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film -> An Unexpected Return

An Unexpected Return

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If one considers the box office draw, Peter Jackson’s most recent journey into Middle Earth appears to have struck the same chord with audiences that he accomplished with his first three forays into Tolkien’s legendary, expansive universe. Among many favorable reviews, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fell under harsher scrutiny than its Middle Earth predecessors, which resulted in many more critical reviews than The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. However, one cannot deny that the overall “feel” of Jackson’s first entry in his second Tolkien trilogy is considerably altered from the first trilogy, raising the question, “Is it fair to compare and contrastThe Hobbit Trilogy to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy?” After all, they are two completely different quests.  Despite this, I argue that the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” We can analyze the two… but with a caveat: we must remember that these are two completely different quests so as not to confuse the dynamic of each story. To examine what makes them unique and what makes them alike, I intend to first point out the similarities of the two trilogies: Peter Jackson, the characters/ setting, storytelling strategies. After this, I will point out the significant differences: Guillermo del Toro, what’s at stake, character interaction/ dynamic, awards season and the high frame rate.

 

The Similarities:

Each film in a well-known filmmaker’s oeuvre is often (and sometimes inevitably) compared to another film in the same oeuvre.  For example, Alfred Hitchcock remade his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1955 containing the same gist, but with different characters and settings (England to America). A more recent example would be Quentin Tarantino’s films about revenge: Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained. (Perhaps add Death Proof to a certain extent).

Franchise films are nothing new—many B-movies of the 20s through the 50s involved franchises that followed the adventures of a main character. However, the plots focused more on the adventure than character development as producers understood that audiences were more likely to buy a ticket to a film featuring a character with whom they were familiar. (For example: the Charlie Chan and Andy Hardy movies, etc.)  Comparisons grow more intense on the topic of blockbuster franchise filmmaking—a recent trend in modern filmmaking that does not seem to end anytime soon.  Michael Bay’s Transformers Trilogy recently became extended when he signed on to make a fourth (and rumored fifth and sixth) entry into the franchise.  TheTransformers films are a good example of reception range in franchise films.  Audiences and some critics warmly-received the 2007 original film for what it was: a big-budget action flick with state-of-the-art special effects. However, the 2009 and 2011 entries received poor to hated reviews and were received coldly by audiences and critics despite box offices north of $1 billion. The diagnosis: the studio tried too hard to amplify what made the first film well-liked.

On the other end of the spectrum, each entry in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was warmly received by most critics and audiences from 2005 to 2012. The diagnosis: Nolan made a legendary comic book icon relevant in a post-9/11 world, never trying to out-do himself, but instead staying true to the characters and understanding where the direction of the story needed to go in relation to the characters’ arcs. I ask you, “Did Sam Witwicky really go through the same personal development and self-awareness/ acceptance as Bruce Wayne?”

Peter Jackson is in a different predicament than Hitchcock, Tarantino, Bay and Nolan; but his predicament is not unique.  Jackson visiting the same universe in two separate trilogies is not unlike George Lucas visiting the same universe in two trilogies, despite Jackson directing all six films whereas Lucas directing four of six.  The major difference is that Jackson works with source material having a pre-existing fan base whereas Lucas’s films are an original concept. Lucas’s prequel trilogy fell under harsh criticism when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace seemed to focus too much on appealing to younger audiences than a mass appeal by way of Jar Jar Binks and featuring the child-who-would-become-Darth Vader as a cute, fatherless, slave child whom everybody loved.  Lucas didn’t have to worry about botching pre-existing source material that would upset fans, but he still did by changing the tone from the first trilogy that audiences loved. Not only that, but viewers didn’t understand who the main character was: Qui-Gon? Obi-Wan? Anakin? Padme?  It didn’t become obvious until Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones that Anakin Skywalker was the main character; and he still split screen time even then with Obi-Wan almost equally.  The original trilogy made it clear that Luke Skywalker was the hero and that this was his story—something Jackson made clear with Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, and again with Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit.

Luckily for Peter Jackson, the fans have not turned on him.  In fact, when The Hobbit Trilogy was well into pre-production, Guillermo del Toro was attached as director.  Jackson seemed content with taking the role of producer and passing the torch on to another filmmaker. However, lengthy court-battles and budget constraints kept delaying production causing del Toro to drop out for other pursuits, leaving Jackson to reassume the mantle of director.  Del Toro stayed on as writer and producer.

Jackson’s first trip back to Middle Earth in almost ten years shows that he never forgot what made his first excursion so memorable and adored.  Nothing changed—in a good way.  Even the score is identical.  The Shire just wouldn’t be the Shire without its theme.  Despite the fact that the events of The Hobbit take place sixty years before The Lord of the Rings, audiences recognized Middle Earth as they knew it from the preceding films.  Of course, it helped that Jackson filmed in New Zealand yet again, but the set design and art direction didn’t change. Jackson didn’t try to pull anything on audiences like a play for a younger demographic or amplify what made the first three films into cinematic masterpieces.  He simply told the story.  The Older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) appear in the film to reintroduce audiences to Middle Earth.  Despite the opening scene not happening in the book, seeing Frodo and the elder Bilbo again let audiences know that they were in the same world and these would be the same characters they remember and love.  One could even compare the elder Bilbo’s narration to that of Galadriel’s narration in The Fellowship of the Ring because the opening scenes are narrated in order to describe what happened before the events of the film.

We’re reintroduced to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) as a younger hobbit in the same scene where we see Gandalf’s (Ian McKellan) familiar face for the first time.  This idea is very clever as we see a character we’re well-acquainted with that introduces us to a character we know before he became that character.   After this, we meet the dwarves in a pseudo-montage.   The dwarves are shown as having some differences between them but are more-or-less interchangeable save for Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) who is presented as an Aragorn-esque figure: heir to a throne, leader, fierce warrior, serious and beloved.

Jackson especially keeps us grounded in the Middle Earth from his earlier trilogy when Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves arrive in Rivendell.  In Rivendell, we see a few more familiar faces: Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Saruman (Christopher Lee). In fact, the Rivendell scenery itself looks just as it did in the first trilogy. Nothing is lost or forgotten.  The Rivendell sequence also shows Bilbo’s fascination with the civilization that came into play inThe Fellowship of Ring when Bilbo retired from the Shire to Rivendell.  Andy Serkis returned as Gollum to lose not only the one ring, but a game of riddles as well.  Serkis’s performance as Gollum this time around seemed more sympathetic and pitiful, perhaps because of Jackson’s direction in relation to the plot.  Early in the film, Gandalf tells Bilbo that true power lies in the knowledge of when to spare a life, and not when to take one.  This wisdom manifests itself when Bilbo has the option to assassinate Gollum on the way out of the mountain and makes the conscious decision to let Gollum live. Of course the inclusion of these characters are in the book as well, but the fact that Jackson was able to recast each actor/ actress in their respective roles is a testament to his devotion to the film and each actor/ actress’s dedication to their roles—even it was just a cameo for most.

The very concept of each story’s quest is similar: a large band of characters travel across Middle Earth together in a journey involving some sort of jewelry—whether it an entire kingdom’s gold or a mere gold ring. The parties have a common denominator as well—Gandalf. Ian McKellan’s performance as the gray wizard hasn’t changed or faltered a bit.  He still plays Gandalf as an optimistic, wise and powerful creature who, at times loses patience for those not as astute as himself. In fact, my biggest criticism of the film is the convenience of Gandalf’s presence. Gandalf disappears twice in the film (the first time during the troll encounter and the second time in the goblin kingdom) and just when all seems lost, he appears to save the day.  This is great once, but after that it just seems to be a plot cop-out: anytime something goes wrong, Gandalf will save us.  While this beckons to a biblical allegory with Gandalf as a Christ-like figure, it doesn’t build tension within the plot. That being said, I appreciated the homage of sorts to the eagles’ reappearance.  The moment Gandalf spoke to the moth, it was a promise to the viewer that the eagles would swoop in just as they had when Gandalf found himself trapped on the tower of Orthanc.

           

The Differences:

Peter Jackson was understandably the obvious choice to direct when news that New Line Cinema began pre-production for The Hobbit hit the public.  However, Jackson quickly dispelled those rumors when the studio announced he would only serve as producer and writer just as George Lucas had done with The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  In the years following The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Jackson attempted an ambitious, epic retelling of King Kong that was met with mixed reviews and later adapted The Lovely Bones, which was again met with mixed reviews.  It appeared as if he just wanted a well-deserved break from directing.

The studio announced Guillermo del Toro as director of The Hobbit, and so began pre-production. The public reaction to the announcement of del Toro was well-received—he was fresh off Hellboy II: The Golden Army and had already become a Hollywood heavyweight in 2006 with Pan’s Labyrinth.  However, budgetary constraints, legal issues and scheduling conflicts caused del Toro to back out of the director’s chair despite years of hard work and effort in pre-production.  Despite del Toro’s exit as director, he stayed on as producer and writer—exactly what Jackson planned on doing when New Line announced del Toro as director.  Soon after, Peter Jackson reassumed the role of director despite being well into production with Steven Spielberg on The Adventures of Tintin.

Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is undoubtedly a Peter Jackson film, one cannot help but notice the influence of Guillermo del Toro’s pre-production work throughout it—nowhere more obvious than with the scenes involving Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). Radagast’s home in Mirkwood had never been seen in Jackson’s first trilogy, so it would make sense that del Toro would have wanted to put his own personal touch in a world already inundated with Peter Jackson’s vision.  Radagast’s interactions with and affinity for animals hearkens Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth, or even Abe Sapien’s awareness of nature in the Hellboyfilms.  In fact, the very appearance and personality of Radagast is “del Torian”: eccentric, magical, nature-oriented and generally unusual.  Radagast has bird droppings down his hair—the same hair that contains a bird’s nest.  Tell me that isn’t something one would be surprised to see in Pan’s Labyrinth or the Goblin Market in Hellboy II.  In fact, the whole scene introducing Radagast would seem completely out of the “Jacksonian” realm if not for Radagast’s wardrobe resembling Gandalf’s and the spiders resembling Shelob.  Perhaps this is why Jackson would have preferred del Toro as the original director.  After all, one can argue that the events of The Hobbit are more bizarre and lighter than that of The Lord of the Rings.

On the subject of bizarre and lighter, the dwarves’ sans Thorin introduction is also unmistakably del Torian.  The rude and crude dwarves are nothing like the audience had seen in The Lord of the Rings.  The closest thing we saw was Gimli in the extended scenes on DVD, and Merry and Pippin enjoyed their drinking songs but were never as crass as the dwarves—one of which eats cheese by the wheel.  In fact, upon my first viewing of the dwarves, I couldn’t help but think about Hellboy.  He’s a lovable, strong character who drinks, belches, and is a slob.  The dwarves barge in and invade Bag End and eat Bilbo out of house and home while singing and enjoying general jocularity. Just like Hellboy and Abe in Hellboy II, the dwarves drink too much and start singing.

It is in the dwarves’ entrance that we learn much about Bilbo as well.  Bilbo is not open for an adventure and wants nothing to do with Gandalf or the company of Thorin Oakenshield.  He’s perfectly content to enjoy a nice, quiet dinner alone at Bag End for the night (and presumably for the rest of his life).  Bilbo, unlike Frodo in the previous trilogy, does not want to go off and have adventures—after all, adventures make you late for supper.  Frodo wanted to go off and have adventures just like his Uncle Bilbo; and couldn’t wait to leave The Shire with his friends. I wonder how different Middle Earth would be if Bilbo hadn’t gone on the adventure, found the ring, and inspired Frodo to destroy that very ring.

Maybe Bilbo wasn’t as chipper to join the company of Thorin Oakenshield because there was less at stake than when Frodo joined the Fellowship of the Ring.  Frodo had to destroy the One Ring to save all of Middle Earth from Sauron whereas Bilbo is a burglar whose job is to sneak past a dragon so that the dwarves can reclaim their kingdom and gold.  Frodo had all of Middle Earth on his shoulders and not a kingdom of dwarves who had moved on to start new civilizations in the years following Smaug’s invasion.  In fact, the dwarves could have learned something from Bilbo about living simply.  Bilbo didn’t need gold or a kingdom to find peace—he enjoyed the simple things in life, like supper.  However, Bilbo also realized that the dwarves had a sense of pride and belonging, understanding that the dwarves just wanted their home back.

Perhaps the lack of urgency/ stake in The Hobbit is why the film didn’t pick up the amount of Oscar attention as each film in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy had. The film was nominated for 3 Oscars, but none in the major categories. It failed to get nominated for a single Golden Globe nomination.  All three films in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy were nominated for Best Picture, and The Hobbit was not.  Even Ian McKellan’s performance as Gandalf didn’t garner the Oscar love as it had in The Fellowship of the Ring. 

However, it’s possible that critics haven’t felt the love for Jackson’s film because of his bold endeavor into using high frame rate.  Jackson decided to shoot the film at forty-eight frames per second which is twice the rate at which films normally shoot.  Although the film itself is well-received by audiences and critics, the high frame rate has not.  Perhaps audiences and critics just wanted another trip to Middle Earth without Peter Jackson experimenting with new methods in filmmaking. Christopher Nolan’s recent ventures into IMAX cameras certainly worked well in The Dark Knight, Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, just as Brad Bird’s IMAX endeavor in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Even the recent 3D trend seems to have finally caught on with American audiences as films shot in 3D (as opposed to post-conversion 3D) have become more appreciated, such as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s superior use of 3DOne thing is for sure: we can’t blame Jackson for introducing a new filmmaking trend beyond IMAX and 3D to instill a bit of new culture.

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