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Month: December 2014

Into the Woods Review

For part of our Christmas celebration, James and I decided to watch Into the Woods. It was quite an experience, and we were glad we went.

Poster
Some movie posters misrepresent  the focal character but not here!

In terms of stated biases, I have only seen this story in amateur productions and high school musicals. Never anything professional. I admire the concept of weaving multiple storylines from familiar stories together, but Into the Woods is not my favorite story overall nor my favorite musical. I should also add that I am not an avid musical fan. So while I may not be overly biased, I may not be as well informed.

Please note that there will be spoilers in this review. I can’t comment on everything, so I will point out the things that drew me in particular.

Premises You Must Accept If You Will Enjoy This Movie

  • magic explains everything that is not readily understood
  • weaknesses in the original play remain present here
  • ham and cheese make this film more palatable (and I mean that as a compliment)
  • the story runs wide rather than deep

Acting in General

I’ll get into some of the characters more specifically later. But overall, well done and mostly well cast.

Yes, there were hammy performances, but they fit the tone and the mood. Meryl Streep was stunning from her first appearance to the last. I’ll get to “The Last Midnight” later, but let me say that I was looking forward to that song most of all, and it exceeded my hopes. Daniel Huttlestone was even better here than he was in Les Miserables, and he made an adorable and sympathetic Jack. He was everything a young Jack should be.  Chris Pine shocked me with his smarmy Prince Charming and had me cracking up at all the right moments. Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife was sympathetic and sweet, and James Corden played the role of the nice guy moving on to make his own path well. Lilla Crawford did so well as the ever hungry and curious Red Riding Hood. I didn’t really have any characters or images in mind when I envisioned this theatrical release, but none of the casting or acting disappointed me really except Cinderella.

Jack
Yes, yes, let’s lie to a poor foolish child. What could possibly go wrong? It’s not like these are magic beans!

All in all, I felt that Into the Woods provided a stronger Jack and the Beanstalk story than Jack the Giant Slayer and will likely be a better Cinderella story than Disney’s upcoming Cinderella. Costuming and set design seemed top notch, though the CGI effects were cheaper looking in the distance shots more than the close-ups.

Wow, Jaw Dropping Meryl Streep

The previews convinced me that Meryl Streep could do this role justice, but the previews in no way did justice to what she did on the big screen. She plays the character well, sometimes slipping into more modern dialogue and sometimes sharing the audience’s perceptions. She scares at the right times, provokes laughs at the right points, and captures the voice of the original play with ease. (I have always felt that most of the story’s momentum dies with the Witch, and this was true especially here.)

My one criticism would be that in the beginning, she is supposed to be ugly. Now, don’t get me wrong. She’s no beauty, but nor is she ugly. She is just Hollywood ugly. Her nails are too long and yellow, her teeth look somewhat nasty, and her hair is wild. But really…she just looks like she needs a bit of a makeover. Given the budget as well as the CGI capabilities, I expected her to look hideous. I’ve looked worse some mornings, I’m afraid, and I have no curse to blame. That said, she does look stunning after her transformation. The blue palette compliments her skin, and I can only hope I look as good at her age.

Just In Need of a Makeover
Swap the gown to an oversized black tank top and a pair of yoga pants, make the hair a bit darker and wilder, and that’s about how I look when I realize I’ve misplaced one of my notebooks.

The part I looked forward to the most was “The Last Midnight.” That’s always been one of my favorite songs from the play, and this rendition was every bit what I hoped and more. She sang it with such energy and passion. The song built and built and built until it delivered its final fatal punch. The lighting, the score, the acting, and the costuming were dramatic, over the top, and every bit what I anticipated. At a few points, my fellow moviegoers were sitting there open mouthed. Between “The Last Midnight” and “Agony,” the movie was worth the price.

All in all, I found every bit of Meryl Streep’s performance enjoyable and riveting. She didn’t just play this role. She poured herself into it, and it showed.

The Big Bad Wolf As Bad As Can Be

I had no idea what to expect with Johnny Depp’s performance. He can turn in stunning performances, and he can sometimes just be strange, odd, and frightening. In this case, well, it was a bit of both, which is what I think he was going for.

The sexual overtones remain in place, though if I recall correctly they have been toned down somewhat. But the somewhat lascivious response the Wolf has toward Red Riding Hood is hard to miss. I suppose one could argue that

If only real pedophiles were this obvious....
If only real pedophiles were this obvious….

there is nothing in it, but all in all, it feels more like a nod to some of the original Red Riding Hood stories. More implication than blatant discussion. But exceptionally uncomfortable to watch.

That said, Johnny Depp gave it his all. From the stalking around the tree to the first “Hello, little girl” to the final howl at the end, he was an unforgettable Wolf. This particular rendition of the song was one I can’t get out of my head. It is disturbing but well blended, punchy and almost cartoonish. It’s quite difficult to describe, but, all in all, it felt like the right choice and it was about on the same level as the Princes’ “Agony” in terms of ham and energy. I would add though that his costume did appear more theatrical and garish compared to the other costumes. My husband, who has more experience with

Jeff Goldblum's Wolf was a little less obvious than Depp's, but still...one should be quite cautious of folks like this.
Jeff Goldblum’s Wolf was a little less obvious than Depp’s, but still…one should be quite cautious of folks like this.

musicals and plays, said that in most of the other renditions he’s seen, the Wolf wore a fur outfit. Here the Wolf had the look of a more sophisticated Jeff Goldblum’s Wolf from the Three Little Pigs (Fairie Tale Theatre).

Cinderella, Nice But Not Good the Perfect Summary

I always found Cinderella’s story to be one of the more intriguing ones in the original play because it provided fascinating insight into this young woman who remained in such a horrid situation for so long. The fact that Cinderella would actually consider remaining in the abusive home she shared with her stepmother and stepsisters rather than make a choice that might be wrong was intriguing. And promising. The problem though is that Cinderella here fades to the background and seems significantly less important and interesting than the Baker and his wife or any of the other characters.

Oh my goodness, he laid a trap for me! Aha! That's not a warning sign at all. I'm glad that this prince doesn't show any other dangerous tendencies.
Oh my goodness, he laid a trap for me! Aha! That’s not a warning sign at all. I’m glad that this prince doesn’t show any other dangerous tendencies.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a beautiful standout moment in the story. The “On the Steps of the Palace” song was so well done. It captured Cinderella’s dilemma as well as her inner struggle and personality. Plus it had more choreography than I anticipated, and the setting itself added to the magical atmosphere. Anna Kendrick played it quite well, singing with emotion and even showing happiness as she made the decision to make no decision and force the Prince to choose.

In fairness, part of Cinderella’s character development is weakened because the story is slammed together in the overall pacing, particularly at the end where Cinderella should be revealed more fully. And her confrontation of the Prince as well as her bidding him farewell is shortened tremendously. There’s no real sense of regret or sadness that the two are split apart or that Cinderella has even lost anything she wants. The loss seemed as inconsequential as losing a shoe. Here I do not blame the actress. The writing in her overall development gave the actress little to work with. The prince’s infidelity seems irrelevant to her and receives less time than her indecisiveness and generally neutral feelings at first.

The stepmother and stepsisters were deliciously awful and hammy. I chuckled to see Lucy Punch in the role of Lucinda. She played almost the

Oh yes, do trust us, your Highness. If the black and gold wasn't enough to tip you off, perhaps these smirking smiles will reassure you.
Oh yes, do trust us, your Highness. If the black and gold wasn’t enough to tip you off, perhaps these smirking smiles will reassure you.

exact same character in Ella Enchanted, and she did it just as well. It was cartoonish and lacking in any sort of nuance, but it was never intended to be nuanced in the first place.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Let’s Change Your End

In the original play, Rapunzel has nervous breakdowns, gives birth to twins, and ultimately dies as her prince goes on to pursue another fairy tale princess. In the movie, however, she and her prince ride off after the witch gives her warning. There’s no indication that anything bad happens to Rapunzel and her prince. We see nothing of her or her prince ever again. There is only the witch’s warning that she should have listened and that the world is dangerous.

Now…I suppose that it could be said we don’t know that Rapunzel didn’t die. Something terrible might have happened to her. But, in my opinion, Rapunzel’s apparent happy ending really cuts away at the deeper meaning of the original play, which was that there was no such thing as a happily ever after. Her story line was not developed enough to suggest that there is hope for a happy ending after all (though it seems that that must be what the aim was). But neither is it dark or bleak. It just feels unfinished. Or as if the producers were concerned that the real Rapunzel story told in Into the Woods would be too dark. Admittedly, it is dark, but it added a great deal to the tone and motivation.

Personally, I think this change was a misstep. Rapunzel’s demise demonstrated the validity of the Witch’s w

I add nothing to the story really except another beautiful white woman because...well...heaven knows this story needed more classic white beauties.
I add nothing to this story. But would you seriously believe I am the Baker’s Sister? Yeah, didn’t think so.

arning. Plus the prince’s philandering ways painted such a bleak and sorrowful end to her that it underscored Sondheim’s original point. Without that change, Rapunzel seems unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the song “Stay with Me.” Meryl Streep did a beautiful emotional job with it. But just about every other purpose that Rapunzel served could be met through altering the story further and without further loss of the story’s integrity.

Sometimes a happy ending is worse than a sad or tragic one when it is forced. It’s even sadder when the story just feels unfinished. It makes the point less clear, and even if life may be that way, the ambiguity hurts the story and overall flow and purpose.

Agony…From Laughing Hysterically

One of the downsides of watching primarily high school renditions of Into the Woods is that most high school students do not have the chutzpah and confidence to pull off the roles of the princes. They are a special pair, aren’t they? So full of themselves and so confused by the women they wish to claim. Well…Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen deliver on every aspect, right

Yes...can't you tell, we're related. We're brothers I tell you. brothers!
Yes…can’t you tell, we’re related. We’re brothers I tell you, brothers!

down to the demonstrated competitiveness and rivalry between the two.

The song “Agony” is one of the best in the film. It had the audience laughing at several points as the two brothers strive to outdo one another in a well choreographed dance scene beside and over a river. There’s tearing of the shirts, heaving of the chests, arching of the eyebrows, deepening of the voices, and flinging of the arms. It’s overdramatic, cheesy, hammy, and utterly splendid.

Similarly his song with the Baker’s Wife is quite over the top as well, though it does feel more like he is pushing her into something she is not all together comfortable with. The parallels between the Wolf and Red with the Prince and the Baker’s Wife would be interesting, but that’s another discussion.

Chris Pine’s Prince though also vanishes from the story too soon. His pursuit of yet another fairy tale princess after he leaves Cinderella and enjoys the Baker’s wife demonstrates his shallowness in the play. That’s cut though. While he does share some passionate kisses with the Baker’s Wife, he does not take on another princess later. Here, he and Cinderella share a brief conversation after she learns that he cheated on her. And while Pine delivers the line “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” with fantastic personality, the scene ends too quickly. He, like Rapunzel’s prince, disappears after this

In some ways, Chris Pine plays more a parody of Shatner's Captain Kirk than he did in Star Trek. If only Sleeping Beauty had had green skin!
In some ways, Chris Pine plays more a parody of Shatner’s Captain Kirk than he did in Star Trek. If only Sleeping Beauty had had green skin!

. We do not see him again with his newest conquest, and there is no reprise of the famed “Agony.”

Don’t get me wrong. What scenes he does have, Chris Pine wrings out every drop of humor and hamminess, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. He was just ushered out far too fast, and the smarminess and point could have been better developed through that final closing sequence.

An Intriguing Though Feeling Unfinished Tapestry

Into the Woods has never been one of my favorite musicals, and my initial opinion of Into the Woods was that it started out with an intriguing premise but didn’t really tie up the ends in the most satisfying of ways. Many things are left unexplained, whether through lack of time, carelessness, or just because. The pacing in the Second Act in particular has always felt off to me, and I wanted certain things explained more. Yet those weaknesses have not kept me from enjoying it or the music. I had hoped though that the movie would address some of those weaknesses. Perhaps add another layer to the characters or reveal more subtleties. There are so many opportunities afforded to a movie that are not in an onstage production.

The movie, however, does not take the opportunity to clean up the story and make it more coherent or establish stronger characters. Instead, it plays it quite safe and softens some of the original plot line to make it more palatable for a younger audience that probably won’t even be interested in it. As a result, it actually lost something of itself without providing something more enjoyable or even something that felt like a coherent whole. I’ve already discussed Rapunzel and the princes. But some of the changes made deviated from the play in other ways unrelated to making it more family friendly (an arguable endeavor).

What do you mean it was exciting and scary? I feel like this should probably be examined more.
What do you mean they rushed the second act? That’s where all the character arcs complete and the story really starts to come together!

The pacing is what draws my attention most. The First Act seems to take up the majority of the movie with the plot threads set up and the characters established, even if it is only briefly. But there does not appear to be much of a passage of time between the First Act and the Second Act. The characters’ positions after thinking that they have attained their happy endings are rushed. In fact, they are thrown back into the action after what seems like perhaps a day. The Baker’s Wife is made instantly pregnant and looks ready to deliver after the curse is lifted, and the baby himself has no age reference. It does not feel as if any time has passed at all. Cinderella’s unhappiness and boredom as well as the Baker’s struggle to connect with his son are all rushed, and I entirely missed Jack’s desire to return to the sky, if that was even part of the movie’s second act at all. As a result, it feels quite rushed. The last half hour in particularly are quite bad comparatively and left me feeling unsatisfied.

Overall Worth a Watch

Even with the changes and the weaknesses, the movie is worth a watch. Some of the performances are stunning, and there was a great deal of heart put into it. It feels very much like a Disneyfied movie version of a play. If you enjoy any of the primary actors or if you like revisionist fairy tales or if you appreciate musicals, I recommend you watch it.

I have seen it advertised for families with children though, and I would add one caveat. It isn’t really a kid friendly movie. Not because of the dark themes but because of the pacing. Young children will likely find it boring. And the latter half is particularly slow by comparison. Most of the violence occurs off screen or is implied. (The death of Jack’s mother, for instance, was handled in such a way that at first I wasn’t sure if she was actually dead or even how she died.)

It’s a shame because I think that a work more closely following the original or expanding upon the original’s themes would have worked better here. The actors possessed the necessary skills. The sets supported the endeavors, but sadly the woods were far tamer and less dangerous than they might have once appeared.

 

 

Farewell: Concerning a Grandfather, the Hobbit, and a Story

Grandpa
Grandpa’s eyes twinkled whenever he smiled; he often wore red, one of his favorite colors.

I have been trying for months now to write a small memoir to honor my grandfather, Bob Farlow who passed away in 2008. It’s difficult to summarize or honor the life of a man who has done so much. He was a true Renaissance man, an artist, a preacher, a teacher, a principal, an entrepreneur, a sculptor, a musician, a soldier, a father, a grandfather, and so much more. Knowing where to start has always been the difficulty. I could start with his accomplishments in the art community or with his adventures and achievements. But for me, so many of the stories and so much of what I remember of him all started with one book in particular. Fortunately, recounting this will allow me to honor and thank a few others as well.

The story that started it was the Hobbit. My grandfather supervised my reading as soon as I started, and he always pushed me to read complex books in addition to children’s tales. I often balked at the heavier classics, despite loving to read. I abhorred the Odyssey, and I was probably too young for it. For some reason, I found it harder to read than the various books with Norse mythology or maybe Grandpa just knew it better and was able to make harder quizzes. But he promised that if I finished it, he would let me read a book he was quite certain I would love. We often made bargains like that, and we always kept our word. So I finished the Odyssey on a cold autumn day, and he let me borrow an already well worn copy of the Hobbit.

Books were always an important part of my relationship with my grandfather. Even when I was too young to understand letters, he read with me.

The Hobbit was the first true fantasy novel I ever read, and it awoke a deep desire within me to write fantasy. A desire that has burned for years now, never fading and always strengthening. The Hobbit was the first time I ever engaged so deeply with a book that I wept over the characters. Even now I am not entirely certain what it was that pulled me in and made me so invested. All I know is that I felt and I loved. Bilbo and Thorin were the first lessons I understood relating to conflicted characters who were not entirely good in all respects. And Gandalf was the first wizard I really remembered. I had been writing my own stories for a couple years by that point, but the Hobbit somehow made it all come alive to me and made me want to be a writer all the more.

Given that connection alone, even after more than twenty years, I had a deep love for the story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movies. Watching The Battle of the Five Armies, despite all the ways it differed from the book, was such a rich experience. I have had a marvelous time, enjoying the film, hosting a party, cooking themed food, and even preparing costumes. It has been the best of experiences which bring both joy and grief at once. The happiness so much the richer for the tears that are shed and the ache of loss that comes with the realization that all that is left are the memories of what once was and the hope of what exists beyond Heaven’s gates.

The film made me realize that I have never wanted to say good bye to my grandfather. I miss him so much even now.  At times, I catch myself wondering what he would say, wanting to talk to him, missing his voice.  The workshop still has his last painting on the easel. Half carved statues packed away. Balsa wood shavings on the floor. The carving tools in neat rows and the paintbrushes in glass bottles. A dozen projects in various stages scattered around the studio. It always smelled of linseed oil, oil paints, Bavarian wax, and shaved Balsa wood. I can still see it all so clearly. It’s been years since I’ve walked into that studio, but the memory is as crisp in my mind as a new book fresh from Amazon.

Sinterklaas the Netherlands
The Sinterklaas from the Netherlands was one of many Gift Givers Grandpa hand carved. Replicas were then made from Bavarian wax and hand painted.

Of course, I always think of Grandpa around Christmas. He and my grandmother ran a small business known as Briercroft. He carved and sold various sculptures, the most popular being the Giftgivers. From St. Nicholas to Sinterklaas, he carved, molded, and painted the gift givers from around the world for many years until they closed the business a few years before his death. This Christmas is even heavier for me, and I apologize because this is rather convoluted.

You see, after I read the Hobbit for the first time as a little girl, I decided I wanted to write my own fantasy. My desire only grew when I read Lord of the Rings. But my grandfather and father always encouraged me to avoid mimicking Tolkien. As brilliant as he was, there will never be another J.R.R. Tolkien. What they told me to do was find my own story to tell, create my own races, develop my own world, and honor Tolkien through learning the craft as best I could. And I took that very, very seriously. For me, that story became the Tue-Rah series, but the first book is the one that absorbed the majority of my attention: Tue-Rah Identity Revealed.

I was very young when I first got the idea for Tue-Rah. In this picture, my father had just caught me making battle plans on the site of our new home. Grandpa thought it was funny.

I have been working on it for over twenty years now. My grandfather never worked on just one project. He always had at least half a dozen or more. One day I walked in on him, and he had started plans for a hand crafted sailboat (which he completed and sailed, I might add). He never stopped working, never stopped dreaming, never stopped thinking. But he always had at least one project he focused on. So I followed his example. While I had many stories and many projects, Tue-Rah was my primary focus and will remain so until the entire series is completed. Grandpa always teased me because I never thought the first book was really finished. I kept tweaking it, changing a plot point here, developing a character there, and then overhauling it. The whys and the hows had to be analyzed and satisfied. And I wanted so much for it to be perfect. He wanted me to finish it. He always told me that I would never think it was perfect or even good enough. I said I just wanted to be satisfied with it. In fairness, I was only a very little girl when I wrote the first draft. And so I learned about world building, character development, pacing, and everything else through those pages. As I neared my high school graduation though, Grandpa started encouraging me to consider it finished and leave the first book. “You’ll have plenty of time to tweak with the final edits, and you have the rest of the books to finish.”

I refused to listen. It still didn’t feel quite right. Yet somehow the conversation shifted back to the Hobbit, and Grandpa shocked me when he revealed that the only Tolkien works he had read were Gawain and the Green Knight and Tolkien’s pieces on Beowulf.

Grandpa and Me 05
The fact that Grandpa could listen to my stories and juggle my little sister and maintain his sanity is proof of the man’s strength and resolve.

Given how much the books had impacted me, I wanted to share that with him. It meant…so much. I really don’t know why. We had spoken of it many times, and I had told him all about it. It had never impeded our discussion. Still, I offered to read to him while he carved or painted or sculpted. I had done that for my younger brothers just a few years before. He smiled at that, and we struck another bargain. He told me I could read the Hobbit to him when I finished the final draft of Tue-Rah Identity Revealed before it went in to editors. If he liked the Hobbit, I could read the Lord of the Rings. I agreed. I even joked with him that if I didn’t get it done before they made a Hobbit movie, he’d have to go with me to see it. And while I did not procrastinate, I thought we had all the time in the world.

As it turned out, we only had three years. Grandpa went to the doctor for a routine checkup after he spent the previous day chopping wood with an old axe. And then the news came. He had to have emergency open heart surgery. He was going to be on bedrest for weeks, and he was already fussing about that. He didn’t want any of us grandkids coming to see him in the hospital. So I wrote him a letter to encourage him before or after the surgery, whenever Grandma gave it to him. I told him I was going to read him those books, starting with the Hobbit. I didn’t care that I hadn’t finished Tue-Rah Identity Revealed, and since he would be trapped on the old creaky couch, I knew he’d be glad for the company. I was just putting the books together in an oversized black bag that I used for a purse. And that’s when the phone rang. He was gone. In the space of a second, my grandfather ceased to exist in this world.

It was so hard to comprehend. That all that was left was the memory of those calloused hands and twinkling eyes. That there would never be another debate over what constituted literature or whether a particular color was burgundy or crimson or which translation of Philippians was the most accurate. That there would be many Thanksgivings and Christmases, birthdays and celebrations he would never see.

Grandpa's Grave
It doesn’t feel like it should be real. Grandpa traveled so much that I might be able to pretend he has merely been away on a very long trip. But I can’t…

I still remember his body in that casket. So lifeless. All that had once been there. Gone. The twinkle in his eyes. The fidgety energy that never faded. To see someone who was so vital and strong placed in a box and arranged like a doll with too much makeup and no smile…it was wrong. It was so wrong. That spark of the divine, the incredible spirit that had made him so much…it was gone, leaving only a silent shell behind. I could barely breathe when I looked at him; I wanted so much for it to be no more than a horrible mistake, some nightmare I could push away.  But it was not so.

At the funeral, the pastor asked me at the last minute whether I wanted to write a poem and read it at the funeral. He didn’t mean any harm; I think he just forgot to talk to me sooner. When I said I didn’t have anything prepared, he insisted I could speak off the cuff and share my heart. But I refused to trot out my grief and paste random words on it. The loss cut through my soul, eating it like turpentine eats through paint. And to just come up with something in less than fifteen minutes the way I might to honor a speaker who arrived unannounced at a club meeting felt blasphemous. It wasn’t just reading a Scripture verse Grandpa had loved or playing a song he adored. It was about reaching into my soul, digging through the morass, and finding some fitting way to honor and remember him. And that could not be done in such a short span. Any poem or snippet I wrote would be clumsy and forced.

So when it came time, I sat in silence, my hands in my lap. I did not know what to say.

We buried him in another church graveyard down in Shelbyville some hours away. I still had a copy of the Hobbit in my purse along with my notebooks with scene drafts for the Tue-Rah series and some other stories. I tried writing on that car ride, but my writing reflected the state of my mind. Distant and jumbled. So I read instead. I don’t remember which section. I think it was when the dwarves arrived or perhaps when they met Beorn.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA
It’s very well worn by this point. This isn’t the same rose that I was given at Grandpa’s burial, but it is similar. A student who didn’t realize the significance of the book to me grabbed it and pulled out the flower petals without realizing how delicate they were.

I still have that same copy of the Hobbit. Grandma gave it to me along with a number of other beloved books. It is so fragile now I can barely turn the pages without tearing them. The binding has all but fallen away, and masking tape secures it at key points. I pressed the rose petals from my grandfather’s burial in those pages. An accident destroyed the rose petals, but the book survived. It’s in the bookshelf next to my desk.

Finishing Tue-Rah Identity Revealed and sending it to an editor just before the Battle of the Five Armies came out was bittersweet. Grandpa would have teased me for taking so long, but he would have been pleased, I think. I hope. He would probably tease me all the more if I told him that I still think it needs tweaking and editing, but at least I now feel satisfied that it is the whole of the first book. I have shed so many tears. Watching the movie only intensified my feelings. While it was not perfect and quite different from the book, the movie was a fitting end for my favorite fantasy novel of all time, the story I wanted my grandfather to hear, and a tearful farewell to Middle Earth, one of the few fictional worlds where I gladly escape time and time again. But it was like coming to the end of a journey and realizing that one of the people I thought for certain would be there isn’t there at all.

There was so much good in this movie. I noticed even more when I watched it a second time. Peter Jackson did an incredible job making the world come to life yet again, and I will always be so grateful that he gave me the chance to return to Middle Earth and see that world in film yet again. The actors were phenomenal. The funny thing though was that when I first heard about the movie’s production, I couldn’t really imagine the chosen actors in the roles. I was familiar with some of them from other pieces, and they were talented. But they did not match the characters in my mind. Yet after I watched An Unexpected Journey, I realized they were the perfect choice. It was quite incredible to see beloved characters from a story I treasured come to life in a way so unlike what I expected and yet so perfect that I cannot imagine anyone else. Even though I knew the story well, I leaned on the edge of my seat. I have never wanted a story to deviate from its conclusion so much as I did there. The characters made me feel as strongly as I did the first time I read the book, and I wanted so much for them to live happily ever after. There was no more chance of that though than of my grandfather surviving the final stroke.

Pigs
My grandfather always found it ironic that his hog paintings from rural Indiana life were always among his most popular and highly awarded. He said it was how God kept him humble.

To say that it was sad is an understatement, but the most perfect thing of all was the ending. Billy Boyd’s song, “The Last Goodbye” was heart wrenching and beautiful at once. Listening to that play while watching the penciled illustrations appear and fade on the big screen was hauntingly appropriate. The artistic style reminded me of my grandfather’s. Soft pencil strokes across parchment paper, filled with expression and movement with lead that could so easily be smudged by a wayward brush of the hand. I stayed until the end, wrapped in a soft red pashmina, listening to each word and note until they faded away.

The song is true in many respects. I know I cannot remain forever in one place. I know that I must away. There is so much more to be done. I will never stop missing my grandfather. I will never stop loving him. He was a good and godly man who seized life in every breath he drew. If he were here now,…

In many respects, it was the end a long time ago. But this is not my last goodbye. Not to Middle Earth. Not to my grandfather. But it is time to say farewell. For now.

So to all those who were involved with the making of the Hobbit films as well as the Lord of the Rings, from the grips to the lighting experts to the cooks to the directors to the actors and everyone else, thank you. You brought the story to life in a beautiful way that I will always remember. You put faces on characters I have loved for years and made the world seem as real as I always hoped it would be. I cannot read it now without seeing your interpretation, and I am grateful it is one I can love just as much as the books.

To Tolkien, thank you for creating the stories in the first place.  I will always treasure them, and they will always be part of my library and my heart. I cannot imagine fantasy without your stories. You brought me such joy and comfort so many times.

Grandpa and Me 07And to Grandpa…I finally know what I want to say…. Grandpa, I love you, and I will never ever forget you. I wish so much that it had been different and that you were still here. There are so many things I wanted to share with you. So many times when I wish with all my heart that you were here. That when I come home you would be there. That I could have shown you that I really did finish Tue-Rah Identity Revealed. And so I could just tell you one more time how much I love you, how much you mean to me, and how you inspire me even to this day. I will see you again, and I am so blessed to have known you. But I still miss you, and there will always be tears when I try to say goodbye.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies Movie Review

Hobbit Film Poster
The final chapter in the Hobbit. When all is said and done, it stands up well, completes the story, and does not make the Lord of the Rings trilogy obsolete.

 

Last night, James and I went to see The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. I have both been looking forward to and dreading this event. Looking forward to it because The Hobbit is one of my favorite stories and I have thoroughly enjoyed the movies. Dreading it because it is the end of the saga and because it might not live up to my expectations. I can be a very harsh critic, though I try to curb my nitpicking tendencies when it is not warranted. And most of the time, I do not enjoy movies as much when I have been looking forward to them because they don’t live up to my expectations. But here the movie did live up to my hopes.

Now let’s get out some of the biases. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are among my all time favorites, and they are, in fact, the stories that convinced me that fantasy writing is my passion. The Hobbit made me want to write fantasy and was what birthed the original idea for Tue-Rah Identity Revealed. The Lord of the Rings was what inspired its becoming an epic and the complex world building. I have deep emotional memories tied to both series, and as such, I may be somewhat more blinded to the flaws of the Hobbit trilogy as I am certain I am with Lord of the Rings.

Also please note that there will be spoilers. But since this is based off a classic novel, I feel like that shouldn’t be a big deal.

 Premises You Must Accept for This Movie

  •  a lot of the character development has been done in the previous two films; you don’t have to have seen  them, but this movie is not as effective as a stand alone movie
  • Legolas is bound by neither physics nor gravity (most elves really aren’t, but he is the Chuck Norris of the fantasy world)
  • dwarves are not very bright, but they are obstinate and tenacious
  • Gandalf and all other magical beings have massive recharge times
  • Deus ex eagalia (and yes, the Doctor does save the day!)
  • You will never EVER win a game of Tetris against dwarves
  • The movie is very very different from the original book

One last point, though not related to the movie, I am quite long winded when it comes to writing these sort of things, particularly when I feel such affection or passion. So here are the topics I’m covering.

Overall Pacing of the Story

This movie was a little less than two and a half hours, but it flew by. It’s the shortest of the three movies, and, while it was good, I think it could have benefited from being a bit longer. A number of things were shortened and almost passed over, requiring you to pay close attention. The only thing that I think should have been trimmed down more was Alfrid. I’m not entirely sure why he got so much screen time as his purpose was not clear. Except maybe for some comedy? But even then he wasn’t that funny.

Eagles
A little known fact about the Eagles of Middle Earth is that they are bigger divas than Tony Stark’s Iron Man and Loki combined. Not only do they want the flowers and the parades, they want the benefit of a grand entrance. Witness the deux ex eagalia!

But the movie was never boring. At points, I wanted it to slow down so I could see more, but I’m willing to wait until the extended edition. I should also note that I never found the first two movies to drag either, so bear that in mind. I love being in Middle Earth, so it’s unlikely it would ever truly be too long for me.

I also feel I should explain my point about the Doctor from BBC’s Doctor Who. Sylvester McCoy played one of the Doctor’s incarnations, and he also played Radagast the Brown here. He arrives at the end with Beorn and the Eagles. I would have LOVED to see more about him and what happened and how they gathered the Eagles and why the Eagles weren’t there in the beginning. But for those 20 seconds, it was quite fantastic to see the Doctor and Beorn literally arrive as the winged cavalry (remember what River said about good wizards in stories; they always turn out to be the Doctor!).

Bilbo: Yes, the Story Still Involves a Hobbit

I am not a huggy person, but throughout this movie, I felt the urge to hug many characters, not the least of which was Bilbo. Even if the only character he can play is Bilbo, I think he hit it out of the park. There was a fantastic fusion of compassion, loyalty, concern, and fear. I was holding it together reasonably well during Thorin’s death scene until Bilbo started crying. That was the nail in the coffin for me, no pun intended.

As an added side note, a lot of the actors do tremendous acting through just their body language, facial expressions, and their eyes. Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Ken Stott particularly stand out in this regard. Some scenes have few words. And it works. I enjoyed those quiet moments and the development and testing of the friendships.

Seriously…there’s hundreds of elves out there…not sure how this could be considered a fair fight in the slightest.

Now some people will point out that Bilbo just took the Arkenstone in the original novel. It was a rather jerkish move to pull, but here Jackson gives Bilbo a motivation. He’s trying to keep the Arkenstone from Thorin to prevent the madness from worsening. I always wondered about Bilbo’s motives initially in the book, and this was a reasonable explanation in my opinion and consistent with the character he presented in the beginning and throughout his journey.

Bilbo, in many respects, never loses his roots. He remains the practical character he was in the beginning. He does tend to point out the obvious, but sometimes it’s needed. For instance, when the elven army stands before Erebor, he has to point out to Thorin that they are significantly outnumbered. Thorin doesn’t listen, of course, but it’s good to know that someone is capable of noticing the practical details. He was brave in his own quiet way, and the story focuses more on him as it concludes. It stops concerning itself with the bigger picture as Bilbo bids Thorin farewell and mourns the loss of his friend. Most everything else is background, but it works in my opinion because for Bilbo it would be.

Hobbit
Everyone needs a solid practical friend like Bilbo in their lives.

I also love the fact that Bilbo has so much faith in his friendship with Thorin that he actually goes back to Erebor after giving Thranduil and Bard the Arkenstone, seeming to believe that Thorin will see reason. Thorin does not. But I also loved that the other dwarves did not help to cast him over the side. It was a pivotal moment in the movie as in the novel, and Gandalf delivered his lines quite authoritatively. Even a king descending into madness would be loathe to disobey that order. As far as I am concerned, there can never be another Gandalf aside from Ian McKellen. He was as fantastic as always, even if he does need massive recharge times and disappears at inconvenient moments.

Thorin’s Descent into Madness and Subsequent Redemption

Gold Fever
Why would I be familiar with Duck Tales?

Okay, on the one hand, I did feel that Thorin succumbing to dragon fever or gold fever was a tad corny. It isn’t without precedent. If it weren’t for Duck Tales Gold Fever, it might have felt more serious to me. But I didn’t feel like it was handled in a cartoonish way. I can think of several stories that have mentioned and discussed the curse that dragons often brought to their gold or that could develop when gold was accumulated in great masses (a combination of Druid beliefs and “the love of gold is the root of all evil” 1 Timothy 6:10). I think that it might have been easier if they had created a term entirely separate so that it didn’t have the baggage of the current phrasing.

Even with that caveat, it was heartbreaking to watch Thorin transform from the gruff and driven but noble leader he was in the beginning to a greedy and obsessive ruler who values gold above mortal lives. It’s actually a very difficult redemption arc to set up because greed is such a base flaw that people tend to despise more than others. Cowardice or rage or even lust are easier to redeem characters from. But greed? Hmm…it might be because greed strikes so close to the heart of our consumerist culture that it’s easy to see ourselves falling into the same trap and behaving just as reprehensibly. Thus we want to avoid or demonize representations as much as we can.

Richard Armitage’s acting as Thorin was stunning, in my opinion. In the scenes when Thorin was slipping into madness, he mimicked what we witnessed with Thror in the first movie, down to the placement of the hands, the lurching movements, and even the gleam in the eye. It was uncomfortable to watch, giving the sense that the character you had come to know and love was changing into someone else entirely. There’s a sense of loss that comes from that. Though the exchange that broke my heart the most was when Dwalin confronts Thorin and Thorin rejects the idea of being Thorin Oakenshield again, revealing the self loathing of what he thought his former self represented.

There was also an interesting parallel that may or may not have been intended between Thorin’s obsession over the gold and the obsession that Bilbo faces with the ring. Obsessions, in and of themselves, are rarely pretty things unless people deem them worthy. But the way that this film was structured, it almost made me wonder if perhaps part of the reason that Bilbo was able to put aside the ring came down to the fact that he had seen his friend battle a similar addiction and eventually overcome it.

Not Aragorn or a Reluctant King

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Ultimately Thorin sheds his regal armor to return to a look more akin to what he was before as Thorin Oakenshield. It’s a nice symbolic gesture that also allows him to be a little more maneuverable on the battlefield.

I’ve seen some folks comparing Thorin to Aragorn and expressing their disappointment that Thorin was not more like Aragorn and how much better Aragorn was. But Aragorn is a distinct character from Thorin. The two have little in common once you get beyond the kings who have lost their birthrights and must reclaim them. I actually think that Thorin is a more complex character who regularly fails. Aragorn is a wanderer who returns to become a king, in some interpretations reluctant but generally successful, noble, calm, and wise. Thorin is not really reluctant. He is also vengeful and zealous and a bit short tempered.  Plus he tends to fail spectacularly before he gets back up on his feet again. In An Unexpected Journey, he attacks Azog and gets thrown around like a doggie chew toy. In Desolation of Smaug, he fails to negotiate with Thranduil (though it’s arguable if he even wanted to). He regularly missteps and has to recalculate his position based on the new information or because he’s about to be crushed. One or the other. But he always manages to find some epic way to come back and demonstrate that he is not to be taken lightly, which is shown in the final sequence of Thorin’s battle with Azog.

That leads me to one of my other realizations in this series. Neither Thorin nor the other dwarves are really that bright. They’re not stupid, but they seem to get caught up in the momentum and forget to be strategic. But I didn’t feel that that was a mistake. It seemed to be something that was played out over and over again. The dwarves tended to be more short sighted, focusing on the immediate rather than the long or even medium term.  It’s just part of their characters. They wall themselves up in Erebor overnight in a manner that would make a Tetris expert look foolish (they even include a staircase and a peephole!). Of course they have reinforcements coming in, and no mention is made how they will let them in.

The worst one though is when Thorin battles Azog. The final sequence takes place on a frozen lake. Thorin pulls one particular move that is quite epic and intelligent while giving Azog a look that says “yes, I did watch Looney Toons growing up.” But then…he makes a fatal error…I don’t want to give any more away, but it was all I could do to keep from screaming “get off the ice!” Even though I knew that they were going to kill him, and I knew Azog was going to be the one to do it. Argh! It was still painful, and I still desperately wanted someone to save him and all the others.

Really? Friends? After All That?

the_hobbit_the_battle_of_the_five_armies_trl_2-1080-mov_000022272
You took the time to build a staircase and a peephole, but you didn’t build a door? How are you going to bring your reinforcements in? Haul them up the wall with a rope?

The subject of Thorin and Bilbo’s friendship is an interesting one. A friend asked how it was possible that the two could be friends when Thorin was such a grouch from beginning to end. Aside from the fact that Thorin saved Bilbo’s life on multiple occasions (or at least attempted to), I still found the friendship believable. Perhaps it is because I have had Thorin and Bilbo friendships where I was the Bilbo. The other person may be gruff, demanding, and difficult to please, but I don’t know. I still loved that person for various reasons and would gladly stand up for him if needed. (If I have been the Thorin in such a friendship, I am not aware of it, but in fairness, it’s awfully hard to confront those people, and I am certain I would be no exception. My own mother has told me she’s afraid to confront me at times. Drat…I may need to take stock of my friendships now. ;))

The Love Triangle Comes to a Close

Now I will admit that I was somewhat on the fence about the inclusion of Tauriel initially. By including her in the story, they took time away from developing other characters. But I can see where Peter Jackson was coming from, and, in the end, it was not handled like the typical love triangle.

Tauriel is essentially caught in a love triangle between two men whom she can never be with. Thranduil has made it clear that he will never give his blessing to Tauriel and Legolas, and interestingly enough, neither Tauriel nor Legolas speak of their feelings to one another. We don’t even know for certain whether Legolas actually loves Tauriel or if he thinks of her as a friend or a sister. The only information we know for certain is from the second movie, Desolation of Smaug. Tauriel insists Legolas does not feel this way about her, and Thranduil suggests that Legolas does but confirms that he will not give his blessing. So whether Legolas sees her as a favored gal pal or the possible love of his life is never made clear by one of the most essential parties: Legolas. It isn’t said explicitly, but it also doesn’t seem likely that Thorin would approve of Kili’s relationship with Tauriel. Relations with the elves certainly aren’t at a high, and Tauriel, despite her banishment (which seems somewhat inconsequential in retrospect) would be a problematic alliance with the dwarf prince.

Love killed too soon can be just as crushing because it is the loss of all the potential and what all might have been.

The death scene of Kili is made all the more potent and tragic because for once Tauriel fails. She is so close to succeeding. Kili himself is so close to succeeding. After all of the exploits Tauriel has made throughout the series (including shooting a flying arrow out of the air), she fails when it comes to protecting someone she has started to love. The love triangle has something of a Romeo and Juliet feel to it, not in the obvious two groups that are supposed to be kept apart but in the love at first sight that has no chance to mature. I do not doubt that Tauriel and Kili loved each other in the way that many feel that burn of infatuation and compelling desire to be with one another. And yet the love was struck down and death claimed it before the love was ever allowed to develop.

8a5448df41e2b1bcf24e6f390e540fa6
Maybe you’ll see more of me in the extended edition. Maybe…

I think that there is some unnecessary hardness directed at Tauriel, describing her as a Mary Sue or a wish fulfillment character. But she’s prancing along next to Marty Stu himself (Legolas). In fact, most of the elves fall into this category in my opinion. They are practically flawless. Just watch them fight! They don’t just turn in battle; they spin. Thranduil having mud on his cheek in a lovely twist pattern is about as bad as any elf ever looks in this series. (Seriously, watch how Thranduil positions himself when he is flung from his elk. Russian ballerinas are more clumsy!) For that matter, Thranduil is one of the few flawed elves I can think of off the top of my head.  (I actually wound up preferring the dwarves to the elves in the books as well because I thought the elves were so darn perfect they were annoying.) And as pointed out here, Tauriel does fail. She fails at the most important moment of her life, and you know that it will surely haunt her and she will never get over it.

I was sad that Fili got passed over so much. He got pressed to the side, but I have heard that the extended edition will contain more about him. His death scene though is…heart wrenching and brutal. In one sense, I would say that his death is the nastiest and the saddest because there is no time to mourn over his body. He dies, and then it’s time to fight.

What a Woman! Dark Galadriel is a Sight to Behold

Galadriel and Gandalf
Tender or terrifying, Galadriel is a fantastic one to have on your side.

Gandalf apparently is helpless to do anything to escape after his imprisonment at the end of the second movie. And Galadriel arrives to rescue him, dressed as the demure elvish queen we have seen her as. Elegant in all white with a silver crown. Well…not only does she pick Gandalf up and carry him out like he’s nothing, but she also beats back Sauron with the aid of Elrond and Saruman. The film here offers a brief glimpse into why it would be so dangerous for Galadriel to take the One Ring herself. I wish that there had been more of her and her story, but, again, it was like her story just intersected with the rest of the plot and then she went on her own way.

Connection Back to the Beginning and Lord of the Rings

I did cry when Fili, Kili, and Thorin died. But I cried the most when Bilbo returned home and then the movie connected back to the story that started in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and seamlessly flowed into The Fellowship of the Ring. Following that up with Billy Boyd’s song , The Last Goodbye, was absolutely perfect when combined with pencil sketches of all the characters. (If you have not listened to the song, I recommend you give it a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8ir8rVl2Z4 It’s beautifully appropriate: melancholy, haunting, and lovely at once.

Durin's_grave
Here lies Balin…Someone pass me a tissue!

The other point that got me was at the end when the dwarves say farewell to Bilbo. Balin stands off a little bit from the rest, saying goodbye. And it struck me then that after a few years, Balin would go on to the Mines of Moria with some of the other dwarves and meet his own end. It gave the feeling that the story was continuing on. The Hobbit is only one small piece in a much larger story, and that is perhaps one of the things I love the most.

Could It Have Been Just as Good if It Had Strictly Followed the Book? Or Been Just One Movie

I actually have no problem with this series being three movies. If it had been a single movie, there would not have been sufficient time to connect to the characters. And even two movies would have pushed that. By the end of the third movie (even though I wished it could have been a little longer to finish fleshing certain things out), I was attached to the characters. Thorin’s death wasn’t just the death of a greedy dwarf king who didn’t know how to share. Fili and Kili weren’t just two faceless dwarves who died at his side. And the elf king actually has a name. There were reasons for a lot of the things that happened, and it reveals where Gandalf was during the times when he was so desperately needed. To me, it felt every bit as tragic as the story showed it should be.

Whether it could have been just as good as a strict interpretation of the book, I don’t know. Maybe. I saw the animated Hobbit a long time ago, and I did not like it. It left me unmoved and generally ticked off, even though it was quite faithful as I recall (it’s been a long time, so I may need to watch it again). I actually did feel as I watched this series. I was transported back to Middle Earth and fell in love with the story all over again.

An-Unexpected-Journey-Trailer-Breakdown-5
Look! See! They’re alive. They just stopped back to surprise Bilbo and join him for tea.

So did I love it? Yes! Absolutely. Does it have its flaws? Yes. It does, but that doesn’t keep me from loving it. I will admit that as soon as I got home, I followed with a tradition that has been part of my life ever since I watched Davy Crockett and the Battle of the Alamo. I pulled up the first movie where everything was good, got to a point where I could see all of the dead characters, and then told myself everything was fine. Denial is bliss. 😉

But really this was a wonderful journey. I do recommend if you enjoy fantasy you should certainly check it out. I’m sorry to see the journey end, but I will gladly take it again and again.

 

 

Thorin_meets_Bilbo_-_The_Hobbit
Yup. Just back for a spot of tea and a good chat about how well they fooled old Azog into thinking they were dead so that they could….go on to do other dwarvish things….well, if they told us why they had to fake their deaths, they’d probably have to kill us.
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