The Hobbit: The Phantom Menace – The Desolation of Prequels

Hobbit TMP

jokerside badgeGoblins and Gungans… CGI Cousins…

Prequel Prequel

NO MATTER WHAT THE MEDIUM, THE ROAD TO MAKING A PREQUEL IS FRAUGHT WITH DIFFICULTIES. 

There’s a place for them of course, and more often than not a compelling reason to tell them.   It allies with the general human desire to discover origins; we all live in prequels waiting for the next sequel after all.  But then, when it comes to fiction, there is a great obstacle course of expectations to navigate.  In recent years, film’s biggest prequels have been even bigger than they might be – and it’s even worse if you’re aiming for a new trilogy that’s every bit as big as an original one.  No matter which direction you take – littering it with cameos, setting it almost parallel, minutes or decades before or following formerly minor characters – something of the sequel will always linger in the audience.  That’s as guaranteed as much as the well known fact that sequels, let alone prequels, trigger the laws of diminishing returns (this year being the 40th anniversary of The Godfather II just to rub that fact in).

A failure to innovate comes with more risk than falling asleep on Elm Street.

Of all film genres, film sequelitus is more prevalent in horror.  And like many a good horror franchise, any creator looking to create a prequel may want to serve up exactly the same thing that flooded the box office last time round.  But while references are crowd pleasing and to a point expected, a failure to innovate comes with more risk than falling asleep on Elm Street.  And innovation doesn’t just mean filming in 3D or High Frame Rate (HFR)….

Take Star Wars; minor, insignificant franchise that it is…   The idea that the prequel trilogy would follow the rise of Darth Vader, was unnecessary.  George Lucas could well have picked any idea as the central crux of the prequel trilogy, but it was the Dark Lord wot won it.  But it’s part of a nine of 12 film synopsis?  I know.  But ever since A New Hope (Star Wars for God’s sake!) launched in 1977, the fate of that synopsis irreparably changed. It may well have fallen at the front of an original 9 or 12 film script, but in light of the original trilogy’s standing come the end of the 20th century, it just didn’t have to any more.

The Hobbit is a different beast, at least on the face of it.  It’s a book to begin with, and a legitimate sequel that was actually published before The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) volumes.  There’s no retconning necessary to make this a prequel, that’s clear. Any retelling need simply be a concession to flashbacks already established in LOTR. Unlike Star Wars, this is set in stone.  Despite the obvious differences developing both set of genre prequels brought immediate pros and cons… And one main similarity.  A mass of screaming and salivating cosplaying fans whose hopes it would be personally damning to dash.

It’s An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace that absorbed the damage lobbed at both prequel trilogies…

Considering the major differences between LOTR and Star Wars franchises then, it’s amazing that the first Hobbit film fells into as many Sarlacc pits/warg pens as the Star Wars prequel trilogy had a decade earlier.  With The Hobbit, there’s not only another, but now another two films to save it just as there was after that fateful 1999 release… But in any event, it’s An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace that absorbed any damage lobbed at the trilogies first.

Not the myth you’re looking for

“It began long ago, in a land far away to the east…” begins The Hobbit, so far so almost familiar.

Of course there are a number of superficial and a number of rather more concrete links between the two stories.  That was almost unavoidable.  When he plotted Star Wars out, Lucas purposefully studied the groundbreaking work of the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell.  It so rigidly follows the quest structure that similarities with the Norse epic derived Tolkien epic were inevitable.  So far so, Biblical, Arthurian and generally Earth mythological.  What’s strange is that Lucas significantly departed from this winning formula when it came to The Phantom Menace, perhaps swayed by the perceived popular appeal of Darth Vader (He still is… “Ani” however, is not).  In contrast, Peter Jackson inherited a short quest novel, with a reduced content and lighter level of risk than even The Fellowship of the Ring.

There’s the age old issue of origins, compounded by being the further origin of an origin.

Spinning, at a fairly late stage we’re led to believe, The Hobbit into three films makes the comparison with LOTR trilogy all the more acute.  But after part one, truth be told it seemed even more of a stretch.  With the course of The Hobbit trilogy, certainly the main storyline, taking place over a few years at most, The Phantom Menace sits distinct.  Still, there’s the age old issue of origins, compounded by being the further origin of an origin.  Neither film beat the first film of the original sequel trilogy.  More on that later.

The Unexpected Tech…

… It’s very difficult to rationalise the two.

A main enemy of any prequel is time.  There’s the aging effect to contend with, as any prequel obviously falls before the original (sequel), but later in the timeline of rapidly advancing technology.  Just look at the horrible solution to aging Brett “Fountain of Youth” Ratner came up with in Red Dragon and even worse, X-Men: The Last Stand.

The Hobbit has few characters it needs to de-age, although Jackson expanded the cameos as he expanded the story.  However, even with a 10 year delay (as opposed to Star Wars’ two decades) technological innovations have had an impact.  Jackson (and Guillermo del Toro) was conscious of retaining a similar look to LOTR trilogy and he had a distinctive advantage in doing so: both trilogies fell in the CGI age.  Still, in the intervening decade came the furious return of 3d…  and ever on his own quest for new technology, Jackson couldn’t resist filming in HFR.  Still, the consistency of director, location  and broadly the same techniques ensure that the change between the two trilogies is minimal.  With all the R&D consideration in the known galaxies, the return of Lucas, move to CGI heavy green screen and shift away from Blighty couldn’t ensure the same for Star Wars.  Even in the smidgen of consistent set design at the end of The Revenge of the Sith, it’s tricky.  The Tatooine reference points may be there, even the Tunisian locations, but it’s very difficult to rationalise the two.  Here it’s a distinct advantage to overlap the films as An Unexpected Journey does with The Fellowship of the Ring.

 “Where sickness thrives, bad things will follow”

Cumberbatch’s Mirkwood shadow is a little more appealing than Jake Lloyd, bless him…

A bit of an obvious one this and admittedly, a bit of a cheat.  The Phantom Menace leaves the audience in no doubt as to “what” Anakin Skywalker will become.  Even a passing familiarity with spin-off toys and fiction solves the Palpatine riddle immediately.  The threat is implicit in the series’ fixed destiny.  Jackson employs a larger canvas but with similar effect.  There may be a larger bad, but the main villain in The Hobbit has to be the dragon Smaug, and it is the threat of the latter in the former’s “hands” that provides a satisfying link-up.  In An Unexpected Journey Jackson keeps the dragon under wraps.  It’s a nice and well staged move, harking back to classical cinematic suspense while saving on CGI modelling (ish) and keeping the reveal for the next film.  It is in expanding the Necromancer story that Jackson sets up LOTR itself.  The real (and quite literal) Phantom Menace is indeed the big bad of the Hobbit trilogy, just as Vader is in the Star Wars prequels. that said, Cumberbatch’s Mirkwood shadow is a little more appealing than Jake Lloyd, bless him…

Preciousssss comedy

In short, it has Jar Jar Binks but it doesn’t have Han Solo.

Times change and tastes with them, but Jackson inherited a lighter far more child orientated story to wield box office magic with.  Similar to The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit’s a simple quest tale on the face of it.  But this time, it features a bunch of dwarves, a fastidious Hobbit and a straggly wizard.  It’s inherently funnier than LOTR, and injecting a sense of jeopardy while retaining fidelity must have been Jackson’s biggest challenge.  Lucas was similarly caught but took an odd approach.  It may well have appealed to children in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but the leap into ridiculous comedy is immediately galling in The Phantom Menace. The droids comedy is too drawn out, the pithiness of the original trilogy gone.  In short, it has Jar Jar Binks but it doesn’t have Han Solo.

Nothing compared to the power of the cameo

Boba Fett’s presence makes you wonder how Lucas resisted including toddler Solo.

Cameos are essential to these prequels – they are after all setting up the story that everyone’s familiar with.  More than that, they are both designed to feed directly into the original trilogies and are propelled by that inevitable dovetailing.  But here’s where the real trap lies.  It’s a simple trick to bookend The Hobbit trilogy in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring.  The books even come prepared with Bilbo’s memoirs and there’s plenty of room to effortlessly introduce the younger Bilbo with parallels and in-jokes.  Star Wars had no such constraint or aid, bar knowing where everything had to end up.   In telling this story, it was a safe bet that the twins would appear at some point and when you have young Vader there’s likely to be a certain General Kenobi and a Master Yoda.  Of course there are inherent plot problems emerging from taking one line of Alec Guinness’ dialogue from the original trilogy and disregarding one of Frank Oz’s.  It’s Star Wars so there have to be the lovable droids, but the idea of C3PO and R2D2 belonging to young Vader stretches credibility and reason.  Jabba and Chewbacca and particularly Boba Fett’s presence makes you wonder how Lucas resisted including toddler Solo.  The Hobbit leaves it to the middle film to bring in Legolas, an addition to the story, but not an unnatural one.  The awkward moment in that falls to Gimli’s sketch (I presume it’s a sketch!).  Saruman, Galadriel et al do have a reason for being in the film but it noticeably unbalances the tale in search for a darker tone.

Over complication? In our moment of triumph?

Tolkien handed Jackson the handy moment that Gandalf nips off for half the book…

In the age of simplistic blockbusters, the over-politics of The Phantom Menace took almost as many people by surprise as the much mentioned casual racism – and with similarly poor feedback.  While not a tremendous surprise, the short amount of time that the Empire had been in power as of A New Hope for was surprising. As was the fact that it was such a delicate military operation. I’ve a soft spot for that keen observation on the convenience of short memories that A New Hope raises, although I’m not so sure that it was intended.   In the context of The Phantom Menace some of the top brass’ dismissal of Vader’s sorcery looks even more like (career) suicide than ever – there were thousands of Jedis running around less than two decades before!  With The Hobbit it was necessary to complicate the plot and Tolkien handed Jackson the handy moment that Gandalf nips off for half the book.  Again, the problem is really gravitas.  In The Fellowship of the Ring we were left in no doubt as to the seriousness of the cause.  Here, while effort is made, the set-pieces laid down by the book ensure a constant levity.  One way around this was to increase the role of Thorin’s bane: Azog.  But then he’s a problem in himself…

An energy field created by all living things

At least we have a  distinction between goblins and orcs, but they’ve lost a visceral appeal with it.

LOTR may well have fallen in the age of CGI, but things sure came on in 10 years.  Jackson was forced to update somehow, but sadly chose to go a little… Jar Jar.  Now, it doesn’t reach the horror of the Star Wars prequels, but if there’s anything that’s going to date both sets of films it’s the CGI characters.  In a film already struggling for gravitas, that The Hobbit‘s two big bads are entirely comprised of pixels is a mistake.  There needs to be far more tactility in the mine scene – at points it even rivals the platforming ‘hope it’s an in-joke’ of Attack of the Clones.   Above ground, Azog is a far cry from the Orks of LOTR.  Here at least we have a (fairly unnecessary) distinction between goblins and orcs, but they’ve lost a visceral appeal with it.  In the second film, Azog is called to the court of the Necromancer, much as Jar Jar slinks off to the Galactic Senate (to inadvertently pave the way for the Empire).  In doing so he leaves a far better lieutenant in his place, though Azog still looks nauseous and far too bland.

The Goblin king is effectively The Phantom Menace’s Boss Nass, but with Barry Humphries given a far better script than Brian Blessed.  At least there the Cockney/Antipodean accent creeps back in after far too much reliance on subtitled ork speak – but how much better if these had been physical performances.

Gollum’s the small elephant in this piece, missing from both the cameo and CGI section.  Of course he takes a fine part in the book which is duly translated across as this film’s highlight.  The CGI used in motion capturing Andy Serkis is clearly another level (if not as imperceptible as films such as Life of Pi, whinge, whinge), but it also unfortunately serves to showcase some of the lack of polish in other CGI only characters who shouldn’t be there.

Millions of voices… Silenced

…That lack of man really smashes a hole in the picture.

It took a while for me to realise my main problem with The Unexpected Journey – and it’s horribly xenophobic.  The lack of man.  Gandalf may look one, but he’s one of the Istari, effectively an angel of Middle Earth.  He’s not mortal and those who can die aren’t man-like: Dwarves and Hobbits.  With the fine and difficult of balance of threat and comedy to overcome, that lack of man really smashes a hole in the picture.  Why does it matter?   The razing of the plains in LOTR and defence of Helm’s Deep are some of the most emotionally powerful parts of the trilogy, as are Aragorn and Boromir’s struggles.  With these dwarves and a couple of eccentric wizards, the same can’t be mustered, especially when there are so bloody many.  I predicted that Lake Town and its human inhabitants would bring something stronger to the latter films and it looks like the well cast Luke Evans is rising to the occasion.  Bard and his kin may well do that.  There was more emotion in the flashbacks to Bard’s ancestor Girion in The Desolation of Smaug than the whole of the first film.

The Phantom Menace features the men of the Star Wars Universe who are as useful as ciphers to us as the men of Middle Earth.  But when a major plot revolves around the origin of the stormtroopers as clones, a certain joyous part of the original trilogy is lost.  Or ripped from the heart of your young child heart, depending on your perspective.

The Scouring of the Shire

A few months ago it broke how Sir Ian McKellen was caught wistfully sighing under his breadth at the amount of green screen work he was required to undertake when filming The Hobbit.  It’s tricky of course, but The Hobbit is just fortunate that Jackson manages to work it far better than the static and stilted performances found in The Phantom Menace.

Production Notes

Special mention must go to The Phantom Menace’s Duel of the Fates

Both films had consistency in score. Star Wars seems to be the one franchise that John Williams can’t ignore and Howard Shore obviously has a rollicking time too.  Both composers pay much attention to consistency, picking up themes and recurring motifs that are sometimes far more powerful than the images on screen.  Special mention must go to The Phantom Menace’s Duel of the Fates though.  A powerful and brilliant composition that sits with the best Star Wars themes, a trick sadly not repeated in the two sequels (although The Return of the Jedi can also re-holster its saber…).  Sadly, in Middle Earth, even the mighty Neil Finn can’t quite compete.

A strong influence on the weak-minded

Okay, one benefit of The Hobbit coming before, and in fact before Tolkien had formulated LOTR.  Smaug may be a retooled as the greatest weapon in Middle Earth, but he’s hardly midichlorians.  I’ll leave it there.

Must fix the Thermal Exhaust Port

…That Serpent is very much alive and well

The wonderful highlight of a trilogy is often the second part.  Freed from beginnings and endings, it can hit the ground running and not worry a Barliman’s Best about tying it up.  The first part has the tricky job: setting everything up with a weight of plotting without the momentum of the conclusion.  Both An Unexpected Journey and The Phantom Menace purposefully end with an ominous finale, a blockbuster trilogy tradition that can be traced back to The Empire Strikes Back in 1981.  (A New Hope didn’t have the prospects to set up a miserable cliff-hanger).  In one of the highlights of The Phantom Menace, Palpatine issues a chilling promise/threat to the young Skywalker.  In An Unexpected Journey , a shot of the ruined mountain reveals the eye of Smaug and that Serpent is very much alive and well.  It’s a broad brushstroke stab at future threat and while it does the job, it’s weak.  That was compounded when The Desolation of Smaug opened so weakly (a great shame considering the brilliant recap/set-piece that opened The Two Towers).  I’ll not mention Attack of the Clones anymore, but The Phantom Menace’s revelation that there are Siths in the house is hardly groundbreaking.

Tempt and tempt again

Both storylines are constrained by temptation

If there’s a linking theme between the two trilogies, in fact the two franchises it’s temptation.  Both sequel and prequel trilogies tussle with the appeal of evil and the weakness of life.  It’s more pronounced and more emotional in the Star Wars prequel as the audience knows that the young child does give in to temptation.  In The Hobbit, the temptation that is so central to LOTR is blown up for the benefit of continuity and Bilbo’s unknowing struggle can only recollect Frodo’s darker path.  In their own way, the storylines are constrained by temptation, each coming from the opposite side and meeting in the middle.

The light and dark and all the greys inbetween.

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