Monday 13 December 2004

Spectacle and courage

In trying to write a concise review of the extended edition of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Return of the King, one is faced with three different topics each worthy of consideration. The first is this cut of The Return of the King as a movie; the second is the package with its appendices; the third is the total achievement of the whole project, which this set completes. It's going to be very hard to do justice to all three in just a thousand words.

The Movie

So firstly: The Return of the King, or more precisely this cut, as a movie. Consistently Peter Jackson's extended cuts have been, in my opinion, better movies as movies than the 'theatrical' cuts. There's a lot of new material here - not just extending scenes, but many scenes which were left out of the theatrical cut altogether, which add to characterisation, pacing and story telling.

So: the movie. It does not, of course, religiously follow Tolkien's text - nor could it. On the whole, however, it is reasonably true to the overall themes of Tolkien's text. The story-telling here is fine, and is worked on with great care. The acting, too, is fine. Among so many very fine performances, in this movie I particularly admired Billy Boyd's Pippin, Miranda Otto's Eowyn, Bernard Hill's Theoden. This is, however, very much an ensemble production. The general level of acting is high. People put their all into making this.

And not just into the acting. The costumes are spectacularly gorgeous, the sets spectacular and very largely believable, the scenery very much in keeping. In particular the presentation of the city of Minas Tirith is a tour de force, achieved by actually building quite a substantial part of the city at full scale.

But not all of that you see is real. What is particularly impressive in the CGI in this film (and there's a great deal of it) is the extent to which one simply does not notice it. Gollum, for example, is just there. The fell beasts which the Nazgul ride, and the 'great beasts' which draw Grond, are similarly so seamlessly in the piece that it is hard to believe they weren't there on the set when the camera rolled. With a critical eye you can see the CGI work in the great horse charge, and when the Rohirrim fight the Haradrim on their mumakil - but it isn't sufficiently obvious to be distracting. Indeed the one location in this book which seemed to me 'obviously' CGI - the Hall of Denethor, which seemd to me to have that hyper-reality that comes of ray-tracing - turned out to be a real (but beautifully constructed) set.

Finally, the score and sound design are again excellent.

In summary, this is a beautiful looking movie, telling a classic story and telling it well.

The package

Then the package. The Extended Edition pack comes with two disks of 'appendices', just as the extended editions of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers did; and they follow very much in the format already established in the earlier appendices, a series of documentary pieces about the background to the story and the making of the film. They don't strike me with the force that the earlier appendices did, but that is not, I think, because these are less good, simply because the format has been established and has lost its freshness. The fact remains that this is not space-filler material; for me, the 'appendices' disks of the Lord of the Rings extended editions set the standards by which all other DVD extra content is judged.

And in this case, you don't just get four disks, you get five. The fifth is about turning the film score into a symphony. Frankly, for me, that was less value for money; it didn't really work either as documentary (too much of it was simply the music) or as music (too often interrupted with commentary). But seeing it's a thrown in extra I wasn't disappointed.

The achievment

So, finally, the whole achievement. The scale and ambition of this project are staggering. Tolkien justifiably thought the Lord of the Rings unfilmable; Jackson has filmed the unfilmable and done it well. I don't quite think it's a masterpiece, but it is a very fine work of craftsmanship, with a coherent vision which produces a believable world.

Why not a masterpiece? Well, some aspects of the plot were clumsily handled. Jackson never really knew what to do with the character of Arwen, for example; and a number of the plot decisions in The Two Towers particularly just don't seem to make any sense (why drop the Grey Company and then import a whole bunch of Lothlorien elves? Why?). Part of this, of course, is a consequence of the need to cut the story into three chunks in order to be manageably marketable. I suspect that one of these days someone - perhaps even Jackson - will reshape this material into a single twelve hour of more movie which will correct some of the plot difficulties. But even so it will be flawed, because the plot really wallows around the problem of Arwen.

Finally, there are too many ham bits of movie cliche. I'd be the first to admit that Tolkien himself it rather given to having things that had lasted millenia destroyed as the fellowship passes through. You can forgive Jackson the collapse of the bridge of Khazad Dum, with Gandalf literally doing a cliff-hanger off the end. It's in the book. But to then repeat the same hammy cliche with Frodo dangling over the abyss in Sammath Naur is unforgivable. And why - why? - does the floor of the causeway in Sammath Naur collapse just behind the running feet of our heroes? Because that's the way it's been done in every hammy adventure film you've ever seen, and Jackson is too in much love with the B movie genre to rise above it.

And yet... what one remembers above all is spectacle and courage. The halls of Khazad Dum; the Argonath; Boromir's last fight on the slopes of Amon Hen; Edoras with its Golden Hall; the thunderous might of the Uruk Hai before Helm's Deep; the charge of the Mumakil; Eowyn standing alone against the Witch King of Angmar. What one remembers, despite the minor flaws, is a great piece of story-telling, telling a great story about friendship and courage.

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