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There and Back Again: Remembering the Lord of the Rings films and anticipating The Hobbit

November 6, 2010 Entertainment 1 Comment

Nine years ago this December the first Lord of the Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, opened in theatres. Since I recently had a chance to re-watch the trilogy, and with production on the prequels finally moving forward, now seems like an appropriate time to look back at the Lord of the Rings films, and look forward to The Hobbit movies.

Remembering The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship of the Ring

Image: Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring. Copyright New Line Cinema.

For Fellowship, I believe my count was five. I think it was my second watching, this time at a livelier city theatre, that the audience cheered when Aragorn decapitated that Uruk-hai who had pumped Boromir full of arrows. That remains the only time I’ve ever witnessed an audience respond to a film in a non-embarrassing way.

Upon re-watching Fellowship of the Ring, I am happy to report that it is just as I remember it. Still awesome. The slavish attention to detail, the richness of the world that Jackson has recreated on film, the acting, and the dialogue have ensured a graceful aging. Of the three, I still maintain that it is my favourite, and still the best paced. The film begins slowly, just as with the novel upon which it is based, presenting the idyllic hobbit life, and then steadily layering tension and complexity.

That’s not to say that it’s a perfect movie. The moments that made me grit my teeth and wish they would go away when I saw the movie for the third through infinity times are still there. These aren’t movie-ruining moments by any means, it’s just that the corny bits here aren’t endearing, they’re distracting. The cinematography has a habit of reminding me that Jackson used to direct cheesy horror movies, with those choppy slow-down moments and wacky zoom-outs. Mostly though, it’s Galadriel’s green-faced freak-out that gets to me.

The Two Towers

Image: Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers. Copyright New Line Cinema.

I saw The Two Towers maybe four times in the theatre. I think the general consensus is that it’s the weakest of the three. That was also my opinion once I had seen all three movies, and it’s still my opinion now.

There are too many eye-roll moments in Two Towers for it to stand up to repeated viewings the way Fellowship does. Early on, we’re re-introduced to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli as they hoof it cross-country in their search for Pippin and Merry, and right away a disappointing tone is set. We get goofy lines about “Elf eyes” and “red suns,” and it’s immediately obvious that Gimli has been demoted to comedic relief.

I don’t want to come off as harsh. It would be too easy to pick at the details of a movie I’ve seen ten or more times and end up hating it. The Two Towers has serious strengths as well. As an action film, it is nigh-unassailable, and probably my favourite of the trilogy in that regard. Anticipation for the Battle of Helm’s Deep is well established, and the payoff is spectacular. In a fashion similar to Fellowship‘s storytelling as a whole, the Battle of Helm’s Deep is carefully and deliberately paced. Both sides have layers of strategy that are steadily introduced in a sort-of one-upmanship that sucks me in every time. First the arrows, then the ladders, then the destruction of the Deeping Wall. One after another.

The Return of the King

Image: Lord of the Rings, Return of the King. Copyright New Line Cinema.

My theatre viewings for Return of the King probably number five or six. The first was a mighty all day event which consisted of getting up early and hungover to marathon the Extended Editions of Fellowship and Two Towers (that’s eight hours of film), followed by a premiere night showing which included a costume contest.

I maintain two complaints with the movie, one minor, and one major. The small nuisance is Pippin’s awkward little music video for Denethor. Especially when the shot returns to Pippin following a catch-up with Faramir. The camera pans slightly as candles dance in the background. Yuk. My larger issue is, frankly, the action. That spectacular pacing from the Battle of Helm’s Deep is missing from the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Instead of building tension, the opposing forces seem to just take turns washing over each other. The easy victory by the Dead Army is completely unsatisfying. The highlights are Théoden’s speech and Éowyn’s showdown with the Witch-King. The rest lacks emotion.

Those things aside, I’m happy to report that the film holds up well. Jackson’s directing is more skilled than with the first movie, and the dialogue is significantly less cheesy than the second. The depth of plot, characterization, and mythology tower above the first two films. Jackson’s handling of the source material is respectful and smart.

Anticipating The Hobbit

It was recently announced that New Zealand would be keeping production of The Hobbit. As everyone knows, that was where the Rings movies were filmed, and I’m relieved that that’s where there prequels will be made as well.

The other great news on Hobbit’s production has been the casting. Martin Freeman will be Bilbo. Freeman, of course, played Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Arthur Dent, and his casting has been well received by the fanboy community. I’m happy with the choice as well. The man just looks like a hobbit. He also looks like someone who could reasonably age into Ian Holm (who played Bilbo in the Rings films). More good news, Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Andy Serkis (Gollum), and Hugo Weaving (Elrond) are all expected to return for their characters’ roles in The Hobbit as well.

I was disappointed when, in May of 2010, it was revealed that Guillermo del Toro had left The Hobbit project. I was looking forward to his take on Middle Earth, having enjoyed his visual style in Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. I don’t mean it as a slight against Jackson, it’s just that we’ve already seen his vision of Middle Earth. Having said that, the further we get from the Rings movies, the more I miss having their releases to look forward to. By the time the first Hobbit film is released, which isn’t expected to be until 2012, I think I’ll be ready for another glance at Jackson’s Middle Earth. Additionally, del Toro was involved for some two years on the project with Jackson, and so I suspect many of his ideas will live on.

Then there is that issue of one simpler book (The Hobbit is a children’s novel, after all) split into two films. Although initially planned as a single Hobbit-proper movie, followed by a “bridge” title that would connect Bilbo’s adventure with the ring to the events of the Rings trilogy, Jackson has now committed to splitting the events of The Hobbit between the two movies. Having recently read the novel, I can tell you that there is plenty for the director to work with. If Jackson’s intent is to match the tone of his Rings films in The Hobbit, then there should be little issue with stretching large and dramatic, but simplistically explained, events from the novel and producing the sort of lengthy work seen in The Lord of the Rings.

In summary, with production issues apparently worked out, my outlook on The Hobbit is strongly optimistic. Their releases in the next few years should keep me highly entertained. Of course, a few years past that point, and I may begin wondering where the movies based on The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales are, but that may be asking too much of Mr. Jackson.

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