Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

    Once more into the Shire…

    It’s hard to explain just how special The Lord of the Rings trilogy was if you weren’t there to experience it. Of course, many of you reading this probably were there (it wasn’t that long ago), but the idea that there were three movies released concurrently each December from 2001 to 2003 that wound up topping the one previous is kind of unthinkable. Yet the original films came and went each Christmas, leaving behind a trail of Oscars and box office receipts and a whole new generation of Tolkien enthusiasts and movie fans alike. So it was entirely inevitable that Peter Jackson and his original team would get around to The Hobbit eventually, and now - a decade later and in spite of financial troubles and some directorial musical chairs - The Hobbit has finally arrived. Or at least, the first part of it. There are two more to come (in an adaptation of a 300 page book)…

    And that’s really the biggest obstacle Jackson had to overcome. The years following the original trilogy hasn’t been terribly kind to the New Zealand director's career, and there was much hope that a return to Middle-earth would be just the thing to get him back on track. The biggest problem with Jackson’s career of late has been his seeming refusal to cut anything from his films - the fact that this first installment of The Hobbit runs nearly two hours and forty minutes did not bode well. But although the film takes its sweet time to get started, and indeed feels unnecessarily stretched out, for the most part The Hobbit: A Unexpected Journey is a worthy return of some old friends.

    The biggest strength lies in the casting. Out of all the returning cast, Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey gets the most screen time, and the actor hasn’t lost a beat: he puts on the beard and the cloak and that big funny hat and it’s almost as if the last ten years never happened. McKellen is Gandalf, and here we are reminded of the warmth and power he brought in the previous three films. Also returning are such series luminaries as Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm and Elijah Wood, and although they don’t get more than a handful of scenes, all seem to relish being back in their respective elf ears and hobbit feet.

    Of the newcomers, the most important is Martin Freeman as a young Bilbo Baggins, and there couldn’t be a more perfect match between actor and character. Freeman is thoroughly wonderful as the homesick Bilbo, sliding right into the character and the world so easily it’s hard to imagine it ever without him. Bilbo goes through a bit of an arc here (the classic “zero to hero” type stuff), and although it's not quite as developed as it should have been, Freeman sells it hook, line and sinker regardless.

    Also among the newcomers are the twelve dwarves: Fili, Kili, Biffer, Bofur, Sneezy, Sleepy, Tango, Cash, Dinklage and the rest - and this is precisely where the film’s flaws start to show. Although true to Tolkien’s book, the simple fact of the matter is there are far too many dwarves - even at such a lengthy run-time, I think only half of them get more than one line of dialogue. I couldn’t tell you anything specific about any of them, other than one seems to be a fairly good archer and another eats a lot. I don’t even feel compelled to look up each dwarf and the actor who played them, as I just found myself not caring enough about any of them.

    The only dwarf to leave an impression is the leader of the pack, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage is pretty great in the role, filling in the noble hero slot left vacant by Viggo Mortensen from the previous films, but still feels a little short-shrifted. The density of characters and plot points to hammer out mean that Thorin’s arrogance against Bilbo comes off way too strong, making him look like a bit of a jerk in the process. Of course it’s all a part of Thorin’s (and Bilbo’s) arc, but the payoff at the end - while satisfactory - doesn’t feel entirely earned.

    And that’s the biggest problem: the film is so stuffed with the minutiae of Middle-Earth and set up for the future films, we begin to lose sight of the main story; Bilbo at times feels like a guest star in his own movie. I rather enjoyed the foreshadowing of Sauron’s return to Middle-Earth, but there’s too much of it… and all at the expense of Bilbo’s story. The whole structure of the film is problematic, as certain scenes drag on and on and others are rushed through without so much as a second thought. Consider the entire opening of the dwarves gathering at Bilbo’s house for dinner and already the problems begin, as the dwarves eat and sing and cheer all the while Bilbo panics about his mother’s fine dishes - there’s no narrative drive to any of it, and the film lags as a result.

    The look of the film is also decidedly different from last time. The overall production design remains of a whole with the original trilogy (if not more blatantly a “fantasy” movie), but the digital photography gives it all a sheen and clarity that is rather disharmonious with the earthy, lived-in look of the originals. Much has been made of the film being shot in 48 frames per second, but even though I saw it at the standard 24 frames the movie still looked off. Where the originals had a warmness to the image, here the film looks cold and technical. It’s certainly not bad looking, but there is a notable oddness to the whole look.   

    Also more notable is the near constant barrage of CGI effects. While the original trilogy blazed new paths for digital effects, there was still a nice balance between pixels and real-life prosthetics and model-work. Here the CG threatens to overwhelm the whole picture, as characters who would have been traditional prosthetic work in the LOTR movies become entirely CG creations - like the pale orc leader hunting after Thorin and his dwarves. There’s no real reason why this character couldn’t have been a live actor under heavy make-up - the CG character looks decidedly fake and plastic-y. But not all of the CG is unsuccessful; Andy Serkis and the fine folks at Weta Digital once again bring the character of Gollum to life, and scenes such as the “Riddles in the Dark” segment (the very best in the whole film) show why Gollum is one of the very best CG creations in this or any age.

    The action in the film also threatens to derail the whole endeavor, as scenes seem to go on and on without end; never more apparent than the band’s escape from the legion of goblins through a mine - clearly meant to evoke the classic escape from Fellowship - but the scene goes on for one CG bridge gag too many. Still, in spite of the overall pixel-y madness, there’s a nice adventurous feel to all the set pieces - many buckles are swashed throughout, with the climactic fight between Thorin and the pale orc being a standout.

    The film taken on it’s own is very flawed, and perhaps doesn’t work as a singular movie. But the general feel of the whole film is so sweet-natured and earnest it’s a bit hard not to fall in love all over again. The original trilogy came right on the eve of 9/11, and the sheer earnestness of all three films shone out like a beacon in the darkness - a warm, safe-haven in the multiplex from a real world growing ever darker and more complicated. Things haven’t necessarily improved in the last decade, so a return to a world where the real hero is a tiny little hobbit is most welcome - especially in a culture where irony and cynicism grow more rampant by the day. We shall see how the rest of this new trilogy plays when the next two installments hit in the coming years, but for now it’s nice to have some old friends back - even if they're not quite the same as we remember.   

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