those films Tintin is really pretty enjoyable once you let yourself relax into it. The storytelling is clear and uncluttered, the characters are well-defined and often pleasantly eccentric, there are many witty touches, not all of which are derived from the books, and while I bemoan some of the unfunny comedy (anything to do with The Thompson Twins) and the regrettable decision to give Captain Haddock an on-message character arc it really could have been a lot worse. I mean, imagine if they’d given Tintin a back story. Or a love interest.

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones, who died on March 26th at the age of 76, was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, and is one of the few writers of children’s books that I continued to read, albeit somewhat irregularly, into adulthood. Her novels can broadly be categorised as fantasy, in that they all contain magical or mystical events, characters or artefacts (and even the occasional dragon or griffin), but shouldn’t be dismissed as pompous or humourless escapism – she’s one of the most astute and honest recorders of the child’s view of the world I know, and writes in a pleasingly down-to-earth and often very funny style that simultaneously undercuts and heightens the more fantastical elements of her stories. She skilfully avoids both the portentousness of Tolkien and the jokeyness of Pratchett and creates consistent and emotionally true relationships between her characters that provide you with a route through the bizarre situations she sets up, which is, apart from anything else, very considerate of her: some of the scenarios she presents are amazingly imaginative, with the regular definitions of time, space and even identity being tested to breaking point. She was also incredibly prolific – Wikipedia lists 35 novels, and many short stories and other projects published between 1970 and 2011, and the books are anything but formulaic (the ones I’ve read, anyway).

I’ve been digging out some of her books (and re-acquiring others, thanks to the miracle of Amazon Marketplace) since the news of her death came through, to see whether they retain their appeal and how they compare with the more recent fantasy franchises I’ve encountered. Gratifyingly, so far I’ve got to say they snag my imagination better than pretty much anything from the 21st Century featuring wizardry, witchcraft or massed armies of computer-generated beasties battling noisily (Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings films are a notable exception to this). The Ogre Downstairs, for example, is a little masterpiece: the ogre of the title is actually nothing more than the unsympathetic stepfather of three children, who are forced to live with him and his two standoffish sons when their mother remarries. The fantasy element of the story is provided by a chemistry set of dubious provenance, the contents of which provoke various unexpected effects – one makes you lighter than air, one turns base metal to gold, one causes two people to bodyswap Freaky Friday style, one causes inanimate objects to come to life (the wriggling and ever-growing toffee bars are particularly icky) and so on. Any one of these phenomena could easily have formed the basis of a perfectly satisfactory children’s book on its own but Wynne Jones characteristically throws them out lightly and doesn’t dwell on them once the point’s been made. Underneath all this, the real plot of the book is moving forward: the gradual coming to a head of all five children’s real grievances against the Ogre, and the friction in the marriage that’s eventually exposed. In Wynne Jones’s books adults are often unreliable, self-centred and neglectful and it can be up to the children to instigate a correction, and what’s really impressive here, as elsewhere, is how natural and believable the confrontations and resolutions are – no Roald Dahl style black comedy vengeance here.

Wynne Jones’s earlier books tend to be set in recognisable urban and suburban locales, with the fantasy elements being stumbled across by regular, and often disadvantaged, children. As well as The Ogre Downstairs there’s Eight Days Of Luke, in which a lonely boy inadvertently conjures up an incarnation of a mischievous Norse God, Wilkins’ Tooth, in which the assumptions a children’s gang have made about a witch-like woman turn out to be surprisingly accurate, Archer’s Goon, in which the powers-that-be that really run an English town are discovered to be somewhat more exotic than the local council, and the heartbreaking Dogsbody, ostensibly about a short-tempered celestial being banished to Earth in the form of a domestic animal, but really about a lonely and ill-treated girl whose only solace is the love she has for her unusually intelligent and responsive dog. You could also include in this group the atmospheric Fire And Hemlock, about a teenage girl who discovers a set of repressed memories of her friendship with a gawky but resolute musician who is struggling to free himself from the influence of his mysterious and sinister ex-wife.

Later on the stories set in alternative realities and deceptively familiar fairytale settings start to be more prevalent. Wynne Jones loves to play with and undermine the standard pre-conceptions about scenarios involving kings, queens, lords, castles, ancient curses and sacred treasures, to the extent that she published a faux guidebook in the mid-90s called The Tough Guide To Fantasyland which reads as both a critique and an affectionate tribute to the well worn tropes of the genre. Truth be told, I find her books in this vein harder going than those that start off in the “real” world as they tend to drop you straight into unfamiliar milieus and let you figure out the rules of the worlds at the same time as the characters start subverting them, but my difficulties may stem from the fact that I didn’t get to most of these books until adulthood, and as the author was fond of pointing out, adults don’t read books nearly as carefully as children do. Nevertheless, there are quite a few goodies to recommend: A Sudden Wild Magic, Cart And Cwidder, Year Of The Griffin and Howl’s Moving Castle, which was eventually made into a beautiful, if bafflingly complicated, animation by the Japanese master Hayao Mayazaki. Identity seems particularly mutable in these books, characters are frequently unmasked as imposters, or change name, or age, or species – you need to pay close attention.

I can’t really pick out an all-time favourite Wynne Jones book, but anyone reading this who might want to test the water won’t do much better than Charmed Life, published in 1977. Here we have an alternative English society in which some people have magical powers and some people don’t, and those in the first group tend to look down on those in the second. We have an exclusive school where young witches and wizards are trained by eccentric professors of magic. We have an assortment of spells and charms, the effects of which range from whimsical to devastating. We have a group of bad wizards trying to get the upper hand over the established hierarchy of good, but possibly a bit fusty, wizards…sound familiar? Even if it does, Charmed Life is still worth checking out, if only for not one but two expertly carried off plot twists that pull the carpet out from under you as effectively as an airport thriller. Or indeed, any seven book fantasy series you might care to mention. Diana Wynne Jones got there first, and got there better.