Ahead of this week’s big release of the final instalment in The Hobbit trilogy,
There And Back Again— sorry, quick name change to The Battle of the Five Armies, Owen has rewatched the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy and first two Hobbit films as preparation.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
Apologies for the profusely long title, but I felt it only fitting given the epic length of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth saga. Fans of these modern adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s iconic fantasy adventure novels are no strangers to things being stretched out for longer than is probably necessary. For example, within the last four weeks or so, I’ve sat through the DVD extended editions of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy (682 minutes all in all) and re-watched the first two Hobbit movies (a modest 369 minutes by comparison). With the release of the third and final part of Bilbo Baggins and his merry band of dwarves’ journey appearing in cinemas this Friday, re-titled The Battle of the Five Armies after it was decided There And Back Again made little to no sense any more since being split from two films to three, I will have spent a total of 1195 minutes in the company of hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, trolls and dragons. In that time I could have re-watched the entire first two seasons of HBO’s massively successful and increasingly popular fantasy series Game of Thrones! And I’d have seen more boobs. A lot more boobs.
Before I get any further, a bit of context as to my position on the Lord of the Rings movies prior to this not-so-unexpected journey through the series is probably in order. As I explained on one of our recent podcasts, whilst I appreciated the scale and ambition of the projects, I would not have considered myself a fan. “Hobbity tosh” was a phrase an old colleague of mine used to describe them – and I would nod in agreement whenever he said it. Quite how I ended up really enjoying both An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug (in all of its 48 frames per second glory) when seeing them in the cinema is anybody’s guess! But I did. I mean, I really enjoyed them and was a little taken aback by how much fun I had with them when expecting so little.
It was with the release of The Battle of the Five Armies looming that I decided to give the entire series another chance. I reached for the unwatched copies of the extended edition DVD’s on my shelf (that I had stolen off my dad in 2012 with the intention of watching them before the first Hobbit film came out) and made my way through each of them. Starting with…
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) (208 minutes)
Well blow me down. It seems the only reason I can fathom as to why I did not enjoy Fellowship of the Ring the first time around is that it was missing 30 minutes of extended footage, because I really enjoyed what is the start of Frodo’s adventure. As I mentioned on the podcast when I reviewed it last month, it genuinely wasn’t a chore trying to finish it. I know that may sound like a back-handed compliment, but for such a long film, every bit of it was entertaining to watch. From our four heroic hobbits and their first encounter with Stryder, to Legolas and Gimli’s banter, to Bormoir’s battle with the orcs, it was (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) fantastic. I’m still not 100% certain that I like Elijah Wood’s performance as Frodo Baggins, bearer of the one ring on a quest to destroy it before Sauron enacts his dastardly plan, but everyone else seemed perfect. Perhaps none more so than Sir Ian McKellen who was born to play the part of the wise old wizard Gandalf the Grey. It was still as impressive an achievement as I remembered, with some gorgeous New Zealand scenery and beautifully framed shots, but it was probably the first time I really took notice of just how good a movie this is. A genuinely pleasant surprise.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) (223 minutes)
Whilst my colleague Gerry may disagree given his thoughts in our Decade In Film series, I personally found that there was a noticeable drop off in quality during the first half of The Two Towers. A title that I found slightly confusing, given the fact there are more than two towers in the film. In an article I read just this week, it seems that Tolkien himself was also of the same opinion that it was a rubbish title. The film started slowly, with perhaps the opening 90 minutes offering little more than a build up to what was to come. Pacing issues dragged this movie down to essentially a story about walking. Albeit one with a number of redeeming features. There’s more humour here than in Fellowship, particularly involving scenes with Pippin, Merry and Treebeard whose light-hearted scenes help brighten an otherwise dark tale of Mordor’s imposing presence as Frodo and Sam draw nearer. Speaking of whom, Gollum’s appearance also marks a turning point in the story as the fork between their relationship, foreshadowing what is to come of Mr Baggins (Sméagol’s dark and twisted nature) and what he once was (Sam’s friendly disposition and naivety). Narratively, its timing couldn’t have been better as an injection of life suddenly surges through the movie. Of course, also helping this film find its large and hairy feet is the political struggles between Madril and Théoden, Saruman’s corrupting influence (played sublimely by Christopher Lee) and the extraordinary Battle At Helm’s Deep. To coin a football cliché, it’s not just a film of two towers, it’s a film of two halves. The first, plodding and uneventful; the second, increasingly magnificent.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) (251 minutes)
Winner of eleven (yes, ELEVEN) Oscar’s at the Academy Awards in 2004 – that’s seven more than Fellowship of the Ring and nine more than The Two Towers – including the big two (Best Picture and Best Director), it is arguably the most successful film in the entire trilogy. Or, possibly, a recognition of the trilogy in its entirety. The challenge Peter Jackson faced with this final instalment mainly consisted of topping what has preceded it in terms of narrative structure, visual flair and erstwhile adventure, whilst roundly bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. From its opening scenes with Sméagol and Déagol discovering the Ring, to its climactic battle sequence closing the movie.. or was that catching up with the gang back in the Shire? Or was it Aragorn’s ceremony? Or Gandalf shipping former ring-addicts Frodo and Bilbo off to the Elven rehab facility across the water (all in slow motion for some reason)? Or was it… you get the idea, there’s a lot of potential endings to this movie. Even so, from start to finish it was a truly deserving final piece and quite nicely ended the journey without feeling inclined to leave unresolved cliff hangers, include cheap shock twists near the end or unfathomably long indistinguishable CGI fight sequences. If Two Towers momentarily made me question whether or not I would actually enjoy completing the series of films, then Return of the King swiftly put to bed any such thoughts and converted me to a genuine fan of this Hobbity tosh I once pompously sneered at.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (182 minutes)
As I stated earlier, upon exiting the cinema on 21st November 2012, after just seeing this film in 3D expecting to be bored half to death three hours earlier, I was practically giddy about how much fun I had with Jackson’s triumphant return to Middle Earth. This was my first time rewatching the film since then and whilst I’d forgotten just how slow the opening 50 minutes were, as dwarf upon dwarf arrives at Bilbo (Martin Freeman)’s Hobbit Hole (careful now). It was something I didn’t mind too much in the cinema. It set the tone and jovial atmosphere that would penetrate most of what proceeded through these prequels, but witnessing it for a second time, it was rather tedious. However, things pick up once everybody has been introduced (or re-introduced as the case may be) and they hit the road, beginning Bilbo’s unexpected journey to the Lonely Mountain to help the dwarves reclaim their home from Smaug the dragon. What still holds up well, and has been one of my favourite aspects from any of these films so far, is the performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum (which is even more creepy than Peter Woodthorpe in the 1978 rotoscoped animation Lord of the Rings, of which I also squeezed in a rewatch of before starting on The Hobbit). His utter disgust at being accused of sneaking in Return of the King is topped only by the game of riddles with Bilbo. It becomes the stand out moment across either Hobbit film so far and remains as darkly amusing now as it was the first time I witnessed it.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) (187 minutes)
Just as An Unexpected Journey was a fun frolic through a fantasy world I had slowly become attached to, so too was its follow up from this time last year. In fact, I’d say that this was the much better film out of the two. The pacing was more even and the world expansion seemed more rapid and interesting. Suddenly these worlds and characters we’d glimpsed previously became worthwhile additions as Bilbo no longer had to keep proving himself to Thorin (Richard Armitage) over and over again. Meanwhile, Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) added some much needed romance to these stories. It’s not often I say that, but (excuse the euphemism) it had been a bit of a sausage-fest up until this point. Bromance can only take you so far in a world that explores all manner of creature and race. It also gave Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and his moody glances a reason to be here. I can quite safely say that it also has some of the most exciting and amusing battle sequences from any of these five films. There’s never been any questions about Peter Jackson’s ability to shoot these moments; whether it’s a priest battling zombies in Braindead, or the sweeping epic Battle of the Pelennor Fields from Return of the King, it’s clearly an area he excels in. Here, there are numerous encounters that are immensely enjoyable. A barrel ride down some rapids, for example, is as fun as it sounds like it should be. A close-combat sequence in a Lake-town house between some orcs and elves is also fiercely engaging, even if it did look a bit too weird in 48fps. And, of course, the moment the audience were waiting for with Smaug’s awakening and subsequent run-around with the dwarves is totally engrossing, setting up a finale that just made me wish Battle of the Five Armies was due out a few weeks sooner so I could watch it straight away!
With all that out of the way, the only thing left to write is that if you haven’t gathered already, I have converted from cynic to fanatic as I eagerly await the release of what is likely to be Peter Jackson’s farewell to Tolkien. Where is there left to go now? A biopic of JRR Tolkien is a possibility but not likely to fit into this fantasy series. With Jackson having repeatedly denied any intentions to adapt The Silmarillion, works that feature familiar characters from Tolkien’s world but was edited and completed posthumously by his son, not to mention the legal battles there would be over the rights to the book which have never been sold, it seems this is the end for Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf and co. Unless Guillermo Del Toro fancies a crack at it, of course…
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies will be in UK cinemas from Friday 12 December 2014, at which point Owen will return for a full review. It will also be featured as the main review on our next podcast, the Christmas Special episode featuring Matt Lambourne and Callum Petch.