Kelly is… confused about Tolkien (2019)?

Tolkien 001Rating: C. B for effort, C for execution.

Summary: A biography of one John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, before he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

As I am unashamedly a Lord of the Rings fan (“Fireworks, Gandalf!”) and since this weekend scored on the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, I saw Tolkien more out of obligation to the fantasy genre than real urgency. As this is one of Fox Searchlight’s releases under the Disney deal, this was a bit predictable- I kind of knew this was going to be a safe, family-friendly take on the author, with fantasy elements and the benefit of a built-in audience.

Yeah, a built-in audience of eight people on a Saturday afternoon. I spared my partner from this one and went alone and from what I can tell, everyone else in the theater also went stag.

Let’s get the good stuff out of the way. Nicholas Hoult is phenomenal- he’s like what I had expected from Freddie Highmore back in 2004 (and didn’t turn out to be). Derek Jacobi was a pleasant surprise, as was Alliser Thorne talking about camaraderie. And whoever worked on the set and costumes did a great job. Cinematography is good. It’s very pretty. That was easy.

That’s right. The rest of it is… well. It’s extremely safe. You can instantly see all the demographics it’s trying to appeal to: if you’re a kid, you might like some of this; if you’re an adult that can overlook character flaws and very thinly developed supporting players, you might like some of this; if you’re a fan of young adult romances, you might like this.  And it’s very checklist-y. “We’re a… FELLOWSHIP.” “It’s an opera about a RING.” “A… HOBBIT.” It’s hard not to do this with a biopic, because those “Oh so that’s where that came from” are somewhat important in these pieces. People expect them. It’s more disappointing here that the filmmakers took such a direct approach to a person who basically spawned a genre and inspired generations of writers and artists. It’s like a magically inspired take. Fantasy is there more for aesthetic purposes and not much else. They talk about fantasy- but it doesn’t feel fantastical.

Tolkien 003

How the fantasy is worked into the film is even more baffling- they connect the dots, but it’s only dots numbers 1 and 285. They skip entirely over the in-between, the creative process and his inner thinkings. In the third start of the movie (there are at least five points that felt like the beginning of the movie) Tolkien’s mother reads his brother a story about a knight and that’s what births his love for mythology. Hoult is shown staring longingly at medieval carvings and stories, so we assume he’s thinking about something related. He’s automatically a sketching genius because he’s always liked to draw. He says he was taught several languages- so he must love them, right?

Then, Tolkien goes off to war and imagines these monsters and knights on the battlefield, and I’m not sure if this is implying that he turned to fantasy as a coping mechanism (PTSD and shellshocked veterans are skated over), or he was so positively inspired to portray his comrades as heroes, like a painter that calls out “Hold that pose!” Or maybe he was just straight up hallucinating on the field? Where is he drawing these images from? See? I’m CONFUSED.

Again, I just really wished the filmmakers had taken the opportunity to not just pay homage to the person, but his creations and his works. I’m sure there’s some sort of licensing restrictions in place (none of the titles or characters are ever said), but it’s just so casual. The name Tolkien should inspire prodigiousness- not mediocrity.

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