Sunday, March 31, 2013

Radagast Is Not Jar-Jar

So, the first HOBBIT movie has now come and gone, after having brought in about a billion dollars as it moves on to the second-run cinemas (where I saw it again on Thursday). The special tables devoted to Tolkien at the Barnes and Noble stores are gone (as of the last week of February), and in general things have quieted down a bit on the Peter Jackson / Tolkien films front -- at least till things begin to ramp up again in anticipation of the second movie (and extended edition of the first).

Now that the film's out on dvd I've had a chance to watch it again several more times (five times in the theatres, four times on dvd since the 19th, and then once in the budget theatre on the 28th). I feel like I've come to know it fairly well, so thought I might weigh in on some of the criticism I've seen aimed at it.

In general, the consensus seems to be that the movie is good, but my impression is that people are less excited about it than they were over THE LORD OF THE RINGS films twelve years ago. Part of this is the difference between a known and an unknown quantity. People coming to see THE HOBBIT more or less know what to expect from a Peter Jackson Tolkien film, so the wow factor is a little less. It's like a rock musician releasing a first album that wows everybody; the follow-up album, even if as good or better, often gets denigrated as 'more of the same'.

Also, those fans who were swooned over Wood, Bloom, and Mortensen don't seem to have all made the transition to Armitage and the guys playing Kili and Fili. That they get to see more Ian McKellen in this movie than any of the previous ones doesn't seem to make up the difference, nor the returning roles by Blanchett, Lee, Weaving (who's allowed more than one expression this time), Holm, or Serkis. Some of the most devoted LotR movie fans I know haven't bothered to go see THE HOBBIT film yet, or only saw them once and were done with it. So another factor is that the HOBBIT movies haven't captured all the LotR movie fans.

Finally, THE HOBBIT is not THE LORD OF THE RINGS: LotR is universally hailed at Tolkien's masterpiece, while some people who like LotR don't like THE HOBBIT (and vice versa) or view it as an enjoyable but lesser 'prelude'. Thus the built-in audience for these new Jackson/Tolkien films, while huge, is arguably smaller than that for the LotR films. The latter also benefited from 'Author of the Century' synergy of Tolkien's work finally breaking through into acceptance through winning so many 'best book of the century/millennium polls. Some (like me) think THE HOBBIT is Tolkien's other masterpiece, but this is not a universally held position.

Some of the criticism of the new film, however, seem to me less a judgment on its merits (I'd argue this film is as good as the earlier LotR ones) than a manifestation of the phenomenon that people hate success. They love to see those who have succeeded in the past fail spectacularly in new ventures, and gloat over their downfall. How else otherwise to explain repeated comparisons of Radagast to Jar-Jar Binks?

For the record: Radagast is not Jar-Jar. Jar-Jar is a racist stereotype, a high-tech Stepin Fetchit, an offensive parody of a specific ethnic group. Radagast is a goofy character included for comic effect. Remove a few details -- the guano on his robes (a detail borrowed from T. H. White's Merlin), the stick-insect stunt, and the smoke-scene -- and his character wd be greatly improved. Even as is, the character still achieves everything the movie needs him to, including a rather impressive one-man exploration of Dol Guldur (which in the book had been achieved by Gandalf himself).

Those who can't get over flashbacks of bad DR. WHO episodes can comfort themselves that, while Jar-Jar plays a major role in THE PHANTOM MENACE, Radagast only appears in ten minutes, total, of THE HOBBIT film. Which is another reason why comparison between the two is so inapt.

Up Next: Peter Jackson Is Not George Lucas

--John R

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