Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Warning: there be spoilers below...

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an ambitious and inventive interpretation of the story and characters that J. R. R. Tolkien first imagined almost 80 years ago, and one that mines the depths of Tolkien's broader opus about Middle Earth. Fans and critics have given it mixed reviews (and some have absolutely despised it), but for my part, I enjoyed this film quite a lot. There is plenty to criticize, to be sure, but there's also a lot to be excited about.

First, the great experiment: the much-discussed digital filming and projection at 48 fps. Unless you are very curious about this technology, my advice is to skip it. There are segments of the film that are beautiful - absolutely stunning, in fact. But overall, I am forced to agree with those who have said it is distracting. Having heard some criticism of the format, I expected the film's appearance to have a harsh sense of immediacy - similar to watching a live sporting event or catching a daytime soap opera. Even still, I wanted to see the show as its creators intended, and I resolved to try and put aside my expectations. I optimistically speculated that the experience might be like seeing The Wizard of Oz in 1938 (color!), or seeing Planet Earth in 2006 (HD! 1080p!). But for all my hopes, I was still surprised by how unnaturally vivid, video-like, and even cheap-looking the picture appeared, especially during certain moments. It simply did not work. Back to the drawing board, gents!

Finally, a footnote about this technology: I basically ended up seeing The Hobbit for free, as there were problems bringing up the 48 fps projection system, and it had to be rebooted twice. The theater handed out passes for our trouble. So it seems that this technology is not ready for widespread use in more ways than one.

A few other comments about the effects. Gollum of the LotR Trilogy was a singular achievement in visual effects in cinema. To date, no one else had come close to creating a digital character in a live-action film quite like him. The Hobbit's Gollum surpasses that achievement: the character is truly a marriage of an actor's performance and digital artistry. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for another director, actor, and/or effects production company to match this level of work - after all, it's been almost ten years since the last films. Apart from Gollum, however, I was kind of disappointed that PJ and company chose to make Azog and the other orcs and goblins into CG characters, rather than using actors in prosthetics. Azog was a good villain, but making him into a CG character rendered him less menacing than Lurtz, the orc captain of FotR. Even within Jackson's own films, Gollum remains a singular creation.

On to greater matters. The film tells a classic tale of a fish out of water - a quiet, proper, and unlikely person who embarks on a grand adventure. Not content to tell the story as it was originally written, the film adds and expands upon the material that Tolkien wrote later which linked it to the much larger story of Middle Earth, the Dwarves, and the Rings of Power. But it retains the essence of its central figure: Bilbo is a wonderful character, and after a somewhat shaky start, the movie does him great justice. The film takes pains to develop a more believable relationship between him and the dwarves than the original novel. I especially liked the portrayal of Thorin and Bilbo's relationship. Developing their friendship earlier and more deeply will supply a lot more dramatic weight later in the story as the plot unfolds.

I also loved the film's portrayal of Thorin's company - as a reader of the novel, I always wondered why the dwarves seemed so hapless, and why they weren't a stronger, more formidable group of warriors. I thought that treating the company as an exiled, struggling collection of wandering tradesmen trying to survive shored up a part of the story that was a little thin. Thorin's love of and pride in his followers stem not from their prowess in battle, but in their loyalty and perseverance. This makes Thorin's acceptance of Bilbo at the film's conclusion all the more believable: Bilbo is not a great warrior and he admits that he isn't even a burglar, but he demonstrates his commitment to seeing the quest through, and Thorin fully embraces him for it.

One of the best scenes in the film is also the best scene in the book: the game of riddles with Gollum. Here, Jackson stays close to the source material to great effect. Gollum is the menacing, comical, and tragic figure at the center of the story of the Ring of Power's destruction, and Jackson and Andy Serkis have brought that character to life.

The most consistent criticism I have read in other reviews is that the pacing of this film is off. I don't entirely disagree, but I see the problem differently: for all the complaints that the movie is too long and/or that it should not have been expanded into three (or even two) films, I actually felt that An Unexpected Journey seemed a little too rushed at times. The film begins exactly where Fellowship of the Ring began: in anticipation of the long expected birthday party. I understand the desire to link the films together, but this framing story of Bilbo and Frodo was unnecessary, and in any case far too long. It could have been accomplished by voice-over narration in under a minute. We've seen the long-anticipated party - let's get to the unexpected party!

Another issue with the pacing is the length of the elaborate set-pieces. If the extended action sequences in Return of the King were too long for you, unfortunately, you'll get little relief from An Unexpected Journey. Jackson has an overweening love for clever chases on flimsy bridges. All of the action is quite thrilling and spectacularly realized, but it leaves little time for lingering on a landscape or fleshing out the company with quiet character vignettes. The film needed more still shots and less noise. But here I am simply repeating my criticisms of Return of the King. One might say that this new movie showcases all of Jackson's well-known strengths and weaknesses.

All in all, though, this film has a tremendous charm of its own, and I'm pleased to say that it even retains a wonderful sense of whimsy that is so present in the original story. I recommend it heartily, and I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

And by the way, I thought the Arkenstone was glorious.


Dade said...

Glad you liked the film. But it wasn't enough to convince me to go see it. If Peter Jackson wants to tell stories that he "likes" (as you stated in your comment on my blog), let him use his own material to do it. He's bastardizing Tolkien's work in order to get rich and (I assume) feed his own ego. Contemptible behavior, IMHO.

Dade said...

Oh, and BTW, if you wanna go see a good, thought-provoking flick, try Killing Them Softly. I'm gonna write up a review of it sometime today. It's really good.

Also, Anna Karenina is fantastic. I've got a review on my blog.

Knight of Nothing said...

Hi, Dade - thanks for stopping back and considering my review. I have a couple of thoughts in response to your comment.

When I said Jackson is telling a story that he "likes," that is another reference to Tolkien's own words about LotR: "as a guide I have only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was often at fault. Some who have read the book... have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinion of their works, or of the kinds of writing they evidently prefer." All I was trying to say is that any artist, including Peter Jackson, might make the same comment.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the most widely circulated works of fiction in the world; it seems very unlikely that it would never be made into a film. Someone was going to do it at some point. It is difficult to recall now, but in spite of its potential and its inevitability, making the LotR films was considered a huge risk back in 2001, and Jackson & Company had the vision and the fortitude to get it done, and what they made was wildly popular. As a Tolkien fan, there's a lot that I don't like about Jackson's interpretations of these stories. But my hat is off to him for having the audacity to try.

As far as big egos go, Jackson just doesn't strike me as a raging egomaniac along the lines of Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Bay, James Cameron, or Oliver Stone (to name a few directors with oversized egos). And as for getting rich, well, doesn't everyone want to make a lot of money doing something we love to do? :-)

Let me ask you this - are you opposed to any Lord of the Rings film in general, or do you just not like what Jackson & Company did? If the latter, was there anything there that held any appeal for you? Just curious.

Thanks for the film tips - I'll probably have a look at Killing Me Softly at some point. I'm not sure about Anna Karenina - that's not the kind of film I generally see.

Knight of Nothing said...

Dade - one last remark: I love Portland! My wife is from there, and we make it back as often as we can.

Happy Holidays, Sam

Dade said...

Hi, Sam.

Wrt the LotR films, I thought the first one, Fellowship, was good. Jackson showed restraint. But then, in the two subsequent films, he emphasized the crappy parts. His depictions of Gimli and Theoden were caricatures, and some of the Errol Flynn stuff that Legolas pulled in the combat scenes was just plain goofy. Also, I couldn't stomach the "elves at Helm's Deep" thing. It became apparent, in the two later films, that Jackson was going for audience appeal rather than integrity.

Happy holidays to you and yours, too! Next time you're in Portland, drop me a line. Maybe we can grab a cuppa.


Knight of Nothing said...

I liked FotR best too, and while I didn't dislike the next two films as much as you did, I certainly agree that they depart from the story much more than the first film did, and for that and other reasons they fall short of the standard of quality set by the first film.

It's interesting to hear another perspective on the films after so many years; my family and friends have discussed them at length, and while everyone (to varying degrees) was a little put out by the portrayal of Gimli, no one raised such objections to Theoden. That's a new one to me.

As for the elves in Helm's Deep, that bothered me a little too, but I have come to accept that change. Someone unfamiliar with the books might wonder why the viewer should care about the elves at all, and I think the filmmakers were trying to address this problem. Their presence also gave Aragorn some on-screen time to develop as a leader (an important axiom in filmmaking is "show, don't tell").

For me, far more problematic were the portrayals of Faramir, Denethor, and Treebeard. None of these characters in the movies really resembled who they are as written, and in the films the roles they played were far different than in the novel. Denethor in particular is a cartoonish villain rather than the tragic figure he is in the original.