Sunday, 28 December 2014

Rank the Films: Tolkien's Middle Earth


As any regular reader of this blog will know, lists are pretty darn nifty. I have a profound appreciation for straight-up lists. This is the thinking behind Rank the Films, a regular feature that pulls apart the pros and cons of a series of films, ranking them in order from bad to good.

Across six movies, Peter Jackson has redefined fantasy story-telling through the Middle Earth saga, and this month I'm ranking them from worst to best - starting with 2001's Fellowship of the Ring to the recent finale The Battle of the Five Armies, Jackson's Middle Earth saga is one of the most popular and successful franchises in movie history - but which entry tops my list?

So, without further ado, let's dive straight in - where did your favourite Middle-Earth film come? Read on to find out...

6th - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


The first entry into the Hobbit trilogy (subtitled An Unexpected Journey) is quite easily the weakest of the saga - it's by no means a bad film, but there are some glaringly bigs missteps in this, possibly the most anticipated of the bunch prior to its release. 

The main issue with An Unexpected Journey is the pacing. Quite a lot of material is drawn from outside the primary narrative of the novel, and this means it feels stretched thin. Whereas other additions add to the series (Tauriel), the decision to include Radagast is a little tiresome. Plus, it takes a whole hour for things to get going (I'm pretty sure I needed a loo break before Bilbo even left the Shire...). I my mind, a lot of this film could've been cut and trimmed to fit with the original two-movie plan.

The band of dwarves are nowhere near as memorable as the Fellowship - only Thorin, Kili and Fili and a couple of others make an impression with the rest fading into obscurity fairly rapidly. It is nice to see Gandalf back though, and the same can be said for other recurring characters like Galadriel, Saruman and Elrond.

It's not all bad though. Far from it, this entry into the saga still has a lot going for it, such as Martin Freeman's pitch-perfect performance as Bilbo Baggins, whilst Elijah Wood ties the two trilogies together by briefing popping in as Frodo. The score is fantastic, and one or two scenes manage to recapture that original trilogy magic, most notably the Riddles in the Dark sequence between Gollum (Andy Serkis) and Bilbo. 

It doesn't change the fact that An Unexpected Journey feels strung out and fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things - at the end of the film, Thorin's company are still a whole film away from reaching the Lonely Mountain. 


5th - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)


The most recent (and final) entry into the Middle-Earth saga sits alongside An Unexpected Journey owing to some similar criticisms - the main being that the narrative structure and pacing are poorly balanced.

However, where An Unexpected Journey felt strung out, The Battle of the Five Armies is essentially one big crescendo with little or no build-up. Sure, it makes sense in the context of the trilogy, but it doesn't feel like a separate, complete film - merely an extended finale where the far superior Desolation of Smaug is resolved.

Maybe that's a little harsh, and in his defence Jackson does his utmost to make The Battle of the Five Armies feel like a complete thee-act film on its own merit. The opening 45-minutes see some really well-written and thought out character moments, such as Bilbo confronting Thorin or Tauriel choosing to leave with Legolas rather than Kili. It's the battle itself that detracts from the narrative, as Jackson unleashes all manner of CGI wizardry to wow audiences with mixed results. A lot looks great, but certain moments stood out as being very poorly rendered.

On the whole, Battle of the Five Armies sits above An Unexpected Journey owing to the satisfying and touching conclusion as both the film-makers and the audience bid farewell to Middle-Earth for the final time. 


4th - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)


I know that it has its fair share of haters, but I actually really, really like the Desolation of Smaug. So much so in fact that it came seriously close to uprooting 3rd place on this list...

Anyway, this middle entry in The Hobbit trilogy improves upon many of the issues from the first film and is possibly the closest we ever get to recapturing the vibe of The Lord of the Rings. The pace is a lot brisker and the tone sufficiently darker - the spider scene in Mirkwood is chilling, whilst the malice between Thranduil and Thorin is an interesting character point that blossoms into warfare by the third film.

Unlike An Unexpected Journey, the extra material that deviates from the novel adds to the experience - it feels liberated from the source material and free to move in directions that befit the vision of the film-makers - I thought that the addition of Evangeline Lilly as elf-maiden Tauriel was particularly inspired, as was the decision to follow Gandalf's side-quest to confront the Necromancer in Dol Gudlur.

The action is a lot of fun (especially the barrel chase) whilst Martin Freeman continues to impress as the titular hobbit - the scene where Bilbo is interrogated by Smaug atop the mountain of gold and jewels contains some of Freeman's best acting in the entire series.

It's by no means perfect however - the climax is a little underwhelming, especially when stacked against the opening ten minutes of the following film. Couldn't Smaug's demise have been tacked onto the end of the second film? It would've been a fittingly bittersweet ending that leads into the power vacuum in The Battle of the Five Armies. The love story between Kili, Legolas and Tauriel feels shoe-horned in, as does some pretty unnecessary politics between Bard and the Master of Lake Town.


3rd - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) 


Yes, it's practically a masterpiece. Yes, it won pretty much every Oscar that year. Yes, it made the most money from the LoTR trilogy. But that doesn't change the fact that watching Return of the King feels like a massive chore.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of positives to come out of this film - it is placed 3rd out of 6 after all. Firstly, the cinematography, direction and production all-round is a masterclass, practically unparalleled in fantasy cinema before or since. Return of the King is Jackson working in the first degree, and the awards praise heaped upon the film is well-deserved (even if many see them as blanket awards for the trilogy as a whole). The whole cast is astounding, with Viggo Mortensen and Sean Astin the two that stand-out from the sprawling ensemble.

On the other hand, there are a few things that always annoy me about Return of the King. The Battle of Pelennor Fields, whilst massive, is quite tiresome as it rolls on and on and on. It also marks the first point where an overuse of CGI began to creep into Jackson's work - don't get me wrong, Legolas taking down an entire Mumakil is awesome in theory, but seriously? I like the action grounded and realistic thanks. This effect is compounded by the fact that it isn't the finale of the film, just one more battle en route to the end about 90 minutes later. At 201 minutes (that's just the theatrical cut) Return of the King is painfully long and has more endings than I have pairs of underwear.

Criticisms aside, Return of the King is still universally accepted as a fittingly grandiose send-off for fantasy cinemas tentpole trilogy - any nitpicks I may have don't take away from the fact Jackson's original trilogy is the benchmark for any film series from here on out.


2nd - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)


It's pretty well documented that Two Towers started life as an afterthought - originally just two films, Two Towers came into existence once New Line leaned on Jackson to adapt the three Lord of the Rings books into three separate films.

As a result, it's astounding that the final product is nothing short of a masterpiece, a well-rounded and emotional entry in its own right as well as an integral middle chapter tying the saga together.

Despite the lack of a proper start point (or end for that matter) The Two Towers effectively carries both the narrative and characters forward in a manner that doesn't feel like treading water or twiddling thumbs. Quite the opposite in fact - after teasing much of Saruman's rise to power in the first film, Jackson unleashes the full power of Isengard in this entry, with 10,000 Uruk-hai marching across Rohan towards Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli and the feeble Edoras refugees headed for Helm's Deep. Following on from Gandalf's return and Aragorn's near-death cliff-tumble, the film culminates in one of the most well-choreographed and spellbinding battles ever committed to film, the Battle of Helm's Deep.

The love-triangle that Jackson forges between Aragorn, Arwen and Eowyn doesn't feel forced or contrived, even when you realise that the trio never meet on-screen. In fact, that might heighten the impact of Aragorn's love for Arwen, and Eowyn's eventual heartbreak.

Oh, and how about Andy Serkis as Gollum eh? It would be criminal to omit his performance seeing as it pretty much sparked the motion capture craze we see forming the backbone of blockbusters like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Tintin today. 


1st - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) 



So then, onto my personal favourite entry into the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit series. To me, it's plainly obvious which entry rates highest on this list, but I'm interest what everyone else has to say - after all, each of the LoTR films are critically-acclaimed and loved by audiences. I'm sure others would have a differing opinion to me.

Anyway, to me, the entirety of The Fellowship of the Ring is a a sequence of classic scene after classic scene, with each surpassing more or less anything that has been put to film since. Think about it - from the Shire to Bree, Weathertop and Rivendell to the Mines of Moria, the Bridge of Khazad-Dum, Lothlorien and the fateful final battle on the slopes of Amon Hen, Fellowship of the Ring is iconic, timeless work of art that, in my opinion, is one of the finest films ever made.

So much of the first Lord of the Rings movie now feels entrenched in popular culture, with a multitude of quotes part of everyday life at my house - "One does not simply walk into Mordor", "You shall not pass!", "What about second breakfast?", "Fly, you fools!", "They have a cave troll", "It comes in pints? I'm getting one", "Fool of a Took!" and "Great! Where are we going?" to name but a few.

From the almost scary attention to detail to the sweeping landscape shots, ethereal soundtrack from Howard Shore and the immersion Jackson applies to every square inch of Middle-Earth is unlike anything else that came before it. Never before had a film attempted to adapt something so dense, so steeped in mythology, and still emerge smelling roses.

And now, over to you - what is your favourite Middle-Earth film? How would you rank Jackson's Tolkien saga? Let me know your thoughts in the comments down below!

4 comments:

  1. My ranking of the Middle Earth films differ (though bottom 3 - The Hobbit, top 3 - LOTR), but all of them are amazing in their own way. I'm still not fully loving the finale of The Hobbit movies (the whole trilogy could have be cut into two movies max), it had its strong points.

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    1. Couldn't have put it better myself! I don't mind the trilogy aspect myself, just some of the creative decisions with CGI and stuff. On the whole, I've enjoyed the Hobbit and wouldn't be adverse to watching them over and over - they just don't have the same resonance that Lord of the Rings has :)

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  2. Haven't seen "Five Armies," yet. As for the others, I agree "An Unexpected Journey" is by far the worst. I hesitate to even call it a good movie. It's just so bloated, it feels unnecessary. Like you said, "The Desolation of Smaug" fixed a lot of those issues thankfully. I enjoyed it very much, but I'd also rank it 4th. Honestly, The Hobbit would've benefitted greatly from being one three and a half hour movie instead of three separate flicks nearly each as long. Just not enough material to make it work properly. This is why these three flicks really have no chance at cracking the top 3.

    Speaking of that top 3, I think "The Two Towers" the weakest of the original trilogy because of something you mentioned. There really is not a proper beginning or end to it. What's in between is great, but not quite enough to move it higher. For me, at least. I switch back and forth whether I think "Fellowship" or "Return" should be in the top spot. I love them both. The fact that "Return" drags out its ending is a mark against it, so I guess we agree on the top spot. Great post.

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    1. The problem with AUJ is that the last frame still shows the company so far away from the Lonely Mountain - it makes the film feel a bit inconsequential (whereas Fellowship saw Boromir die, the Fellowship disband and the story moved onward). I was pretty close to putting DOS in 3rd (yeah, I enjoyed it THAT much) but in the end Return of the King nudged it.

      I think what took TTT above ROTK for me is that I'd sooner watch the former than the latter - simply because ROTK is SO LONG and that TTT has Helm's Deep, the best action set-piece of the whole series :)

      Thanks for the awesomely long and detailed comment Wendell :) Always a pleasure to hear your thoughts on a post of mine! :)

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