Friday, December 26, 2014

Action Comedy in THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

I wanted this to be a picture of Thranduil but it didn't really make sense with the post :(
The conventional wisdom about the Hobbit movies is that three is too many (how many too many is, perhaps, up for debate), given the length of the source material (my 1994 Houghton Mifflin edition clocks in at 272 pages) and its intended audience (as if the fact that it’s a children’s book makes it inherently insubstantial).

What the conventional wisdom is wrong?


Now, I agree with the above only up to a point. I do think three is too many—just not in the case of The Battle of Five Armies. The factors that combined to make An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug terrible end up making Battle kind of great.

When I say "factors," I really mean length of these movies relative to the length of their source material. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies took 558 minutes, or just over 9 hours, to tell a 1,000-page story—and his Hobbit movies took 474 minutes, or nearly 8 hours, to tell a 272-page one. The page-to-minute ratio of The Battle of Five Armies is probably the most egregious of all 6 movies (although I have not done the math). The titular battle itself only takes up about 12 pages—and that’s if you’re being generous and counting both the Thranduil/Dain confrontation before the fighting starts and the parts Bilbo missed while he was out cold and learns about later. The death of Smaug through Bilbo’s return to the Shire take Tolkien 51 pages; Jackson gives himself 144 minutes to tell the same amount of story.

So what does he do with them? Well, he expands on some things: for example, the deaths/death wounds of Thorin, Fili, and Kili. All Tolkien tells us about Thorin is that he “[fell] pierced with spears”; Fili and Kili “had fallen defending him with shield and body”; rather than letting these deaths happen offscreen, Jackson makes them the climax of his film. But where Tolkien does go into greater detail, Jackson pretty much ignores him and does his own thing. Tolkien, for instance, has goblins climbing up and over the back of the Lonely Mountain and swarming down toward the gate; eventually, the elves/men/dwarves find themselves “forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves.” Jackson scraps that (probably because he put both the Fellowship and Aragorn’s army in that exact situation already, in FOTR and ROTK). He also adds his own original material: neither the attack on Dale, nor the showdown on Ravenhill—or, um, Legolas vs. gravity—are in Tolkien’s book.

(I was surprised by some things that actually were in Tolkien’s book. For example, those bats? The bats that seemed so excessive, so preposterous, so over-the-top—in other words, so Peter Jackson that they could only have been invented by him? Those “great bats [that] swirled about the heads and ears of elves and men, or fastened vampire-like on the stricken”? Yep. Pure Tolkien.)

So all of the above is a problem, right? Jackson has too much time and not enough material to fill it? On the contrary, I would argue that the paucity of the source material and the generous amount of time Jackson gave himself to adapt it are actually what make this movie great. He's created a space in which he not only can but kind of must play around and have fun—specifically when it comes to the fight scenes. And the action in The Battle of the Five Armies is some of the most ingenious I’ve seen in some time. There are so many examples. Bard nocking his last arrow on his son’s shoulder. A massive “war beast” wearing a pointy metal helmet, charging headfirst at the wall of Dale, knocking it down, and promptly dies. Dain, Thorin’s cousin, head-butting orcs—or, I should say, killing them by lightly tapping his head against theirs. Thranduil’s elk scooping up a row of orcs with its antlers, for Thranduil to behead with one lateral sweep of his sword.

The action isn’t just creative, though—it’s funny. I was primed to notice this after recently watching two of Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting videos, the one on Edgar Wright and the one on Jackie Chan, both of which are about action comedy. And action comedy is exactly what Peter Jackson is doing here, and doing so well.

But before I talk about that, I want to talk about the kinds of comedy he doesn’t do well. I’m basing this both on what I found funny, and what the other people in the theater both times I saw it found funny—and I can tell you that they didn’t find Martin Freeman’s face-pulling very funny at all. (Much as I love him, there’s something about Freeman’s performance that never quite gels. It’s the jerkiness, maybe. He plays Bilbo extremely uncomfortable in his body, which isn’t a very hobbit-like quality—hobbits, after all, being all about comfort.) And they didn’t find Alfred funny either. This character might be the single greatest miscalculation in a trilogy that, many would say, is in itself one big miscalculation, and barely anyone in my theater even chuckled at his exploits, which included disguising himself as a woman to avoid combat and sneaking out of Dale with two triple D cups’ worth of gold coins shoved down the front of his dress, or at the many one-liners by and about him—“Not every man’s brave enough to wear a corset!” he retorts when called a coward. What isn’t funny in these movies? Reaction shots. Closeups. Nearly all of the one-liners. The humor happens when the camera pulls back, the characters shut up, and the action begins.

That head-butting war beast? The thing with Thranduil’s elk? Nearly all the examples I listed three paragraphs ago—they’re not just creative. They’re funny. And then there’s maybe my favorite example, which goes down during the final showdown between Thorin and Azog, which goes down on an ice-covered pool. Azog, of course, whirls a block of stone at the end of a long chain around his head; if he misses Thorin, he hits the ice, which cracks a bit more each time. Eventually, it breaks, and the two end up on opposite ends of the same floe. Azog brings down the stone just a little too hard; it gets stuck in the ice. Thorin bends down, picks it up, and tosses it to Azog like a hot potato. Azog grabs it, surprised. And Thorin... steps back. Off his end of the ice floe. Leaving Azog to slide off off his end and into a watery grave.

It’s funny.

It’s not funny because Armitage is hamming it up here—what sells the moment is how small his step backward is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s like something out of Chaplin, but I’m sure there’s a lesser silent comic I could compare it to, if I knew my silent comics. The Chaplin comparison doesn’t work anyway, because so much of what Chaplin did was in his movements—graceful, precise, perfectly timed. Jackson’s physical comedy is more about how his actors interact with their environment. Again, it reminds me of Tony Zhou’s Jackie Chan video—see specifically 1:22 to 1:58 , which shows Chan fighting with chairs, dresses, chopsticks, keyboards, Legos, refrigerators, and a ladder. (Just watch the whole thing, it’s fantastic and only like nine minutes long.) Zhou Tweeted this shortly after posting the video:



Ravenhill is Jackson’s Costco. (Any analogy with the word “oversized” in it seems apt, no?) He isn’t just content with getting characters from point A to point B—he has to get them there in the most interesting way possible. So often, book-to-movie adaptations just feel like checklists to me, even the ones I love. You have to get this person from here to there because, well, the book tells you to—and often, it seems, there’s not much thought put into how they get there. Again, I have to bring up Tony Zhou, the Edgar Wright video this time. Specifically 1:17 to 2:22, where he compares similar scenes (character goes from point A to point B) in Paul Feig’s The Heat and Wright’s Hot Fuzz to show how Wright makes even the most obligatory and potentially boring material exciting. And that’s exactly what Jackson is doing. How is Legolas going to get from cliff A to cliff B and save Tauriel? Well, by jumping off the tower he’s on and onto a huge troll, then riding that troll into the tower and knocking it over to make a bridge between them. The environment is made out of building blocks—quite literally, in several cases—and Jackson is having a blast knocking them down.

That’s perhaps the key to this whole thing. All the apparently terrible decisions that led to this point resulted a big sandbox of a battlefield, where he Peter Jackson can play to his heart’s content. And, as it turns out—when he's having fun, so am I.♥

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