Empire_Strikes_Back_PosterStar Wars became a world wide phenomenon.  This meant that Lucas would get to build on his adventure.  Already there were comics from Marvel, novels inspired by the first film and toys galore.  How could they deny giving the audience more?!

And so, Lucas set forth to continue the story of intrepid rebels trying to take down the galactic Empire. This time he stepped back a bit from both writing and directing. Lawrence Kasdan stepped in as screen writer and Irvin Kershner as director.

Spoiling the Heck out of the Star Wars movies continues here!

 

 

 

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Picking up anywhere from a few months to maybe even a year or two after a New hope, Empire opens on a secret Rebel base on an icy planet called Hoth. Han is trying to get out back on the run from Jabba the Hutt, feeling it is no longer safe for him. Han and Leia argue over his leaving, Han believing it is because Leia having feelings about him, Leia apparently feeling he is an asset against the Empire.

Luke has had a vision of Ben Kenobi which advises him to go to a planet called Dagobah and find a Jedi Master named Yoda. When the Empire finds the hidden base they attack.  After getting the rebel fleet on it’s way, Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO find themselves on the run in the Millenium Falcon. Luke and R2-D2 go off to find Yoda.

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Dagobah turns out to be a swamp planet with no technology. Yoda himself seems to be a confused little kook at first, but really is a character meant to challenge Luke’s pre-conceived notions of what a Jedi Warrior is.

Darth Vader is on the hunt for Luke Skywalker.  The motives for this are not entirely clearly during the film.  We learn that Vader is, in fact, the right hand man of the Emperor.

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The Emperor sanctions the search for Luke, for he sees the potential of a great new ally for the Empire.  To this end, Vader has gone as far as hiring bounty hunters.  I confess, one bounty hunter stood out to me above all the rest…

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No, not him…

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Yeah…Bossk.  But he did not become the legend that was Boba Fett.  Which is garbage.

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Meanwhile, Han and Leia try hiding out with an old friend and associate of Han’s named Lando Calrissian.  Lando is a reformed scoundrel turned legit businessman, running the sky based Bespin.  But Lando, trying to protect his city cuts a deal with Darth Vader.

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Vader torments Han and Leia enough to cause a disturbance within the force powerful enough to nudge Luke a few solar systems away (I am guessing, the fact is, the relationship of various planets to each other is never really clear in the world of Star Wars). Luke immediately seeks to rush off to help his friends, but Yoda and the Ghost of Obi Wan implore him to stay and focus on his training.

Vader has Han Solo frozen in Carbonite as a test to see if it will work for his plans to capture Luke.  As Lando starts to realize he is going to see Vader continue to change the rules, he helps Leia and Chewbacca escape.  Luke and R2-D2 arrive in Bespin, quickly becoming separated as Luke enters a confrontation with Vader.

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Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2 fail to save Han, with Boba Fett managing to leave with the frozen body.  They make their way to the Falcon instead.  Luke and Vader’s confrontation ends with Luke losing his hand and lightsaber, and nearly his sanity.  In one of the most earth shattering moments of all cinema, Darth Vader reveals that Kenobi lied.  Vader did not kill Luke’s father…he was Luke’s father. Luke cannot accept this and appears to leap to his death.  He manages to catch some outcropping below the city and reaches out through the force, connecting to Leia.  She has Lando turn the Falcon around until they can rescue Luke.

Empire felt like a bit of a revelation for a franchise films.  It was not merely a retread of the the first film.  It felt like a natural extension.  Han and Leia’s relationship grows from a complicated adversarial friendship to a romantic one. Luke learns that the dark side is not merely an external force.  And the film ends on that heavy note of Luke discovering that Vader may be his father and Han has gone missing.  The Carbonite subplot with Han was actually something of a safety move.  It was uncertain if Harrison Ford would be willing to return for the third film, so it was a way to write Han Solo out if necessary.

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Yoda, a small green puppet with big ears came to amazing life, voiced by Frank Oz, who (as well as going on to be a noted director) was part of Henson’s Muppet troop and the voice of Miss Piggy.  Yoda was small, but as noted earlier, was meant to teach Luke very important lessons about his expectations.  He describes Yoda (not realizing he is talking to Yoda) as a great warrior.  Yoda just laughs and declares that “Wars do not make one great!” Luke Struggles with the force, moving small rocks and the like. Yoda can move Luke’s X-Wing without breaking a sweat.  Luke finds himself unable to deny his worry about his friends. He is easily given to fear.

And again, that reveal.  For the next three years, we argued about whether it was true.  I mean, surely, Darth Vader was a liar, right?  There is no way this could be true!

For the special edition of Empire Strikes Back, the work was largely cosmetic.  And for the most part, I approve.  There were some dialog changed (there is a redundant scene of Darth Vader telling his people to ready his ship so he can return to his star destroyer).  I really liked the changes like blending the snow speeders into the picture better. One of the issues when they made the film was compositing the speeder on a white background.  The lines around the ship were glaring.  So they faded the images just enough…which resulted in the ability to see through the snow speeders.  This was fixed for the special edition.

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The city of Bespin was now full of windows allowing sweeping cloud fill skylines.  And they expanded some of the stuff with the Wampa snow creature, allowing us to see more of the creature. But there was not anything I would call a “new scene” in the sense of that the Jabba scene was. But there was one change that made some folks genuinely mad.

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The original film features a hologram of the Emperor that is distinctly different from the version we see now.  This is because the actor playing the Emperor in  Empire is Marjorie Eaton.  The voice provided was Clive Revell. In Return of the Jedi, they cast Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor.  And so, for the special edition they more closely approximated the look of the Emperor for the hologram with McDiarmid.

The Empire Strikes Back is the high mark of the Star Wars franchise.  It is powerful, without losing the sense of fun and grandeur of the first film.

Star_Wars_A_New_Hope_PosterIn the 70’s a young filmmaker convince a movie company called 20th Century Fox to let him make a film by pretty much forgoing massive creative fees and keeping the licensing, which he turned into a massive empire.  George Lucas had an idea for an epic space film.  Now, if you follow the “Official Story”, Lucas had a bible he stuck to.  He Cut the original film into parts and made the first part into Star Wars.

The truth is a bit murkier.  It is certainly plausible he had a larger epic ready…but it is pretty obvious that the story was evolving as he went along.  But I am getting way ahead of myself.  Originally just released as Star Wars, the film was later retitled as episode 4 and “A New Hope”.

Nothing But Spoilers ensue!

 

 

 

 

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The film opened with the now iconic screen crawl telling us of the war between the cruel empire and scrappy rebellion.  We quickly are introduced to the villain Darth Vader.  Dressed in black with ominous breathing apparatus, Darth Vader intimidates the crap out of people with his super deep voice.

A young woman sends two droids on a mission, which leads them to a nearby desert planet.  There, the droids (named C-3PO and R2-D2) end up in the ownership of Lars Owen. R2-D2 is a spunky little droid who is actually trying to find a mysterious individual. This man is Obi Wan Kenobi, or as Luke Skywalker knows him, “Old Ben”.  Skywalker is Owen Lar’s nephew.  He is not content with being a farmer, he wants to join the rebellion.

Ben reveals he is a member of the order of Jedi.  Knights who defended the galaxy against darkness and protected the weak. They get help from hotshot smuggler Han Solo and his partner Chewbacca (a large alien covered in hair, looks kind of like a bi-pedal dog).  They save the Princess (well, sort of, as she ends up taking over the rescue) and the rebels lead an assault on the ultimate weapon…a planet killing space station called the Death Star.

And if that sounds like the most awesome thing in the world, five year me can assure that it most definitely was! But seriously, I saw A New Hope at five years old and it made a powerful impact on me.  Both in general of a love for movies and as a specific thing, Star Wars.  I wanted Star Wars clothes, I wanted the toys and Lucas got my parent’s hard earned cash.

But what did I love so much?

Was it how hard core science drove the images on the screen? Well, um, no.  The films are not seeking to be scientifically accurate.  The smaller spaceships fly like they are in World War 2 dog fights, there is sound in space and so on.  Star Wars wants to draw you in and does so with exciting visuals and sounds.

And the Star Wars films began a revolution in visual effects.  He used the existing technology and worked with  upstart creatives to make the technology that did not exist yet.  And while today computers and CGI rule the day, the practical model work of Star Wars holds up in the present.

The characters drive this film.  Luke Skywalker is one of those characters who works effectively as the audience proxy.  He is young and stuck in a life that is less than the one he desires.  He wants to break free.  He is also a bit whiny, but in a way that is probably more relatable than we want to admit.

Princess Leia is an inversion of the damsel in distress.  At first, it seems she is the woman who must be saved. But when Luke and Han Solo arrive, they muck up her rescue, requiring her to help get them out.  Leia is brash and tough, and a really great character.

Star_Wars_A_New_Hope_Luke_BenBen Kenobi is the wise old knight.  He tells us tales of the Jedi as the most noble policemen in the galaxy before they were decimated by the evil Darth Vader. Vader killed Luke’s father, who was Kenobi’s friend.

And this first film establishes Vader as a cruel master of the Force, though working in the service of Gran Moff Tarkin. He is not really a sidekick, in spite of a comment from Princess Leia, the film clearly implies Tarkin and Vader have discussions about how to proceed with their policies.

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The interesting choice Lucas makes though, is to frame the story not through Luke’s eyes.  Rather he does so through the two droids.  R2-D2 and C-3PO are thrown into the center of the war which, well, C-3PO is woefully not qualified for.  3PO is a fussy butler, a protocol droid.  He basically is a translator, his hands cannot even effectively hold weapons.  His companion, on the other hand, is a tough little fighter.  R2-D2 is an astro droid, essentially he is a co-pilot for smaller space ships and also maintenance for larger ships.  R2 speaks exclusively in beeps and squawks.  The film only gives us any kind of hint as to what he is saying through other characters.  Apparently, it is a commonly understood language, and everyone knows what R2 is saying, and so their responses are able to give the viewer context.

Meanwhile, there is Han Solo and Chewbacca.  Han is the adventurer Luke wants to believe he can be, but disappoints Luke because he is a craven mercenary.  Technically, he and Chewie are smugglers for the underworld of the Star Wars universe.  And Han has a price on his head, which may have made him an easier sell for Luke and Ben’s needs. Chewbacca is, like R2, a character who has no english dialog.  He howls and growls.  In this case, not everyone apparently speaks wookie, but Han clearly does and gives us insights into Chewie’s comments.  Between this, body language and the various inflections of Chewie’s growls, Chewie can be funny and sympathetic. In one scene, Han warns C-3PO against letting R2-D2 beat Chewbacca in a game. 3PO notes that nobody worries about upsetting droids.  Han notes Wookies are noted for…less than sportsmanlike responses to losing.  Chewie leans back and puts his hands proudly behind his head which really sells the joke in the scene.

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One of the defining moments for Han is when he is confronted by a bounty hunter named Greedo. Greedo tries to extort Han, but Han uses this to slowly get his gun, allowing him to fire on Greedo before Greedo can pull the trigger.  When we reach the end of the film, Han has gone from focusing only on his own survival to taking a risk for Luke and a cause bigger than himself or money. Sort of.

The thing to remember with Star Wars is that it has been an ongoing adventure in revisionism. Lucas initially made subtle changes to the film.  Calling it Episode 4, naming it a New Hope. But with the announcement of a planned new trilogy, Lucas saw another opportunity.  He would use modern technology to beef up his original trilogy of films. He had his teams clean up effects, enlarge the impact of other effects and expand the scope of the films.

Some of this involved making Mos Eisely look bigger and more populated.  Making some of the stiff creatures look more lively. making sure wheels were not visible beneath Luke’s landspeeder (kind of a hovering dune buggy) and so on. But Lucas also added scenes that had long been thought lost to time.

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For instance, Han has a run in with Jabba the Hutt.  The sequence was filmed with a human actor and they intended to super-impose a stop motion creature over the actor. But they could never make it work.  So, by the time they reached Jedi, they got to totally come up with Jabba completely from scratch.  But now the technology made it possible to go back and re-examine the scene.  And so they got to work on creating a digital Jabba.  The results were…well…

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Mixed.  It does not look awful, but it sure looks dated.  And the scene is solely interesting as an artifact of history.  As a story scene it adds nothing to the tale.  And not knowing who Jabba was or what he looks like built up his  threat across three films, and here, it kind of makes him seem…gentle.

Most of the additional stuff in the Special Editions does not bother me.  I am totally fine with seeing effects cleaned up.  But there is one intensely controversial change.  Even people who have not seen any Star Wars films are probably aware of the “Han Shot First” movement. In the remastered and expanded edition, Greedo gets a shot off before Han shoots him.  This of course, makes Han appear less cold blooded.  Sure, you could argue self defense before, but it definitely made Han seem like a sketchier dude, and increasing the power of his arc in the original.

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This is certainly not enough to kill my love for the original film.  The good of Star Wars far outweighs the bad here.  The story is exciting, the characters engaging and the film has a killer musical score.  I feel like I should have mentioned that sooner.  John Williams defined movie music for much of the seventies, eighties, and nineties. And Star Wars was the Cornerstone of that.

The Star Wars story kicked off with a bang and still fills me with the same joy I felt as a kid watching it in 1977.

Starting today, I am going to explore the Star Wars films.  This will not be strict reviews.  Instead, they are more “critical essays”.  I will go through each of the films. I already have reviewed The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi.  So those won’t focus on the reviews, as opposed to more express my thoughts without fear of spoiling the films.  Specifically, my feelings on themes and the like.

So, if you have not scene the Star Wars films and are super concerned about spoilers of the franchise?  You will want to avoid the “Nothing But Star Wars” Series.  Oh, and I will be going in the release order, so today begins with…

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Picking back up World War 2, Peter and Susan are with their father in America.  Lucy and Edmund, on the other hand, are stuck with their unpleasant cousin Eustace.  He is a remarkably anti-social kid.  One afternoon he breaks in on a conversation between Lucy and Edmund.  Lucy notices that a painting on the wall of a ship at sea seems to be moving. As Eustace berates them, water starts to poor from the frame of the painting, filling the room.  Suddenly, the children are afloat in the ocean and picked up by a passing ship.

The ship is the Dawn Treader, captained by Prince Caspian. On the ship, Lucy and Edmund are thrilled to see Caspian, Reepicheep and other Narnians.  Eustice is more…stupefied. Especially by things like a giant talking mouse. Who has a sword. Caspian explains that they are on a mission to find the missing seven Lords that were driven into exile by Lord Protector Miraz.  Reepicheep has a separate mission to reach the end of the world and enter Aslan’s land.

The journey brings them to various islands with a variety of obstacles.  Eventually, they find the dark island in their hopes to vanquish a dark force that is attacking Narnians.

This last part is a bit more confusing.  There is the addition of a Green Mist that is not in the books.  It appears to steal Narnian citizens and taken them from beyond the reach of Caspian. The film departs a lot from the book, changing character motivations and emphasizing others.

Disney was not involved in this film, instead, Walden Media teamed with 20th Century Fox for this installment.  The Narnia films have struggled, in part, from inconsistent releasing.  The first film came out in 2005, the second in 2008 and then this film in 2010. Compare this to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, which were consistently a year apart.  Or the Harry Potter films, which had a fairly consistent schedule of every two years.  We are seeing Star Wars films already on a regular yearly schedule. Three films in five years easily disrupts momentum that trying to pull off an adaption like this needs.  Especially when Narnia does not have a variety of other outlets to be kept in the front of people’s minds.

And if the films had been ridiculously high quality, one might forgive the inconsistencies.  But there is the problem.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is easily the best of the three films. Will Pouter is exceptional as Eustace and takes him from being an insufferable brat to a good kid convincingly. Simon Pegg’s Reepicheep (taking over for Eddie Izzard from the previous film) gives a likable performance.

The film’s visual effects are strong, and the Eustace Dragon looks great.  And yet, the film never really manages to feel…urgent.  Edmund envies Peter, Lucy envies Susan…the temptation of the White Witch (again!). It all feels like we have been there before, even though the setting is new.

While better than the prior films, it still never gets to be what it wants, because what it wants is to be something other than the story C.S. Lewis told.

Narnia_002_PosterComing out three years after the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian picks up in Narnia, decades after the rule of the Pevensie family. The children had lived and ruled into adulthood, but returned to our world as children, with almost no time having passed.  But in Narnia, mankind has overrun Narnia.  The mythical creatures seem all but gone.

Lady Protectress Prunaprismia gives birth to a son, delighting her husband Lord Protector Miraz.  He calls to have the rightful heir to the throne, Prince Caspian, killed. Caspian’s tutor Professor Cornelius helps him escape. Cornelius has tried to teach Caspian in the forgotten ways of Narnia and Aslan. He gives him an ancient battle horn.

In his escape, Caspian runs into the original citizens of Narnia, whom he had believed to be myth.  In a fit of panic, he blows the horn, but the horn is not an ordinary artifact.  It actually calls the Pevensie children back to Narnia. They discover the ruins of their old castle, and come across their old weapons.  The children then discover Telmarine (the ruling class of Narnia) soldiers about to kill the dwarf Trumkin.  After saving him, they start to make their way back to the other hiding creatures of Narnia. Throughout the story, Lucy is certain she sees Aslan, but nobody else seems to see him.

Eventually, they reach and meet Caspian.  Caspian has cast in his lots with the citizens of Narnia against their Telmarine oppressors.  With the help of the Pevensies, they go on a mission to overthrow the Telmarines.

This is an okay follow up, though it pretty much has all the same positives and negatives of the previous film.  It is trying hard to be an epic, instead of trusting the story laid out before it.  The film invents a temptation to bring back the White Witch for the Pevensie kids that is entirely pointless and unneeded.

Prince Caspian is not terrible…but it really is just an average film adaption. Not great.  But decent enough.

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The Last Jedi picks up shortly after the Force Awakens. It begins with a bold battle that has powerful repercussions on the characters.

Rey is trying to get Luke to come back with her to help the rebellion.  But Rey finds herself unsure of her true goals.

This new Star Wars film is building off the questions and set up of the Force Awakens, and yet, it addresses them in very unexpected ways.

Characters you know are the heroes find themselves the ones needing to learn the lesson. Others are trying to come to terms with their celebrity status. Others are trying to come to terms with heroes not living up to their expectations, and in some cases, even face betrayal.

I found Mark Hamill’s performance as Luke to be Hamill’s strongest performance in the entire series.  He is funny, frustrating, heartbreaking and heroic. And the film does this very well.

The film will likely frustrate people who have heavy theories about just how the new trilogy ought to play out, but I found Rian Johnson’s (Brick, Looper) choices to not satisfy those pet theories kind of…well, satisfying.

I appreciated the visual style, there is some genuinely gorgeous action in the film.

I really enjoyed the film, and feel it is one of the stronger films within the Star Wars story.

Narnia_001_PosterDuring World War 2, the four Pevensie children are sent to stay in the remote countryside with Professor Kirke.  A somewhat distant man, the kids try and pass the time by exploring his large home and playing games.  One day, during a game of hide and seek, youngest Lucy hides in a large wardrobe.  She discovers that there is something different with the Wardrobe.  As she pushes through coats, she suddenly finds herself in a snowy forest.

She runs into a Faun (half man and half goat) who timidly introduces himself as Mr. Tumnus.  When he discovers that Lucy is a “daughter of Eve”, he becomes worried and tries to hurry Lucy back to where she came. He explains there world (where there is no Christmas, but a seemingly endless winter) is ruled by a tyrant queen, the White Witch, who demands any member of the line of Adam and Eve should be brought to her.  Upon her return, her siblings do not believe Lucy.  And why would they?

That night, Lucy tries to return, and is unknowingly followed by Edmund.  Edmund meets the White Witch who wants him to bring his sibling to her.  She plays to his ego and desire for fanciful Turkish Delights candy.

Eventually, all the kids enter the wardrobe and find Mr. Tumnus is missing.  They are greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver who are…well, talking Beavers.  The kids learn more of the curse upon Narnia, but that many believe the world will be released by the return of King Aslan and the children of Adam and Eve.  And so the children become drawn into a battle to save  the world of Narnia from the cruel White Queen.

The Chronicles of Narnia are the beloved children’s books by noted popular Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. The series has been adapted in the past.  There was a cartoon of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe from the BBC in 1979.  And four of the books* were adapted for a live action series (also from the BBC) in the late eighties. But the twin successes of the Lord of the Rings films and the Harry Potter series made things look viable for more fantasy.

And so, Disney and Walden Media combined forces to bring us the Chronicles of Narnia.  They brought in Andrew Adamson, who was known for Shrek and Shrek 2 before this.

Visually, the effects in the film are quite good.  Aslan looks like a real lion, not just a digital cartoon.  The makeup is effect for the creatures of Narnia.  The cast is good.  And yet…the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe feels a bit…flat.  It follows the main beats of the story, but it is clear that, rather than looking to the novels for guidance?  They were looking at the success of the Lord of the Rings.  Overwhelmingly so.  The emphasis is on “epic”.  And this is not really something at the heart of the Narnia books.  The books are short, in fact, much shorter than the Tolkien’s books.  I almost wonder if the seven books total more than the three Rings books.

A certain amount of comparison would be inevitable.  Lewis and Tolkien were close friends.  When it came to their work though, they had very different attitudes.  Tolkien had no real use for allegory.  But that is what drives the heart of the Narnia Books.  The allegory is as important as the story.

And the film does not really water down the allegory. Aslan is still clearly a stand in for Jesus. Though, some might feel that Aslan seems to have less bite.  He seems a bit warm and fuzzy and a little less…threatening…even for the minions of evil.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe very much wants to be the Lord of the Rings, and this causes the film to not carve out it’s own identity against the Lord of the Rings films. Instead, it feels like a pale comparison.

 

 

 

*Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader were combined.

The_Hobbit_Battle_PosterThe Battle of the Five Armies is a very long and busy film. From it’s opening moments, it is all about trying to out do Return of the king.  Dragon fights! Giant battles against orcs! Wizard Battles!

Bilbo and the Dwarves had failed to stop Smaug who attacks Lake Town.  As the citizens try and escape his wrath, the Bard seeks to fulfill his family’s promise and slay Smaug. After ending Smaug, the citizens make their way to the ruins outside the the mountain fortress of the Dwarves.

Thranduil arrives with an elven army to reclaim what he feels the elves are owed by the dwarves.  However, Thorin becomes obsessed with finding the Arkenstone.  To make matters worse, he seems to be falling pray to paranoia.  Unknown to the dwarves, Bilbo has found the stone. Concerned that Thorin is being spiritually poisoned by his obsession, he slips out to give the stone to the Bard as a bargaining chip.   This only makes matters worse.

Eventually, the armies must unite against the armies of orcs and other evil that sets upon the mountain. This culminates in a battle royale between Oakenshield and Azog.

The Battle of the Five Armies is really a culmination of the desire to recreate the Lord of the Rings.  The changes of the first Hobbit were not really needed, but mostly harmless.  But the snowball started in the Desolation of Smaug. And here, the battle is the focus.  And everything is gigantic. It consumes a large part of the time, and it gets kind of confusing.  And everybody starts to blur together.

So many things feel like calls back to the Lord of the Rings.  And granted, this is a prequel to those films.  The book the Hobbit came before the Lord of the Rings books. But the films are a prequel.  And it is expected to see some loose connections.  But here, it feels like nothing can stand as it’s own.

This all makes for a rather disappointing final.  I did not hate the movie, but I don’t think it comes close to, say, Jackson’s very flawed but still well done King King. The flaws make the good stuff harder to enjoy here.

I don’t hate these movies quite as much as some.  This may in part be due to the fact that I don’t have a real tight connection to the series.  I did not read the Lord of the Rings books until after I saw the films, as I was nearing thirty.  I did not read the Hobbit until after I started watching the films in 2012. So, I never entered the films with presumptions of what I would see, beyond vague memories of the Rankin Bass cartoon from the late 1970’s.

But unlike the Lord of the Rings films, I do not feel the strengths overcome the flaws.  And so the Hobbit trilogy is nowhere near as satisfying a watch as the Lord of the Rings films.

The_Hobbit_Desolation_PosterThe film picks up with Bilbo, Thorin and their band of Dwarves on the run from Azog’s orcs.  They find themselves appearing to be hunted by a very large bear.  Gandalf promises they are near the home of a man who might help them with safety.  They rush, chased by the bear until they reach a remote home.

Once inside, Gandalf explains that the bear is actually the man they are trying to reach.  Beorn is a shapeshifter who is also mistrustful of dwarves, so Gandalf cooks up a plan to slowly reveal them to Beorn.

Once on their way, they find themselves facing giant spiders and elves, eventually reaching Laketown, near the mountain fortress they seek. Initially, Laketown presents an obstacle, but Thorin promises to share the riches of the mountain if they allow them passage and provide some weapons.  Of course, most of the citizens being poor and desperate, it is not a hard sell.  And the mayor is a greedy man who figures if they succeed he reaps the reward and if they get eaten by Smaug they are out of his hair.

Meanwhile, Gandalf has gone to find and confront the Necromancer, a dark being that is an impending threat to Middle Earth.

Once they reach the mountain and find the secret entrance, it falls to Bilbo to slip inside and see if he can locate the Arkenstone.  This turns out to be like looking for a needle in a haystack, as there are jewels and gold coins everywhere. Bilbo must outwit Smaug, who is wakened by the presence of Bilbo.

The Desolation of Smaug is the first of the three films to start really padding on story.  And this drags the film as a whole down.  There are some great sequences, and the Smaug sequence itself is pretty nicely done.  But the film also adds in completely unnecessary subplots like a love triangle. The film includes Legolas, whose father is the Elvenking Thranduil, as a link to the Lord of the Rings films.  Legolas did not appear in the book, though as he is the son of Thranduil, it is not an unreasonable addition.

The filmmakers felt it would be good to add a female cast member in some of the action scenes.  They created Tauriel, a young and skilled elven warrior.  Portrayed by Evangeline Lilly, she is a tough adventurer. Even as additions go, the character herself is not a problem.  I like Tauriel. However, Lilly agreed to take the role as long as her character was not in a love triangle. She was assured this was not going to be the case.  So the film has her being sought by both Legolas and the dwarf  Kili. It feels like they really wanted the Kili and Tauriel aspect be a callback to Aragorn and Arwen.  And while they introduce it as a love triangle, it is entirely pointless.  It is not a source of real conflict.  Legolas could have gone to her side simply as a friend, not out of romantic desire.  It is clear the film wants to focus on her and Kili.  And that is perfectly fine, and would have improved the sub-plot had they dumped the “triangle” part.

Honestly, the inclusion of the Necromancer stuff (none of which comes from the Hobbit, it is referenced in the Lord of the Rings appendices) is more to make the audience get those “Lord of the Rings” vibes. It does not enhance the story or threat…and it feels wholly unconnected to the main story.

Smaug looks great, and Cumberbacht’s voice performance is good stuff. The visuals are great.  I still enjoy the performances, I actually like a lot of the charcters…and yet?

Story suffers from bloat. When it drags along? It reaaaaally drags.

The_Hobbit_Unexpected_PosterWhile the Hobbit was released first, it’s road to the big screen was a bit rougher. There had been a couple prior attempts, most notably the Rankin Bass animated film.

After the success of the Lord or the Rings, the Hobbit was a no-brainer to the Studio.  At the time, Peter Jackson was suffering burnout on the series.  He was set on producing, but giving the director reigns to someone else.  At first, Guillermo Del Toro was connected, but eventually he stepped down.

Eventually, it fell back to Peter Jackson.  And so, nine years later, we received this prequel trilogy.

The Hobbit is a pretty short book. it is probably just long enough to be more than a single movie../but it is short enough to make a two parter troubling.  So, of course, they landed on making a trilogy, so as to match up with the Lord of the Rings.

As the film opens, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood return as Bolbo and Frodo.  They are prepping for the party from the open of the Fellowship of the Ring.  Bilbo starts to recount the story of the dwarven kingdom of Erebor. There, King Thror becomes enthralled by the Arkenstone his dwarves discovered deep in the mines of their mountain. His relationships with the Dwarves and men of the region become poisoned. When the dragon Smaug arrives and drives all from the mountain (as dragons have a lust for gold), the Dwarves of Erebor were forced into a nomadic life.

Now, Thror’s grandson Thorin Okenshield is leading a group of dwarves to trying and take the mountain back.  Gandalf has come to the Shire to recruit Bilbo Baggins as their thief.  And after some hesitating, Bilbo agrees and joins the mission.

On their way, they run into trolls, Radagast the Brown (a wizard same as Gandalf of the region with a rabbit (?!) drawn sleigh(?!)), stone giants and goblins. And of course, Bilbo meets Gollum.

While this covers a large portion of the book, it still is set as only the beginning of a trilogy of films. As noted, the original book is not that long.

Which means…well… a lot would have to be done to stretch the story.  An Unexpected Journey primarily does this by giving Thorin Oakenshield a primary Orc Nemesis named Azog. Short on personality, long on artistic design, Azog is big with a hook in place of one of his arms.  He desires to kill Thorin. Now, Azog is not a complete invention.  He is referenced in the book, but it was assumed he was dead.

They also use characters the books only reference.  We never meet Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit.  He is really built wholly fresh by the film-makers to rather mixed results for the film.

One of the problems the film had in theaters was a higher frame rate.  The higher the frame rate, the less your movie looks like it  was shot on film.  In spite of being a crisper picture, it creates an off-putting effect, almost like watching a home movie.  They appear to have fixed that for the blu-rays.

Visually, it is pretty neat to return to the environment of Middle Earth. The New Zealand  landscape was a huge part of the character of the Lord of the Rings films, and they are a welcome sight here.

The dedication to costumes and set design and the CGI effects are certainly on point.  And the casting is great.  Martin Freeman is a terrific young Bilbo Baggins. For the most part, while it is not nearly as strong as the Fellowship of the Ring, I did enjoy the An Unexpected Journey.