Category: fantasy

Family Movie Review: The Secret of Roan Inish

Sometimes it takes a while for me to get around to watching a movie. I’m human. What can I say? In this case, it took 21 years. I remember hearing people saying good things about The Secret of Roan Inish back when it first came out in 1994. A movie about some girl in Ireland going to some island?

No thanks.

But the memory of good reviews hung around in the back of my head, and when the movie appeared in Netflix, I added it to the queue, thinking I might try it out on the kids at some point. (This is how it begins. A movie I didn’t want to see as a teenager is now a movie I decide to make my children watch. What’s wrong with that logic?) Thankfully, it turned out to be a wonderful movie, and one that the whole family enjoyed.

What’s to like? It’s beautiful, for one thing. And Irish. I was entertained just listening to the people talk and watching where they walked. Which is good, because it’s certainly not a fast paced movie. It runs on light mystery and fantasy, with a big heaping of character motivation thrown in for good measure. (Note: the accent did make things a bit more difficult for my seven year old daughter, who wasn’t sure what was going on from time to time. Even my 11 year old son had issues, but those were fixed by turning on the subtitles.)

Really, the movie seems to play out in almost a dream like state. A ten year old girl moves in with her grandparents and begins to learn more about the history of her family: how her brother disappeared, where they came from, and how they might have some magic in their family history.

It sounds like an after-school special, but it really is fantastic, and well worth your time. Since it’s over 20 years old, I have to assume many of you have already seen it, but if you haven’t, give it a whirl–don’t wait another 20 years to let it get past you. (The music is great too. Did I mention that? Because I should have.)

9 out of 10. Don’t miss it!


Terry Pratchett, My Favorite Contemporary Author Just Died

I had a post all set to go today. Was just about to hit “Publish,” actually. And then I read this.

I have loved Terry Pratchett books since I first came across them. The Discworld series is just so much fun–so wide and sprawling and interesting. You never knew exactly what you were going to get when you picked one up, but over the course of the series, Pratchett was able to create so many memorable characters and have them do so many memorable things. He wrote books that were immensely fun to read aloud. I read the Wee Free Men series out loud to Denisa, and we both loved them. For years, he’s been my go-to recommendation whenever people asked me what to read or wondered who my favorite authors were. If there were any author I really wanted to be like–wanted to write like–it would be him.

And now he’s dead.

I’m really at a loss for words, and I don’t find myself in that position too often. I’m sad for his family, but I’ll admit I’m mostly sad for myself. Sad for all the books I won’t get to read now–everything he could have published in the next few decades. Yes, we knew he was ill, and yes, we realized this was going to happen at some point, but it’s one thing to know a thing and another thing to face it.

So I’m just going to shut up now and take some time to be bummed. In the meantime, might I suggest you all go out and find a Pratchett book and read it? The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents is a lovely place to start, though Wee Free Men is also great too. Who am I kidding? They’re all great. If you already know this, treat yourself to a reread. If you don’t, then you’ve got a bunch of hilarious, often moving books in front of you.

Here’s hoping there’s a thriving publishing industry in the afterlife. One of the things I could look forward to most is knowing there would be many new Pratchett books waiting for me when I get there . . .

How the Hobbit Trilogy Affects the Lord of the Rings Trilogy

As soon as the Hobbit trilogy was announced, I had one goal that popped right up on my radar: watch all 6 movies as close to back-to-back as I could. (When you have a full time job and three children, watching 20 hours or so of films is going to be difficult to pull off on a literal back-to-back basis. And there was no way I was going to watch anything but the extended editions. What do you take me for?) Ideally, I wanted to do it all over Christmas break. In practice, I started December 20th or so and finished last night. (I had to wait a bit until I could see Battle of Five Armies in the theater, and then there were pesky things like “parties” and “family activities” and “friends” that kept getting in the way.)

One of my biggest questions going into this was what seeing the Hobbit trilogy first would do to my viewing of Lord of the Rings. Because there was no doubt it would affect it. Would they work to make something better? Would they feel like one overarching story? Would it be clunky? I really wasn’t sure what to think.

Wonder no longer.

I’m sure there will be some who will disagree with me. Opinions of The Hobbit range all over the map. But for this Tolkien fan, the new trilogy and the old fit together like a glove. The LOTR becomes a better trilogy by watching The Hobbit trilogy first. And in significant ways.

For example, one of my complaints with the original trilogy was how little time we spend with Gandalf the Grey. When he falls in Moria (spoilers?), we’ve had a bit of experience with him, but not too much. Everyone’s very sad for his passing, but come on–there’s like 11 or 12 hours of the trilogy, and he’s Grey in only about an hour and a half of them. The rest of the time, it’s White all the way. With the Hobbit, we now get more Grey than White, which is how it ought to be, in my opinion. When Gandalf the White shows up in Two Towers, he’s a stark contrast to the Grey, and he does a whole lot of awesome.

Another example: Moria. Dwarves in the original trilogy really get the short end of the stick. (Pun intended?) We see Moria, and then we’ve got Gimli. That’s it. The end. Having viewed the Hobbit first, Balin’s tomb means something. Seeing all those orcs and the balrog in this dwarf city has more oomph than it did the first time I watched it.

How about Legolas? The character some people can’t stand for appearing in The Hobbit. How does he fare? For me, he becomes even better. When I watched the LOTR the first time, Legolas’s battle acrobatics seemed pretty cool, if far-fetched. The trick with surfing down the shield while firing arrows in The Two Towers? How does he do that? But then you watch him at full awesome in Battle of the Five Armies, and seeing him surf a shield is no longer surprising. It is the right and proper way for Legolas to behave in battle. Jumping up on a rampaging Oliphaunt and taking it down? Standard Operating Procedure for the elf. Really, I loved how when he shows up in Fellowship, it becomes that much more impressive. You’re watching, and you’ve just seen Legolas be a one man wrecking machine last movie. That they have him on their side? That means a whole lot more than it meant when he was just being first introduced in that movie.

What about the much maligned Dwarf/Elf love in The Hobbit? That’s solved a great deal by watching the movies as a complete whole as well. Because I–like many of you–questioned that relationship the first time. A dwarf? And an elf? Get real. And then you have that end the way it does, and the next film, you see Aragorn and Arwen, and suddenly you’re wondering why you had such a problem with Dwarf/Elf love. Was it because they looked too different? Do we accept Aragorn and Arwen because all that separates them is some pointy ears? The two relationships are great mirrors for each other.

Speaking of elves and dwarves, Legolas and Gimli’s relationship also takes on more meaning. We can understand why Elves and Dwarves have some bad blood between them–and why Legolas in particular might not be too rosy when it comes to Gimli in particular. So when the two of them hit it off and declare their friendship at the end of the series, that has more of a punch than it did even before.

There are many more examples. Saruman’s betrayal now feels like an actual betrayal, something the original trilogy just couldn’t pull off, because we only get to see Saruman as good for about 10 minutes of screen time. Galadriel is much less bizarre and freaky, because that one scene with her and Frodo isn’t allowed to dominate our perception of her–instead, it calls back to when she was facing down the Necromancer, and it makes a lot more sense.

More than just individual examples, though, there’s the whole feeling of the first trilogy (Hobbit) compared to the second (LOTR). You’ve got epic battles that finish both of them, but the stakes in LOTR are so much higher than Hobbit–and that’s again, how it should be. Hobbit is a lighter trilogy. It’s Middle Earth when it was still mostly Sauron-free. Watching it, we get a sense of how things used to be. Battle of the Five Armies gives a glimpse of where things are headed, and it works very well for that purpose. The Hobbit makes LOTR even bleaker by comparison. It’s an excellent foil for the later trilogy.

There are few movies that I’ll happily sit down and watch again and again, let alone whole series that I’ll shove that much time over to. But these two are definitely the exception. The biggest criticism I’ve heard lobbed at The Hobbit trilogy again and again is that it didn’t capture the essence of the book, but I think that’s evaluating it by something other than what it was trying to do. Viewing the two trilogies as a whole, it’s clear to me that Jackson was trying to create a foil for LOTR, using the events of the Hobbit to do so. This is different than the book versions, where Hobbit and LOTR are so drastically different. You can look at one as the prequel to the other, but you’d be on shaky ground. Other than some shared characters (who don’t really behave the same) and shared settings, they’re two totally different works. Jackson’s movies, on the other hand, are all LOTR, all the way.

It’s fantastic to me that he was able to pull off something like this over so many years–it’s a great testament to all the creative minds that contributed to the effort, from the designers to the actors to the composer and everything in between. Let the haters hate–after watching all 6 movies in a half month, I can unequivocally say that I love them all.

47 Ronin: An Exercise in Misunderstanding

Keanu Reeves was in a film that came out last year: 47 Ronin. I’d seen the trailers for it, and it seemed like it was right up my alley (minus the Keanu Reeves part): a Samurai action fantasy movie? Sign me up, right?

Well . . . it didn’t quite turn out as I’d hoped, on many different levels.

First off, let’s get the elephant out of the room: Keanu Reeves. The guy just has a talent for one note performances. It’s what made him such an excellent choice for The Matrix. Half of the fun was that “The One” turned out to be a bit of a wooden idiot. Bill and Ted succeeds because he’s so good at being that idiot. Put the idiot into a love story in medieval Japan? Um . . . not so much.

But let’s assume for a moment that Reeves could have done a perfect job. Let’s give the film the benefit of the doubt. Even then, it’s got one big, serious, glaring issue. The movie hinges on a white guy (okay, half-white) being able to save all these poor Japanese warriors who just can’t do it on their own. Worse yet, he has to teach them all that they’re all racist and need to get over their prejudices.

It’s not quite this blatant in the movie, but the whole time, it was bugging me, and it wasn’t until I thought it over in the middle (I watched the movie over several days, when I had time) that it became clear. I suppose this is a trope that’s used fairly often in film and pop culture. You’ve got the reverse that happens when Asian martial arts masters come over to America to take names and bring order to society. Or Crocodile Dundee, I suppose . . . But when you start looking to Crocodile Dundee to defend a trope, maybe you’re looking too hard.

And really, it felt different in this movie. With Crocodile Dundee, it was simply a fish out of water showing the rest of the fish what life could be like. With 47 Ronin, the white guy shows the rest of the world how he’s really better than all of them. It would be like having Crocodile Dundee show up and show Americans how to be better Americans. I’m flailing to describe it in words that make it clear, but hopefully you’re getting the point.

No. One more try. What if you had a story about a basketball player who’s a great basketball player, and he finds himself on a football team. And through the course of the movie, he shows the rest of the team how awesome he is at football, as well. He leads that football team to the national championship, because basketball is really awesome.

Does that illustrate the disconnect here? I give up.

I’m willing to give the movie a bit of leeway, because it sounds like it was a nightmare behind the scenes, with the studio coming in and getting all trompy during the editing process. So who knows what it was supposed to be before that happens. But it’s no surprise to me that the film absolutely bombed. Even taking out the racist undertones, it comes across as a movie that resulted when someone watched Lord of the Rings and came away thinking the reason the trilogy was successful was because it had great special effects.

Honestly, the production values in the movie were high. You can tell it cost a pretty penny to make. It’s just the acting, the story, the fantasy development, and the characters that derail it all. LOTR worked because it was a package deal. It had a lot going on so many different levels. This? It’s shiny, but once you get past the wrapper, it’s pretty rotten.

So in the end, this is one movie you should actively avoid. Yes, it’s PG13. Yes, it’s got some cool action sequences. But no, it’s not worth your time. Trust me. 4/10

The Hobbit Review: A Look Back at Middle Earth

Last night I saw a new Lord of the Rings movie for the last time. Yes, I suppose it was technically a Hobbit movie, but let’s be honest here: Jackson’s Hobbit movies are prequels to Lord of the Rings first, and adaptations of The Hobbit second.

And I am perfectly fine with that. No–even more. I love it.

I know there are Hobbit lovers out there who are really disappointed in Jackson’s Hobbit films. They take the book they love, and they Legolas it to death. There’s dwarf/elf love. sandworms, evil elves, and more. Stuff Tolkien never mentioned in his children’s book–and all very valid points. But you don’t hire the director of the Lord of the Rings to do the Hobbit and have him adapt the Hobbit as-written.

You hire him to do the prequels.

The Hobbit (book) is so different from the later works. It’s a children’s story. Simpler. Less complex, with characters that do things for straightforward reasons. Any of the extra complexity that it’s developed over the years is due to what we found out after the fact from Tolkien. And honestly, if I want to watch an adaptation of The Hobbit that’s faithful to the book, I’ll watch the Rankin & Bass version. (Haven’t seen it in forever, but I have fond memories of the movie from when I watched it as a kid.)

Me? I’m all for Jackson’s take on the material. I know it’s his own spin. I don’t expect him to hold perfectly to the canon of Tolkien. It’s an adaptation. Changes must be made.

Sitting down in that theater, I was reminded of the time way back when, when I was sitting in the theater at the midnight release for Fellowship of the Ring. My biggest feeling then? Fear. I was so worried that the movie was going to be awful. That it would be like so much of the other fantasy movies produced at the time: corny, with poorly developed characters and awful special effects. (The example I always think of first? Dungeons and Dragons: The Movie.)

Instead, the movie was tremendous. Outright amazing, in my book. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the few movies I will happily watch again, and again, and again. Extended editions, of course. Why? Because I would happily sit there watching Jackson’s world come alive for every extra second of it he’d be willing to show me. It’s such great attention to detail, in world building, costume design, set design–you name it.

In preparation for this, the final Hobbit movie, Denisa and I watched the extended editions of the first two Hobbit movies back to back. Again, I prefer the extended editions to the theatrical releases. It seems to me that Jackson takes his time to present the story the way he wanted it presented in those extended editions. They flesh out things and smooth out the pacing in ways that are hard to describe, but noticeable. In fact, when watching the third movie last night, there were a few spots where I’m fairly certain things will go better once the extended edition is released. Parts where it seemed like something was missing. Nothing egregious–just spots I noticed where I felt the lack of the extended version.

What did I think about the movie?

I loved it, of course. Loved every last piece of it. I’d go out and buy the extended version today if I could. These movies are completely made for me. Yes, there was a lot of fighting. One ginormous battle that takes up the bulk of the movie. People complained of the first movie that it took too long to get going, and they’ve complained of the last movie that the climax took forever to get through. Me? I view all three movies as one very long film. Seen from that angle, it all feels just right.

Yes, there were many changes to the source material. (But come on–we get the chance to see the White Council duke it out with the Necromancer. How awesome is that?) Legolas seems to have been written for these films to find as many ways to have him being incredibly, unbelievably awesome as possible. Honestly, now I want an alternate version to Lord of the Rings where at the council of Elrond, when they’re asking who will take the ring to Mordor, Legolas just snatches it, catches a passing giant bat, and ninjas his way through one long obstacle course until he chucks it into the volcano and turns around to pose for his close up.

In these movies, Jackson looked at the story of the Hobbit and asked how it would fit with the world he created in Lord of the Rings. People freak out about Legolas appearing in the film, but I have 100% no problem with it. Why? Because of Thranduil. (Pardon me while I get my geek on.) Thranduil is in the Hobbit. He’s Legolas’s father. Does it make sense that the elf prince would be playing a significant role in these happenings? Of course it does. Legolas is in The Hobbit. He just isn’t mentioned by name.

Time and time again, Jackson is looking at The Hobbit through the eyes of a realist (from a LOTR point of view). Why would the elves refuse to let the dwarves go? Why would the dwarves be so concerned with getting back to Erebor. Why why why. To make a movie that would fit with LOTR, these whys had to be answered. He couldn’t get away with glossing over things, and so sometimes he created answers, and other times he found answers in the appendices that fit the bill.

Again, I’m all good with that.

Will you like The Battle of Five Armies? I don’t know. What did you think about the other movies? This will be more of the same. It won’t change your mind about anything. For me? It’s a 9/10, and I’m almost certain it’ll be a 10/10 once I see the extended version.

Loved every second.

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