The Hobbit: an unexpected reaction

2014-01-14 00:00

“WHAT do you think of it so far?” A reasonable enough question to ask myself I thought as the credits began rolling at the end of the second instalment of The Hobbit film trilogy drawn from the book (just one) by J.R.R. Tolkien. “Rubbish!” was the prompt reply. Which came as a surprise, considering I had thoroughly enjoyed the previous trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings books (yes, three) and even went on to view the extended versions released on DVD along with all the extras.

In itself surprising, as I’m not a great fan of the books on which the films are based, which I first read back in the Seventies when the Lord of the Rings cult really took off, much to Tolkien’s annoyance. What intrigued me about them was Tolkien’s self-imposed task of constructing a fake mythology complete with invented languages.

The Hobbit began life as an entertainment for Tolkien’s young children and was published in book form in 1937. Thereafter he set about writing The Lord of the Rings, initially in similar vein to its predecessor but then the myth-making took over and it turned into a more serious three-volume affair published during the Fifties as The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Let’s get back to the movies. In the three Lord of the Rings films, director Peter Jackson together with his co-writers Fran Shaw and Philippa Boyens got the measure of the books and cleverly utilising the new technologies available to filmmakers, managed to capture the sense of myth Tolkien was aiming for. There were lapses, the talking trees didn’t work in the books and in the films are all too reminiscent of bad pantomime.

But the actors, especially, Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Sean Bean, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and motion-capture master Andy Serkis as Gollum, brought such conviction to their roles that it was easy for an audience to invest in a story about small characters with big feet — hobbits —along with the McGuffin that drove it all along, the ring.

The end result was an astonishing cinematic achievement and enjoyed huge success, pleasing Tolkien fanatics and film-goers alike. Then came the sequel, or rather prequel, The Hobbit, which in its book form lays some of the foundations for the later trilogy but is a much slighter work.

Initially there was plenty of fuss about who would direct and how many films there should be. First it was one, then it was two and finally it was three. Success bred excess.

On first viewing, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, with Martin Freeman in the title role and McKellen reprising his role as Gandalf, was intermittently entertaining but Jackson seemed incapable of applying the brakes — viz. the endless dwarf tossing plates sequence or the chases in the goblin mines that soon lost their excitement as one absurd hairbreadth escape followed another.

The simple charm of the original book had been thrown out the window and Jackson was clearly determined to turn The Hobbit trilogy into a repeat of The Lord of the Rings, employing some of the lore from the seemingly boundless posthumous Tolkien addenda to bulk up the plotlines. A second viewing on DVD was sheer slog.

My hopes were raised for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug thanks to some good reviews but, alas, by its end such hopes proved vain. The main problem is the lack of any characters to root for.

Sorry, but Martin Freeman can’t carry the film — not his fault, Elijah Wood couldn’t carry Lord of the Rings, but then he didn’t have to with all that strong support, something Freeman sadly lacks. The dwarves simply don’t cut it, most of them having to perform through several metres of braided facial hair and while Thurin, their leader, gets to look moody and do Viggo Mortensen impressions, Viggo he ain’t.

In a bid to fill the character vacuum, Orlando Bloom has been recalled for a comeback as Legolas while an invented character, the female elf Tauriel played by Liv Tyler look-alike Evangeline Lilly, has been conjured up to provide some “feminine energy”, according to writer Boyens. “We believe it’s completely within the spirit of Tolkien,” she says. No it’s not. Tolkien’s books are frequently, and justifiably, accused of misogyny.

Again the action scenes go on for far too long, often blending (uneasily) comedy with violence. The portentous dialogue rings hollow and the sight, or rather sound, of a seemingly constipated Gandalf battling The Necromancer at Dol Guldur cringingly silly. And what was that single shot of Cate Blanchett looking fretful all about?

Before I am labelled a total curmudgeon, I should point out that Smaug is a superbly rendered dragon voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the brilliant television series Sherlock .

Oh well, having got all that off my chest I’ll undoubtedly be back for the final instalment of The Hobbit, aptly titled: There and Back Again.

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