Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Films Performance Review Series: Merry & Pippin

Merry and Pippin: I decided to examine Merry and Pippin together in this post because, for the purposes of the film, the two characters are nearly combined for much of the story. Tolkien clearly had Merry positioned as the more mature of the pair, but for the film Jackson practically merged them, creating a rather different dynamic.

From the moment we meet the two rascally young hobbits they are known as an inseparable pair of scamps that terrorize the countryside with their impish and irresponsible behavior. There is virtually no effort in the movies to differentiate between them, although we occasionally get a more insightful question or comment out of Merry now and then. And, of course, all of the truly bothersome tomfoolery is left for Pippin to get himself into. We’re left with this impression of the two clear into the middle of ROTK when they suddenly find themselves separated, and each finally begins to show a bit of a more individual personality. Eventually they each enlist in the service of the lords in whose companies they happen to find themselves and there’s a delightful little mini-arc for each character as they mature into the hobbit-heroes we know and love.

It’s a fun fact that Billy Boyd, the eldest of the four hobbit actors, played the youngest and most mischievous hobbit while Elijah Wood, the youngest of the actors, played the eldest of the hobbits (or, at least, Frodo was the eldest hobbit until Jackson had his way). Boyd provides a wonderful turn as the spunky Pippin and fills many moments with a certain levity that is much needed as the plot develops. These types of characters can often be a tricky turn for an actor and it can take more skill to be effective than most people might think. An actor who is successful at playing a fool or simpleton can lull the audience into believing the actors themselves are equally pedestrian, but this is not the case. Take, for instance, the effectiveness of the super-smart Lisa Kudrow in Friends, among other examples.

Boyd delivers a delightful turn in his role, giving audiences clear views of the character’s truancy, gravity, and even terror at every opportunity. His scene with Ian McKellen after looking into the palantir mid-way through ROTK is an excellent spotlight: Boyd wisely keeps his overwhelming desire to look into the orb from becoming absurd or laughable. It can be a difficult balance to achieve for an actor, to display the character’s uncontrollable drive toward something without it appearing forced. Boyd understands he doesn’t need to emote excessively because the actions his character takes – risking the wrath of Gandalf in the act of doing something he knows is wrong – do a lot of the heavy lifting for him with regards to conveying his emotional status in those moments to the audience. Instead of focusing on his emotional state, Boyd concentrates singularly on his goal: acquire the palantir, seemingly at any cost, and this obsession carries the first half of the scene very well (this is called “pursuing the objective” in theatre parlance, an extremely basic function of the actor which can easily get lost in the sturm und drang of any dramatic production). There’s nary a snicker from the audience at this point as they are pondering what could be causing the innocent young hobbit to act so strangely. Remembering Sauron’s appearance in the crystal ball to Saruman from the two earlier installments, the audience may begin to fear for Pippin as he gets closer and closer to his objective.

Once the deed is done and Pippin finds himself trapped in the Dark Lord’s inescapable gaze, Boyd again does a fantastic job at showing the audience the nature of his pain. Simply screaming loudly is never as
effective as imagining a very targeted and specific pain, and Boyd (it seems to me, at least) selected a particular spot – the platysma or maybe the upper trapezius – where he was being tormented. The nature of the pain, meanwhile, appears to be a stabbing (as opposed to a burning or a shocking), which serves to further specify its nature. This is important because an audience will connect more fully with a character experiencing specifics – if the actor generalizes their experience the audience cannot focus their empathies and the emotional connection is diminished or lost. It is likely Boyd is using the Laban technique in this case, where the nature of the action is a direct and sustained activity. This would be akin to someone stabbing him in the shoulder (direct, or “Punch” in Laban terms) then cruelly twisting the knife in the wound to magnify the pain and suffering (a “Wring” in Laban), as evidenced by his writhing in pain, standing at first, then falling to the ground and continuing to wretch. These combine to create a very specific type of pain with which the audience can identify. It is also important to note the location of the pain (the upper body) and where it causes the character to move in response to the stimulus (earthward). Again, the importance is one of specifics and believability with the purpose of the audience’s involvement: Boyd may have conjured in his own mind the image of Sauron, a massive and towering figure, thrusting a flaming sword into his shoulder then twisting it and driving him to the floor with the force. The location of the pain being in the upper body and driving downward is significant because the directional source of the attack (from above) subconsciously relates to the audience that the attacker is larger than the target. The earthward trajectory also creates an impression of subjugation and oppression, which is certainly well within Sauron’s character as well. Finally, the decision to not scream in pain was, I think, a wise one. Whether it was Boyd’s personal choice, a direction from Peter Jackson, or whether there was originally a scream but it was edited out in post-production we don’t know, but the effect is dramatic. We get the impression the pain is so incredibly unbearable that poor Pippin isn’t even able to cry out in response, which might have brought help from the army of people around him. This is an isolating factor which forces Merry, who happens to be awake nearby, into crying out for him in helplessness, another effective theatrical tactic.

The following scenelet with McKellen is also highly effective for many of the same reasons. Boyd doesn’t try to do too much and instead keeps his experiences relatable to the audience. The impression we get is of someone who just suffered immense emotional pain rather than physical pain, such as the sudden and horrific death of a loved one, which delivers a much more powerful sense of Sauron’s evil nature. This is another critical instance of the audience witnessing the Dark Lord’s demi-god-like powers and, when delivered effectively, it creates a real sense of fear and impotence in the audience’s psyche. How can our heroes ever prevail against something like that? And what sort of diabolical monster would torture a little hobbit for no apparent reason? It’s an incredibly powerful moment in the story which develops Pippin’s character, advances the story, and brings Sauron into the action in the most personal manner we’ve seen yet while Boyd’s commendable performance is the cornerstone of it all.

Dominic Monaghan, meanwhile, was a surprise as Merry, delivering a decent performance in what had to be a very secondary role. Despite limited screen time (and rather too much mascara), Monaghan finds some nice moments here and there, especially, it seems, when he has been battered and beaten. Some of his better clips come out of the tussles with the Uruk-hai in Rohan and following the Battle of the Pelennor Fields when Pippin finds him lying wounded on the battlefield. He also performs well in his more impish or comic moments, such as gearing up for battle in Eowyn’s tent, the Ent-draught sequence, and the various lighter spots throughout FOTR.

Monaghan didn’t have many opportunities to tackle weighty issues and his execution in such situations was a mixed bag. He had a few too many “slow burn” turns of the head in TTT, like while escaping from the orc when he and Pippin first enter Fangorn, turning to see the legion of Ents marching to war against Isengard, and even when the Ents first appear at the Entmoot. The effect is rather silly: if I suddenly started hearing weird and potentially threatening noises while located in weird and potentially threatening places, I think I would be turning quickly to find out what’s coming up behind me. His few dramatic moments are reasonably well done, especially considering the lines in those moments weren’t terribly well written. He tries a little too hard when yelling at the Ents where pleading or helpless frustration might have served him better. Shortly thereafter he has a solid moment as he manages to convince Pippin they do have a stake in the War because the Shire will not long escape the destruction that threatens to spread from Isengard and Mordor. The lines he has to deliver at this moment are not exactly glittering jewels of screenwriting brilliance on their own (“The fires of Isengard will spread, and the woodlands of Buckland and Tuckborough will burn. And all that is green and good in this world will be gone! There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.”), but Monaghan manages to make a little something of them by rightly acknowledging Merry doesn’t normally talk this way. His halting delivery, as if searching for the right words to express his feelings, is an effective way to get the message across without sounding like a bad Shakespearean amateur. On the other hand, his delivery of the lines to Pippin while in the hands of Ugluk and his “lads” on the borders of Fangorn about the nature of the trees there are downright absurd. The lines (once again, with only the flimsiest ties to Tolkien’s text) are poorly conceived, but Monaghan seems to momentarily forget he’s surrounded by hundreds of monsters with bad attitudes who wouldn’t mind literally eating him alive if they got the chance. Sure, talking trees make for a cute fireside tale, but which is more likely to harm you at the moment? Trees which may or may not be making funny noises as they’re being hacked to bits, or the small army of raging, cannibalistic berserkers who just murdered your traveling companion in front of your eyes the day before? The result is an almost goofy moment which Boyd tries to avoid with his genuine and well delivered amazement at the idea of sentient trees, but Monaghan takes it too far with a (literally) wide-eyed performance that almost looks as if he’s deliberately trying to scare the impressionable young Took. Again, the lines don’t help anything, but had the actor at least acknowledged the immediate threat around him it would have rendered the moment more believable while still getting the message of the lines across to the audience.

In the end, Monaghan did pretty well considering what he had to work with. Merry’s character remains largely undeveloped throughout much of the book and, even with 10 hours of film to play with, Jackson wasn’t going to do much with him either. Monaghan uses his opportunities well, for the most part, and plays nicely off his fellow actors throughout the series.

Master of Toons

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