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Film critics often get it in the neck for overanalysing or expecting too much from films which, for some people, are designed only to entertain. While expecting nothing other than fun from the movies will prevent one from properly exploring all that the medium has to offer, it is also true that reviewers have to keep their feet on the ground. Every so often we have to defend a film mainly because we enjoyed ourselves - and, ironically, the simplest pleasures are often the hardest to explain.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! is a good example of this phenomenon. On the surface there is nothing especially remarkable about it, either in the quality of the animation we have come to expect from Aardman, or in the conventional nature of its story. If one was in a bad mood, it would not take too long to dismantle the film, with withering comments about it not being first-rate Aardman. But the fact is that, after seeing this film, you're very unlikely to be in a bad mood.
The Pirates! (as it will hereafter be called) marks an interesting turning point in Aardman's history, at least from a technical viewpoint. Along with their previous digimation, Arthur Christmas, it marks the beginning of a partnership with Sony Pictures Animation, who three years ago produced the hilariously surreal Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This is significant due to the combination of traditional stop-motion and CG effects needed to bring the film to life.
When Aardman was creating Flushed Away, working in partnership with Dreamworks, a decision was taken early on to do the entire film in digimation, on account of how difficult water is to film and the damage it can do to plasticene. But for all its moments of charm, Flushed Away felt like Dreamworks had run roughshod over Aardman's creativity, reducing true genius into something a lot more ordinary.
Being set primarily at sea, The Pirates! involves a large amount of visual effects to create the water and the skyline around the stop-motion figures. But while Aardman and Dreamworks were constantly at loggerheads, on this occasion the effects blend beautifully, with the hand-crafted characters taking centre stage even in the most elaborate set-pieces. Aardman's strength has always been in stop-motion, and here they are allowed to work to their strengths.
As always with Aardman, the devil is in the detail. Their films are made by people who love cinema, pouring in references to films from their formative years to enrich the finished product. You won't spot all the sight gags, quirks and puns the first time round, but more importantly the story and characters are enjoyable enough to make you want to revisit them. The hearty laughs that do stick in one's mind, whether it's the fish-in-a-hat gag or the ship leaving red markers on the map, are almost like teasers in themselves, part of a gift that just keeps on giving.
The film has great set-pieces which rival anything in either Chicken Run (Peter Lord's previous film) or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The rooftop chase, in which Charles Darwin attempts to steal the last living dodo, builds like an old-fashioned 1980s action set-piece, using the full spread of the house to maximum effect. The sequence of the bath careering down the stairs is like an extended version of the boulder chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there is a brief nod to Jurassic Park as the bath leaps majestically through an enormous skeleton.
While Curse of the Were-Rabbit was rooted in horror movies, paying homage to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Hammer movies and An American Werewolf in London, The Pirates! is grounded in the old-fashioned adventure of Errol Flynn and Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers. The action sequences feel like they have been choreographed to allow for the fewest number of edits, with Lord and his animators understanding that audiences are often more impressed by the scale of a battle than the pace as which it appears to unfold.
The release of The Pirates! internationally has not been without mishap. Aardman received a complaint from Lepra Health in Action, requesting that a scene of a leper's arm falling off be removed for misrepresenting victims of leprosy. More worryingly, in America the title was changed to The Pirates! Band of Misfits!. While film titles are commonly changed, this is symptomatic of marketers having low opinions of a film's potential audience. It is ludicrous to believe that the world 'scientist' would put Americans off seeing the film. It certainly doesn't change the relatively heroic role accorded to Charles Darwin.
The characters in The Pirates! continue the Aardman tradition created by Nick Park of the inept but extremely confident protagonist. The Pirate Captain is fully aware of the motley nature of his crew, observing in one of the film's best sight gags that some of his crew are just "fish that I've dressed up in a hat." But he is as confident in his ability to plunder as Wallace is in his inventions. Martin Freeman's first mate acts as a Gromit-like foil, trying to do the right thing while harbouring a sense of duty towards his oldest friend.
The biggest criticism of The Pirates! has been its storyline. Because it combines two of Gideon Dafoe's children's books, there is a lot of plot to get through in 90-odd minutes. And because the film is not a direct pastiche like Curse of the Were-Rabbit, it doesn't have quite as rigid a structure as one might like. But some critics would go further and claim that its emotional arc is too predictable, with our heroes jumping through narrative hoops without offering anything new.
There's an old adage that the difference between a convention and a cliché is the emotional response that surrounds it: if we are enjoying ourselves, it's a convention, and if not, it's a cliché. The fact is, even if The Pirates! is in familiar waters, it is funnier and more lovingly crafted than any of the similar stories which clog up our multiplexes in the summer season. We should not take Aardman's craftsmanship for granted, and must be willing to promote this genuine passion for craft almost in spite of its familiar elements.
The film passes the acid test of any comedy, never letting up in its ability to make you laugh. The running gags surrounding the Pirate Captain's boarding parties are very well thought-out, as are the crew's disguises and the numerous map scenes. The more whimsical jokes, involving baby clothes, baboon's kidneys and ham night, are all first-rate Aardman, and Peter Lord's comic timing is on a par with Nick Park's in judging where and when to play every single gag..
The cast of The Pirates! is also of a high standard. Hugh Grant, in his first animated role, handles the Pirate Campaign with such aplomb that afterwards you won't be able to imagine him without that beard. Imelda Staunton is terrific as Queen Victoria, with a performance that makes her character in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix look tame by comparison. David Tennant and Martin Freeman provide great support in their respective roles, with the former's geeky excitability offsetting the latter's world-weariness. And as for Brian Blessed's cameo... suffice to say, no-one else could have played that part.
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! is a really great family film which will hold up to repeat viewing every bit as well as Aardman's previous offerings. Peter Lord directs superbly, handling a talented cast with near-perfect measure and blending the stop-motion and CGI very well. While it's not quite perfect, it bodes well for the future of Aardman, with or without Wallace and Gromit. Thoroughly recommended.
In my original review of the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, I concluded by saying that we couldn't entirely judge it without the context of its subsequent sequels. I spent a lot of my review (both versions of it) addressing audience expectations of the film rather than reviewing the film itself, at least not as directly as perhaps I would normally. As I explained, this was necessary in dealing with a lot of the baggage that comes with comparisons with The Lord of the Rings, which the film inevitably invites.
With The Desolation of Smaug (Desolation hereafter), we are now able to get a more accurate picture of the artistic and narrative intentions of the trilogy. The sequel to An Unexpected Journey does bring a number of improvements to the table, teasing out a little more subtext from the novel and solving some of the tonal problems. But it's still encumbered by the same narrative flaws of the first film, which the higher stakes unfortunately amplify.
On the good side, the film seems tonally a lot more sure of itself. One of the big problems with An Unexpected Journey was its flipping back and forth between the light-hearted frolics of The Hobbit itself and the darker, more serious matter gleaned from the Lord of the Rings appendices. Here, there is the underlying feeling of a gathering darkness, reflected in both the journey of the dwarfs and Gandalf's investigations of the Necromancer. The success of this latter section could also be used to justify Jackson's decision to draw on the appendices - but we shall come to that a little later.
Through the darkening tone, the film illuminates the underlying theme of greed, which all the major characters come to embody. Bilbo's growing greed towards possession of the ring is matched by the Master's corrupt political hold on Laketown, Thorin's obsession with reclaiming Erebor, Smaug's proud hold over the dwarves' riches, and the Necromancer's business in Dol Goldur. The Middle Earth in Desolation is being gradually destroyed by self-interest in increasingly ruthless forms: its stories are driven and dominated by people who will do whatever they have to, by whatever means necessary, to obtain, increase or avoid losing what they covet.
There is a political point in all of this too, illustrated by the position of the Mirkwood elves. The aloof isolationism practised by their leader Thranduil is contrasted by Tauriel's compulsion to intervene in other peoples' wars. The community is faced with a stark political choice: either they shut themselves in from the growing evil and hope to withstand it, or they actively fight against it to safeguard an unknown future.
The Lord of the Rings is often cited or described as an allegory for World War II, something which I explored in my reviews. While Tolkien did not intend for such conclusions to be drawn, there are parallels and through-lines throughout the work - for instance, regarding the two towers of Orthanc and Barad-Dûr as the twin mights of Germany and Russia, waging war on peaceful people from two sides. If we accept this logic, it is possible to view Desolation as a partial allegory for World War I; the events take place many years before Lord of the Rings, and the Mirkwood elves' isolationism and detachment from the world around them is akin to similar practices by the USA.
In addition to there being more subext, Desolation also benefits from better pacing. The first film badly dragged in a way that The Fellowship of the Ring didn't, possibly because it took a long time to adjust to Jackson's approach with weaving in the extra material. This film, by contrast, starts off very briskly and keeps the pace up all the way through. Even though it's still much too long, we aren't quite so conscious of it this time around.
As with the first film, the set-pieces in Desolation are generally very good. They do have more of a video game sensibility than their Lord of the Rings counterparts, being shot more from a first-person stance and with more unusual camera angles. But Jackson still has a knack for creating interesting character pains and deaths, something in which he has excelled since the days of Bad Taste and Brain Dead. The barrel sequence is especially fun, particularly Bombur's antics of rolling between the banks of the river while taking out a multitude of orcs.
One of the big tests of Desolation was going to be the introduction of its title character. This could have been very disappointing: notwithstanding the silliness of the Rankin Bass version, the darkness of the Lonely Mountain could have deprived us of his beauty, just as many (wrongly) held that Baz Luhrmann's editing in Moulin Rouge! deprived us of seeing the spectacular sets. But Jackson does a very good job, aided by Benedict Cumberbatch's sinister performance and wonderful delivery.
While Smaug himself may be stupendous, many of the other effects are not. Too many of the wide shots and battle sequences are obviously green-screen, in that they consist of actors running around somewhat aimlessly, looking for their marks. It's hard to say whether the increased use of green-screen was a creative decision on Jackson's part or a studio mandate to keep down the already huge budget. Either way, these scenes lack the physicality of the battles in Lord of the Rings, and the molten gold is so fake-looking that you wonder whether George Lucas has snuck onto the set.
Another big problem with Desolation is that the romance elements don't work. Tolkien reportedly tried towards the end of his life to rewrite key parts of his books to make the female characters more active. While the filmmakers can therefore claim to be enacting his wishes, Tauriel as a character is poorly written. Notwithstanding her political symbolism, she comes across as a Mary Sue whose dialogue often resembles fan fiction. Her relationship with Kili doesn't go anywhere, nor does it successfully convey the message about the need for closer ties between the races.
Criticisms like this all point to an underlying question: would it have been better to just give us The Hobbit, on its own with none of the appendices, and let it be a lesser film? The Hobbit is by its very nature a weaker story than Lord of the Rings, and trying to make it closer to the latter by filling in gaps is good for fans but not so good for storytelling. Perhaps it would have been better to do as was originally envisioned by Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, namely to create a very different universe in one film and then bridge that universe with that of Lord of the Rings in another.
This point is further illustrated by the ending, which is very unsatisfying. The final climax itself is a little too long, but the film fails where The Two Towers succeeded in having an end-point of tension and catharsis. Frodo and Sam's journey had reached a point where the trials they had survived were balanced by the scale of what was still facing them, enabling the film to stand on its own. Here, the ending feels altogether arbitrary, as though Jackson had cut where Del Toro would have cut but hadn't rewritten the script around it.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a heavily flawed second instalment of a trilogy which is a shadow of its predecessor. There's still a great deal of fun to be had watching it, and it contains many improvements which should be celebrated. But all these improvements are ultimately balanced out or overshadowed by equally big flaws. One only hopes that The Battle of the Five Armes will give us the kind of ending that we deserve.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy is such a milestone in fantasy filmmaking that any attempt to re-approach the Tolkien universe was bound to generate anxiety. As more stories about The Hobbit's production came to light, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the end result could ever come close to matching Peter Jackson's original trilogy. An Unexpected Journey is very much a flawed first part, but it is still enjoyable and balances out its flaws with enough nice touches to justify some of its running time.
In returning to Middle Earth, we have to deal with two diametrically opposed feelings. The first is nostalgia for The Lord of the Rings, films which shaped many of our childhoods and which still hold up as a near-perfect trilogy. The danger here is that we could overpraise The Hobbit simply because it feels so good to be back in this beautiful cinematic world; we feel so warmly towards Jackson that almost anything could be offered up and we wouldn't care how good it was in its own right.
The second danger, which flows from the film's production history, is cynicism. We resigned ourselves to Guillermo del Toro's departure on the grounds that Jackson was taking over and we were therefore in safe hands. We raised eyebrows at the 3D and 48 frames per second, doubting their necessity but giving Jackson the benefit of the doubt (neither turned out to be necessary). But extending the fims into a trilogy has been the straw that broke many a camel's back, and it is now very easy to regard Jackson as a mercenary who has completely lost his storytelling marbles. We might even conclude in light of this that we were all wrong about The Lord of the Rings too.
Both of these viewpoints are absurd when taken to their respective extremes. On the one hand, the filmmaking culture which produced An Unexpected Journey is very different to the one which took a chance on a seemingly un-filmable trilogy back in the late-1990s. If New Line Cinema was to go for The Hobbit at all, they would look to milk it as much as possible regardless of what Jackson or del Toro wanted. On the other hand, the source material is very different to Tolkien's later work, and so merely expecting more of the same is to deceive oneself.
Being that as it may, one of the big problems with An Unexpected Journey is its tonal uncertainty. Its attempts to recapture the epic scale and spirit of The Lord of the Rings are frequently at odds with the lighter, simpler story of The Hobbit. While Tolkien conceived of The Lord of the Rings as a mythical pre-history, with meaty subtexts about industry and warfare, The Hobbit is a children's adventure story, a trial run for something bigger and more ambitious.
Jackson's strategy of dealing with this is to consciously integrate the story of The Hobbit into the wider Tolkien continuity. The script adds in elements from The Lord of the Rings Appendices, directly hinting at or passing parallel to scenes that we recognise. We begin with Bilbo as an old man on the day of his birthday party - a scene which ends with Frodo walking down the hill, off to his first meeting with Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. This isn't so much part one of The Hobbit as 'the first volume of the rest of the history of Middle Earth'.
Having familiar characters turning up is a double-edged sword. It gives an impression of the story being part of a seamless whole, something that a del Toro adaptation might not have achieved. And there is something charming about Sir Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett returning as the characters only they could play.
But there are two problems with this. The smaller problem is that we have older actors playing younger characters; while Galadriel looks the same, neither Elrond nor Saruman are entirely convincing, both looking older and/ or heavier than their later incarnations. The bigger problem is that the more these scenes and characters turn up, the more we respond in a manner which takes us out of the main narrative. We are either irritated by them as a distraction from the actual story of The Hobbit, or are left nostalgically longing for the relative meatiness of The Lord of the Rings in the face of something more childlike and playful.
Whichever way you look at it, An Unexpected Journey is too long and very baggy. Even without its status as the first part of a trilogy, there are whole sections in the first hour-and-a-half that could have been sped up, shortened or cut. There are several moments in which the film mirrors Fellowship, with the goblin fight being akin to the orc battle in Moria, the scaling of the mountain similar to the journey over Caradhras, and of course the similar scenes in Rivendell. But while Fellowship took a little while to reach Rivendell, everything that happened up to then felt weighty and significant, and you couldn't say the same for everything that happens in The Hobbit.
That being said, there is still much about An Unexpected Journey which needs to be celebrated. First and foremost, it is every bit as beautiful and spectacular as The Lord of the Rings, with the only real differences in quality lying in marginal improvements in visual effects. Jackson's eye for composition and the superb attention to detail puts paid to any arguments about the film being entirely an exercise in cashing in. Put bluntly, no cash-grab has ever looked this good.
On a performance level, the film also comes up trumps. Whatever the wavering fortunes of his counterparts, Ian McKellen does convince us that the Gandalf we are seeing is somewhat younger. Sylvester McCoy is typically eccentric as Radagast, and is so enjoyable that it almost doesn't matter that his scenes are largely irrelevant.
Most of all, Martin Freeman excels as Bilbo Baggins, even if the film doesn't centre around him as much as it could or should. In his first few scenes, it can feel like we have wandered back into his take on Arthur Dent, complete with stuttering British politeness and a dressing gown. But once the quest begins he starts to fire, taking the best from Ian Holm's performance and making the character his own.
The best scene in The Hobbit by a country mile is the confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum in the cave. This scene encapsulates the tone that Jackson was aiming for, the subtle improvements in effects and the on-going brilliance of Andy Serkis. It also demonstrates the terrifying tragedy of Gollum as a character, showing him to be capable of great violence but also utterly broken. Serkis described Gollum as an addict in interviews, and as the tense scene wears on we understand clearly what he meant. The way that Gollum changes from fearful to angry, and pathetic to vengeful so quickly breaks our hearts even as we are compelled to run away.
After this scene, The Hobbit plays its final trump card, namely its spectacularly entertaining battle sequences. Having gone through a slow and plodding 90-odd minutes we are treated to battles with the same energy and invention that Jackson displayed throughout The Lord of the Rings. The monsters are more overtly cartoonish in their grotesque natures, with the goblin king (Barry Humphries) being both gruesome and ridiculous. But whatever else has changed about him, Jackson still know how to construct a battle sequence, using sets and props wisely to create fights that both thrill you and make you laugh.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a film which leaves you wanting more even though all its flaws are in plain sight. While it is too long and tonally unsure of itself, it contains many of the aspects that made The Lord of the Rings so special, particularly in the visuals and performances. However good the subsequent instalments or the trilogy as a whole turn out, this is a good beginning, with much room for improvement and just as much to keep us entertained.