Another year, another return to Middle Earth. This one promises to be the last one (at least until the Tolkien family decide they need another cash injection), and I’ll try and comment on it outside of the context of the wider set of films (although I will touch on that at a later date). Once again, none HFR / 3D this time around – not getting burnt by that again, and also on the same screen as I’ve seen the previous two instalments so no dodgy screen / projection issues clouding the issue.
So, what do we have? Broadly speaking now some two weeks after seeing it I’m generally more positive about it – part of this is as a result of watching the extended version of the second film in the intervening period that makes sense of some of the script decisions – but on first emerging from the cinema I was distinctly underwhelmed by it to the point of borderline hostile at what seemed to be massive tonal and narrative changes.
Script decisions seemed to have been made for little or no sense other than to add another action sequence or an existing character (Legolas I’m looking at you on both counts) or broaden it into the wider scope of being prequels rather than focus on the a stand-alone story. Some of the casting decisions showed their limitations dramatically, yes it’s fun to see Billy Connelly turn up, but the problem is that he seems to be playing Billy Connelly (thankfully Stephen Fry is at a minimum this time but suffers similarly). The CGI (taking over from the excellent prosthetics of the first trilogy) is decidedly ropey at times and the look of the film (as in the actual film stock / digital look and appearance) is wildly inconsistent (watch how much it changes in the Dragon-sickness sequence – the film doesn’t appear to have been processed / coloured in the same way the rest of the films have). At two hours twenty this is the shortest of the films but it still feels bloated, pacing is sometimes uneven and there still feels a lot of surplus material.
Looking at it two weeks afterwards with a little cooler head, there are things that I have to admit I like. The Freeman / Armitage dynamic remains solid, both really manage to sell their respective roll in the whole affair (and whilst the aforementioned Dragon-sickness scene has its problems, Richard Armitage is not one of them) and bring an emotional depth to the film, Freeman really has been this trilogy’s secret weapon and hopefully he’ll continue to get leading roles in similar scale projects in the future. Armitage has the more difficult role, but it’s difficult to see where he’ll go as an actor from here, but Thorin is the sort of gift role that few actors get the chance to have a crack at, even if it doesn’t quite seem the breakthrough that Mortensen was gifted. The two manage to crack their final scene (the nubbins of the book really) and at least bring it back to some resemblance of being The Hobbit.
Unfortunately the rest of the dwarves only get limited screen time so aren’t really given time to shine (only three appear to get any length of dialogue if memory serves), and it would have been nice to have their visit to Bag End as the coda, but Jackson obviously wants this to dovetail neatly into the beginning of Fellowship (presumably this is a likely addition for the extended editions). McKellan / Blanchett / Lee are all fine, although given little to do (and the off-hand Saruman “Leave it to me” comment felt a little forced link to the later films). I’m still not fully convinced by the “evil” Galadriel version that Jackson seems to trot out when we need to see her at full power, but that may just be a personnel flavour thing (I didn’t like it in Fellowship either, even if it made a hell of lot more sense there).
Whilst some of the effects are a little ropey in their execution, the design of the film remains gorgeous. Everything looks as if it has been thought about on a cultural, aesthetic and practical level, and if the films are remembered for anything then the sense of realisation of an existing fictional world is the key strength of all of the films. The dwarven armour in particular was gorgeous this time (although I cannot explain why they chose to discard it before going into battle). I’m not quite convinced by the giant worms (visually they felt out of place, and the scale felt wrong), but that’s a minor quibble really. The most interesting aspect is how they’ve even created individual looks for each part of Orc society rather than identikit villains throughout (I don’t like the CGI versions, but Azog and Bolg are a wonderful piece of design), although a little consistency would be nice – if someone could explain how the trolls fight in day without SP50 I’d be grateful (or assume that it will be reinstated come the extended edition)?
Apart from the Necromancer sequence (dramatically different from the rest of the film but a lot stronger than the rest of the film), the film does feel a little bit like Peter Jackson on autopilot – maybe he’s spent too long in Middle Earth and needs something else to get his teeth into or hand directing duties to someone else. There’s certainly a lot of padding here (two longer films could be made of the three and still retain the story), although there still seem to be plot holes all over the place – I presume that the extended version will cover some parts of this (yes, I know I’ve commented that it feels bloated, but with both previous films the extended version actually resolves the pacing issues).
Is it worth seeing on the large screen? I’d probably come down on the side that says yes, but with caveats that this is by far the weakest of all of the Middle Earth films and that the previous issues that have bubbled under the surface are especially prevalent (running time, Legolas, pacing, Legolas…). Use caution…