Tag: Peter Jackson

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Fellowship face one final battle in the conclusion of Jackson’s stunning trilogy

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Bernard Hill (Theoden), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Karl Urban (Eomer), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), John Noble (Denethor), Ian Holm (Bilbo), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Sean Bean (Boromir)

By the time the third film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, we all knew this was something very special. Readers of Empiremagazine voted it the 9th Best Film Ever Made the month it was released. It was showered with awards, winning every Oscar it was nominated for (11, including three for Jackson) and grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The Return of the King is a landmark – and it’s a stunning sign-off for a triumphant trilogy.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are even closer now to Mount Doom, guided by the treacherous former ring-bearer Gollum (Andy Serkis). While they must negotiate the dangers of Mordor, Sauron has sent his forces out to conquer Middle Earth. The city of Minas Tirith is his target. Facing an army of thousands of orcs, the city’s only hope is if Gandalf (Ian McKellen) can defend it long enough to allow Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) – the man destined to become king of Gondor – to lead a relief force. Will Frodo resist temptation and destroy the ring? And will Aragorn be able to defend the city and become its king?

I think it’s fair to say, with books as widely loved as this, no one is going to agree with every single decision Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens made. Here again, changes have been made – famously the scouring of the Shire that closes the novel has been cut (with Saruman dispatched in the opening scenes of the extended edition). What the screenplay seeks to do is increase the pace and tension – it’s probably why Denethor, leader of Gondor, is reinvented as an antagonist (of which more later) and events charge ahead with a relentless forward motion. There is no stopping to catch breath here: there is always a new crisis to solve.

Where changes have been made, they largely have a positive impact. For example, the film takes the decision to introduce conflict between Frodo and Sam – as well as increasing further the scheming malice of Gollum – by having the disturbed ring-addict manipulate the two hobbits into a falling out. This allows Frodo to enter the lair of the giant spider Shelob (a disgustingly visceral creation) alone. Not only does this make Frodo more vulnerable, it also increases the bravery and nobility of Sam, by having him return to save the day (and allow for a classic Hollywood nick-of-time entrance).

The change also adds to the devious brilliance of Gollum, once again superbly played by Andy Serkis. After spending much of The Two Towers bringing out the depth and sadness in this fragile character, The Return of the King carefully shows how this doesn’t excuse his fundamental ruthlessness. The film opens with a flashback showing Smeagol finding the ring, serving as a neat reminder of the Ring’s fundamental wickedness: within seconds its pushes Smeagol to murder his best friend. The sequence following Smeagol’s moral and physical collapse neatly reminds us of its danger and also how close Frodo is to all this happening to him.

Frodo’s suffering and painful growing maturity is more central here. Wood brilliantly charts Frodo’s continuing moral and emotional decline under the Ring’s influence. Increasingly a physical wreck, Jackson carefully lets the suspicion grow that Frodo’s not going to be capable of chucking the ring away. Balancing this, Astin’s Sam Gamgee (the most heartfelt and affecting performance) becomes the moral centre, self-sacrificing, optimistic and fundamentally decent – a beacon of light in the grimness of Mordor.

Again, Jackson ups the stakes, with TROK taking place on the grandest scale you could imagine. The battle sequences are breath-taking in their depth and ambition. But, as with the other films, Jackson knows the scale counts for nothing if you didn’t care about the characters at its heart. So, while the events are epically earth-shattering, the film always brings us back to simple emotion. Even in the siege of Gondor, it finds time for a quiet moment of humanity between Gandalf and Pippin.

But those battle scenes are still stunning. The orc armies are terrifyingly vast, while the strafing run of the airborne Nazgul (soldiers snatched from towers are thrown hundreds of feet to their deaths) adds to the sense that victory is hopeless. Soldiers fight desperately for their, and others, lives. The film even tops the Two Towers’ charge of the Rohirrim with a stunningly rousing charge involving thousands of horses into the massed ranks of Orc (and tops that minutes later with a second change accompanied by a sweeping camera movement and swelling musical cue that is just about perfect).

Jackson brilliantly communicates how much the stakes are against our heroes. We really feel their bravery and desperation as they take on impossible odds – and it’s that which really gives the scenes their power, not the scale or the special effects. No moment is lost without bringing us back to moments of bravery and vulnerability from our leads. There are powerful moments of warmth, kindness, loyalty and generosity throughout. It’s finally what makes the film so effective – it’s a tribute to the power of friendship.

It’s all powered with a beautifully operatic score by Howard Shore. Shore’s music captures perfectly the world of Tolkien. A few years after this, an ill-fated musical version of LOTR was launched – and flopped. Because, essentially, Shore has already turned these novels into a sort of opera-slash-concerto, with perfect themes for everything from martial orcs to whimsical hobbits. Some of the musical cues are so luscious and stirring, they make you want to stand and applaud. The music accompanying Gandalf’s rescue of the retreat from Osgiliath is a wonderful highlight, the triumphant and tense music for the Rohirrim charge is stunning, the score for our heroes leaving for the Undying Lands beautiful. LOTR is so beautifully scored, Shore’s work so gorgeous, LOTRis a film you could certainly watch with just the music playing and still understand it perfectly.

Of course, there are things you can criticise. Denethor – in the novel a portrait of corrupted nobility, his intelligence and pride turned to despair – is repositioned here as a sort of heartless WW1 General, gobbling food while his soldiers die and embracing a nihilistic death wish (although this change does allow for the absolutely beautiful Gandalf/Pippin beacon lighting sequence, in defiance of Denethor). It’s not helped by Noble’s lip-smacking performance, stripping the character of nuance. It’s gives Gandalf more to struggle against, but it’s a crude approach for a character who would have worked better as a mis-guided elitist rather than a crass, hissable villain.

Lots of people have had a pop at the multiple endings as well. Jackson certainly teases us a little too much with fades to black. But I’d argue the lack of a definitive full stop adds greater depth to the story. Tolkien was partly inspired by his experiences in WW1. In that war, the hell of the trenches came to an end, but people’s lives didn’t end with a triumphant parade. Instead, they needed to return home and adjust back into civilian life. I think it’s powerfully affecting that the hobbits return to an unscoured Shire, which hasn’t changed at all while they (and us) have seen Middle Earth torn apart. And it adds real force to why Frodo, in particular, can’t return to “life as normal”.

It gives a powerfully moving, bitter-sweet ending and, I think, brings out a rich, emotional message from Tolkien’s story often missed: Frodo and his friends are fighting to protect their home, but find that they have changed so much they can never settle back into that home in the same way again. It’s something soldiers serving in WW1 experienced, and it feels fitting echoed in Jackson’s LOTR.

Jackson’s LOTR will always spark conversations around faithfulness and otherwise to the source material. Not everyone will agree with every choice. But surely no one can argue with the majesty, scale and wonder of these films, the sublimely perfect casting choices, or the loving detail in every touch of the design. When I first saw Return of the King in the cinema, the audience got to their feet and applauded. You can’t blame them: watch this and you are watching something very special, a true landmark in cinema.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Peter Jackson’s second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is another triumph

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli/Treebeard), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Bernard Hill (King Theoden), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Karl Urban (Eomer), Sean Bean (Boromir), Craig Parker (Haldir)

After Fellowship of the Ring we knew we were in safe hands. So, the real question was would The Two Towers continue to win over long-term fans and new-comers to Middle Earth? Would Jackson pull off the difficult middle chapter, resolving some things, but leaving us with enough tantalising hooks? He succeeded: for many The Two Towers is their favourite film in the series.

The fellowship is broken. Boromir (Sean Bean) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) are dead. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are making their own way to Mordor – now guided by the former ring-bearer, the dangerously untrustworthy and unbalanced Gollum (Andy Serkis). Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are tearing across the land of the kingdom of Rohan following the orcs who kidnapped Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Meanwhile, the dark forces of Saruman (Christopher Lee) are moving against Rohan and its sickly king Theoden (Bernard Hill), determined to destroy it. War has truly come to Middle Earth – but can the return of an old friend help to turn the tide? And will Frodo and Sam find safety or danger when they meet Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham)?

Hard to believe considering the scale of the first film, but Jackson’s second Tolkien adventure ramps up the scale even further. It continues the immersive capturing of the look and feel of the novels, while reconceptualising it into something closer to a stirring, gripping action epic. The Two Towersis awe-inspring in its scale and world-creation, building towards one of the all-time great cinematic battles as the few of Rohan hold out against the massed forces of Saruman at Helm’s Deep.

Just as in Fellowship the pace and tension is heightened. With the heroes split into three groups, there are a number of balls to juggle. But Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens superbly intercut the more linear book chapters – feeling free to shift orders, motivations and inventing their own narrative flourishes to link events together. The film adapts around 13 of the novel’s twenty chapters (the rest being assigned to the other films), but is so perfectly paced it never feels overstretched or disjointed. They even add more material involving Saruman, making this arch-manipulator a larger presence in the film than in the novel.

The Two Towers radically changes many of the events of the novel – but in most cases (except one) this is done with such respect for Tolkien that even most fans overlooked them. So, it hardly matters Theoden’s motivations for making a stand at Helm’s Deep have radically changed or that the films add warg action or has Aragorn presumed dead at the halfway point. Elves turning up to fight at Helm’s Deep is such a “Hurrah” moment, only the most extreme Tolkien purist could object (they would have objected a lot more to the original plan to have Arwen fight there). Merry and Pippin’s interaction with the Ents (living trees) are re-purposed to give them greater agency.

In fact, the changes to Faramir were the only ones anyone objected. In the novel Faramir is pure-of-heart and untempted by the Ring. With much of the novel’s Frodo material transferred to The Return of the King, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens needed to make Faramir “an obstacle”. Cinematically, the idea of Faramir trying to take the Ring to Gondor – motivated by the urge to win the affection of his distant father – made perfect sense (and Wenham delivers the character very well).

But for many book fans, this was a travesty of a beloved character (for all that Faramir eventually proves his quality). I’ve never met a book fan who wasn’t displeased by “movie Faramir”. For those familiar with the films, there won’t be a problem – but I can see the point. The character is clearly, in a subtle way, different from the more whimsical and unsullied man the book presents.

If there is one element of Tolkien Jackson, Walsh and Boyens are not interested in, it’s Tolkien’s whimsy and idea of characters as paragons (or parAragorns). For the film, the conflicted Boromir is more interesting and sympathetic than goodie-two-shoes Faramir. By contrast, to Tolkien Faramir was an ideal and Boromir a shadow of the martial blowhards who led millions to death in the trenches. Tolkien wanted heroes who were more certain and perfect. The films are about the struggles people face with doing their duty, questioning their purpose. The films are not about questions of spiritualty and moral purity. Tolkien gives over long chapters to the spirituality of the Ents and one short one to Helm’s Deep – that balance is completely flipped here.

But the advantage is that the idea of true heroism being conquering your own doubts pays off hugely in the adaptation. Aragorn – a superb and hugely charismatic Viggo Mortensen, literally sweating heroism and poetic sensibility – has his character arc improved by the film. In the book, he has not doubt at all. The film establishes his reluctance to lead and unwillingness to acknowledge he is of men. From seeing only the weakness of men, he slowly identifies with them. It’s a conscious decision for him to fight at Helm’s Deep and the battle sees him finally accepting leadership. It’s a richness not found in the novel.

Of course, battles are more compelling on screen than the page. Helm’s Deep is perhaps the greatest battle on screen, a Kurosawa-inspired, rain-splatted masterpiece, perfectly mixing character beats and action. It never forgets that we care about people not action, so rarely more than thirty seconds go by without one of our heroes front-and-centre. Shots of refugees establish the stakes, the costs of war are laid shockingly bare and the battle is crammed full of awe-inspiring shots of mayhem and martial prowess. You can’t not be excited by this superbly choreographed epic, with just the right level of Jackson’s pulpish-gore background laid on.

But this is not just a film about a battle. As always, every beat is perfectly worked – even if the Ents material suffers from the reduced interest from the creative team. The opening sequence expanding the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog is jaw-dropping. The world of Rohan is created beautifully. Bernard Hill’s Theoden is plagued with self-doubt. Miranda Otto is very good as a woman who wants to prove her place in a man’s world (even if the hinted romantic sub plot between her and Aragorn feels a little forced).

But the biggest magic in the film, and its most special effect, might just be Gollum. While the computer wizardry to create the character is astounding, it works because the acting behind it is sublime. Serkis invented a whole school of acting in motion capture. The screenwriters expand the novel’s conflicted psyche and explores even more the character’s split personality – Gollum (the Ring dominated side) and Smeagol (the timid but dangerous side), both made distinctive by Serkis. Jackson’s most bravura scene might be one of his most simple, a two-shot argument between the two sides, that sees Serkis switch personality with each cut. It’s a superb combination of cinematic language and acting skill.

The Two Towers is superb film-making, with music, photography, editing and design all faultless. The acting is again brilliant – Wood, McKellen, Astin, Tyler as well as those mentioned above. But it’s also a brilliant adaptation of a novel, making changes to increase tension and drama and carefully selecting the elements that will work most effectively on screen. It’s closing battle is one for the ages, but the entire film is a perfectly paced epic, with a growing sense of danger and doom that ends on a beat of quiet hope. This series is a thing of beauty.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Peter Jackson’s near-perfect opening chapter of his Tolkien adaptation

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Sean Bean (Boromir), Billy Boyd (Pippin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond)

When it was released, people wondered if there was a market for three mega-length adaptations of Tolkien. By the time it finished, Hollywood was casting eyes at The Hobbit and working out how many films that could stretch to. Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is a film so completely perfect it pulled off the near-impossible: embraced all, from the novel’s passionate fanbase, to lovers of blockbusters and connoisseurs of cinema. Jackson turned a landmark novel into a landmark film, the sort of work that decades of other films (and TV shows) would be inevitably compared to. By any benchmark, The Fellowship of the Ring is a cultural and cinematic turning point.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a young hobbit who inherits his home from his Uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) – along with a mysterious ring which gives its wearer the power of invisibility. But more than that, this ring is the very same ring crafted by the Dark Lord Sauron: the source of his power and possibly the most evil item in the world. Warned of its danger by his uncle’s old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo agrees to carry it first to the elves at Rivendell – and then from there to the fires of Mount Doom, the only place it can be destroyed. Joining him on this perilous quest is a ‘fellowship’: Gandalf, fellow hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boy) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), human Boromir (Sean Bean) and the mysterious ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who may be the heir to the kingdom of men.

Jackson’s film faced a huge problem from the start: cater to the fans too much, make it too drenched in the high-fantasy of the novel, and you risk alienating an audience sceptical about stories of magic and elves; push the film too far the other way and it becomes something denounced by the fanbase. Fortunately, Jackson (and fellow scriptwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) transform the book into a masterfully-paced, emotionally-invested epic saga with moments of comedy and tragedy and an overwhelming sense that colossal stakes are being played for. By focusing on what makes The Lord of the Rings such a great story they helped nail making it accessible to the sort of people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a fantasy book.

The novel is carefully, subtly altered throughout to increase pace and build up the emotional depth of the characters. Its timeline is telescoped (Gandalf’s 19 year research into the ring becomes a few months), stand-alone sections removed (good bye Tom Bombadil) and personal conflicts and emotions are subtly made more prominent (most notably Gandalf’s grandfatherly affection for Frodo and the conflicted admiration and resentments between Boromir and Aragorn). What this succeeds in doing is creating a film that actually alters a lot of the original book (reassigning multiple actions and shifting many motivations) but ends up carrying so much of the emotional and narrative truth that it feels completely faithful. The tone is perfectly captured but also becomes a gripping, cinematic drama, populated by characters who feel real, for all their hairy feet or wizard’s hats.

The script is a perfect mixture of the greatest lines and quotes from the book, expanded with a real understanding of character motivation. Its all complemented by faultless direction with a sweeping visual panache from Jackson. This is a passionate director, working at the top of his game. The film is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful – New Zealand, the perfect location for Middle Earth, still dines out on the tourist trade to this day – but Jackson brilliantly mixes the epic with touches of his own Grindhouse roots. So, he can shoot stunning chase scenes with Nazgul or dreamy ascents of mountains with the same flair as he can the grimy, body horror of an Uruk-Hai’s birth. I can’t stress too much the level of Jackson’s achievement here: the film shifts between genre and tone from scene-to-scene: the Moria sequence goes through mystery, whimsy, regret, tragedy, action, awe-inspiring scope then crushing loss. Another director could have made that feel like a wildly veering train – Jackson makes it feel all of a piece. Not a single scene is untouched by directorial genius.

Jackson’s passion for the project was communicated to the entire team. In every single technical department, no effort has been spared to create Tolkien’s world (and crucially it always feels like Tolkien’s world). Stills of this film could be slotted into editions of the book and not look out of place. From the detail of the costume, design of the sets, to the writing of elvish – not a single prop, set or costume doesn’t look like it belongs. Everything feels grown out of the imagination of the reader. It’s helped hugely by the effort to recruit famed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe: their iconic visualisations of the novel inspired every inch of the design.

It’s also a film that feels real (even though so much of it was of course made in a computer). The film used practical locations and shooting tricks wherever possible. Obviously, the New Zealand landscape was used to sumptuous effect, but also wherever possible models and miniatures were used. Even the height differences between hobbits and other characters were largely achieved in camera. It’s an approach which not only subconsciously communicates an intimacy, it also helps make the story feel even more grounded: a sense of dramatic events happening to real people.

The film also brilliantly establishes the sinister darkness of the ring. One of the trickiest things in adapting Tolkien is dealing with the fact that your villains are a suspended glowing eye and a gold ring. TFOR expertly establishes the dark malevolence of the Ring, as a sinister, manipulative, wicked presence that corrupts those around it – it’s even given its own darkly seductive voice. Never for a moment does anyone watching this film doubt that it is bad news, its absolute is evil totally accepted. Think about that for a second and that is a stunning achievement.

Then there’s the score. If you ever wanted to prove to someone how important music is to the experience of watching a film, show them this one. Howard Shore’s orchestral compositions not only deepen and enrich every frame they accompany, they are also perfect in capturing the tone of novel. From the piping hobbit music, to the demonic choirs of the Nazguls, to the soaring but mournful themes of Gondor, this film could almost be a musical. Watch it without dialogue and you still follow it perfectly.

Jackson also nailed the cast. Ian McKellen quite simply becomes Gandalf, on the surface a twinkling grandfatherly presence, but below a frighteningly powerful man carrying centuries of wisdom. It’s a brilliantly iconic performance. Elijah Wood brings a wonderful innocence that slowly strips away as Frodo. Ian Holm’s Bilbo is a delightful charmer with flashes of corruption. Viggo Mortensen is all charisma and conflict as Aragorn. Christopher Lee was born to play Saruman. Liv Tyler was a revelation as Arwen. Sean Bean’s masculine Boromir hides deep-rooted personal doubt, insecurity and fear of failure. The cast is perfect.

And there isn’t a duff scene in the film. It’s opening montage is a masterclass in narrative introduction and awe-inspiring action. The Hobbiton sections have just the right tone of whimsy. The chase through Moria turns descending a staircase into a nail-biter. The final breaking of the fellowship gives us breath-taking battles and heart-rending tragedy, along with an iconic death scene.

No one else could have possibly delivered the novel to the screen better than this. Jackson’s fingerprints are on every inch of the film. It’s a masterclass in adaptation, a beautiful thing to watch and listen to, exquisitely acted and utterly compelling. Both true to the novel and totally engaging for newcomers, it might be the best of the series – and when it was released, felt like the film Tolkien fans had been waiting for their whole lives.

King Kong (2005)

Naomi Watts and a mo-cap Andy Serkis bring to life Peter Jackson’s dream in King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Colin Hanks (Preston), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Andy Serkis (Kong/Lumpy), Evan Parke (Ben Hayes), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), John Sumner (Herb), Lobo Chan (Choy), Craig Hall (Mike)

In the late 90s Peter Jackson was working hard on putting together the plans for his dream project. It was a complex project, with unprecedented special effects demands, a huge cast, a demanding shoot and a big budget. However, plans fell through, so Jackson decided to move his attention to that Lord of the Rings trilogy idea he had been banging around instead. Hot of the success of that little escapade, he delivered at last his dream: a huge remake of King Kong.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a ruthless film director, desperate to make the big epic that will dwarf all others. Pulling together a team including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and vaudeville dancer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), he heads out on a ship for location shooting on the mysterious Skull Island. Arriving on the Island, they find that the savage natives aren’t the only dangers on an Island that has bypassed evolution. The crew find themselves hunted by dinosaurs, huge creepy-crawlies and other horrors all while they try to find and rescue Ann from the Island’s Alpha – a huge gorilla, King Kong (famously motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Led by Jack, who has fallen in love with Ann, dangers surround the crew – but is mankind, and the ambitious Carl, the real danger?

Time and public perception has not always been kind to Jackson’s labour of love. Perhaps coloured by the generally negative reception to his Hobbit films (which are a mess), perhaps also by the film being more of a gentle, sentimental film mixed with cartoon-splatter horror rather than the monster-mash B movie later Kong films have been, it’s generally remembered as a bit of a disaster. This is far from fair. Yes it’s overlong (hugely so at well over three hours – nearly twice as long as the original) and over-indulgent but it’s also quite a sweet, if rather tonally mixed, film that more or less manages to keep an audience entertained.

Unlike later films which have enjoyed Kong (or Godzilla) most when he smashes things – even if he is often the film’s hero or at least anti-hero – this Kong film is perhaps at its most contented when it is finding the humanity in the ape. As a 9-year old, Jackson talks about crying when Kong fell dead from the Empire State Building – and it is this engaging giant that he wants to bring to life here. Using Serkis – cementing his reputation here as the whizz of motion capture – to have a human literally inside the Gorilla, giving real expressions and genuine character to a giant ape was deliberate. The film’s most heart-felt – and quietest – moments both involve moments of gentle play or innocence from the Gorilla, either starring at a beautiful sunset (which he does both on the island and on the Empire State) or playfully slipping and sliding on a Central Park frozen lake, this is a monster that Jackson sees as a misunderstand soul, that bond he felt at 9 brought to the screen.

That’s the key between the bond that Ann feels with this beast who starts as potential killer, becomes protector, friend and finally a sort of romantic interest of a kind. Well played by Naomi Watts, Ann Darrow herself is a damaged soul, a bright-eyed, naïve dreamer with a dose of realism slowly entering her soul, who wants to entertain people but also to make her immediate world a better, warmer place. It’s natural that such a person would start to feel a deep bond with Kong, to learn to appreciate his gentleness and protectiveness, to put herself at risk to try and save his life. It’s a huge development of the character from scream-queen, and positions Ann (or tries to) as a more pro-active force in her own story.

And the ape responds to this, slowly revealing his own true nature as a potentially gentle giant, albeit one who is prepared to rip a few T-Rex’s apart to protect his love. He certainly ends up feeling more of an ideal partner for Ann than the other men in the film. Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a determined, principled and brave man but there is a touch of inadequacy to him, a surrendering of responsibility and a lack of proactivity in his make-up. While the early love story between the two characters is sensitively drawn, it tellingly can’t survive the events of Skull Island – at least not in the same way.

Mind you Driscoll is better than Denham, who is transformed in this film to a soulless monster interested only in his own greed for fame and power. Jack Black delivers what the script demands – even if the film is pushing on the edge of his range. As Black’s stock has fallen, so perhaps as some of the film’s – and the perception of his performance here. It doesn’t help that the idea of the ruthless film director seems to be a common trope for film director’s to explore (and interesting psychological question there!) so the character’s shallow lack of regard for anyone else, coupled with his fierce ambition to be the greatest showman around start to grate after a while. It’s a character lacking any depth.

But then that’s the case for most of the rest of the cast as well, who struggle to make room in a film that is overloaded with events and action to the detriment of its overall impact. Jackson’s heart may really lie in the quiet moments between beauty and beast – but he also loves an action scene. And King Kong has too many of these. Much of the middle hour of the film is given over to a never-ending parade of events on Skull Island, that after a while seize to have any real impact. As nameless crew members are crushed by boulders, or stampeding dinosaurs, or savaged by giant insects, or have their heads caved in by savage islanders (not surprisingly these H Rider Haggard style savages, with their lust for human sacrifice, drew more than a little criticism – and it hasn’t aged well) you start to feel your interest sagging. Kong’s brawl with three savage T-Rex’s is perfectly made in every respect, except for the fact it goes on forever.

Ambition lies behind every frame (all of them beautiful by the way) of this huge three hour epic monster picture – but it gets all so much that it buries the story. Like Kong himself, it touches the heavens only to fall tragically to Earth, trying to protect the thing it loves. Jackson wants to protect Kong from being just seen as a massive ape that hits things – but loses his way at times when Kong does little more than exactly that. It is still an intelligent and heartfelt film – but it struggles as well with being an uncontrolled play in the sandbox.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Gandalf prepares to take on many foes – not least the script and editing – in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Luke Evans (Bard), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Orlando Bloom (Galadriel), Aiden Turner (Kili), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Ken Stott (Balin), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond)

I feel like I’m running out of things to say about this desperately flawed trilogy – but here we go… Peter Jackson finally finishes his great contractual obligation, serving up another film that expands out a slim couple of chapters of a children’s book into something that strains so heavily for the feel of something epic and world shattering, it feels like a constipated man struggling on the loo.

We’ve finally made it to the Lonely Mountain. Smaug is killed by Bard (Luke Evans) during his attack on Lake Town, while Thorin (Richard Armitage) seizes control of the fortune under the mountain. However, the mountain now becomes a struggle point between the dwarves and their allies: Bard and his people and Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his elves, who are all looking to gain control of its treasures. While Bilbo (Martin Freeman) attempts to make an increasingly maddened Thorin see sense, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) brings warning of an imminent attack by an army of Orcs – will this mutual enemy bring our heroes together at last?

The Battle of the Five Armies is the moment where you knew this sprawling, sausage-fest of a trilogy had lost what soul it had. Almost the entire runtime is given over to battle sequence, seems to go on forever and ever with no respite. We see a host of clashes that carry none of the poetry of The Lord of the Rings, and a host of characters we don’t really know fighting with each other. Frankly, it’s hard to care. It looks great, but it’s just empty spectacle, sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing at all. In fact, it’s all so unclear that watching this movie for a third time I still have absolutely no fucking idea what this battle is even about! What are the Orcs doing? Why are they attacking? 

As always character moments are constantly sacrificed. The dwarf company are ruthlessly trimmed of screen time–even Ken Stott’s Balin doesn’t get much of a look, bizarre as he’s been established previously as Thorin’s confidant. Apparently James Nesbitt nearly wept when he saw this film – not surprising since he must barely be on screen for more than five minutes. Crucial moments that should make us care about these characters are constantly lost: Thorin’s descent into madness occurs completely off camera, Gandalf’s struggle to keep the peace gets glanced over, Bilbo nearly gets completely lost in the shuffle from special effect to special effect.

Tragically, far too much screen time is given to two characters Jackson has parachuted into the film. Weaselly Lake Town official Alfrid is given seemingly endless scenes of “comic relief” – a shame since he’s about as funny as being hit in the mouth by a hammer. I understand Jackson must find this character funny, and that he felt some comic relief was needed amongst all the fighting – but quite frankly he’s wrong. Alfrid is not funny – I think you’d go a long way to find anyone who liked him – and secondly if they needed comic relief characters, why not let one of the dwarves fill that function rather than introducing a new character 2/3rds of the way into the story? 

The second character who gets far too much to do is our old friend Legolas. The elf’s plot line is given never-ending minutes of screen time, his struggles and conflicts given (it feels) even more screentime than Bilbo’s. Do we really need to see Legolas searching for the orcs? Do we really need to see him doing ridiculously impossible feats in the middle of combat? Are we given any reason to care about him at all, other than the fact we remember him from Lord of the Rings?

Legolas’ inclusion demonstrates almost everything wrong in this series. Did Jackson include so much of him because he didn’t need to think quite so much about what to do with the character, being already so familiar with him? When Legolas (at best a secondary supporting character in the story) has his battle with some random Orc, intercut (and even prioritised in the edit) over Thorin’s climactic battle with Azog, the clash the entire trilogy has been building towards, you know something is seriously wrong.

On top of which, Legolas’ inclusion undermines Jackson’s other big invention, the Legolas-Tauriel-Kili love triangle. Really this should be a Tauriel-has-to-marry-Legolas-but-wants-to-marry-Kili structure – that at least would work, right? We’d understand her struggle and division – and it would add a lot more weight to her feelings for Kili. Instead, Jackson is worried this might make Legolas look unsympathetic – so instead Tauriel is sorta in love with both with them, a confused, messy structure that makes no real sense. To add insult to injury, when Tauriel and Kili are threatened by random nasty Orc, who saves the day? Legolas. Who fights Tauriel’s battles for her? Legolas. Jackson introduces a love triangle, and then undermines it because he doesn’t want to criticise his beloved character. He introduces a female character, only to reduce her to a victim obsessed with lurve. It’s a disaster.

You feel Jackson threw in this plot because not a lot actually happens in this movie. Doubly annoying then that so many plots we do care about disappear so swiftly. The Arkenstone, the cause of so much struggle, is completely forgotten half-way through. The fate of Bard and the Lake Town survivors is glossed over. The dwarves get benched from the action for ages. The plotline around the Necromancer is wrapped up with embarrassing and confusing swiftness. Thorin’s plotline is rushed together at the edges, with the focus constantly on getting more fighting in shot.

It’s a real shame that the actors don’t get the time they deserve to really let their performances flourish. Armitage is, as always, superb as a Thorin who loses himself in greed and desire for gold, and becomes cruel and bitter before remembering his nobility. Martin Freeman is still great as Bilbo, honest, normal and delightful despite being given little to do. Ian McKellen still has all the Gandalf qualities of wisdom and grandfatherly authority. Among the rest of the cast, Luke Evans continues to be a stand-out as the noble Bard.

There are moments of action that really work. Smaug’s attack on Lake Town is the film’s dramatic highlight – shame its over in 12 minutes. But it’s brilliantly shot, has moments of heroics and looks great. Thorin and Azog’s battle really works because Thorin is just about the only character in the film we really care about. But much of the rest of the fighting is just silly – gravity-defying bashing (Legolas and Saruman are particularly guilty of this) or never-ending struggles in the battle itself – in which by the way, only men seem to be allowed to be seen doing anything brave.

The Battle of the Five Armies is in many ways a fitting conclusion to the series. Millions of dollars are spent on making a brilliantly designed and shot series of images. But no time is spent on making us care about anything. We invest almost nothing emotionally in the story at all. While we might be a bit sad at seeing people die, we know so little about many of them their deaths hardly stick with us. Why did Jackson not see this? Yes Lord of the Rings was a masterpiece and tough act to follow – but when you see the love and care dripping from every frame of that 12 hour trilogy, and then you move to this mess, you can’t help but think: where did it go wrong? It’s not a complete disaster – the films are always watchable – but they could have been so much more. Instead, they’re the bloated, incoherent footnotes to a great trilogy.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Martin Freeman goes on An Unexpected Journey in the first of Peter Jackson’s deeply flawed trilogy

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakensheild), Ken Stott (Balin), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), Aidan Turner (Kili), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Sylvester McCoy (Radagast), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Manu Bennett (Azog the Defiler), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Benedict Cumberbatch (Necromancer)

The little-loved Hobbit films are finished now. This may be a controversial statement, but looking back at the three films now, An Unexpected Journey is clearly the best of an average bunch, the only one that feels like it has some sort of story arc, where the padding isn’t too overbearing and we get some character moments. Despite all that, it’s (bless) a bit of a mess. A tragic missed opportunity, which are like bloated windy farts that follow through.

So. It’s three films. We all know it shouldn’t be. We all know it’s a slight kids’ book. So let’s take it as read that even this, the best of the bunch, is an over-extended three hour expansion of six chapters (six bloody chapters!) of the original kids’ fable. Never, at any point, does this feel like it needs to be a long film. Where is the depth and passion in this film? It’s a slow, slow, quick, quick, slow paced splat, which takes ages and ages and ages to get going and then runs through as many set-piece action scenes as possible. 

Why did Peter Jackson make these films? Honestly, watching it you feel he had a gun to his head. He can’t bring any love or depth of feeling to huge chunks of the film. The action scenes feel put together by a choreographer and designed to be as loud and broad as possible, rather than because they are being put together by a storyteller. 

Thirteen dwarves? This is one of the main reasons Jackson was worried about making this film. How could he make these characters distinctive? How could he build plot arcs and storylines for each one? The answer was he couldn’t. So he didn’t even bother. Now I know the Tolkien fans would have hit the roof, but for goodness’ sake would it not have been better for the good of the film to cut the number of dwarves down? So we could get to know them a bit? Because large numbers of these dwarves are indistinguishable from the other. Throughout the course of this film, as a stand-alone viewing experience, only Thorin and Balin stand out in any way as immediately recognisable. They are the only two who you can always identify. The rest? They just all mash into one. They don’t even really have distinctive moments. They are just a mass.

So you watch the overblown, overextended and yawn-worthy action and chase scenes and you just can’t get wrapped up in them. Because all we are doing is watching huge, time-consuming sequences with a mass of characters we can’t tell about, and even when we do, we don’t have any emotional connection to them. The dwarves are all sort of refugees I guess, which gives us some sort of link to them, but it’s the same back story for each one. It’s indistinctive and unclear. If Jackson had gone with his gut and cut some of these out, then the extended running time could have been used to build establishing character moments, to give pay-offs and plot arcs for them. Instead, he kept them all – and never develops any of them.

Those action scenes do go on forever. I know they all come from the book, I get it, but there is no tension in any of them. Dwarves bounce, twirl and fly all over the place. Never at any point do they really feel like they are in danger. A run over the field from some wolves – yawn. The chase sequence through the Goblin kingdom in a mine – double yawn. The second is particularly bad as it brings back strong memories of the LOTR sequence in the Mines of Moria, which had a hundred times the excitement and thrills of this. 

In fact that reminiscence is a big problem for a large chunk of the film. The Hobbit is a kids’ book, but The Lord of the Rings is an adult fantasy novel. The attempt to tie these two different tones and genres of novel is a constant hiccup. So we get the dwarves pratting around and bouncing about, in moments that seem childish and cheap. And then we get doom-laden conversations, and dark over-blown musings about the stakes of the world – stakes that don’t tie in, in any way, with the content of the action, adventure story we are seeing in the film. Then there are blatant, clumsy references back to the original – did anyone else groan when Elijah Wood wandered onto the screen? Appearances from Blanchett, Weaving and Lee are all shoe-horned in. At least Ian Holm gets to do some lovely narration. But all these moments simply remind you that you could be watching a better film trilogy than this.

But despite all this, An Unexpected Journey isn’t all bad. Yes it hares about so quickly, with no depth at all, at great over blown length, but it has its moments and it is just about entertaining enough. Jackson can still do some of these moments well – the flashback that opens the film to Smaug’s attack on the mountain is very well done; in fact it has more inspired film-making and tension than nearly anything else that follows. Yes the arrival of the dwarves takes a lot longer to get going than the film needs – but at least it’s pretty charming, and Jackson’s whimsical love of Hobbiton is pretty clear. Shame I don’t think he brought any more invention or sense of charm to much of the rest.

It’s also helped by the fact there are some damn fine performances in there. Martin Freeman is just about perfect casting as Bilbo; he’s charming, vulnerable, slightly-out-of-his depth, brave, very English – he’s great. Ian McKellen practically is Gandalf by now, and he hasn’t lost his understanding of the character’s slightly grubby, grandfatherly charm. Richard Armitage as Thorin is brilliant, mixing a gruff, maverick quality alongside his pride and resolution – and his intense sense of loyalty. Of the rest of the cast, not many get a look-in, being either cameos or underdeveloped, but Ken Stott stands out as the kindly, wise Balin.

The film is also possibly the only one of the three that truly stands alone in some way. It has some form of plot arc behind it in the relationship between Thorin and Bilbo, and the lack of trust Thorin has for Bilbo, his unwillingness to accept him into the group. Similarly, Bilbo has to learn to embrace his role with the dwarves and his place in the company. This is actually a pretty touching and carefully done dynamic, that culminates not only in the film’s most involving (and tellingly low-key) action sequence, but also a tender moment of acceptance from the previously stand-offish Thorin (brilliantly sold by Armitage). 

This is a great plot arc. It also has a negative impact on the next two films – because this is the emotional climax in many ways of the trilogy – and it came in the first film of three! With this major emotional plot line between two of our core characters resolved by the end of the first third of the sequence, what is there to do with the rest of it? It’s a major loss for the rest of the trilogy. 

But for this stand-alone film it works well. Because it reminds you there is some heart in this film – heart missing from the next two films – because it is founded on an understandable emotional bond. The rest of the company may be indistinguishable, but at least Thorin and Bilbo move us. The best moments in these films are founded on feeling and character investment. Andy Serkis makes a great return as Gollum in an entertaining exchange with Freeman. The clash between Thorin and Azog is the most engrossing in the film because it has a genuine history to it established in the film, that a zillion clashes with the Goblin King, or a pack of wolves or faceless goblins never do. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a decent movie. It has flashes of excellence in it. It’s got some good performances. Peter Jackson is still able to shoot a decent scene, even if you don’t really feel his heart is completely in it. The performances are uniformly good, and some are excellent. But the whole thing feels like an overblown missed opportunity. There was a chance to do something magic here with this Hobbit series. But this wasn’t it. You can’t cast the same trick twice.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Martin Freeman does some good work in one of the rare moments where the film actually does a scene from the original book

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug/Necromancer), Evangeline Lilly (Tauriel), Luke Evans (Bard), Lee Pace (Thranduil), Stephen Fry (Master of Lake Town), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), Ken Stott (Balin), Aidan Turner (Kili), James Nesbitt (Bofur)

The Hobbit films are an interesting opportunity to watch a team try to recapture lightening in a bottle. The Lord of the Rings films were not just a hit – they were a cultural phenomenon and changed the lives of nearly everyone involved in their production. For many of the actors it will be the first line of their obituary. The Hobbit followed the same shooting plan (two years in New Zealand, three films shot back to back) but somehow it didn’t manage to recapture the same magic. It still made squillions of dollars of course, but it’s not as loved as the first trilogy.

Of course the main problem with this is that the three films were (let’s be honest) a rather bloated inflation of a pretty short kids’ book into almost 8 hours of film making. The Desolation of Smaug is one of the biggest victims of this aggressive padding, as action sequences are crammed into to fill up the running time, at the cost of those moments of character development that made the first trilogy such a rewarding investment (and even made the first film an enjoyable experience for all its faults).

This film is all too aware that it is a “big film” and a guaranteed box-office smash, so gives us the action it thinks the punters want. Strangely it all feels more like a contractual obligation (“Peter we need more Tolkien. Three more to be exact. Do what you have to do!”) – what it probably needed (as did the whole trilogy) is a new pair of eyes on it, a fresh take, rather than Jackson having to go back to the well. To be fair Jackson acknowledged this, and tried to hire Guillarmo Del Toro to direct the trilogy (still credited as creative consultant).

The action sequences in this film bizarrely expand moments from the book with overblown padding – they are invariably the duller parts of the film. In that I’ll include the ludicrous semi-comic barrel escape of the dwarves (turned from floating down the river to a chase orgy of Dwarves-Elves-Orc conflict) and the overextended attempt to dispose of Smaug in the Lonely Mountain (again marked by unbelievable acts of athleticism and derring-do which seem so out of step I wonder if we are meant to take them seriously). Add in the huge amount of action given to Jackson-favourite Legolas and we have an awful lot of dull, over-choreographed action padding out a very slim story (no more than 6 chapters of the original book). What the makers seem to feel are the film’s tentpole highlights are in fact the sags in the fabric.

It’s a shame because the moments where the film does hew more closely to the story of the book are easily the best bits. The confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug is the film’s real highlight (helped by Benedict Cumberbatch’s superb vocal work as the self-satisfied fire breather), and (with some tweaks) it’s pretty much straight out of the book. The material in Laketown is faithful enough to the tone of the book, while adding depth to its story and the life of the town so that you invest in its fate (Luke Evans does a good job with surprisingly little as Bard). The inclusion of Beorn the shapeshifter I could have done without (one for the fans) and stupid as the spider attack is, at least it was in the original book. But the more the film starts to focus away from the dwarf plotline and onto elf politics or the terribly vague rise of Sauron story, the less it holds your attention.

Bless him, by 2013 Jackson was probably the only person on the planet excited by seeing Orlando Bloom in a film. The acrobatic elf has all the depth and interest of a cartoon character, while his now heavily over choreographed fight scenes seem to be taking place in a different universe from the first trilogy. In fact, all the scenes involving the elves are deathly dull and add very little to the plot, little more than limp attempts to tie in the LOTR story more fully into The Hobbit. This focus on Legolas also steals screen time from the dwarves, making many of them little more than extras in their own story.

The problem with ramming so much action and extra plot in to link the films into LOTR is that we don’t get the time with the characters we need in order to feel the necessary concern for them. The main problem here is that there are too many characters. There are three people who can claim to be the lead in this film (Bilbo, Gandalf and Thorin). Behind them there are at least 10 prominent supporting characters and behind them at least another 12 small but important characters. That’s 25 characters the film needs to be juggle – in other words about 6.5 minutes each if you divide it equally. Jackson does a decent job with juggling these it has to be said – but it’s still way too many. I challenge any non-Tolkien fan to successfully identify pictures of all 13 dwarves without prompts.

It’s a shame as there are some very good performances in this. Martin Freeman continues to be perfect for the lead role, decent, brave and resourceful (but with small flashes of “ring addiction”); Ian McKellen of course just is Gandalf; controversial as her extended storyline is, I rather liked Evangeline Lilly’s performance; Ken Stott does a lot with limited screen time as Balin. Richard Armitage demonstrates his star charisma again as Thorin, a complex part he invests with a Shakespearean gravitas: in this film Thorin is at times kindly, stubborn, generous, selfish, patient, temperamental, a warm friend, a deeply suspicious comrade – Armitage holds all these threads together brilliantly. Honestly the guy is an absolute star.

Overall, I enjoyed Desolation much more than I remember doing in the cinema. Perhaps it helps that I’ve seen all three films, and understand more where this film is going. It’s still an overblown, overstuffed piece of work that doesn’t have the sense of soul that LOTR has. It mistakes high octane action for human interest and struggles to make all the characters in the film make an impression. A braver adaptation would have reduced the number of dwarves – but I can just imagine the riot from the book fans… What this film really is, of course, is 4-5 really good scenes, surrounded by padding to boost the running time – but those scenes (Smaug and Bilbo, Thorin confronting the people of Laketown, the few quiet talking bits) are very well done, and they just about make the film work. On repeated viewings you’ll find yourself drifting out to make a cuppa during the barrel chase. But you’ll certainly be in your seat when Bilbo first enters the Lonely Mountain’s treasure store. And its miles better than what was to come.