Trip the light fantastic

Okay, this could just as well be a variety pack, but I’m saving that option for another time, ‘kay? Anyway, with the two films there’s a theme to be made, however tenuous. And that theme is… the fantastic! Either that or big, growling, carnivorous CGI creatures that would chew your face off as soon as look at you. How’s that for themeitude?

The Hobbit

I’ve defended most of what Peter Jackson did to The Lord of the Rings. Jackson and his team had a good feel for what works in a book and what works on the screen. Cutting out Tom Bombadil? About the best thing that ever happened to Tolkien’s work. In fact, the film that gets the purists most riled up, The Two Towers, is my favourite of the trilogy.

I’m afraid that when it comes to The Hobbit, though, Jackson’s instincts weren’t quite as successful, at least with respect to the book-to-film transition. A lot has already been written about the decision to do yet another trilogy (seriously – what is it about fantasy and the number 3?), and I don’t want to come down too hard on Jackson et al. before I’ve seen all three of the Hobbit movies, but so far I have two main objections: 1) The Hobbit is a children’s book, it isn’t the big, world-shattering epic that its kid brother would be, and the relatively flimsy plot can’t carry the epicness that the film makers tried to inject. An Unexpected Journey tries to be two things at the same time – whimsical adventure and epic – and the film’s internal conflict makes it work less well as either of these two. 2) I understand that the writers’ team wanted to bring in all of the cool stories, scenes and characters from Tolkien’s other writings, but at least as far as this first film in the new trilogy is concerned there is no connection between the dwarves plot and the Necromancer storyline. As a result, the latter feels like a tenuously connected “Meanwhile at Dol Guldur…”

Still life with dwarves

Having said that, though, The Hobbit Part I (In Which Everyone Wonders Why This Had To Be Yet Another Trilogy) is an enjoyable film. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s got a fantastic rendition of the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter (it’s a shame that Gollum’s appearance in The Hobbit is done by the end of the first film), and Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo – and most importantly, the film did succeed at bringing back the good old Middle-Earth feeling right from the start. Let’s just hope, though, that by the third film hobbit fatigue hasn’t set in too much.

Life of Pi

Yes, I know – it isn’t exactly the same sort of fantasy as Jackson’s revisiting of Tolkien, but the fantastic plays an important – arguably more important¬†– role in Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel. I wasn’t a huge fan of the book when I read it; Life of Pi is well written and perfectly charming for the most part, but its “I wanna be Le Petit Prince” whimsy, aiming for lightness mixed with profundity, grated. In addition, the novel’s final twist struck me as badly handled and gimmicky. I don’t mind stories that pull the rug from under your feet, and some of my favourite films and novels have similar elements, but Martel delivered his answer to “What’s the use of a story that isn’t even true (or is it?)?” too glibly.

Ang Lee’s film version of Life of Pi is beautiful to look at. I’d feared from the trailer that it would be tacky kitsch of a decidedly Kincaidy bent, but the film handles even the more outlandish, phantasmagoric images deftly. The 3D is integrated well, the CGI rarely looks computer-generated and the animation is just about as perfect as it gets. (Some scenes that I took to be CGI I later found out to have been shot with a trained tiger – go figure.)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water...

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Lee’s film version may be the best film you can make of the novel – without changing it into something else altogether, that is. I enjoyed watching the film, but its twee attempts at depth, its facile final dilemma, it all bothered me. Life of Pi is quite the journey (minus the occasional bout of literary sea-sickness), but it’s one that ends in a disappointing destination. Perhaps the film depicts Pi’s story even too well, because it stacks the deck so much in favour of the fantastic version of his tale that the other version feels even cheaper. And it’s difficult to shake the feeling that in the end Pi is really saying, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story?”, which is too much of a cop-out, both with respect to Pi’s story and the larger question of God he’s talking about. And cop-outs shouldn’t be delivered quite this glibly. Perhaps Life of Pi is a good story, and a good film, in dire need of a good ending.