Anyway, we're both major Tolkien nerds: we grew up on the stuff; she took notes in college in various Elvish languages; I collect rare editions of the books; we cut our wedding cake with Sting, etc. I'll stop there before I start sounding like an AICN article and mention my uncle squeezing my ass while I squealed (or whatever the fuck that was that Harry wrote about BLADE 2).
We hadn't watched LOTR since right before the first HOBBIT, and saw each film in the new trilogy as they were released, but almost dutifully. They were laborious. In any case, this was the longest we'd gone without seeing LOTR, in part because we now have a child (which makes marathons, let alone single-film viewings, a challenge). "Absence makes the heart grow fonder," and all that. We were quite eager to dive back into a world we loved very much, and the development of which began my love affair with websites like CHUD. I found that several years away both reinforced the things I enjoyed while simultaneously revealing things I'd been happy to overlook.
Here are my feelings on each film.
(And yes, Extended Editions only.)
FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING: By far the best of the series in my estimation. Not only will this film remain special for being our first true realization of Middle-Earth (and for "working" when there were very valid concerns that it wouldn't), but it's also the most organic. Actors were shot on location, which lends an earthy, rooted quality. When it comes to fantasy, it's important to try harder to achieve realism, and FELLOWSHIP succeeds. The use of forced perspective and swapping in and out of Tall Paul and the Mini-Me's eliminated the need for constant digital trickery to sell the difference in stature between characters; and the use of large-scale miniatures integrated into real environments and populated with CG doubles was unlike anything we'd seen before. Jackson stayed true to the book, with changes that made sense: he increased the sense of urgency across the board, and gave characters like Aragorn genuine arcs where their written counterparts had none. Incredible Andrew Lesnie cinematography was digitally treated to become an Alan Lee watercolor brought to life; the score by Howard Shore transcended anything I'd hoped for; the casting was impeccable, even when it was outside of the box. Really as close to perfect as can be expected from a fantasy film.
THE TWO TOWERS: Of the three, this film benefits the most from its added runtime in the Extended Edition -- the theatrical version was messy and never found a rhythm. The extra forty-five minutes manage to make the film feel shorter, and in fact, it almost becomes a different film entirely. The character who benefits the most is Faramir: in the course of one scene (the flashback at Osgiliath), every change Jackson, Walsh and Boyens made to his portion of the story is completely justified (and welcome); and it enhances not only Faramir, but Boromir and Denethor, and their respective motivations. This of course raises a concern: most of what "improved" THE TWO TOWERS through the Extended Edition is necessary to the plot, which makes one wonder why these scenes had been removed in the first place, and why the "fat" was retained (Aragorn's near-death experience; Arwen flashbacks). The addition of Gollum and sizeable CGI armies pulls us back a bit from the realism of FELLOWSHIP, but amazing sets and locations like Edoras, Osgiliath, and Helm's Deep still ground us in a dirty, muddy, rainy, and absolutely believable Middle-Earth. This is also where it becomes apparent that the digital grading is being used to give each film in the trilogy its own color scheme, particularly in terms of highlights: FELLOWSHIP is the gold of twilight; TOWERS is the blue of night; RETURN OF THE KING is the white light of dawn. See the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, where this was also applied.
RETURN OF THE KING: If THE TWO TOWERS was the film most benefitted structurally by the existence of an Extended Edition, THE RETURN OF THE KING is most improved by virtue of reinstating iconic moments from the book that were bafflingly absent from the theatrical cut: the resolution of Saruman's story; The Mouth of Sauron; Frodo and Sam's capture in Mordor. However, for all its grandeur, RETURN OF THE KING feels now more removed from the two films that preceded it due to the enormous reshoots that occurred in Wellington in the months leading up to release. Characters no longer seem to be inhabiting real locations because they aren't: there's quite a bit of green screen work, and it shows. It seems almost ungenerous to criticize the film in that regard, given that nothing on the scale of THE LORD OF THE RINGS had ever been attempted, and certainly not as three gigantic films shot all at once. Yet for all the seams that occasionally show, the film still works, and still hits the emotional sweet spot. I'll never understand the complaint that there were too many endings, given the sheer size of the cast and stories to resolve, particularly since by the end, I'm not wanting to say good-bye. That wordless scene at the Green Dragon, narrated only by the hobbits' facial expressions and Howard Shore's music, is a beautiful thing, and makes one want to start the whole thing over again.
AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY: If LORD OF THE RINGS had been about streamlining the story in order to focus on Frodo, the first of the HOBBIT trilogy seemed to promise bloat from the outset -- and to focus on everyone BUT the title character. Aside from the obvious disconnect in seeing actors reprise their roles while wearing every day of the decade that had passed, the callbacks made no sense because they ought to have been call-forwards. The fact that the Ring makes Bilbo invisible is never made clear; Galadriel and Gandalf pontificate on someone named Sauron, and Nazgul and Witch Kings and Rings of Power, and none of it has any context. What should be memorable character introductions for those who will appear later on in the next trilogy -- Frodo, Saruman, Elrond, etc. -- are simply walk-on appearances without any defining iconography or score. To wit, Jackson spent the entirety of FELLOWSHIP teasing Gollum's appearance; in AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, he literally just crawls onscreen. The score is clearly cobbled together elements of Shore's earlier work, resulting in misappropriations (the Nazgul theme during the orc climactic attack, while Aragorn's coronation is played when Thorin and Bilbo hug it out atop the Carrock); and what scenes are presented with reasonable fidelity to the source material (Riddles in the Dark) are confused by attempts to reference previous films incorrectly (Gollum's schizophrenia, which shouldn't be present at this time). The dwarves are incredibly inconsistent from a design perspective, and abandoning practical FX and sets lends a feeling of artificiality. Like the PHANTOM MENACE, AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is both too silly and too serious at once, and clearly the result of needless expansion. SEE: Radagast.
THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG: A film created in the editing room. There is a strain of poison -- much like the one Kili receives via the Morgul blade -- the runs throughout the lifeblood of this film, murdering any chance that it might recover; and that sickness is the bizarre, inappropriate, and completely fucking batshit Elf/Dwarf slashfic love story. Every time DESOLATION rolls out an unexpectedly good sequence that hearkens back to Jackson's earlier strengths, that fucking love story rears its ugly head again. Like ATTACK OF THE CLONES, this second installment also feels like a fanbait response to negative criticism: the emphasis on Spectacle is increased, with characters and settings from the previous trilogy appearing for no other reason than their popularity. Legolas inexplicably has more screen time than the titular character, which is both baffling and indicative of the greater problem at hand: that none of this was properly planned. One need look no further than the fact that the film stops dead in the middle (following the barrel chase) and has to work up momentum again...due to the fact that the ending of one movie has been sloppily stitched to the beginning of another. The ridiculous and unforgiveable Big Dumb Ending where Thorin stand on Smaug's face before splashing him with shitty-fake CG gold remains the series' all time low (that is, until Ed Sheeran begins singing over the credits).
THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES: With the final film in the trilogy, it becomes clear that Peter Jackson has come full circle. So much of what constituted internet chatter (and great concern) during the filming of THE LORD OF THE RINGS was a result of wrong-headed choices made early in the process that were wisely corrected. Aragorn was cast as a young heartthrob; Arwen was turned into an Elven fighter to increase sex appeal and appeal to the girls; Aragorn was going to battle Sauron in direct combat; etc. In the end, Jackson reversed those decisions, returning to the source material as a compass. With THE HOBBIT, he made those same decisions, but let them stick: Bard was cast as a young heartthrob; Tauriel was introduced as an Elven fighter to increase sex appeal and to appeal to the girls; Galadriel battles Sauron in direct combat, etc. A character like Azog -- who, in the book, was dead, and who's son Bolg vows revenge against Thorin -- is given Bolg's motivation...until it's suddenly decided to include BOTH characters with the same objective. Everything feels rushed, confused, and inconsequential...until the "defining chapter," in which the entire film is one long battle scene that still manages to feel rushed, confused, and inconsequential. The ending is wrapped up quickly (perhaps against criticism that RETURN OF THE KING took too much time), and even manages to clumsily dodge Gandalf's observation that Bilbo hasn't "aged a day" in FELLOWSHIP. Other than Billy Boyd's fantastic and completely unearned "Last Goodbye," one can't help but remember that every time we ask for something we want (STAR WARS prequels, a fourth INDIANA JONES, more ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT), we end up wishing we hadn't gotten it.
Edited by erik myers - 1/3/17 at 9:49am