Hobbit Changes Part Two: Orcs, Eagles, and the Dragon

Part One here.

Okay, so it took about a year but I am finishing this thought. I know, I know – if I waited just another four years before I did anything I would show promise as a Congressman.

So the Hobbit trilogy, the trilogy that is nearly as fashionable to hate as the Star Wars prequels. Some people have even suggested that they are on the same level, as people have argued that both have an over-reliance on CGI and an underdeveloped story. I would counter and ask someone to please find either the Jar Jar or the Midi-chlorian equivalent in the Hobbit trilogy. Please let me know if you find it and feel like you can make a compelling argument.

Is there anything close to this bad in Jackson's Hobbit? I think not.
Is there anything close to this bad in Jackson’s Hobbit? I think not.

The point is: Love or hate director Peter Jackson’s changes, most of them make sense from a storytelling perspective in the context of the Middle Earth universe. There are, however, a few that are truly disappointing. While I largely defend the Hobbit trilogy… Lord of the Rings these ain’t.

The Orc Design/Effects

This first change is not really a storytelling critique, but rather an effects one. When the Lord of the Rings came out, it wowed audiences with its masterful use of effects. Mixing costumes and model work with the latest in computer technology, those films were able to create an incredibly believable look that reflected a restraint rarely seen today in big budget Hollywood. I’m not sure where those guys are getting their data, but audiences today seem sick of an overuse of CGI.

That said…

WHAT IS UP WITH THE ORCS?!

Or goblins, I want to be politically correct. In particular I’m talking about the two lead baddies, Azog the Defiler and Bolg… the other one. While they can be criticized on more than their appearance (both are rather boring villains who are given way too much screen time), the fact that they are computer generated creations is noticeable. Unlike Gollum, who emotes with the lively presence of Andy Serkis, Azog and Bolg appear stiffer and less, well – alive. This again could have to do with their simplistic motivations. Or it could involve another fact:

The original costumes were relegated to smaller parts in the final trilogy.
The original costumes were relegated to smaller parts in the final trilogy.

They were originally people in costumes and NOT motion captured acting like the Gollum performance. That’s right, Peter Jackson originally wanted both of the main villains to at least look a little more real. Yet, at least according to this source – Jackson was happy with CGI redos and wished his other orcs looked that way.

I don't know, the original Bolg looks really cool.
I don’t know, the original Bolg looks really cool.

I’m not sure I buy this.

A lot has come out since the release of the Hobbit trilogy that alleges that Jackson did not have as much control as people would naturally think. I mean, after making Lord of the Rings, how could they not…

Are you kidding?

After Jackson’s trilogy single-handedly saved New Line Cinemas from disappearing into irrelevant oblivion (they tried to withhold money from him on those btw) he and his work was still not respected from a studio standpoint. While the other Hobbit production videos (and commentary tracks) all painted a roses-and-sunshine picture, this feels like the truest look at a production that was in major trouble from day one.

Azog probably still would have been a boring villain, but there is a performance here that has been lost, and that is really sad.
Azog probably still would have been a boring villain, but there is a performance here that has been lost, and that is really sad.

With Jackson never being given the time he asked for, one must wonder: what other decisions were made for him? This would not be the first time that a studio came in, looked at painstakingly crafted practical effects, and said: “kids these days really just want stuff from the computers and the internets.”

Is Peter Jackson the next George Lucas… or is he just one of many directors not fully in charge of their own movies (Edgar Wright, Sam Raimi, Joss Whedon)? We may never know… but damage done in The Hobbit.

The Eagles

Ah the Eagles, the deus ex machina of the Tolkien universe. Need a hand, got to leave a bad situation – the Eagles got you covered. I’m always amazed when fans of the book criticize Jackson’s decision to explain where Gandalf went when he vanished. Without those scenes, Gandalf would just disappear, conveniently only  reappearing to save Bilbo and the dwarves from impending peril. We already got the Eagles guys, we don’t need another one.

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Yet the book did have one very important piece that Jackson’s films omit: An introduction. The Eagles are introduced in the Hobbit and their actions are explained… if only a little bit. How might you ask? Well very naturally, the Eagles can and do talk. They express gratitude to Gandalf as well as state that they have no desire to be a taxi service, especially where “fat dwarves” are concerned.

This is a minor problem, and its omission is far from the greatest flaw in the trilogy. That said, it would have been really nice to give the Eagles their motivation, rather than having them appear yet again to only fulfill plot necessity. Doing so would not only have helped the Hobbit movies, but it would have fixed one of the greatest complaints against the Lord of the Rings, namely explaining why this did not happen:

The Smaug Sequence at the end of Desolation of Smaug

Oh Smaug the terrible, chiefest and greatest calamity of our age!

Wait.

No.

That poor excuse for Rodan can’t even kill a few dwarves running around the Lonely Mountain.

This is the biggest problem with that ending “action sequence” in Desolation of Smaug. Not only does nothing happen to propel the story forward for like.. I don’t know, at least fifteen minutes, the menace of Smaug is greatly reduced. For the past two movies, the horror of this dragon has been built up. When he is revealed, he is depicted as godlike; capable of destroying entire cities without suffering a single injury.

Don't be scared Bilbo! He's definitely farsighted.
Don’t be scared Bilbo! He’s definitely farsighted.

Yet for at least ten minutes, he flails about like a drunk Benedict Cumberbatch, unable to do anything right. Seriously, it goes to the point that Thorin actually taunts him into breathing more fire – that’s how ineffective he is.

A scene equivalent would have been watching Sauron fumble around for the ring for ten minutes at the end of Return of the King before Frodo just kicks it into Mount Doom.

Storytelling tip: if you want a villain to be threatening, they must be effective. What makes it worse, was if the dwarves and Bilbo actually succeeded in doing something (like say knocking off a scale and exposing Smaug’s weakness) the scene would have served at least some point. As it stands, Smaug looks dumb and the good guys do… nothing.

 

All this being said, I still like The Hobbit trilogy. Is it as good as Lord of the Rings, not even close. That said, there is still a love here for a world that is noticeable, and characters who feel real and entertaining (there is also no picnic love scene equivalent to the Star Wars prequels). It is an absolute shame that Peter Jackson was not given the time to do this properly, but never say never.

Remakes are all the rage in Hollywood right now. Who knows what adventure the highly profitable Middle Earth will take next time.

I would love to see someone try to flesh out the plot of this story into something that is actually fun to dive into.
I would love to see someone try to flesh out the plot of this story into something that is actually fun to dive into.

Hobbit Changes Part One: In Defense of Tauriel

Well, it is done. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies are out. Love them or hate them: the journey is over. Now comes the time for internet reflection. As with any hyped production, there were a lot of gut reactions to The Hobbit. One casting decision in particular appeared to irk some fans. In 2011, Evangeline Lilly was announced as Tauriel, a wood elf of Mirkwood. To say that the majority of people reacted with a “hmmm, that’s interesting, let’s wait and see” attitude would be a bit of an overstatement. The immediate reaction came more in the form of comments like these. There was even a wonderful little song put together, have a look:

Fun fact: that video was published on December 15th of 2013, just two days after The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug was released. Either these artists were very moved to write, shoot, edit, and release a song in two days or… it was made before any of them had even seen the film. For the record, there is nothing innately wrong with this. People are allowed to have opinions and reactions of any kind to fictional characters – there are bigger problems in the world to deal with.

One of the many more important problems gripping our world.
One of the many more important problems gripping our world.

But that said, there is also an innate problem of jumping to conclusions and facing new material with a closed mind. Also I titled this blog post with “in Defense of Tauriel” so I am going to defend her inclusion in this Hobbit trilogy. While Tauriel “may not be in the book,” she brings many improvements to the story of The Hobbit. First and most obvious is the addition of a woman in a world where vaginas are more mythical than dragons.

Eowyn is great but it is nice to see that there was more than one active woman in Middle Earth.
Eowyn is great but it is nice to see that there was more than one active woman in Middle Earth.

Now that I got my cleverness out-of-the-way, let’s dive into the more substantial contributions. When Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings did not exist. In short: the Hobbit was written in a vacuum that has not existed since (and never will again). As with any simple story that was later expanded into a full universe, there are inconsistencies. For starters, let’s talk about those wood elves: what a bunch of dicks.

Seriously, how are these people good guys? When reading the Hobbit, the wood elves are terrible. The are greedy, selfish, and imprison the dwarves for basically no reason (starving dwarves stole food, can you believe their nerve?). Sure they don’t want to directly kill them like the goblins do, but is rotting in a cell really that much of an upgrade over a quick death? And once the dragon is dead and the dwarves and men are having a stupid (but kinda legitimate) battle over the treasure, the elves show up and pretty much declare it is theirs because….

They’re assholes.

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over how pretty I am."
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over how pretty I am.”

As much as some people like to claim that the Hobbit is a perfect book and that all problems came from Satan (Peter Jackson), the reality is that this was one of the biggest problems in the story. If we are to believe that the elves are good guys (and Lord of the Rings seems to say so) then they cannot be so easily compared to the bad guys.

A good way to do this while staying true to the book is to keep Thranduil a jerk while adding two elf protagonists who are a bit more relatable. Enter Legolas and Tauriel:

People can make jokes but this is the scene of the movie that argues that the elves should actually you know, do something positive.
People can make jokes but this is the scene of the movie that argues that the elves should actually you know, do something positive.

Sure, neither one is in the book but where else (as prince of the Mirkwood elves) would Legolas be and again, it is nice to have a character calling the elves out on their hypocrisy.

The other great contribution that Tauriel makes is Kíli . Now, I say this as a huge Tolkien fan and as someone who loved the book: I never gave a sh*t when Fíli and Kíli died. I know I know, burn me at the stake. The Hobbit was a book about Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and twelve other dwarves with different names who were all basically also Thorin. There was no real difference between them. Yes, some were fatter and some were taller and some were older but really: who cared. It is a mark of poor storytelling to have so many named characters with so little character between them. Yes, I just criticized Tolkien: deal with it.

Even with three movies, can you name all the dwarves?
Even with three movies, can you name all the dwarves?

When I saw the Battle of the Five Armies in theaters, I heard something I did not expect. Gasping. People gasped when Kíli died. Now, people who read the book would not gasp since they would know it was coming. Generally also, people do not gasp at the deaths of characters they do not care about. What then could be the reason?

Tauriel made people care. The love story made people care. Was it a perfect love story? Not by any stretch, but it was better than Twilight and it worked the way that Jackson had designed it to. By including a new character, he was able to add to the character of the dwarves.

Okay... I will give you that. The dialogue in this scene sounded right out of high school.
Okay… I will give you that. The dialogue in this scene sounded right out of high school.

So while she was a lady, Tauriel was added for more than just her gender difference. She improves upon weak areas of the book and allowed for people who have never read the Hobbit as children to care a little bit more about this Middle Earth journey. Was the addition a successful one? Maybe or maybe not (that’s a matter of opinion), but it was a defensible one.

Part Two here.

"I AM KING UNDER THE MOUNTAIN!" – 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' Review

Eleven years ago, New Line Cinema released The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The second chapter in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy found incredible critical acclaim and took home two Oscars. However, departures from the source material, including the delay of Shelob, the character change of Faramir and the presence of elves at the battle of Helms Deep, angered some of the more diehard Tolkien fans. To those people I have one thing to say: STAY AWAY FROM THIS MOVIE. Of course, if you sleep with The Hobbit on your nightstand and hold the word of Tolkien as law, then you probably already walked away from this new trilogy in disgust last December. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a bold departure from the source material and… a pretty good movie… I think? I’ll get into it.

(MINOR SPOILERS TO FOLLOW)

The Desolation of Smaug essentially picks up right where the first film left off. As you may remember, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and company are on the edge of Mirkwood. The orcs are still right behind them and the eagles have left to return to the realm of Deus ex Machina. Yet there is also flashback scene to ease us into our fifth return to Middle-Earth. Returning to the famous “Prancing Pony” Inn from Fellowship of the Ring, we witness the initial meeting between Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Thorin (Richard Armitage). This scene, as well as many of additions/changes to the source material, exists for one purpose: there are bigger things going on in Middle-Earth than Smaug.

Get ready, there is a lot of Lord of the Rings in this movie.
Get ready, there is a lot of Lord of the Rings in this movie.

This is grand departure. While Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy employees Bilbo Baggins as its chief protagonist, its identity is not that of the simple children’s adventure story. These movies represent the beginning of the war of the ring.

Did you hear that? Every diehard Hobbit book fan just groaned.

Yes, it is true, that little band of gold is as much of a star in this movie as Martin Freeman or Ian McKellen. Really, it is arguably a larger star than Freeman, who sadly takes a backseat in this second installment. Personally I felt that one of the strongest plus factors going in An Unexpected Journey was the strong characterization of Bilbo Baggins. Evidently Jackson and co. felt entitled to a pass this time around.

Bilbo Baggins is as much a part of the scenery in this movie as those blue butterflies.
Bilbo Baggins is as much a part of the scenery in this movie as those blue butterflies.

So, amidst the gathering doom of greater forces, the little dwarf quest continues – and is a lot more fun this time around. The film only really falters at the beginning with the interjection of Beorn (a were-bear who will no doubt come back into play in the third installment) before hitting its stride in Mirkwood. We get spiders and elves and a barrel chase and it is all great fun. The addition of Evangeline Lilly as Turiel, an elf guardsman, is welcome and breathes life into the movie. Really her performance and subsequent subplot with the dwarf, Kili do a lot to improve the pacing and give the audience a breather from the one-track Thorin (this dwarf needs his mountain something fierce) and the somber beginnings of Sauron (one of two villains this movie voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).

It's Evangeline Lilly as an elf. Damn.
It’s Evangeline Lilly as an elf. Damn.

The result is a pace that feels at a thrilling rush and gets us to Lake-town feeling jazzed to see what comes next. What comes next: the audience is introduced to Luke Evans (good performance) and Stephen Fry (Republican performance) before it’s off to see the dragon!

Now, about that dragon… here come my spoilers. Those out there wishing to see Smaug die, you’re not getting your Christmas present this year. Peter Jackson, possibly trying to emulate the Hunger Games: Catching Fire, has gone the root of the abrupt cliffhanger leaving all resolution for the Hobbit: There and Back Again. The result is a jarring ending preced by a greatly expanded upon confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug (voiced by dragon-Sherlock aka Benedict Cumberbatch).

Pretty accurate.
Pretty accurate.

I said at the beginning of this review that I wasn’t sure how to feel about the movie and that’s why. This doesn’t feel like a complete story. Unlike the chapters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, not much is resolved at the end of the Desolation of Smaug. There is no victory at Helms Deep, no breaking of the fellowship: the movie just ends. Yes, one can argue that the climactic expulsion of Smaug (yes, he gets forced from the mountain in this movie) is enough but that dragon is still alive and in good, fire-breathing shape.

Ironically this tale feels more like part one-of-two than part two-of-three. As a piece of a film, it is entertaining and fun… but it only a piece of a film. The final word on Peter Jackson’s trilogy will come next December. Until then, The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug is a solid blockbuster rich in Tolkien lore. I just hope that all of this buildup has a payoff… other than the Battle of Five Armies.

Verdict: Worth seeing at full price.
Verdict: Worth seeing at full price.

PS – For those curious about my thoughts on the first movie, click here!