Movie Review: Hunt for Gollum gives fan-films a good name

14 May

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You know, I’m not really into fan films all that much. They have an inherent flaw that usually turns me off right way: instead of being creative or imaginative they strive to be slavishly faithful to their target and often lack the materials or talent to measure up. So, instead of  something that expands the rich world the creators adore, the “film” ends up being a grainy camera filmed video of four guys in the corner of their high school’s auditorium, wearing latex ears and reciting overcooked, pompous dialogue they wrote themselves while intermittently tapping their tin foil breastplates. I find that generally I end up  switching them off(or more accurately, hitting the back button on YouTube) out of sheer embarassment for the parties responsible.

So, color me surprised when I finished Chris Bouchard’s 40 minute LOTR fan film The Hunt for Gollum and found myself with not just a smile on my face but an intense desire to see The Hobbit. Right now. On a ridiculously small budget which probably amounts to the catering bill for John Ryhs Davies alone, Bouchard’s picture does what no other fan film of it’s ilk has managed: it apes entirely the style and form of the films it worships while also proving to be a worthy addition to that universe. It isn’t a full out triumph, but I’ll say this: it belongs in the universe of The Lord of the Rings, and it honors the intent and spirit of Tolkien’s original works.

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The basic plot is one of the nice touches of the movie. This microcosmic event takes place between the time that Gandalf learns the One Ring is hidden in the Shire with Bilbo and the point where Frodo and his fellow travelers meet Aragorn at  The Prancing Pony. Gandalf knows the location of the Ring, knows of Gollum, and meets with Aragorn and sends him to locate and capture the elusive creature and find out if he possesses the knowledge of the Ring’s current whereabouts. As a story, it doesn’t amount to much, and the filmmakers don’t try to make it overly important. The strength of the scenario is it allows the audience to romp about in Middle Earth for a little over a half hour, and it ties itself inextricably to the original Trilogy, creating a certain relevance. The time-line of events also easily justifies the mimicry of Jackson’s Rings films–and that’s a good thing since this aspect of the movie is first class.

The Hunt for Gollum looks, sounds and feels like it belongs in the Jackson LOTR universe. Filming in Wales and the Epping Forest, Douchard finds landscapes and shots, that once enhanced with relatively subtle CGI, look nearly as good as the scenery in the mega-budget trilogy. Misty glens, shadowy forests, and craggy hills topped with ancient statues look believable and genuine. The use of filters and editing techniques blend the pacing and flow of the film with it’s predecessors. The costumes and make-up are really good for such a small production: a band of orcs looks like they wandered to this set off of The Two Towers. 

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A battle scene in the middle of the film between Strider and those same Orcs is brilliantly staged. In other places the cinematography lifts entire scenes from it’s inspiration, among them several majestic mountain shots, Aragorn’s eyes illuminated by the fire in his pipe, and slow motion Orc boots tromping through muddy leaves. However, during the battle scene it becomes clear Douchard and company aren’t just copying Jackson’s style, they have been studying it. One Orc turns around, and a swooping shadow takes out his accomplice and the forest goes still. It’s a nice bait and switch with Aragorn becoming the stealthy predator and the Orcs the confused party.

So, from a visual standpoint, the movie is strong. The score is also impressive. It’s original music that always skirts the line between blatantly ripping off Howard Shore and simply evoking the mood of his work. Either way, it does a convincing job of landing us in that familiar mindset of a world brimming with adventure, magic and danger. The weak point, as it is with all of these things, is the acting. The good news is that it isn’t THAT weak.

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Adrian Webster who plays Strider doesn’t match the part at all, but his effort goes a long way to suspending the reality that this forest warrior would make it so far with his eyes half lidded and mouth slightly agape. In the end, he was good enough that I was capable of accepting him as the character and that isn’t easy considering the last person to hold the role was Viggo Mortensen. He’s not even close, but he knows that, and saves his best work for impersonating Viggo and letting the other elements of the production speak for him the rest of the time. Patrick O’ Connor was quite nice as Gandalf, and fit into his surroundings perfectly. I liked his acting choice, which isn’t a full blown impression of McKellan but almost a mix of Ian’s performance and Lee’s turn as Saruman. It was far more interesting when played that way, and for the first time the Tolkien source material shone through more brightly than the adaptation.

As I said before, not everything works. For a forty minute picture there are still too many extraneous scenes. Everything involving Aragorn and Arwen is modeled identically after scenes in the original films, and it doesn’t add any new ideas or thoughts to that relationship. It should have vanished as those are the parts that are most reminiscent of the usual crop of “fan films.’ A lack of special effects renders Gollum as a form trapped in a sack most of the time. I was actually fine with this, because it was easier to fill in the blanks with Serkis’ performance. When we finally do see him, he’s a badly rendered mock-up of the Weta creation and its a shame they used it at all.

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Finally, and this is probably just me, the film is aribitrary. It’s hard to feel any sense of pride or exhiliration at what everyone accomplished, because all they really managed was to make a reasonable facsimilie of someone else’s work. At best, it just proves how influential and inventive Jackson really was and why the current pseudo-backlash againt LOTR is codswallop. All of the work and clear talent that went into this piece could have been in service of an original vision, or even a new rendition of Tolkien. Instead, we get this independent film ode to the world of Tolkien as seen by Jackson.

But, I watched it all the way through, and plan to show it to my wife and the rest of my friends soon enough. So, I can’t really criticize the film for being what it is. When it comes down to it, all fans of LOTR are jonesing for something new and it’s incredible to think that a fan film scratches that itch, even for a very brief time.

So, see it for yourself and then tell me what you think. Watch the movie here:

http://thehuntforgollum.s3.amazonaws.com/index.html

or on YouTube here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra9copTgtYc (this is the first part; there are links to the other pieces on the right hand side)

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One Response to “Movie Review: Hunt for Gollum gives fan-films a good name”

  1. lord bronco November 18, 2009 at 7:21 pm #

    I actually stumbled across this movie without reading this review-and I’d say the review is spot on. I’m a big fan of low-budget film-making who is at the same time leary of fan fiction. This movie was more right than it was wrong-and many of the scenes were surprisingly effective. it’s cool that you support this kind of effort.

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