“Tolkien”: The Monsters and the Critics

Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics

Audiences seem to have ignored Tolkien at the box office, but it raised quite a noise among the Tolkien fandom. Many regard its inaccuracies and dramatizations as a kind of betrayal of the man, whereas its supporters say that its accuracies and artistic truths make it a beautiful and moving tribute to the Professor and much that he valued.

What I caution is this: it simply isn’t helpful or honest to be polemical. For one, Tolkien is a drama, and to demand that a drama be instead a documentary is ludicrous. Likewise, to demand that the film be either a perfect success in all areas biographical and artistic, or else be judged a vulgar failure and disgrace, is to apply a standard so hideously unfair that nothing not divine could satisfy. Any good standard must acknowledge the imperfection of every human work and counter that with, as Christians ought to know, grace. Some films, even after this grace, will seem bad. In others, we begin to marvel at the good that flourishes in spite of the flaws. And this is how I see Tolkien. It is not a great biography, nor artistically a truly Great Film, but it is a good and unique film that deeply loves J.R.R. Tolkien the man and tries very hard to do right by him. Its stumbles are disappointing, but when it stands tall, strides purposefully, and finds deep meaning in dancing, it manages to evoke and celebrate much that I love about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his work.

Plot summary, please

Plot summaries are boring and have little to no place in a review because they reveal next to nothing about the story’s quality. Reviews should be concerned primarily with a story’s quality.

Getting curt with your section titles, are you? Seems a bit self-indulgent, but it’s your blog, I suppose. Still, what’s actually in this film?

Tolkien covers J.R.R. Tolkien’s teenage and young adult years, ending before the publication of his famous novels. A wise choice, I think, as his later years were fairly sedate, to my understanding, and would have been difficult to dramatize. Instead, the film specifically examines his relationship to his future wife Edith Bratt, his deep friendships with the club known as the T.C.B.S., and how his love of and affinity for languages fed into his desire to change the world through art.

Opinion summary, if it ain’t too much trouble, guv

While not a definitive exploration of the themes or events of Tolkien’s life, Tolkien is very good and I strongly recommend it for fans of the man. The film is sincere, good-hearted, and often beautiful, though it sometimes stumbles and loses sight of the real man at its heart.

But is it ACCURATE?

Did you know that the famously tweed Professor was an avid rugby player in his youth?

The film does alter or gloss over some details of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, which is simply a thing that all biopics do for their subjects, and frankly Tolkien changes far less than most. I commend it for including so much:

  • his hatred of his childhood move from the English countryside to dirty Birmingham
  • his early interest in languages
  • the stern but generous help from Father Francis
  • his lack of academic diligence and direction until his meeting with Professor Joseph Wright (who provides two of the film’s best scenes)
  • the loyalty and idealism of his early friendships
  • the ways in which he and his romantic interest Edith gave each other a unique support in difficult times
  • the way he was kind of an obsessive nerd, but also was an aggressive rugby player
  • that he also was a passable artist who illustrated his own work
  • the fact that this period of his life was characterized by some benign trouble-making and testing of boundaries (i.e. the scene where he and friends “steal” a bus is based on a real incident)
  • that he was a somewhat lower social status than his three friends in the T.C.B.S., being a poor orphan living on scholarships and charity whereas they were all from rich families, and yet they all not only accepted him as a brother, but counted him as the most worthy of their number for academic and artistic success
  • and so, so much more detail and nuance from Tolkien’s biography that the film portrayed quite nicely

The film plays with the chronology of real events as it attempts to emphasize certain themes and relationships. Sometimes I think the result was less effective than the real history; for example, its alterations to the timeline of Tolkien and Edith’s relationship felt less meaningful and were awkwardly conveyed, whereas the account in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography was clear and moving.

What about his Christian faith and the Catholic Church?

One notable glossing is in the area of religion: the role of the Catholic Church in Tolkien’s life is mentioned a handful of times, and positively, but he is not shown to personally participate in it. I’ve heard people complain about this, as though there was some attempt to erase or downplay Christianity in the film. And while I get that complaint, I think it is also based on some misunderstandings.

The real Tolkien at 24, a lieutenant with the Lancashire Fusiliers. Image from Wikipedia.

On the one hand, I would have loved for the film to address his spiritual development directly, and to have shown how it influenced his relationships and work. But in actuality, this period of Tolkien’s life is one that he himself regarded as spiritually weak. He went an entire year without once hearing mass, and Dr. Corey Olsen, a Tolkien scholar, believes that the religious influence on Tolkien’s writing at this time was pretty slight. From what I can tell, the film’s portrayal is a much smaller deviation than many reviewers seem to think. It wasn’t until later that he began attending mass every day and taking an active role in his own spiritual development.

The film’s representative for Catholicism, and indeed for any Christianity, is in Father Francis, Tolkien’s legal guardian. It’s a very fair portrayal, quite in line with what we know. He was stern, but very generous and sincere in his concern for Tolkien. He forbade Tolkien from seeing Edith until he was an adult, partially on account of Edith being Protestant but also because Francis knew, correctly, that romance would distract the easily-distracted Tolkien from his already struggling studies at Oxford, and could seriously endanger his future. Rather than fashion Father Francis into a symbol of a repressive and unforgiving Church, the film acknowledges his generosity and the perfectly valid reasons he has. It’s a refreshingly true, even-handed portrayal.

The other thought to keep in mind has to do with the art of adapting someone’s life for a dramatic medium. You simply can’t cover every aspect of the subject’s life, you have to choose which threads are most relevant to the story you want to tell. And since Tolkien’s religious practice was weak both outwardly and inwardly during this period, it makes sense for the filmmakers to leave it at the barest mention and spend more time on the aspects of his life which were dominant. If a film wanted to examine Tolkien’s faith and its relation to his life and work (and I very much want to see that film), it would probably choose his later years with the Inklings.

How is the portrayal of Tolkien himself?

“Not all who wander are lost…”

Nicholas Hoult is excellent as the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and this sentence is a relief to type. He has a sort of nervous energy, as though his intelligence is itching for the chance to express itself creatively but hasn’t quite found the right outlet; which is fair, because while Tolkien was in fact already writing and studying languages by this point, his imaginative ideas hadn’t quite coalesced in the way we think of them now. He is brilliant with languages but slacks off at school. He plays rugby confidently but his words stumble over themselves when he tries to express himself. He adores Edith, but also sometimes overlooks her until she stands up and demands his attention. And he is deeply loyal to his friends, even though it was they who sought him out rather than he them. All of this is close enough to the Tolkien I met in Carpenter’s biography and in the earliest of Tolkien’s letters.

If there is one part of him I wish they had portrayed more, it is Tolkien’s humor. His earliest letters have a light, wry touch even when describing unpleasant circumstances. “I had to pay a duty call to the Rector in the afternoon which was very boring,” he writes to Edith in Letter 1 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. “His wife is really appalling! I got away as soon as possible and fled back in the rain to my books.” I was also disappointed to see no reference in the film to the time at university when Tolkien acted in a student play and made his role, a grumpy old battleaxe of an aunt, the most hilarious and memorable part on the stage! Hoult’s Tolkien is too serious for all that, able to enjoy his friends’ jokes and silliness without offering much of his own.

But Hoult does portray Tolkien’s passions, loyalty, and intelligence quite well. It’s a nuanced portrayal that held my interest the whole way through.

And the others?

This is one of those films that will make you fall in love with Oxford.

Tolkien’s friends made for the strongest thread in the film. They met each other at King Edward’s School and formed a club they called the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (or T.C.B.S.), after Barrow’s Stores where they took their tea and discussed art, literature, and the future of the world. The actors all do fantastic jobs, portraying young men intoxicated with the possibilities of the future, with the strength of their education, with their own artistic talents, and especially with the bonds of brotherhood that were growing between them. They have a natural charisma as a group, and the growing realization that their fellowship is destined to be torn apart by a world war that none of them wanted or anticipated is upsetting.

One unforgivable inaccuracy: where is the mustache? WHERE IS THE MUSTACHE?

Edith Tolkien, as portrayed by Lilly Collins, is a sharp-witted, beautiful young woman who is frustrated at being trapped in a boring life of servitude to an old woman, and who challenges Tolkien to think more carefully about the meanings of words and how they affect people. We don’t actually know much about Edith from history, as the Tolkien Estate and family have elected to keep much of that information private. Collins’ spirited portrayal is pretty close to what we know of her, and makes for a good dramatic foil for the more stoic Tolkien. My one complaint is that in their attempt to have her contribute to Tolkien’s intellectual development, the filmmakers give Edith credit for certain ideas about language and story that I’m pretty sure Tolkien already was espousing before he met her. Still, it’s a fair enough change in service of the greater story: she did support his writing in reality, even though she didn’t share his enthusiasm for languages.

What of those “stumbles” you mentioned?

I can think of three main areas of the film that felt weaker than they should have been. The first is his relationship with Edith. The movie fumbles their first meeting by not really showing it! We see him get a first glimpse of her while she plays the piano, unaware of him. Then later we see them sit down to dinner at the house they both live, which is presumably the first time she’s seen him—but no acknowledgment of that is made. And then it literally cuts to a scene of them having a private, familiar talk together, as if they were already past introductions and into a fast friendship. By making their first meeting confusing this way, we lose the impact that meeting her really had on him. There are more pacing stumbles in the later parts of their relationship, too, where the timing of events becomes a little unclear to the point where the movie forgets to actually show their wedding.

Another concerns the T.C.B.S. – we needed to learn more of what really made them tick as a group, what their ambitions really were, especially regarding Tolkien himself. I loved watching them interact and encourage each other, but the film didn’t really show us how the four of them might have been able to change the world together, had they all survived World War I. And they never really let Tolkien himself share his writings with the group. The film will leave you thinking that Tolkien barely wrote anything of his own during this period, where in reality he wrote quite a lot of poetry (some of it gorgeous) that he was sharing with his friends and occasionally publishing.

The T.C.B.S. were Tolkien, Smith, Gilson, and Wiseman – Tolkien writes in Letter 5 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that they had believed they were “destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.” He wrote that in a 1916 letter to Smith, after they had both received news of Gilson’s death. The way he writes to his friend sounds very much like the friendship portrayed in the film, with the exception that in the letter Tolkien is more explicit about his ambitions for the future than film made clear, and more confident in his beliefs as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.

Scenes like this felt too on-the-nose for me, as a desperate attempt to shoehorn in allusions to “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien was nowhere near inventing the character of Sauron at this point in his life.

Which brings me to my final frustration with the film: its portrayal of Tolkien dealing with the horrors of war by hallucinating fantasy creatures on the battlefield. I think the filmmakers were trying to show how Tolkien’s trench fever and shell shock were causing him to process the battlefield in terms his imagination already understood, as a way of shoring up Tolkien’s belief in the ability of fantasy and myth to help us understand the real world. But because the film hadn’t showed Tolkien writing any of his own fantasy yet, nor even talking much about it, these scenes instead conveyed the idea that he got his ideas for stories from the hallucinations themselves. This all contradicts what Tolkien himself said about his experiences at war and writing his first fantasy stories in the trenches, it trivializes the process of art creation, and it also ends up downplaying the real horrors of the Somme.


This conversation alone is almost worth the price of admission for Tolkien fans.

And yet even as I acknowledge these genuine problems, I can’t help but remember all the stuff I loved in the film. The T.C.B.S. especially, but also Hoult’s performance, and his genuinely romantic chemistry with Edith. There are at least three brilliant conversations in the film: one where Edith chastises Tolkien for a moment of selfishness, one with Prof. Joseph Wright discussing the importance of the history of words, and a final, heart-wrenching conversation with the mother of Smith, who was killed in the war. Then there is fact that the movie portrayed a world in which platonic friendship could be one of the most passionate and pure forms of love, and in which even romance was stronger when it was moral. It is an essentially Christian worldview, and that a film today would advocate for such a worldview by showing it stoking healthy passions, self-sacrifice, and creativity is, in its own way, wildly, dangerously radical.

Image Credits

All film images from IMDb. Photo of the real Tolkien from Wikipedia.

Movie Review: “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1993)

The Secret of Roan Inish (1993) (IMdB)
Director: John Sayles
Writers: John Sayles (screenplay) and Rosalie Fry (book)
Starring: Jeni Courtney, Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan, Richard Sheridan, John Lynch
Music by: Mason Daring
Length: 89 minutes
Rating (US): PG
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Young Fiona lives with her grandparents in a small fishing village on the Irish west coast and begins unraveling family mysteries while searching for her lost baby brother.
Reason for Watching: Selkie movie. Perfect movie.
Movie Re-watchability: Eminently, for me. It’s been a favorite film for many years and has never failed to inspire or move me.
Director Re-watchability: I haven’t seen Sayles’ other films, but have heard that each one is completely different. That speaks to a tremendous range in his abilities as a storyteller, but also makes it hard to determine whether I’d like his other ones. His style in this film, however, is one that suits me perfectly.
Recommendation: YES.

Key Thoughts

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Classic Remarks: A Classic Book that Translates Well to Film

Recommend a classic book that you think translated particularly well to screen (even if the adaptation was not entirely faithful).

Happily there are many films that count as successful adaptations of their source books. Some changed a lot in order to make a unique and successful film, such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Princess Bride, and most adaptations of The Three Musketeers. Others managed to be remarkably faithful to the book’s plot, tone, and themes. One classic in particular has always seemed to be particularly suited to adaptations.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson may be one of the most easily-adapted of classic books. It has over fifty adaptations for film and television, and most of the ones I’ve seen have been pretty faithful. The book’s plot is clear, efficient, and colorful. It doesn’t need elaboration, condensation, or drastic changes. It contains no extraneous subplots, which would either distract in a film or be first for the cutting floor. The action itself develops the characters and plot so well that an adaptation needs only to follow Stevenson’s layout to get an exciting feature length movie that doesn’t leave much out. Even the looser adaptations, such as the anarchic Muppet Treasure Island, still feature scenes and dialogue lifted directly from Stevenson. Why mess with what works?

My favorite adaptations are the 1934 and 1950 versions, starring Wallace Beery and Robert Newton as Long John Silver, respectively. These actors exude so much slimy charisma and chew their lines with such mischievous relish that it’s a delight to watch them. And each also brings out the desperate menace and corrupted dignity of Stevenson’s iconic character.Honorable mentions go to many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, which has been faithfully adapted in many surprising ways, and Richard Lester’s two-film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, which is shockingly and successfully faithful to a book whose many adaptations rarely resemble its actual plot.

Classic Remarks: Favorite Musketeer

Which of Dumas’ Musketeers is your favorite, and why?

For the musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling stories, we have D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They are the most interesting and effective when all together, which makes it a bit difficult to single one out as a favorite. Additionally, it is worth considering their various portrayals in adaptations, since the characters of The Three Musketeers are probably better known in adaptation than in their original novel.

Speaking generally, I can say my favorite musketeer is Porthos. He’s the loud, boisterous, fun fellow, always ready to make others laugh, even when being threatened with a duel. Always loyal to his friends, though I suppose that rather characterizes all the Four. He’s fun in the book, but I also admit to my choice being influenced by the 1993 Disney film, where he was played with cheerful wit by Oliver Platt. Behold:

Frank Finlay also played Porthos quite well, if drier, in the excellent 1973 film. Witness his unique solution to uncorking a wine bottle while the musketeers seek a peaceful breakfast and private conversation in the middle of a siege:

Portho’s charisma and enthusiasm for life makes him a natural favorite for many fans, and I suppose I’m not immune to that charm either.

Classic Remarks: Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic?

Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic? (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)

Courtesy of IMDbUgh, this guy.

Let me be upfront: my judgment is on Joel Schumacher’s 2004 Phantom of the Opera movie adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical. I haven’t seen any other film or stage version, nor have I read Gaston Leroux’s novel.

I believe I was in high school when I first saw the movie. It struck me as rather weak overall, and particularly infuriating in how it seemed to romanticize the abusive, creepy, criminal Phantom.

Oh sure, he has a tragic backstory to explain his deformed appearance and antisocial behavior. Although, if you ask me, the movie’s version of these “deformities” are less severe than I’ve seen on several other real-life people who nonetheless live their own lives with compassion, healthiness, and a fair bit of normality. Likewise many people have overcome far worse abuses than he is said to have suffered and live functional, non-murderous lives. Still, this is the reason the story gives us as to why he tends to murder people out of vengeance, or, you know, if he happens to see them during a ballet performance he really doesn’t like (R.I.P. poor stagehand). He’s given passionate songs with passionately creepy lyrics to sing, and I guess some people are impressed by the rose he leaves on Christine’s tomb nearly fifty years after the whole affair. Honestly, I find it difficult to sympathize with him.

This is a fellow who:

  • Uses a young, naïve woman as a tool to get revenge on society, despite the fact that the specific people who harmed him in the past won’t be affected by this revenge (making it not really revenge, but mere criminal actions)
  • Uses said woman to vicariously live a life of musical fame denied to him by his deformity, criminal activity, and general hatred of other people
  • Tries to seduce said woman with various techniques designed to strip her of her ability to make informed decisions, including:
    • lying about his identity and intentions
    • hypnotism
    • threats of violence against those she cares about
    • physically holding her captive
    • physically holding captive the man she actually loves
    • forcing her to wear a wedding dress and commanding her to marry him
    • blatant emotional manipulation in general
  • murdering an innocent stagehand
  • threatening terrorist acts upon the theater if they don’t do what he wants

At the end, he shows some remorse for his actions, and he does leave Christine and Raoul in peace for the rest of their lives. But he’s never brought to justice for his crimes, and his crimes are in no way romantic. It’s all the worse because the film musical never seems able to acknowledge the severity of his sins or the sort of repentance he really needs in order to be redeemed. I felt that it paints him as tragic, but sweet and impressive in his devotion and dramatics. I find him kind of disgusting.

It also hurts that he dresses so very similarly to the heroic vigilante of my own fiction for which this very blog is named. But that at least is without his control, and so I will try not to hold that against him. I like his dramatic style, but not his morals or actions.

Seriously, do an image search of “phantom of the opera unmasked” to compare the 2004’s deformities with the far more severe portrayals in other adaptations.

Movie Review: “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012)

N.B. This is the review that nearly killed The Warden’s Walk. Thinking about the movie, even over a year after I saw it, depresses me. It’s torn me up, trying to evaluate it. Are a few flecks of brilliance enough to make a dull rock valuable? I hope so, but I wonder. Yet The Hobbit Part 1 is too big a movie for me to ignore, and so I felt that I shouldn’t focus my energies on other reviews until this one was finished. Considering how long it has delayed the rest of my blog’s activities, this may have been a mistake. Yet here it is, my review at last, arriving after The Desolation of Smaug has been released (and as it remains unseen by me, hopefully not for long).

Hobbit 1 PosterTitle: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, WETA Digital, the Seventh Doctor, assorted characters actors, several elves, ten dwarves and one stunted GQ model masquerading as a dwarf
Score Composer: Howard Shore
Length: 169 minutes (two hours and 49 minutes!)
Rating: PG-13 for frequent combat, mostly bloodless, but involving heads and limbs hacked off
Opinion summary: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was my most looked-forward-to movie of 2012, but it is the least out of the eight movies I saw in theater that year. As an adaptation of Tolkien it is disappointing, and as mere entertainment it is adequate, but unbalanced. For every fun moment there are two dull ones, for every salvo of awesome inspiration there are three that misfire, or even aim at lower standards. The movie as a whole left me feeling empty and a bit hurt inside.


An Unexpected Frame Rate (or 48fps 3D versus 24fps 2D)

Let’s get this out of the way first. A higher frame rate nearly eliminates motion blur in action sequences (finally making them watchable in 3D) and greatly reduces eye strain for the 3D in general. This is good. However, in all other matters it pretty much ruined my first viewing of the film. It distracted me from the movie itself, exposed the copious CGI as even more fake than usual, caused me to feel more distant and removed from the world of the movie, and captured so much detail of movement that the subtler scenes ended up looking almost jittery and slightly sped-up (a phenomenon reported by other reviewers as well). It made me tense just watching it. There’s such a hyper quality, like the screen was shouting at me constantly, that it was hard for me to focus on the visuals themselves and the wonders of the art design and sets. Some people have liked it or not minded it, so perhaps it doesn’t bother you, but I greatly regret seeing the movie that way. It satisfied my curiosity, but nothing else.

My second viewing, in normal 2D 24 fps was like a breath of fresh air – finally, it looked like a real movie with some class and elegance to it! I know Peter Jackson believes higher frame rates are the future of cinema, just as sound and color were early in the 20th century, but the difference is that sound and color can actually add meaning to a film and allow the telling of different types of stories, while I can’t yet see how a higher frame rate could do these things. Harping on a vague word like “immersion” doesn’t mean a thing, especially when the actual product rudely kicks viewers out of the story.

The 3D itself is competent and doesn’t usually detract from the picture, but neither does it add anything. It doesn’t look as well-integrated and thought-out as the 3D in such movies as Hugo and Life of Pi. Those movies proved that 3D doesn’t need to always be a gimmick, but can be a legitimate artistic tool for the director. But Jackson simply doesn’t have the artistry of Scorsese or Ang Lee, and in The Hobbit the 3D is sadly just a gimmick, and not a very interesting one.

Roast Expectations

That actually is pretty close to my feelings about the movie as a whole: too much gimmickry, and none very interesting. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff I love in the movie. But these tend to be isolated or background bits: seeing the Shire again, glimpses of Dwarven might and Wood Elven glory, the singing, walking with Gandalf the Grey again, etcetera. But too much is stilted, or flat, or bloated, or pandering, or self-indulgent, or just plain mediocre. I walked into the theater with a excited grin on my face and left trying to maintain a smile but feeling very “meh” about the whole thing. There’s a whole lot of lesser Peter Jackson on display, and—despite the extensive mining of The Return of the King‘s Appendices—simply not much Tolkien.

A Short Shrift

From my fan’s perspective, there are three scenes which it was imperative that Jackson nail for a successful adaptation: Bilbo’s good morning with Gandalf, the trolls, and Riddles in the Dark. Granting that I am neither screenwriter nor filmmaker, I think these scenes should have translated pretty smoothly from book to screen: Tolkien gives them all tight, interesting dialogue, and the latter two have satisfying pay-offs preceded by well-paced dramatic action that develops character. Let’s look at the film’s versions.

It looks pretty, though.
It looks pretty, though.

In the “good morning” scene the timing just feels off. I can’t quite place my finger on it, but it never sat well with me on either of my three viewings. It lacks spark, feeling more like a recitation than like the characters are actually reacting to each other. Now, this scene is supposed to show Bilbo so comfortably, happily at ease in his own challenge-free world that he doesn’t remotely believe that Gandalf will actually bring adventure to his doorstep. In the book, Bilbo seems to really believe that his cheery “No thank you, we don’t want any adventures here!” is all that is needed to stop adventure from coming. Yet Martin Freeman plays Bilbo frightened and jittery from the outset, wide-eyed and puffing on his pipe as a toddler clings to his blankie for comfort. Point is, I think that before the dwarves’ arrival Bilbo is supposed to be confident and calm in his untroubled little world—isn’t that the whole point of Bag End and the Shire? The movie’s first scene with Martin Freeman portrays a hobbit already ill-at-ease with his life, but in denial about it. It may not be the greatest departure from Tolkien or anything, but it makes this whole scene feel a bit off, and far from the iconic moment I feel I had a right to expect.

Just out trollin’ some dwarves…

Now the trolls. I’ve noticed many other reviewers single this one out for criticism as well. Most of them mention the troll snot as being the worst offender, but I think that is a minor offense compared to what follows. Jackson turns an episode which is all about sneakiness and creative thinking into a bloated fight that sucks all the charm and cleverness from Tolkien’s passage. It also ends up indicating some rather big tonal shifts for the characters and the story as a whole.

Now, I understand Jackson’s desire to make the dwarves tougher and more warlike than the comic, petty, unprepared rabble of the book – after all, it’s hard to stuff in random combat scenes (and sell action figures) when most of your characters lack combat experience and weapons. But doing so completely upends the purposeful way Tolkien portrayed them. Now it is even less acceptable for them to have no plan for dealing with the dragon, or to be so afraid as to send Bilbo to investigate the trolls first. It is played for laughs when Fili and Kili cheekily push Bilbo towards the trolls and hide themselves among the bushes at a safe distance, but it seems out of character for such bold, war-trained young men armed to the teeth. Not to mention a bit cowardly.

But okay, they’re immature and just think they’re having fun. The scene continues fine for a bit, as Bilbo sneaks about and narrowly evades being seen by the arguing brutes. Then he’s caught, and we get a scene of juvenile gross-out humor with the troll snot. The fight that ensues when all the dwarves charge out of the trees to save Bilbo has some fun bits on its own, but is gratuitously long and simply doesn’t belong. Though clearly intended to make the scene more exciting, I found it quite boring. The music and camera movements build it up as a soaring moment of heroism and grandeur, but in reality it’s just pointless. The dwarves should have won that skirmish with ease, and indeed are shown to be in the process of doing just that, but in our hearts we know that they must be contrived to lose. And contrived it is, with Bilbo suddenly being held hostage.

That "crack!" is the sound of Tolkien's coffin splitting open as he rises angrily from the grave.
That “crack!” is the sound of Tolkien’s coffin splitting open as he rises angrily from the grave.

The worst departure, perhaps in the entire movie, is the ending of this scene: Bilbo desperately stalls (without much focus or cleverness, and only a little success) until Gandalf jumps up and magically breaks a rock so the dawn sun shines through and turn the trolls to stone. While Gandalf does admonish Thorin by saying that Bilbo had the nerve to stall, the part that cleverness plays in this scene is distinctly inferior to that of the raw power of magic; Bilbo only stalls for about a minute or so. Rather than solving the dilemma by outwitting their enemies, the encounter becomes another action scene solved by violence from the power inherent in one of the characters. Compare to the book, where Gandalf hides in the woods and throws his voice around, fooling the trolls into fighting with each other until the sun rises on its own. So much more clever, charming, and poetic. This is not one of those scenes which wouldn’t work in a movie as written and had to be changed. It’s a literary scene, sure, but it would have worked so well in the movie, had Peter Jackson only trusted his source material.

Now, it’s not all bad – the trolls themselves look great and sound the way Tolkien wrote them. I feared that they would lose their working-class accents and humorous, petty bickering, but nope, that’s all as it should be. I’m glad Jackson resisted the urge to reduce them to growling, snarling beasts. Some of the scene’s original comedy is intact, and there’s fun to be had. My nephews (7 and 9) enjoyed it. But for me, the pace of the scene was tiresome and the departures from the spirit of the book too depressing.

7673_20_largeNow, the riddle scene is really pretty good. Upon reflection, it is probably the strongest part of the film, staying more to the point and pairing the two most complex and entertaining characters in all of Jackson’s movies against each other. I am generally happy with it.

And yet, and yet…that ending! Gah! Did they have to bungle the ending of the riddle scene? For the final riddle Gollum asks, Bilbo is supposed to answer accidentally by trying to ask for more time (“…time, time!” was all he could squeak out). In the movie, though, it is Gollum who says “Time’s up!” and stupidly gives away the answer with a modern cliché. This may seem like a minor thing, but it makes Gollum more stupid and less cunning. Gollum is a very clever creature and unlikely to make such a mistake. It also feels less Providential an escape for Bilbo, as it relies more on Gollum accidentally or subconsciously giving him the answer rather than on his own fear coming to his aid. Now, one may argue that Providence was still needed to cause Gollum to slip up in the first place. I can see that. But I don’t see how this change is at all an improvement on the original or in any good way meaningful.

So, in summary of these three vital scenes, they didn’t do their jobs. They didn’t make me feel that the best parts of the book were being appropriately and entertainingly realized on the screen. And this is, ultimately, the heart of why the entire film didn’t end up working for me.

Over-Long and Underfocused

It seems I’m still really angry at the story being dragged out through three massive movies, and the resultant reshaping of a lovely, relatively gentle quest into a grim war epic. It’s annoying, it’s unnecessary, it’s exhausting, it’s downright immature.

Yet my biggest beef with The Hobbit is that I just don’t think it’s a very good movie on its own merits. It’s boring. I repeat, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey bored me. As in, after about two hours I started to doze and only barely remained awake through sheer force of will. See, whatever anyone says about the various and sometimes-egregious changes that the Lord of the Rings movies made to the books, they were nothing less than genuinely thrilling adventures. But here there are too many deviations from the main plot, too many unneeded and stupidly-long action scenes, and too many scenes that are written awkwardly and forced into a story they don’t belong in.

You. You don't belong.
You. Yeah, you. You don’t belong here.

Queer Logic

There are also some queer laps in logic, such as when Radagast promises to lead the orcs away from the company as a diversion, and then proceeds to lead them along the company’s very escape path. That’s just boneheaded writing, refusing to do what makes sense in favor of an action scene.

"I don't think your raggedy wizard friend knows what he's doing, Gandalf!"
“I don’t think your raggedy wizard friend knows what he’s doing, Gandalf!”

I’m also a bit confused with Jackson’s treatment of elven politics. For those of you not familiar with the lore of Middle-earth, the elves under Elrond in Rivendell and those under Thranduil in Mirkwood are very different culturally and politically. Elrond and most of his direct subjects are Noldor, who in previous ages had lived among the angelic Valar and founded most of the great elven kingdoms. Thranduil and his people are Sindar, those who never learned the wisdom of the Valar and are generally considered lesser than the Noldor in their achievements and virtues. Thranduil is also understood to be an extremely stubborn, willful king, modeling himself after Thingol of Doriath, who had a bad habit of trying to force his will on everyone else, even on Noldorin elves whom he should have respected.

With these facts in mind, there are two parts of the film that really confused me. The first is the prologue, where Thranduil is shown paying homage to the Dwarven King Under the Mountain. I nearly shouted in the theater. Arrogant, independent Thranduil, who consciously models himself after the one elf that dwarves hate the most, is willingly swearing fealty to a dwarf? Elves generally look down on dwarves in Tolkien’s mythology, especially Thingol and Thranduil. The movie’s situation is unthinkable! The second moment that confused me is Thorin’s rude remarks to Elrond in Rivendell, where he seemingly equates Elrond and his people with Thranduil and the Greenwood Elves. Not even angry dwarves would be that ignorant! Again, this is just lazy writing that tries to insert or increase tension where it doesn’t belong.

Other (and as Subjective As Ever) Thoughts

Just a teensy bit way over-saturated.

While I said above how great is the work of the art and set design folk at WETA, I have one major beef with the look of The Hobbit (beyond the frame rate and 3D!). So much looks like it was filmed in soft focus, with a bright shiny gloss reminiscent of Pantene shampoo commercials and Gaussian girls. Perhaps this was intended to give the film a more fairy-tale aspect than its predecessors, and so to distinguish it more, but if so that was a poor choice. Part of what made us believe in Middle-Earth was that it looked real, not all glossy and fake. You could see the dirt and the lines on faces, and the places looked lived in and tangible. Only the elven realms of the Lord of the Rings films were glossy, and even then not to this extent. But this movie looks like a video game. Even the real sets look CG because of this effect. And the CG looks like poor CG, even if the technology behind it is undeniably more sophisticated than what WETA had a decade ago. (At first I thought this was the fault of the high frame rate, but the weakness of the illusion persisted in my 24fps screening.) That white orc chasing Thorin looks like an early design from the God of War game series, and the wargs (while better designed than LOTR’s wargs) never look to be on quite the same plane of reality as the flesh-and-blood actors. It undercuts the verisimilitude of the entire world. Some people say that for whatever The Hobbit’s flaws, we should just be grateful for returning to this world on the silver screen. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I was returning to the same world, but rather to a next-gen video game approximation of Middle-Earth. I almost would rather have not returned at all.

I have just recently re-watched The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and I marvel again at how fun and impressive they are. It has been probably four or five years at least since I had sat down to watch them, and I saw them with fresh eyes. And you know what? They still hold up extremely well. Sure, they have their own pacing issues and questionable choices, and unfortunate deviations from Tolkien. But they remain good films, and tended to keep the heart of Tolkien’s story. I also reread the books in 2013 and find this still to be true.

In the first film trilogy there was a sense that the filmmakers were honestly telling the story in the best way they could, and that even their mistakes in adaptation still came from their desire to serve the story. But here, it feels like Peter Jackson is trying to ignore the actual journey to the Lonely Mountain as much as possible. He no longer approaches the story with the humility of someone adapting a great story into another medium, but as a conqueror who has stolen a kingdom and is rebuilding it in his own image.

Jewels in the Dark

Before I wrap up, let me turn our minds to more positive thoughts. There were several things I really did enjoy.

Maybe my favorite shot in the whole movie. I loved how they showed off dwarven culture.
Maybe my favorite shot in the whole movie. I loved how they showed off dwarven culture.

The Art and Set Design people at WETA totally outdid themselves. The dwarven cities of Erebor and Moria in particular are exactly how I hoped they would look; grand and expansive, bursting with craftsmanship and the dwarven love of mineral beauty. The human city of Dale looked gorgeous and more full of life than the cities in Jackson’s original trilogy. In Rivendell we were finally given a sense of how big the place is and where rooms are in relation to each other. That stuff is immersive.

Those prologue scenes of Dwarf armies fighting were excitingly well-realized, especially since I don’t know of any movie that’s really dealt with dwarven societies to this extent and detail. We’ve seen humans and elves fight onscreen, but never so many dwarves, and it was great to see all those stubborn little powerhouses hammering through hordes of orcs under vast mountain halls.

"Wait...wait...aha, there it is, me lad! Told you I'd find some good in here after all."
“Wait…wait…aha, there it is, me lad! Told you I’d find some good in here after all.”

Likewise, I loved the designs for each individual dwarf in the Company, barring Kili, who is just too much “GQ magazine cover” and doesn’t seem to display many dwarven qualities. The others all are very dwarven and still very distinct. Balin in particular is absolutely perfect, in look and character, to the wise, kind-hearted friend of Bilbo’s in the book. Their designs and personalities hint at the depth and variety of dwarven culture in a way that we could never get from the portrayal of Gimli in Jackson’s original trilogy, which traded too much on basic clichés and height-related humor, especially in the The Two Towers. I’d also like to give a nice mention to the character they created for Bofur, especially his little moment with Bilbo in the Misty Mountain cave when he confronts the hobbit trying to leave in the middle of the night. I may not care much for Peter Jackson decided Bilbo would try to give up, but I liked how Bofur gave him some encouragement while honoring his decision to go back (however short-lived). That’s the sort of character expansion I was hoping the movie would engage in, as it fills out Tolkien’s story within the framework of the book.

The “Over the Misty Mountains” song and accompanying scene. Perhaps the most “Tolkien” moment in the whole movie, it rang very true and thrilling.

The plate-breaking song! I wouldn’t have complained if Jackson had left it out, but it is a nice nod to Tolkien’s love of silly verse and I enjoyed that whole scene. In fact, I find I’m generally a fan of any singing in these Middle-Earth movies.

Howard Shore’s score, natch.

"I always do prefer the book, Frodo my boy."
“I always do prefer the book, Frodo my boy.”

Martin Freeman as Bilbo is excellent. Not a perfect Bilbo, as some have said (that distinction goes to Ian Holm). If I may be allowed a critical observation, I believe he plays the role too jittery and neurotic, especially in his very first scene (more on that later). But on the whole he is very hobbitish, and brings out some of the nuance and unexpected cleverness of Bilbo. He’s very likable, and is easily the most interesting character in the movie. This fits well with the book, in which Bilbo is also the most layered and entertaining character (and reminds me that movie-Frodo is rather boring in comparison).

"But...but Sherl---I mean, Gandalf!"
“But…but Sherl—I mean, Gandalf!”

The eagles look amazing. They’re one deus ex machina I haven’t yet tired of. Of course, Jackson doesn’t let them speak, as in the book, but that’s a sacrifice I can live with. It helps that I have a very soft spot for flying scenes in any story.

The Rivendell Elves and Elrond do seem a tad more down-to-earth than they appear in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, and I’m grateful for that. Elrond actually speaks at a normal pace, rides a horse, wears armor, and generally acts like he’s alive (which makes him even cooler than before). Galadriel, it must be said, seems more physically inert than ever, but she’s so radiantly gorgeous and communicates so much through her eyes (thank God for perfect casting and Cate Blanchett!) that I find it hard to mind.

Okay, no, THIS is my favorite shot of the movie.
Okay, no, THIS is my favorite shot of the movie.

Speaking of the Elves, that brief glimpse we got of Thranduil was also encouraging. It doesn’t answer the question of whether Jackson will allow the wood elves to be wilder and more Fey-like than those in Rivendell and Lothlorien, but they sure do look awesome. Lee Pace will, I think, prove to be a great choice as the wood elf king, if he’s allowed to do some real acting. That look he gave the fleeing dwarves was aloof, but not quite cold. Plus, he rides a massive stag. That’s like a +15 to Awesome.

I can forgive a few things because of the rabbit sled.
I can forgive a few things because of the rabbit sled.

Radagast! Granted, he wasn’t exactly vital to the plot, but I thought he was a lot of fun and pretty cool in his own way. Outrunning wargs on a rabbit-led sled must count for something, right? He played out as I had imagined him from the books. I also like that his scenes in Mirkwood, while not quite plot-vital, nonetheless showed his close connection to the natural world and how the creeping influence of the Necromancer damages that world. I didn’t even mind the movie taking a bit of extra time to showcase his desperate fight for the life of a little hedgehog. In a way, it reflects Tolkien’s own focus on the small, the little things, and their importance in God’s view of the world. Now, if only they could do something about his hair, and then integrate him into the story without forcing all sorts of illogicalities and tiresome digressions…

And lastly for this ragtag list, Neil Finn’s rendition of the Misty Mountain song that plays over the credits. His voice doesn’t sound quite like I expect a dwarf’s to sound, but the song is deep and rousing and one of the best the series has offered us. Well done, Neil.


"But I tried so hard, precious!"
“But I tried so hard, precious!”

Were my expectations too high? After all, we did read and discuss the book in detail, and I do tend to be fairly purist when it comes to adaptations of books I love. But I already knew some of the deviations ahead of time, courtesy of Jackson’s excellent production videos, and am familiar enough with what he did in the original trilogy. I’ve seen how Jackson approaches epics and reasonably expected that, as before, his strengths would overcome his weaknesses. I am sorry to report that they did not.

I haven’t yet seen The Desolation of Smaug, although I hope to within the next week. Reports have been mixed from my Tolkien-loving friends, with some enjoying it much more than An Unexpected Journey and others much less. My hope is that by now I will finally be able to view it as its own film and “forget,” as it were, that it is intended to be an adaptation. I’ve liked what I’ve seen of the Wood Elves and Smaug thus far. So I haven’t lost hope for this series completely, even if my patience has been severely tried. After all, what’s worse than a poor film is a long poor film.

Near the end of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo says something to the effect of “I believe the worst is behind us now.” I hope so, Mr. Baggins, I hope so.

"You poor, battered fanboy. I promise I'll be around to help the next film be better."
“You poor, battered fanboy. I promise I’ll be around to help the next film be better.”

Post-Review Note: Despite the long gestation period for this review, most of it was written within the first few months of 2013 and I’ve chosen to let the text reflect the strength of my emotional reaction at the time. As time has passed and I’ve seen the film again on Blu-Ray and TV, the pain of disappointment has subsided due to familiarity. I’m willing and even eager to hear from fans who think An Unexpected Journey isn’t an artistic failure; heck, even Dr. Corey Olsen, The lauded Tolkien Professor, defends the films with some rather impressive arguments. (I actually haven’t read that article yet, as it has spoilers for The Desolation of Smaug, but I’ve listened to literally hours of him and his cohorts talking about the films on his excellent eponymous podcast.) I remain disappointed in Peter Jackson’s vision for The Hobbit, but discussion of it remains fascinating.

Movie Review: “Legend” (1985)

Legend Ridley Scott Mia Sara unicorn

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Mia Sara

Title: Legend (1985) IMDb
Director: Ridley Scott
Lead Actors: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry
Score Composer: one version has Jerry Goldsmith’s score, the one I saw has Tangerine Dream’s
Length: 89 minutes; U.S. theatrical version (there are at least two other versions with different lengths)
Rating (US): ? Couldn’t find an official rating, but it’s an intense PG or a light PG-13, I’d say; there’s lots of darkness and terror to scare kids, and it opens with a scene of unidentified people being tortured in the background of the Lord of Darkness’ lair.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young man of the forest must rescue his girlfriend Princess Lily and the last surviving unicorn from the Lord of Darkness, who wishes to marry Lily and rule the world by destroying daylight.
Reason for Watching: 80’s fantasy film.
Movie Re-watchability: The film’s main attractions are its art design, sets, and special effects, which all combine to create a dreamily dark, surreal atmosphere. You may want to rewatch it occasionally for this, and for Tim Curry’s magnificently campy turn as the Lord of Darkness, and perhaps for some of the oddball side characters. However, the doe-eyed main characters and their simplistic love story and quest may prove tiresome with multiple viewings.
Director Re-watchability: While he can struggle with really pulling a film together so that its themes make sense, Ridley Scott has undoubtedly directed some of the most interesting and entertaining movies of the past three decades (and more if you go back to 1977’s The Duellists, which I haven’t yet seen), including Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Kingdom of Heaven, to name but a few. Some of his movies are much better and more re-watchable than others, but as a director he consistently delivers something of value.
Recommendation: One of Scott’s weaker films, to be sure, but I found it to be nonetheless enjoyable, and rather fascinating in its own way. I’m a sucker for heavy atmosphere that effectively transports me to a different place, and that’s what Legend delivers in spades. If you like seeing classic fantasy tropes played straight, without a lick of irony, and don’t even mind an accompanying lack of complexity, then you will find this movie worth it. But as noted above, the actual story and its accompanying protagonists are too bland and boring for this to be a true classic.

Key Thoughts

If there were a glass ball that held within it an exquisitely cliché, exquisitely beautiful fairy tale world of radiant meadows with princesses and unicorns frozen in their frolicking, with glistening snows and cackling goblins, and with “hidden” treasures and pixies not quite out of sight, and I looked into it and shook it, so that snowflakes and flowers began to fall and the world rolled into action, this might be what I would see taking place.

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Mia Sara
*shake shake*

The main charge against Legend is that it is all style without substance, and this charge I cannot completely deflect. After all, snow globes and glass figurines are wonderful to look at, but do not typically provide much food for the mind. The movie’s characters are the definition of simple, filling only one role each, and its narrative is deliberately designed to be derivative. Ridley Scott—a director known primarily for his striking visuals and epic atmospheres—reportedly set out to film the most classic, archetypal fairy tale he could. He doesn’t attempt a unique twist on the material, or a subversion, or even a transcendence. He attempts what has been done before, but intending to do it better than anyone else—this is intended to be the movie that you think of first when the words “movie fairy tale (not Disney)” come to mind.

More frolicking!

This attitude, while noble to my fairy-story-loving mind, likely informed the movie’s failures as well as its successes. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Lily (Mia Sara) certainly look their parts, but even understood as the embodiments of the Pure Hero and Pure Princess, their lack of energy and distinct personality causes them to fade into the background even when the story centers around them. Jack should be a charming, slightly wild rogue of the forest, a role Tom Cruise should have been able to really make sparkle, but instead he smolders and gazes his way into near-mute lovesickness. Likewise Mia Sara, while delicately gorgeous and believably gentle of spirit, doesn’t quite bring out the warmth or passion that Lily is supposed to have for Jack. The two of them seem pleasant together, but not quite alive. And the main fault for this I lay at the feet of the writing, which gives them dialogue devoid of character and interest, and not much of that to boot. Not that I wanted our heroes to be gabbing the whole time, but their general silence wasn’t adequately replaced by other means of character development. We can root for Jack and Lily, but they are hardly more interesting than the flowers in the meadow or the grim, heavy trees. This didn’t have to be; other film fairy tales have managed to be both archetypal and deliver fascinating characters (i.e. The Princess Bride [1987], The NeverEnding Story [1984], The Lord of the Rings [2001-2003], Pan’s Labyrinth [2006], even Labyrinth [1986]).

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise Honeythorn Gump
This music would also be appropriate.

Ah, but the side characters do sparkle! Some of them literally. My favorite is Honeythorn Gump, a fey of swift feet and solid loyalty. Initially the character didn’t work for me—the voice is oddly pitched, mixing tones both high and feminine, and more somberly masculine, and the fact that he’s played by a boy (or very boyish young man) wearing nothing but a fur loincloth made me a bit uncomfortable. I mean, he’s gotta be freezing in that snow, right? But after awhile, he grew on me. The character is the cleverest and most forceful of the heroes, and he feels like something other than human; a true member of the Fair Folk, who are immortal yet unchangeable, fierce yet delicate of frame, and petulant, yet very serious about oaths and honor. While I still wish he would cover up a bit, the voice becomes an asset to the character, and the actor’s performance sells a role that needs to be taken seriously, but too easily could have become a laughingstock. Watch him in this clip, where he threatens Jack with a murderous glint in his eye, and subsequently throws a fit when Jack correctly answers his riddle. Among the rest of the heroes’ allies, the comically noble Brown Tom wouldn’t be out of place in The Hobbit, while the ethereal pixie Oona is even more fey-like (in the traditional sense) than Honeythorn Gump.

Legend Ridley Scott Tim Curry Lord of Darkness
“Well of course the butler did it. Communism was just a red herring!”

Special mention goes, as even Legend’s detractors will admit, to Tim Curry as the entertaining Lord of Darkness. Even cached in prosthetics and red and black paint, and given dialogue no less simplistic than the heroes, Curry’s obvious delight in playing a fellow who relishes in being irredeemably bad shines through; and, as happens here, when a good actor has fun with a role, the audience often does too. Yet while undoubtedly campy, I wouldn’t say the character quite becomes ridiculous. You may laugh at the first sight of his massive black horns, each bigger than his head, and wonder how Curry doesn’t topple over with all that top-heavy weight, but the movie doesn’t let you doubt Darkness’ effectiveness as a doer of evil. His presence is imposing, and you know he will kill and torture to achieve his goal of domination, and that he is cunning as well as powerful. He has no respect for anything good, no honor, and his despicable laugh echoes throughout the whole land. He’ll give nightmares to any children who watch this movie.

In fact, the character of Darkness is so effective that his presence overpowers that of all the heroes combined. Roger Ebert criticized the movie by saying:

To some degree, this is a fairy tale, and it needs a certain lightness of tone, a plucky cheerfulness, to work. Like many recent sword and sorcery movies, it is so effective in rendering evil, so good at depicting the dire, bleak fates facing the heroes, that it’s too dreary and gloomy for its own good.

While I wouldn’t say that the word “plucky” need apply to every fairy tale, Ebert has a good point here; the movie fails to provide enough thematic strength and personality to the side of Good. Even when it’s trying to be carefree and joyful near the beginning by showing Lily frolicking and her romance with Jack, there’s such an air of foreboding that prevents these scenes from evoking blissful happiness, as they are intended to. A shadow hangs over the whole story—the lord of Darkness is too much in control of this movie, and has no effective antagonist on the side of good. Dorothy has Glinda the Good Witch, Bilbo and Frodo have Gandalf, and Bastian Balthazar Bux has the Childlike Empress, but our plucky heroes in Legend have no guiding force of Good who can match Darkness in power or cosmic significance. The introductory text declares that the movie’s universe is dualistic, meaning that the forces of Good and Evil are equal and must maintain a balance, but only the Evil side has an actual person embodying it. All this leads to the final scenes of celebration being tainted by an image of the just-defeated lord of Darkness laughing ominously before the credits roll. We’re not even permitted to enjoy the heroes’ hard-won victory without fearing that the whole battle was for nothing.

Legend Ridley Scott goblins
Also, they speak entirely (or almost so) in rhyme.

[N.B. There was actually a different cut of this movie released to European audiences that has some radical differences, including a different ending without Darkness’ final laugh.]

Some more could be said about the movie’s ideas of innocence and pureness of heart, ideas which are popular in fantasy movies but rarely receive the definition and development they need to be meaningful. Lily is initially held up as pure of heart, as she is allowed to approach the unicorn, but she subsequently falls from grace by breaking the sacred rule and touching one of them, thus leading indirectly to the unicorn’s death. She ignores Jack’s warnings and proceeds in naïve arrogance, and later, when captured by Darkness and dressed by him in a gown of corruption, engages in deceit and faked seduction as she tries to save herself by manipulating him. In the end, only Jack has the right to be called pure of heart and innocent. As pointed out by this reviewer, there’s kind of an Adam and Eve vibe going on: a young man and woman both innocent live in paradise with total freedom, until one sacred rule is broken, which brings death and corruption, and sin. If the movie had followed through with this metaphor and provided a figure for God and Jesus Christ who could redeem them from sin, then the story would feel more complete and purposeful than it currently does. Nonetheless, the foundation of it is there, and that does lend a bit of substance to the proceedings.

Legend Ridley Scott Tom Cruise
Forest Boy, a.k.a. Link.

But what draws me to this movie is really its style. Lush and colorful, it creates a world that is more akin to our dreams than any reality. It feels curiously empty, as if it just might not exist outside the camera frames. Lily is a princess or a noble lady—it’s never quite clear—and yet beyond Jack and a farmer’s wife, we see no other humans, nor even a castle or city in the distance. The characters are wholly in the magical forest, and the story is really from the point of view of the fairies and Jack, who let this human girl into their realm because of her gentleness and beauty only to have her ruin everything by her selfish disregard for one sacred rule. The landscapes reflect this point-of-view, being impossibly beautiful, yet also subtly threatening; artificial, yet bursting with natural life (almost no people, but many butterflies, flowers, rabbits, and birds); petulant and swiftly changing, yet consistent in power.

There are images of iconic power and majesty, such as when Darkness emerges from a mirror and bends ominously over Lily, and of tenderness and grace, such as when Jack shows Lily the pristine unicorns. The synthesized ethereal score by Tangerine Dream brings out both the darkness and the weirdness of the setting, emphasizing our gut reactions to the images onscreen and our sense that as beautiful as it all is, something is not right with this world.

Legend Ridley Scott Mia Sara unicorn
Now that right there is pure fairy tale.

One viewing of Legend did not quite convince me that this is a masterpiece, yet it ranks as one of the more deeply atmospheric fantasy movies I’ve seen, in a way that pleases me greatly. I want to see it again, especially the European version so I can compare the two supposedly very different movies. When I think back to the other great fairy tale movies of the 1980s—the ones mentioned a few paragraphs up—I admit that this one didn’t have as lasting an effect on me, mainly due to the flatness of its main characters, the unbalanced weakness of its dualistic theme of Dark and Light. Yet it still ranks as a fine fantasy movie, if only for its ability to create an entirely other world that is both archetypal and odd, and for how it so fully sucks the viewer into its own tempestuous moods through its visuals and eerie music.

Legend Ridley Scott
A pixie cautiously traverses a truly epic-sized underground hall.

Movie Review: “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (2010)

prince of persia disney movie

Seriously dude, get a haircut.

Title: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) IMDb
Director: Mike Newell
Lead Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal (Dastan), Gemma Arterton (Tamina), Ben Kingsley (Nizan), Alfred Molina (Sheik Amar)
Score Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Length: 116 min.
Rating (US): PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “Set in the mystical lands of Persia, a rogue prince and a mysterious princess race against dark forces to safeguard an ancient dagger capable of releasing the Sands of Time — a gift from the gods that can reverse time and allow its possessor to rule the world.” (Written by Walt Disney Pictures, courtesy of IMDb)
Reason for Watching: Firstly, it’s based on the popular Prince of Persia video games, which feature some really neat Arabian-Nights-esque settings and a cool fantasy version of parkour. Secondly, I heard from friends it was actually pretty fun.
Movie Re-watchability: Fun and disposable, this is the kind of adventure I’d watch on a casual movie night with friends, or watch if it was on TV, but that I’m not likely to choose if I really want to set aside a specific time for a movie viewing. It was entertaining the first time, but it doesn’t have much novelty to offer on repeat viewings.
Director Re-watchability: Mike Newell also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which is my pick for the most boring and disposable Harry Potter film (well, Deathly Hallows Part I may have been more boring, but it at least had greater atmosphere). He’s not a bad director, as far as I can tell – he’s got an eye for pretty images, and in Prince of Persia he does keep the story moving at a brisk, entertaining pace. But he seems competent at best. I wouldn’t be interested in a movie just because his name was attached.
Recommendation: Do you like the video game series? Do you like fantasy adventures even when they are campy and ridiculous, so long as they maintain a sense of fun? Do you not mind if the story and characters exist only to support the pretty pictures and give you something to laugh and snicker about while you and your friends drink beer, eat snacks, chat on a non-work (or non-school) night? Does the reasoning of “Hey, the actors look like they’re having a good time, why shouldn’t I?” make sense to you? If any of these are true, then you will probably find something to enjoy in this movie. If you answered “no” strongly to any of these questions, then it might not be worth your time. I’m glad I saw it, but then, I answered strongly in the positive to all the above questions. +)

Key Thoughts

What else to say about this very straightforward movie? Nothing about the plot, surely. It’s just not important. If you try too hard to follow it, you’ll start falling through all the holes. The many, gaping holes. In fact, I recommend that you smile and wave at the plot holes as you skim over them. It’s the best way to get full enjoyment out of this movie.

Aside from including one or two scenes not in the movie, the official trailer will actually give you a remarkably accurate feel for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It engages your attention, has some very pretty set pieces and artwork, a variety of stunts that, if not brilliant, are at least energetic, banter between the romantic couple that, if not quite witty, is at least amusing, and doesn’t take itself seriously but indulges in just enough drama that we can sort-of-almost-hey-it’s-Jerry-Bruckheimer-producing-what-do-you-expect buy the characters’ motivations if we don’t think on them too hard. (If you do start thinking, you realize that a few important deaths in this movie could have easily been solved by the magic dagger that rewinds time, but for some reason Dastan doesn’t think to use it for the people he cares for most.) If you’re the kind who can’t help but take a movie too seriously, then this movie will probably annoy the heck out of you.

And this guy will shoot five steel darts into your chest.

While it is somewhat disappointing that the lead actors aren’t even remotely Middle-Easternish, much less Persian, but rather very white Caucasian (with the exception of Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian), this is more or less what we expect of a Hollywood blockbuster. Gyllenhaal is no Errol Flynn, but he’s competent in this roguish role, wading shakily through a script of bad quips and emotions desperately trying to be earnest and emerging with a smile at the end.

My main complaint regarding the role of Dastan (the titular Prince) has nothing to do with the actor, but rather the special effects. I find it’s always more fun when the actors themselves, or convincing stunt doubles, are doing the actual stunts in the action scenes, when there is real human physicality and skill on display. But in this movie, Gyllenhaal doesn’t get to move far before the CGI and lightning-quick cuts jump in. It’s not impressive when you can see a computer doing all the work. Nor when the editing jumps so much that you can’t be sure where things are happening in relation to each other, and the action scenes which should be glorious expressions of the athleticism of the human body instead became a jumble of zoomed-in images of movement that don’t thrill or really amount to much of anything. It’s not quite shaky cam – when there isn’t a fight or chase going on, the camera steadies itself properly – and technically it does the job okay, but it doesn’t inspire you with awe at what the human body can accomplish. And personally, I think that’s one of the great virtues of the action genre, the thing it should properly do besides just entertain.

“Whoa, sand is more slippery than I thought!”

Granted, even with all the gorgeous CGI scenery going on, she’s still the sight easiest on the eyes. I think she’s prettier in this relaxed shot than she is in many of the dramatic, posed ones.

The dialogue he shares with Princess Tamina is the kind of banter formed of one-liners designed to show that the characters are trying hard not to like each other despite their obvious attraction. It’s not very clever dialogue and often crops up at times when the characters really have more important things to do and emotions to feel, and it does substitute for character development, but at a very basic level it gets the job done. If we like these two characters, it’s because we find Gyllenhaal and Arterton to be likable themselves. Tamina is a bland character on paper, as are these all (excepting perhaps Sheik Amar, played by an enthusiastic Alfred Molina), and doesn’t have enough of a sense of humor, but Arterton herself seems to understand the role, and gives it just enough charm and gentleness to get by. I’m not sure she and Gyllenhaal have what is called “screen chemistry,” but at least they seem to be having fun together.

Most of the humor comes not from the dialogue, but from the more over-the-top stunts, Alfred Molina’s enthusiastically selfish Sheik and his love of ostrich-racing, the sheer awful corniness of the romantic arc, and the entire lack of subtlety anywhere in the movie. This all is fun. And as I said, there are some really beautiful fantasy cities and desert landscapes we get to visit. If anything, I wish there were fewer locations, just so that we could spend more time exploring the more spectacular ones, like the holy city of Alamut. I’d welcome a sequel just to revisit these landscapes in greater detail.

“I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”

And there’s also another element that’s quite interesting: the theme of brotherhood, and the importance of its bonds. See, Dastan is not a prince by blood; rather, he was adopted by the Persian emperor when a young boy, and so became brother to the emperor’s two older sons. Tus, the eldest, is trying his hardest to be worthy of succeeding his father – he’s grave, serious, ambitious, but also desires to learn wisdom and justice. And he likes Dastan, despite the rogue’s general irreverence, lack of manners, and bedraggled appearance. The other brother, Garsiv (WHO THE HECK CAME UP WITH THESE HORRIBLE NAMES? THE WHOLE RICHNESS OF PERSIAN LINGUISTIC CULTURE AND THEY INVENT THIS LAMENESS???), is more arrogant and can’t stand Dastan. We immediately sense he is untrustworthy (his darker hair and eyes are also typical Hollywood symbols), and probably in league with the villain, but things don’t end up being quite that simple. Well, fine, things are still very simple, but the movie affirms the bonds of brotherhood in a way that is satisfying and less cynical than I sort of expected from Hollywood. The treatment of the theme certainly isn’t deep, but the mere presence of brotherly love in this story was actually kind of neat.

I watched the whole movie swearing Tus (the guy on the right) was played by Karl Urban, but apparently it’s some other guy.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time lets you turn off your brain without having to worry too much about what’ll happen to you without your brain’s defense. I spent most of its running time smiling, and sometimes grinning, and I’m grateful for a movie that does that.

Riding off happily into the sandstorm…

Screencaps from here and here.

Movie Review: “Ladyhawke” (1985)

Bueller, Bueller…

Title: Ladyhawke (1985) IMDb
Director: Richard Donner
Lead Actors: Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Wood
Score Composer: Andrew Powell
Length: 121 minutes
Rating (US): PG-13
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A young pickpocket joins up with a knight and lady as the lovers try to defeat a curse that was set upon them by a corrupt bishop; a curse that causes the knight to become a wolf at the setting of the sun, and the lady to become a hawk at the sun’s rising, so that they are forever apart despite traveling together.
Reason for Watching: Well, the premise has long intrigued me (specifically, the nature of the curse); also, the 1980s had a peculiar take on fantasy stories that was often really neat (ex. The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, Big Trouble in Little China, Clash of the Titans, The Last Unicorn, The Secret of NIMH, to name a few great ones).
Movie Re-watchability: I suspect it’s quite rewatchable. The pacing may have some issues and Broderick can at times be annoying, but the movie looks great, Hauer and Pfeiffer are both magnetic presences, and the concept is intriguing.
Director Re-watchability: Ah, Richard Donner. Director of perhaps the most inspirational superhero movie, the original Superman (1978). Figures he would know a thing or two about romanticism, idealistic characters with fantastic destinies, and how to photograph a good-looking picture. Of course, he also directed The Omen (1976), a horror movie which is well-regarded but does not interest me. I suppose his filmography sort of speaks for him: The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, Scrooged, Radio Flyer. He’s got range, for sure. Perhaps the most important thing is that he treats the fantasy seriously. There is comedy, perhaps a tad too much from Broderick, but the curse of the lovers is never made light of. This isn’t his best or most entertaining movie by a long shot, but it’s still my favorite. Then again, I’m a bit biased towards the subject matter.
Recommendation: Yes! Particularly for those who like fantasy, medieval stuff, and chivalric romance. While it certainly has a number of flaws and some lost potential, I’m going to make the argument that it is still a good movie, unique in its flavor, and generally underrated.

Key Thoughts

I might as well start with Ladyhawke’s most well-known and controversial element: its musical score. My friend Urania calls it “the most beautiful example of ’80s orchestral-rock-synth fantasy soundtrack ever!” For my friend Jubilare it almost renders a good movie unwatchable. As I casually peruse Internet opinion (so educated and dignified it is *cough*), I find viewers similarly divided to extremes, but almost overwhelmingly against it. The accusations tend to run thusly: 1) the synthesized beats are too anachronistic, 2) their modernity jars you out of the stately drama and reverie the movie tries to invoke in the viewer, 3) the synth-pop parts of the score also contrast too jarringly with the more classical orchestral parts, 4) the score is so poorly used that it often evokes emotions opposite to what the dramatic scenes are striving for.

The first objection is irrelevant, since even orchestral and classic music is inherently anachronistic for any story set before, oh, the 16th century at least. It doesn’t matter if the instruments are modern, just how they are used. Now, for my part, I confess I do enjoy the music, both on its own and in conjunction with much of the movie; yet I also acknowledge the legitimacy of many of the complaints against it. When the beat drives a bit too hard, or when an electric guitar suddenly jumps in, the chivalric magic is lost, if only temporarily. When Navarre, in anguish because his lady is near death, takes on a band of enemy soldiers with grim anger and resolve, and then synthesized pop happiness kicks, you half expect the Breakfast Club to start grooving sideways into the picture in their flannel shirts, backpacks, and big hair. It can be distracting, to say the least.

I love this picture. But it doesn’t exactly scream “touching chivalric romance.”

Yet there is no denying that the main theme is beautiful and fully appropriate to the lovers’ plight. And the more successful blendings of the two musical styles do yield some strong emotional moments; when we’re getting excited because Navarre is preparing to lay the beatdown on some annoying baddies, the synth-rock only makes him seem more badass. Not quite “Rock into Mordor” levels, but close. Even the melodramatic pop ballad parts can be oddly suited to the deeply passionate, and somewhat illogical, emotions and honor at play in chivalric romances like this. So in the end, I enjoy the score of the music and find it enhances some of the emotions and much of the fun I have with the movie, but I do wish that more care had been put into the integration of the classical and synth-pop-rock elements with each other, and with the content of the movie.

Rutger Hauer as Captain Navarre makes one of the best movie knights I’ve ever seen, even with his American accent (which is an odd choice, considering he’s Dutch and the setting is clearly France). Steely-eyed, dangerous yet honorable to his core, he is determined to break the curse on him and Isabeau by slaying the evil Bishop, or die in the attempt. For him, there are no other options. It’s not just his own pain that is too much for him, but that Isabeau should be forever condemned to this “half-life.” This determination at times veers close to vengeful obsession, which is all the more frightening for Mouse (Broderick) because Isabeau cannot be present in her human form as a soothing presence. When she is present, though, it’s easy to see why Navarre loves her. She is gentle in all forms of the word: noble, elegant, soft-hearted, kind, affectionate, considerate of others. Their love is genuinely touching, and there’s never a moment you aren’t willing Navarre to bash down the gates of the bishop’s castle, slay that demon-worshipping heretic, and ride off happily with his lady.

Sweet sunrise, she is beautiful! (and has kind of a modern haircut, but no matter)

If only the knight and his lady had more screentime, with less of it being stolen by Broderick’s teenage pickpocket, Mouse. Mouse is really the movie’s main character, with a fairly clear character arc and the more dialogue than all the other characters put together. The story is mostly about Mouse becoming so dedicated to the lovers that he grows out of his selfish cowardice and begins to sacrifice himself willingly, eagerly for their good. But he’s an awkward representative for the story. He’s too much Ferris Bueller, too far removed from the fairy story setting, and there are numerous times when his ironic asides and flat American accent took me out of the story.

He probably just misses Sloane.

It’s not that Mouse is a horrible character or that Broderick is particularly bad in the role—the real surprise was actually how often the character worked, when I didn’t expect him to. Even with his amusing (if very corny) asides to God and himself, it’s clear that Mouse comes to care deeply for Navarre and Isabeau. His manner is often irreverent, but his earnestness, when it appears, feels genuine. The best use of him is when he begins to carry messages between the two lovers. Since at any given time one of them is an animal and the other cannot remember their animal life, it is nearly impossible for them to communicate, but the presence of Mouse emends that. Unfortunately, the lovers oddly don’t give him any messages to send to each other, leaving Mouse to lie and invent love poetry and the like that is supposedly from the other lover. I get how it fits Mouse’s character to do so, but it doesn’t fit that Navarre and Isabeau wouldn’t save him the trouble of lying by giving him truthful things to say. They just smile and gaze into the distance, leaving Mouse the next morning or evening to put words in their mouths. It’s a frustrating missed opportunity, all the drama and romance that could be got from how the lovers make use of this newfound method of communication. Because even while Mouse doesn’t invent things that Navarre and Isabeau probably wouldn’t say, he’s still making assumptions, and his messages are still lies, and that bugs me. What worth is love if not built on truth, even an unspoken truth?

Mostly the film looks great. Frequent wide shots show off the beautiful countryside, with its crumbling castles, dark forests, and icebound lakes, and the costumes and sets manage to look reasonably lived-in without getting so “gritty” as to lose their storybook charm. Navarre’s family sword is awesome, and his steed Goliath, a mighty black Frisian, is one cool chivalric horse. The only oddity I noticed was that in certain scenes, the camera seems to have a filter over it that makes the top third of the picture a saturated reddish; it’s almost like the director of photography is trying to over-emphasize Magic Hour. This is only distracting when it looks obviously faked in post-production; otherwise, the film is beautiful for being shot so often at sunrise and sunset (or made to look as if it were).


One scene about halfway through perfectly captures everything that is excellent about Ladyhawke. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably know what I’m about to say. Sunrise on the frozen lake, the lovers seeing each other as man and woman for a slow, golden moment, in agonizing silence but for the tenderest of music, gasping in surprise and desire, their fingers about to entwine, until the fuzzy morning light washes her away into hawk form, and Navarre roars in heartbreak at the sky. You could watch just those three minutes, without knowing much of the movie, and it’d be just as powerful. In fact, if you want to, here it is. I won’t stop you. It’s that good.

It’s true that no other point in the movie matches that one for raw emotion and movie magic. There are other good moments, and some weak ones. The pacing is a bit slow at times, not always focusing on the lovers as much as it should. Navarre and Isabeau don’t get very much character development; rather, they seem to be powerful embodiments of the Knight and Lady archetypes. But due to their actors’ charisma and skill, they feel almost real and almost dreamlike, in a beautiful paradox. The climax, when they confront the evil bishop, and Navarre engages in a long and fairly realistic swordfight with the corrupt Captain of the Guard, is exciting and truly moving. The lovers’ final embrace, their joyous laughter, their inability to speak because of their bliss at holding each other, is rejuvenating and satisfying. They earn their happy ending, their eucatastrophe, and I was darned glad to see it.

Never go in against a wolf-knight when death…er, love…is on the line.

Because the man is epic.

Credits: Screencaps beginning in pdvd from angelfish_icons
All others from fanpop

Movie Review: “The Secret of Kells” (2009)

Title: The Secret of Kells (2010) IMDb
Director: Tomm Moore (yes, two M’s)
Voice Actors: Evan McGuire, Christen Mooney, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally
Score Composer: Bruno Coulais
Length: 75 minutes
Rating (US): No MPAA rating; suitable for older children, but beware of a few very intense, scary sequences, including an implied slaughter of village folk
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Irish monastic community at Kells, young Brendan dreams of becoming a master illuminator, but is frustrated by his Abbot’s obsession with fortifying against the Vikings over book-keeping. Brendan’s hopes are raised when a kooky old monk (and master illuminator!) arrives in Kells with a beautiful and unfinished Bible. In order to help with the book and learn illumination, Brendan must venture outside the walls of Kells, where he meets Aisling, the Fair Folk spirit of the forest. Unfortunately, the Vikings aren’t far behind…
Reason for Watching: It was this movie’s Oscar nominations that brought it to my attention, and I’m glad it did, because pretty much everything about it is right down my alley: the Middle Ages, Ireland, a fairy story, elves/fae, Christianity, striking 2D animation, Celtic music…
Movie Re-watchability: High. In addition to an enthralling, thoughtful story, the artwork itself is beautifully layered and complex, worthy of many close viewings.
Director Re-watchability: This is Tomm Moore’s only completed film that he has directed, so far, and I’m interested in his future work. He has a good grasp of how to match a movie’s visual style with the content of its story, and also knows the value of careful pacing, moments of silence, and simply taking one’s time to do things right.
Recommendation: Oh aye. This is a more intelligent and bold movie than we’re used to seeing in the children’s genre, as it has plenty for adults to think about. In fact, I’d wager to say that it’s really an adult movie that can happily be enjoyed by kids as well. Also, it knows how not to break its own magic. There are no pop-culture references to be found, no hipster catchphrases, no easy resolutions. Most modern kids’ movies aspire merely to be a drug to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half—this one aspires to give them poetry and beauty, and trusts that it will do them good.

Key Thoughts

[I’ve been very careful to avoid SPOILERS in the review, but do talk about some of the plot.]

Aisling: I’ve lived through many ages. I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.

The first thing you notice about The Secret of Kells is its visual style, which imitates the flat planes, geometric symbols, and striking colors found in medieval and Celtic art. The effect is lovely, and unlike any other animated film I know of (although it reminds me somewhat of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which took medieval stained-glass windows for inspiration). Inside Kells, the shapes are formed of hard lines and points, often in the staircases, scaffolding, tables, and chairs. The effect is orderly, but sometimes the spatial edges of, say, a room seem to just roll away, and we’re left with a slightly surreal image of the picture’s main object almost hanging in space, as seen in the picture below with the Abbott looking out the tower window. Outside Kells, in Aisling’s forest, Celtic swirls and spirals become more prominent, shifting and swaying with the wind like living things. Here, the sound design gives a tangible reality to the stylized images. Then, when the Vikings arrive, with their fire and metal and violence, everything changes: the colors bleed into stark black and red, perspective suddenly makes the world large and menacing, and the invaders lack detail, appearing as menacing, unthinking monsters. It’s not an accurate depiction of Viking culture, to be sure, but it does reflect the medieval terror of Viking ruthlessness.

The Abbott has filled his room with chalk plans for the fortifications. He thinks of little else. After all, the people of the village look to him for protection.

You’ll like Brendan, the ginger-headed boy who desperately wants to illustrate books, but tries to respect the wishes of his uncle, the Abbott Cellach (tries, at least, until Brother Aidan gives him an “excuse” for disobeying). Brendan has never left the walls of Kells as long as he can remember. His parents died to the Vikings, and his uncle has taken care of him ever since. He’s a curious and creative boy, though prone to absent-mindedness. Living in safety and peace, he gives nary a thought to the reports of Vikings raids along the coast and islands. His uncle, the Abbott, can think of nothing else. When he should be guiding the spiritual welfare of his monks and the other people living in the settlement of Kells, he instead can only think of designing and building larger and stronger fortifications.

An epic goose chase...(I love the goose's expression here!)

The status quo is upset by the arrival of Brother Aidan* from Iona, fleeing the Vikings. Aidan is the most celebrated illuminator of the times, and he brings with him the unfinished Book of Iona—later to become the Book of Kells, the most complete and beautiful example of medieval illumination and Celtic art we have today. A sprightly, roguish, and rather unorthodox man, Aidan immediately sees that Brendan has immense artistic talent and enlists his aid to finish the Book, but secretly so that the Abbott won’t find out.

Apparently, all those jars and doodads are the real ingredients needed to make inks. The artists researched well.

As part of their surreptitious work, Aidan sends Brendan into the surrounding Irish forest to collect the special berries for their colored inks. It’s there that Brendan meets Aisling, a white shape-changing fairy girl who claims to be the spirit of the forest. She’s the movie’s most charismatic and entertaining character (easily seen in the movie’s marketing, which disproportionately emphasizes her), and it’s easy to see why. Sometimes a wolf, sometimes a girl, sometimes a flying ghost, she is otherworldly, but possesses a very minxish sense of humor and speaks her mind clearly. When Brendan tries in vain to convince her that he knows how to climb trees, but that the ones he is used to are “smaller,” she laughs and says, “Yeah…like bushes!” She also takes a liking to Brother Aidan’s white cat, Pangur Bán, and in one beautiful instance transforms him into a ghostly creature in order to help Brendan.

Forgive me, but this reminded me of the scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where Li Mu Bai and Jen pause on a tree branch in a forest canopy in the middle of one of their duels. Another beautiful movie, that.

The children—for though Aisling is likely very, very old, her personality and appearance are of a young girl—develop a charming rapport, and somehow their teasing and silliness escapes the pit of “hipness” and irreverence that most mainstream fairy tales keep falling into these days, that would rob it of timelessness. Perhaps this is because, for all their childlike qualities, they are not truly irreverent regarding important things. The Abbott frustrates and confuses Brendan, but Brendan still loves and respects him. Aisling doesn’t understand the Christian love for books, but she respects Brendan’s desires even if she doesn’t fully understand them. And the magic itself is taken very seriously.

Perhaps you remember that essay of C.S. Lewis’ where he said that, in fairy stories, you may have humor, but the magic itself must never be laughed at? The Secret of Kells follows that rule. Even the apparently carefree Aisling is terrified of the cave of the pagan god Crom. This ancient Irish deity—or demon impersonating a deity, from the Christian perspective—promotes death and darkness, and is enemy even to Fair Folk. Brendan’s encounter with Crom is one of this laid-back movie’s more tense and interesting moments, as black superstition and fear is challenged by sacred art and creative inspiration in a stunning and surreal battle.


Most of the tension derives from two sources: the Abbott’s increasing anger at Brendan’s disobedience in serving Aidan, and the inevitable approach of the Vikings. While the latter is more terrifying, the former is more interesting. The Abbott is not a villain, but he does fail to see what is truly important. Still, Brendan is wrong to disobey him, and Brother Aidan is wrong to encourage his disobedience, even if for good intentions.

The movie does have a happy ending, though not a traditional one. In a surprising move by the filmmakers, the last ten minutes or so take us through some fifteen or twenty years, quietly observing how these characters grow and mature until they are ready to be reconciled. It was heartwarming and thought-provoking to see how reconciliation and forgiveness were gradually obtained between these three people.

In the DVD commentary, the artists actually said that their inspiration for the birch trees in the winter scenes was the art of Bill Waterson from Calvin & Hobbes! As if we needed more reasons to love this movie.

If I have any critique, it is that the story doesn’t actually delve that much into the process and results of illumination. There is talk of creativity, and the amazing brilliance that a master artist can bring to the text he illustrates, and we see Brendan try his hand at it a little bit, here, and there. The Book of Kells (also called the Book of Iona) is frequently praised for its beauty, but rarely shown. In the end, this is okay, because the movie is focused more on the personal journey of Brendan, but the themes of creativity and inspiration would have been stronger had the movie investigated the Book and the principles by which the art was made.

I have mentioned Christianity a few times in this review. To be honest, the movie never explicitly discusses religion or faith, nor does it ever identify the Book of Kells as the Bible (although one can easily find online that it is such). I wish the movie had, but I doubt the filmmakers are Christians, and they wanted to appeal to a wide audience. Still, I think Lewis, Tolkien, and MacDonald would have liked this story a lot. The Bible is, indeed, the book that turns darkness into light!

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

– John 1:5

*Fun note: Aidan is voiced by Mick Lally, a popular Irish actor, who also played Grandpa Hugh in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), one of my favorite film fairy stories.

Credits: Screencaps from Screened.com