Film Review: The Hobbit (Warner Bros.)

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THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

by David Ashley

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hbt-060952r-freemanYears after Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy came to theaters, I viewed the comprehensive making-of documentaries featured on those DVD releases which became the false idols worshiped by a now sizable generation of graphic-novel-reading, Batman-adoring, sensory-input-junkie, con-attending nerds (are you sensing any transference?).  Understanding the breadth of Jackson’s production, what it meant to those involved and of course what it meant to New Zealand inestimably elevated Jackson’s stature in my eyes and made some problematic films much more palatable.  And when the opportunity came to screen The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey I was surprised at my enthusiasm – but during the screening it did not take long for me to experience a number of “Oh yeah…” moments which recalled my prejudices.  For instance, “Oh yeah… The Hobbit was written for children.”  Or, “Oh yeah… Jackson’s utilization of talent is often quite conventional.”  And, “Oh yeah… I hate amusement parks.”  But since, as you’ve no doubt heard and as I’ll speak of, An Unexpected Journey is the first feature film shot and projected at 48 frames per second, the novelty of ingenious innovation gave this viewer enough fodder to hold his attention without sacrificing his good humor.  Just barely.

An Unexpected Journey begins literally moments before Gandalf’s arrival at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring, maybe for no reason than to give Elijah Wood a cameo and make comfortable an audience fearful of the new investment they’ll be making.  Of course the same goes for the later sightings of Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Hugo Weaving, and it’s a shame that the preponderance of acting mastery present lingers pointlessly in the periphery.  Credulity is not stretched as far in the presence of Sir Ian Holm, former portrayer of Dildo – excuse me, Bilbo Baggins, who is used as a device to frame the entire narrative: it is a story he is telling to his adopted cousin, Frodo.  And since J.R.R. Tolkien‘s tales of Middle-Earth are largely about stories, and the telling of stories and oral histories, it is a framing device which strikes me as quite sensible, if sentimental. The role of wizard Gandalf the Grey is reprised by Sir Ian McKellen, who will be remembered for this role above all others (barring an octogenarian resurgence in films somehow more successful than LOTR), and I queerly noticed that Gandalf literally looks like a corpse in his first scene – very strange, he doesn’t look so corpse-like for the rest of the adventure. The remainder of the primary cast is rounded out by thirteen exuberant dwarves who are captained by the studliest halfling in Middle-earth, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, whose first stage appearance was incidentally in a production of The Hobbit).

Martin Freeman (center) stars as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman (center) stars as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Gandalf and the dwarves seem to arbitrarily deem Bilbo a burglar that they will employ on their quest to Ereborn, the Lonely Mountain, where they will revenge Oakenshield’s kingdom against a terrible dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch, regrettably absent) and reclaim the preposterous fortune Smaug usurped, a fortune consisting of mountains of gold coins that call to mind Scrooge McDuck’s money bin. In The Hobbit‘s two sequels we will have an undoubtedly delectable series of performances out of Cumberbatch, the continuing foil to the talented and very welcome Martin Freeman, who plays the youthful Bilbo.  Freeman’s nuanced sense of humor carries a long way and fits perfectly into his portrayal of a hobbit.  Freeman nails this portrayal in his first scene, after which further examples of such crystallized Hobbitry are harder to find. I will complete this extreme mouthful of a plot and cast description with Andy Serkis, again seen in his seminal guise of Gollum for perhaps The Hobbit‘s most famous scene, “Riddles in the Dark,” where the odious One Ring again appears to curse Middle-Earth (it will be interesting to see how Jackson plays with this ring, which is quite irrelevant to everything that happens in The Hobbit and is never seen as anything more than a simple magical ring which makes its user invisible.  How could Jackson possibly not abuse this? It’s impossible to imagine). It is arguable that in LOTR Serkis gave the most, achieved the most, and now his terrific ambition is justified by Jackson’s promotion of Serkis to a second unit director quite active across this new trilogy of films.

Jackson shot this trilogy on thirty Epic Red cameras, the most advanced digital cameras available, and wrapped after 266 days of shooting. I was able to view the product in 3D at its proper speed of 48fps.  Omitting any judgment, I can simply say that you’ve never seen anything like this before.  Perhaps briefly on an amusement park ride, one of the few venues where 48fps has been shot, but nothing near the scale of An Unexpected Journey – and Jackson still has two more films in which to develop this virgin craft.  Yes, it looks “too real,” like a documentary. You could say that this type of hyper-reality is not suited to fantasy, or that one should never trust the first generation of a new technology. You could even say it looks ‘un-cinematic,’ but Jackson believes 24fps is quite obsolete and I am inclined to agree. I’m doing my best to withhold judgment for a technology which may be the norm in fifty years (or five years). I predict this will prove to be very divisive – at first – but of course audiences will flock to The Desolation of Smaug during 2013’s Christmas season and to There and Back Again the following summer, and will love to bicker over the efficacy of this innovation. Skepticism may be high since An Unexpected Journey will bear the burden of maintaining consumer interest for a full year and, well, it just isn’t very good (more on that in a moment).  And I was impressed to note that there is an incredible measurable increase in the quality of the computer-generated material from Jackson’s powerhouse digital production company, WETA, the team which already outdid every other outdoer on the planet ten years ago.

Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) in a scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) in a scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Allegedly the first installment of Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation cost an astonishing $270 million – this before it became a commercial trilogy – and it’s reasonable to assume costs will only mount as we near the climax. So it seems safe to estimate that the trilogy will end up costing somewhere between 500 and 600 million dollars. Needless to say, when I read that charming little book called The Hobbit, ten years ago, I could not have conceived of such a thing. Who could’ve besides Jackson?  Big Spender, Mr. Kitchen Sink, a director more interested in homage and nostalgia than in invention? We’re not learning anything new. We know Jackson would’ve been a special effects man, had he not become a director, we know he was constantly compared to Ray Harryhausen. He likes to play and he loves his toys, and he’s again raised the bar for his industry. Hollywood is never as happy as when it’s indulging in its frills, its decadence. Jackson would fit well there if he chose to, but even Hollywood can claim to be interested in performers more than spectacle (perhaps a 60/40 split). It’s easy to say, “Well, on a production of this scope, of course he doesn’t have the time to do take after take to get the line readings just right” and this may be a fine excuse for viewers more interested in spectacle than in performance (clearly 99% of its audience). What’s the best performance in a  Jackson film? Probably Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures. We know where the credit goes in this instance.

I have found that deep contrivance can be fun to invent, so perhaps these films exist for the people who will never create something so pointlessly intricate. The problem with fantasy is that it attempts to re-create an entire world via metaphor and that’s simply a great, great deal of work – far too much for any one man, even if that man devoted his entire life to the mythos of his own invention. LOTR – and I suppose The Hobbit – is more interesting than Harry Potter and certainly more interesting than Twilight, and their films are hugely devoted to making themselves welcoming to audiences who wish to visit old friends. That’s all it comes down to: revisiting the emotional connections that were forged in your own private mind and experience, because of the primacy of the power of ideas above all. And literature seems to be the best medium for transmuting ideas. The films are just more nostalgia, extremely expensive (and profitable) nostalgia, secondhand trickle-down.

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It is pleasant to return to Middle-Earth, at times, but it helps if you’ve got something worth doing.  Not a whole lot is accomplished in this narrative, nothing is at stake – in fact it’s utterly lacking in suspense.  Even Bilbo’s role is rather marginal until the film’s final third. There’s a moment maybe halfway or so into the adventure in which the characters stop to admire rock giants towering over the landscape, hurling boulders at one another, seemingly engaged in combat like some anthropomorphized representation of how the tectonic plates work – for the kiddies.  The cast spends a few minutes here before they move on, likely never to encounter these appendic-ized footnotes, and it was at this moment that I realized the film had been nothing but bizarre encounter after bizarre encounter. We have an extended appearance of Gandalf’s wizard contemporary Radagast the Brown, whom Jackson predicted would be an audience favorite, and there is a humorous insinuation that Middle-Earth’s wizards all indulge in their preferred varieties of hard drugs (hippie fable fodder).  Radagast struck me as quite strange and more akin to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace‘s Jar Jar Binks, though nowhere near so pitifully awful. Why are we cutting away from the dwarves to watch Radagast fly through Mirkwood on a rabbit-powered sled, like a forest Eskimo?  We’ll no doubt be seeing more of him in the next two films, despite his complete absence from the original book.  An Unexpected Journey climaxes after a yet another bloodless and indulgent confrontation, this time between Oakenshield and an orc villain which was clearly manufactured to make us feel the film had been leading to something.  It hadn’t.  Like the first installment of Jackson’s LOTR films, this film ends with the cast gazing at a mountain in the distant horizon, their eventual goal.  How many more diversions will we encounter along the way?  How many times will we be hearing those formulaic theme songs which get inserted like Mad-Libs answers?  How many passages taken from the innumerable appendices of Tolkien’s which loom like a bookcase of Dungeons & Dragons guides? Apropos – I’d like to officially predict that the beloved Tom Bombadil will make an unscheduled appearance in the next two films.

As we know, heroic tales are made or broken by their villains, and the villains in this story are only alluded to or heard of secondhand. Indeed, Smaug and the much-pomped and mysterious Necromancer, both played by Cumberbatch, sound like a great deal of fun. I’m looking forward to the next two films – after covering all of the exposition, here, certainly they can only get better. Right? A major failure and perhaps my chief grievance with LOTR and The Hobbit is, in my eyes, Tolkien’s reliance on recondite Deus ex Machinas – “the eagles,” which I believe Tolkien explained away as living representations of the beneficent force which creates/governs the universe. Whatever. The wizards are more of the same, I think. Is there a more dull narrative choice to make than to fall back on this? We spend all that time getting worked up about the trouble men go to to improve their worlds, but it’s never enough – you have to have that final little ‘bump’ from God. Why? What makes it worse is recalling that the surprise appearance of ‘the eagles’ wraps up the Hobbit tale and we will be seeing them again, in the final hour. I hate the fuckin’ eagles.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey in Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Postscript:
I penned this review the day before Ian McKellen announced to the public that he is battling prostate cancer, explaining the actor’s look of physical degeneration.  I meant no disrespect and wish McKellen all the best of luck.

 

Official The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Website

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