Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Rank 'Em: Peter Jackson's Middle Earth Movies

Enough time has passed now that I think we can look back at Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" trilogies with a little more perspective.  As many problems as I had with the "Hobbit" movies, by and large they were pretty decent as blockbuster spectaculars go, and I'm sure that younger viewers especially will get a lot out of them.  Meanwhile, "The Lord of the Rings" remains a high water mark for fantasy in film, and have aged very well.  So, to talk about all of these films, I'm doing a "Rank 'Em" post.  After all, I think it's safe to say that we won't be seeing any additions to this franchise anytime soon.

The films are ranked below from greatest to least.

The Fellowship of the Ring - The first, the shortest, and the one with the dodgiest effects work.  However, it's also one of the loveliest, with its gorgeous opening scenes in the Shire, and our first looks at Rivendell and Lothlorien.  This was the film that sold me and many others on Jackson's take on Middle Earth, and I don't think he's ever really matched it.  The film was epic, but it was so much better grounded than the others, never letting the spectacle overwhelm the story of Sam and Frodo's journey together.

The Two Towers - "The Two Towers" runs a close second to "Fellowship," though I think the split storylines and bleaker aesthetics ultimately hurt its appeal and rewatchability a bit.  Even if you're not a purist, the scenes with Faramir don't really sit right, and the business with the Ents is endless.  There's no denying, however, that the climactic  battle at Helm's Deep is one of the best sequences of the franchise.  Also, there's Gollum, who at the time was the greatest CGI character to ever appear in a live action film.  There still aren't many that match up.  

The Return of the King - Despite the ridiculous number of Oscars, this is easily the least of the original "Lord of the Rings" films.  It's overlong, much too concerned with spectacle over character, and the narrative is much too lopsided in favor of the scenes of warfare.  I'd been looking forward to Frodo and Sam's journey through Moria for ages, and found it disappointingly brief compared to the other storylines.  Still, the film overall is very strong, with some of my favorite moments of the series.  Even the ending credits make me well up.

The Desolation of Smaug - I love the entire sequence with Bilbo and Smaug, which is the high point of the "Hobbit" trilogy in my book.  Thus, I am willing to overlook quite a few of the film's flaws, including the shameless invented romance between Tauriel and Kili.  I liked several of the major action set pieces, including the barrel escape and the fight with the spiders.  Like the other films in this set, "Smaug" has too much padding, but at least the more episodic structure keeps the momentum going strong.  I was never bored, as I was occasionally with the other "Hobbit" films.  

An Unexpected Journey - I thought the "Hobbit" films started out very well with the Shire sequences and the introductions of Bilbo and the dwarves.  Martin Freeman's Bilbo is perfect. However, it took much too long to settle back into the world of Middle Earth.  Peter Jackson's experimentation with the high frame rate format definitely had a negative impact on the visuals. However, I think the biggest issue was really all the new material meant to help expand the story, especially Gandalf's and Thorin's scenes, mucking up the narrative.  It took forever to get the plot rolling.

The Battle of the Five Armies - I don't expect I'll ever totally forgive Peter Jackson for Alfrid, the Jar Jar Binks of Middle Earth.  This movie really never should have existed in the first place, extrapolating a lengthy war out of short section of the book.  More importantly, while watching it I couldn't shake the feeling that Jackson was doing all the greatest hits of the previous films, but they weren't working - spectacular warfare, Legolas doing impossible things, and loads of CGI beasties all felt underwhelming.  The ending came as more of a relief than anything else.


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