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.

*Spoilers!*

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.

7673_3_large
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

TheHobbit_0016
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.

Conclusion

"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.

TV Show Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.06 “The Tax Man Cometh”


Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.06 “The Tax Man Cometh”
Original Air Date: November 11, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Dwight O’Dwyer
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Lucy Griffiths (Marian), Anjali Jay (Djaq)
Synopsis: “Robin captures a tax inspector and plots to heist the year’s taxes, but a surprise is in store for both him and the sheriff; Marian makes her own preparations after a row with her father, and Gisborne makes his intentions clear.”
Recommendation: Another fun episode with lots of tricking going on. Probably a good entry point for someone new to the show, I think.

Key Thoughts

Allan A Dale

Aside from the entertaining villains, I really am liking Robin himself and the outlaws. They’re all appealing personalities, especially Allan A Dale. In fact, Much is the one who is becoming increasingly annoying. Not horribly so, but so far he has been stuck in the mode of “wimpy complainer.” He’s the butt of jokes, eternally frightened and over-earnest either about silly things, or about serious things in a silly way, and lacks any discernable toughness or sense of humor. I feel that any serious outlaw group would long ago have left him behind or found a way to keep him out of their important outlaw endeavors. In the first episode, he somewhat functioned as an extra conscience for Robin (despite Robin himself being generally the most upright character), but since then that role has been usurped by Allan. This may account partially for Allan being my favorite outlaw, but much also has to be said for his good sense, good humor, warm-hearted honesty, and considerable competence. On the whole, they are a proper band of capable young men out to fight injustice and have some fun along the way.

The outlaw with the least development thus far is the new girl Djaq, the “Saracen” with an anti-Christian anti-English chip on her shoulder (courtesy of the nasty Crusades). Considering she was just introduced last episode, it’s surprising that she should get no more than two or three lines this time. She’s not given any personality traits beyond “feisty” and “angry,” and so appears to be a pointless novelty.

Sir Guy of Gisborne is quite sympathetic in this episode. His concern for the (apparently wounded near death) “Abbess of Rufford” is genuine, even earning him scorn from the Sheriff. And he is consistently nice towards Marian, and almost romantic as he declares that he will continue to be kind to her and pursue her affections in spite of her rejections. He does not force himself on her; in fact, he almost seems a tad bit tongue-tied in her presence. In his wooing there is a certain gentleness and vulnerability. It’s no wonder he’s popular with fangirls. Of course he would make a terrible husband for Marian, being hard and intolerant of her outspokenness, and he has earned his villain-hood already (you’ll pardon the pun). Yet he is a character with layers and believability, and I like that.

Obligatory Marian rant

Of Marian herself, she continues to be selfish and arrogant while inexplicably retaining the show’s support. I suppose we are expected to cheer for her as some sort of feminist paradigm, and yet all I see is a spoiled brat who disrespects her father and her friends and gets away with it because of her pretty face. She manipulates everyone around her into thinking she is a brave little victim, when truthfully most of her troubles are her own fault. She is perfectly placed to be Robin’s help inside Nottingham and its castle, but she performs that role reluctantly, and almost with disgust. One thinks she would not be satisfied unless she were the leader of a band of outlaws herself, gaining her own fame by rubbing in the mud the faces of all those who annoy her.

Oh alright, she has her nice moments. Her concern for the oppressed peasants feels genuine, and the revelation of how deep is her father’s love for her brings out a nice tearful hug. But these moments almost feel like exceptions to the rule. At the very least, they do not excuse her poor behavior elsewhere.

TV Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.05 “Turk Flu”


Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.05 “Turk Flu”
Original Air Date: March 31, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Dwight O’Dwyer
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Synopsis: “The Sheriff is importing slaves to work in a dangerous mine. In the meantime there is an archery competition at Nottingham Fair.” (Wikipedia)
Recommendation: While the story has some interesting aspects, including a different take on the classic archery competition, it also introduces the ridiculous character of Djaq, a “Saracen” girl, who so far has greatly annoyed me.

Key Thoughts

This episode includes many references to modern-day issues, such as the suspicion of Middle-Easterners in the West, Britain’s 2006 bird flu, and Muslim resentment towards “Christian” nations (yet interestingly, nothing about the dangers of radical Islam). The vehicle for these “themes” is the arrival in Nottingham of a batch of “Saracen” slaves that the Sheriff has bought to work his deadly iron mines, represented by the spunky girl-poorly-disguised-as-a-boy Djaq. Unfortunately, both the character and the references are basically ham-handed liberal rants against the West that threaten to interfere with the more fun aspects of this episode’s story. Djaq is less a character than a mouthpiece, and despite being apparently a teenager, she seems to be this wise (yet fiery) receptacle of all Arab science and knowledge. Her lines are few, but annoying. Her actions and reactions are mostly illogical, especially her ill-explained decision to join Robin’s group at the episode’s end (or was there even an explanation? Everyone seemed to take it for granted).

Apparently all English believe that "Turks" have a contagious and deadly flu. Or at least, that's what Robin hopes they believe...

Robin’s men intercept the slaves as they are being conspicuously transported in a wagon, and once our boy Hood realizes the situation, he resolves to strike at the Sheriff twice with one stroke; firstly, by using the slaves to help him infiltrate and destroy the mine, and secondly, to free the slaves. Ah, but that’s not all he has to worry about! For the Sheriff is holding an archery contest—for the express purpose of trapping him, naturally—and even though Robin knows it is a trap, it pains him that the job destroying the mine is keeping him from attending. But of course, you know things will work out so that Robin gets to win the contest and accomplish his other noble goals. Of course!

I think my favorite moment is the look on the Sheriff’s face when—reclining happily at the archery contest, waiting for Robin to arrive—he is told that his precious iron mine has been destroyed and all the slaves set free. It’s a look of absolute horror and panic, followed by he and Guy galloping desperately to the mine in time to see Robin mock them and escape.

Would I watch it again? Probably not, unless I was bored. All of the Robin Hood episodes seem pretty interchangeable. The fun comes from the fast-paced adventure and abundant roguish quips, making the increasingly-frequent “political commentary” quite annoying and out-of-place.

TV Show Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.04 “Parent Hood”


Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.04 “Parent Hood”
Original Air Date: October 28, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Richard Standeven
Writer: Paul Cornell
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), William Beck (Royston White), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Synopsis: “Roy is captured and the results may be dire for Locksley; at Nottingham, Marian pays a price for her outspokenness.” (IMDb)
Recommendation: Another strong episode.

Key Thoughts (with a big SPOILER this time)

Marian: [Robin is sending food over walls attached to arrows] That is a waste of arrows!
Robin Hood: No!
Marian: You could simply throw the food.
Robin Hood: We could. But where would be the fun in that?

Royston White

This episode focuses on Royston White, the more aggressive and bullying of the outlaws, who gets captured by the Sheriff’s men. He was the de facto leader of the group before Robin came and has an especially strong relationship with Little John. Much disliked him because of his boisterous, mocking nature, but this episode does a lot to make him more likable. Right before killing him off.

Oh, the outlaws do mount a rescue attempt, certainly. But as they fight their way through the courtyard, Roy ends up having to sacrifice himself to buy the others’ time to escape. We see half a dozen soldiers back Roy against a wall and hack him down—it’s a bit intense for a family show, even though it is filmed from behind the soldiers and you never see the weapons actually hit him.

"What're we gonna do? Give 'im a little dagger and quiver of arrows?"

Another plot thread involves the outlaws finding an abandoned infant in the forest. After some moral prodding from Robin, they agree to find a way to return it to its mother. This leads to some amusing dialogue, like Will Scarlet wondering if they should just give the baby boy a little bow and quiver if he’s going to pal around with them.

The third plot thread involves Marian getting into trouble for not being subtle enough in her opposition of the Sheriff. Seemingly disregarding the privileges of nobles, the Sheriff decides that for the rule of law to be preserved, he must make a public example of her. Her punishment is to have her beautiful long hair cut to a conveniently modern-looking shoulder length.

The Sheriff and Sir Guy pretty much have run of the whole county.

A few aspects about this part struck me as odd. I may be mistaken, but I don’t think a sheriff of that time would have had the authority to punish someone of noble blood without direct authorization from the king (or in this case, the as-yet unseen Prince John). Also, I can’t believe that the other nobles in the area (whom we rarely see, but were present in Episode 1) would allow one of their own to be so humiliated like that. Nobles tended to stick up for their own rights and privileges, and to not show proper respect for one could be a serious offense. Additionally, Marian’s father makes no protest at all, despite being very wide-eyed and fearful all through the proceedings. As a respected noble and former sheriff himself, I’d think he would have at least some influence in such a serious matter.

As another side note, I don’t like how Robin quotes from the Qur’an instead of the Bible. Presumably this is to show his cultural sensitivity (and to set up Episode 5). However, it comes across as the show going out of its way to de-Christianize the medieval Christian setting as much as possible to make it palatable for a modern liberal audience.

Now for my…

Obligatory Marian rant

When Robin saves Marian from some harassing guards, he asks roguishly “Having some trouble?” And she replies arrogantly and disdainfully with “Nothing I couldn’t handle myself, thank you.” Really mature, Marian. Not only are you lying in a desperate attempt to preserve the illusion of your own superiority, but you are incapable of showing gratitude when someone does you a good turn.

Biggest shot we've got yet.

Later, Robin asks Marian if she can take the abandoned baby to Knighton, where its mother is supposed to be, and her instant retort is “Because I’m a woman?” all defensive-like. YES, Marian, because you are a woman. Women give birth and are generally better at nurturing babies than men are. Yes, you, Marian, because Robin and his men are hunted outlaws in the greenwood and can’t take care of an infant, whereas you, respectable woman that you are, can easily make sure the baby stays safe and well-fed and gets returned to his parents. If you want the moral high ground, do not act as though your anachronistic and inappropriate faux-feminism is more important to you than a baby’s life.

Then when Robin says he has to leave, for his safety (they are in a village), she wryly calls it “the call of the wild.” Robin immediately calls her out on this, asking why everything she says is a criticism. Her excuse? “I do not know. I suppose these are the lives we have chosen. Always different directions.” She thinks that she is being “careful” and therefore stands a better chance of fighting the Sheriff; that is, without ever directly confronting him. Robin is quick to point out her hypocrisy (and a few times where she has acted more boldly like him, in contradiction to her own stated views). The show does acknowledge her rudeness, but not its inappropriateness.

Final

Overall, though, it’s another strong episode. Roy’s death has enough gravity to work, and the episode still manages to end on an upbeat, even funny, note. Solid entertainment.

TV Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.03 “Who Shot the Sheriff?”


Find my other reviews of this show at my Review List.

Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.03 “Who Shot the Sheriff?”
Original Air Date: October 21, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: Richard Standeven
Writer: Paul Cornell
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Synopsis: “With the people of Nottingham being attacked by a mysterious archer, Robin finds himself blamed.”
Recommendation: At last we have Robin leading a band of outlaws, fighting the Sheriff from the (sometimes elusive) safety of the greenwood and being a pretty decent chap to all the poor oppressed townsfolk even when they turn against him. Exactly what I signed up for. Overall it’s another fun episode with a good bit of roguish action. Much like the others.

Key Thoughts

As usual, the story is fast-paced and entertaining, if not always brilliant, and I’m pleased that Robin’s defining character traits are his dual senses of honor and justice, and his unwillingness to sacrifice either. The show likes to throw tough moral decisions his way, which is as it should be, and while they don’t elicit quite the gravitas that a show like Doctor Who, or even Highlander, does, they still help to give the proceedings a bit of depth and redeeming value. The action remains just this side of cartoony, and is a good deal of fun.

Also, I note with interest the presence of a black British character in a high-ranking position, whose anachronistic presence (like the anachronistic clothing, weapons, and just about everything else) goes uncommented on. This should be a clear indication of the kind of show Robin Hood is.

Also noteworthy: while this is a family show, moreso even than Doctor Who is, by my reckoning, it’s not afraid to kill off side characters. This episode in particular involves a number of innocent people getting shot with arrows, and Robin himself blamed for their deaths. Nothing is bloody or dwelt on, but some parents might consider it too intense for their children.

And now for my…

Obligatory Marian Rant

While this episode does end with Marian being slightly less hateful than previously, it precedes this with a particularly irritating example not only of her hypocrisy, but of her determination to disrespect Robin at every turn. Part of this is the writers’ fault, and part the actress’. The scene involves a night where Robin has snuck into the castle to deal with the Sheriff and hides in Marian’s bedroom to escape from searching guards. While Marian doesn’t hesitate to hide him, she has the gall to castigate him for never showing his feelings and acting as if he can’t be hurt. Apparently, this is how she interprets his righteous anger at the Sheriff’s violent oppression, his anguish at the tragedies that befall his serfs, and his unhesitating self-sacrifice for others. She’s seen it all herself—in fact, I complained about a similar scene in the previous episode where her illogic is even worse. Rather, it is Marian who comes across as arrogantly untouched by Robin’s selfless sacrifices. While it is revealed that she does have her own ways of combating the injustice of the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne, she doesn’t emote it at all, and lack of emoting is her very accusation against Robin! Marian is presented as cold and immature, whereas Robin—though he’s not my favorite interpretation of the character—does appear to have considerable self-control.

Like we can't tell you're a girl when you pose like that, really.

[SPOILER] The end of the episode reveals that Marian herself is the mysterious Nightwatchman, who is also handy with weapons and was doing some minor fight-the-oppression-and-help-the-poor work before Robin returned from the Crusades. Since I knew this show wanted to make Marian a “tough action girl,” I wasn’t surprised or unduly annoyed by this. I mean, it is annoying because the show doesn’t need it and her character doesn’t deserve it, but to be honest, when she finally had to confess it to Robin, and he was amused but kind of pleased, she actually became less annoying. Who’d have thought?

TV Show Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.02 “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?”


Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.02 “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?”
Original Air Date: October 14, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: John McKay
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Gordon Kennedy (Little John)
Content Advisory: Light PG-13 violence of the swashbuckling sort, the threat of someone’s tongue being cut.
Synopsis: “While the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne take control of Locksley, Robin, Much, Allan and Will encounter Little John and his gang of outlaws in the forest.”
Reason for Watching: Had a spare hour and decided to continue on from Episode 1.

Recommendation and Key Thoughts

There’s more fun swashbuckling in this episode, and I quite enjoyed it. You can’t take it seriously, of course – it’s pure camp, winking at the audience the whole way and just generally trying to have a good time. That’s why I’m finding it easy to accept the offenses against history, logic, and physics, so far.

It’s also why I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the character of Marian. All the other characters seem half aware that they are in a swashbuckling comedy (Robin more than half), but Marian takes herself far too seriously. Consider this: near the climax of this episode, Robin has turned himself in to the sheriff in order to save the peasants of Locksley from the Sheriff’s violence. Robin is sentenced to hang the following morning, but naturally Marian visits him in prison with the intention of helping him escape. Before she does this, however, she tries to chew Robin out for being a selfish “fool.” Her reasoning is this: Robin gave himself in, which means he’ll die, which means he won’t be around to protect the people of Locksley, which means he did the wrong thing. Robin laughs at this nonsense, but likes her too much to point out just how illogical she is. Because, following her reasoning, Robin should be protecting his people by doing something which leads directly to their gruesome mutilation. She won’t even admit to his honor and integrity in doing this. Now, to be fair, much of her frustration with Robin comes from her own hurt feelings regarding him leaving for the Crusades while they were still engaged—but then who is being selfish? At any rate, Marian is the only character who is a complete bore when onscreen. She doesn’t seem to realize that in a Robin Hood show, you’re supposed to have fun!

The Sheriff of Nottingham

Fortunately, the other actors get this very well indeed. Special mentions here go to Keith Allen as the entertainingly despicable Sheriff and Gordon Kennedy as Little John. The former is quite a cunning fellow, as he quickly deduces that Robin values the lives and freedom of others far above his own life, and will not kill unless it is the last resort to save lives. And the latter gives this episode its emotional weight, as we learn he has a son in Locksley that he’s never seen, on account of his being an outlaw for so long. Kennedy is older and appears far more mature than the other young men onscreen, and that works greatly in his favor. This isn’t a buffoonish Little John, or a simple one—he may express himself forthrightly, but there’s lots of thought behind his eyes. I like this portrayal—he’s easily my favorite of the band so far.

John Little

And it’s nice to see Robin effectively at the head of the outlaws by the end of this episode. Every Robin Hood movie or show wants to start with an origin story, so it takes an episode or two for him to make friends with the outlaws and become their leader. It makes sense to do this, but the part I really came for is all the robbing from the rich, giving to the poor. Hopefully, that may now commence with gusto!

TV Show Review: BBC’s Robin Hood Episode 1.1 “Will You Tolerate This?”


Series Title: Robin Hood (IMDb)
Episode: 1.1 “Will You Tolerate This?”
Original Air Date: October 7, 2006
Length: 45 minutes
Director: John McKay
Writer: Dominic Minghella
Lead Actors: Jonas Armstrong (Robin), Sam Troughton (Much), Richard Armitage (Guy of Gisborne), Keith Allen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Lucy Griffiths (Marian)
Content Advisory: Very light PG-13 stuff; goofy action, some suggestive dialogue
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “Robin returns home from The Crusades and discovers the oppression of the new Sheriff of Nottingham. He sees Marian again, to whom he had been betrothed before he chose to leave for the Crusades.”
Reason for Watching: My cousin lent me Season 1 so I decided to give it a go.
Episode Re-watchability: Minor, I suppose. It’s fast-paced and reasonably fun, though not particularly clever.
Recommendation: Fun episode that makes clear that you should not take this show seriously. Not brilliant, but fairly well-made and fun.

Key Thoughts

When the title zoomed onscreen to the exaggerated sound of arrows hitting a target, I realized just how proudly the BBC’s Robin Hood wears its camp on its Lincoln-green sleeves. This realization prepared me so I could laugh when, in later instances, Robin shows off his “Saracen” recurved bow (actually a modernized version of a Hun bow, but nevermind), fires two arrows at once to split some hangman’s ropes (a modest homage to Carey Elwes, perhaps?), and gets saved by a pointy hairpin thrown with deadly precision at a range of many yards by Marian. Historical accuracy and realistic physics are thus ignored, and I have no great hopes for the legend being strictly adhered to either.

The actors all seem capable and possessing of comedic talent, although I notice that not only are all the male heroes young (which makes sense for Robin and his outlaws), but they all seem to have the same lean, rather short body build. This, combined with their acting styles, makes them all seem like rowdy college boys rather than young men who are trying to find their place in the world.

Robin himself is good enough. He’s a bit more serious than his mates, but not without a roguish side or a touch of emotional depth. Much (in other versions called “the Miller”) is the comic relief, filling, at this point at least, the role of Robin’s best friend and former manservant during the Crusades. Allan A Dale looks like he’ll be a fun rogue when he joins the group proper, and Will Scarlet, while young and idolizing Robin, has a chance of developing a measure of maturity, if the writers so decide.

At this stage, I’m not too thrilled about Marian. She’s cold and haughty towards Robin, despite apparently being his childhood crush, and despite him clearly being a pretty cool and morally upright person who doesn’t think twice about standing up to corrupt and powerful officials for the good of his own people. She does save Robin’s life with the above-mentioned hairpin-dart, but otherwise is an annoyance for her self-perceived and nonexistent superiority.

Gisborne.

On the villain’s side, we have a typical, but not unwelcome, campy, beard-stroking, evil-chuckling Sheriff of Nottingham, but the real standout is Guy of Gisborne. He has been managing Robin’s lands while the hero is away on the Crusades, and has been managing them at the behest of the Sheriff, oppressing and over-taxing the people as medieval villains do. But when Robin returns to assume control of Locksley, Gisborne acknowledges Robin’s lordship and backs out. Not happily, mind you, but he does, despite having a troop of armed men nearby. The evil Sheriff quite naturally berates him for letting go of the lands so easily, but Gisborne seems reluctant to so flagrantly break the laws protecting a noble’s rights to his own land. Even if that noble is an annoying do-gooder who can’t keep his mouth shut like Robin. Whether this comes from respect for the law, for noble status, or from cowardice, I do not yet know, but I am intrigued at the possibility that a shadow of integrity lies within Gisborne’s grim, brutal façade.

What little I had heard about this series had not enticed me to give it a chance, but now that I’ve seen Episode 1 I think I can have some fun with it, at least for awhile.