Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - (or Peter Jackson's "Run Bilbo Run")

Now that all of the hullabaloo around the making of the film has finally been (mostly?) resolved, it's refreshing to be able to sit down and actually discuss The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on its own terms.

I'll just tell you up front that I'm no Tolkienhead. Ironically enough, the only book of his that I've read, albeit rather haphazardly, is The Hobbit. There were a few abortive attempts to read The Lord of the Rings when I was younger, but I didn't get far. That always struck me as strange, considering a childhood heavily steeped in Greek mythology, Norse mythology, L. Frank Baum's Oz books, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, and Brian Jacques' Tales of Redwall. You'd think that Tolkien would have been a natural addition to that, but, for whatever reason, I never got that far past Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday party.

That said, I love Peter Jackson's original trilogy of films, which strike me as one of the bravest and most successful of cinematic achievements. The Return of the King, in particular, is a film that I consider one of the finest of our young century. With regard to bravery, it was almost unheard of at the time to shoot an entire trilogy's worth of footage (particularly THAT trilogy) simultaneously, and then schedule back-to-back-to-back December releases. Can you imagine the hell that Peter Jackson might have endured if The Fellowship of the Ring had flopped? It's safe to assume that he might never have directed again, at least not anything not airing on Lifetime.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a solid adventure story, with swords, sorcery, and a few tiny glimpses at a dragon. In short, it's good, but not great. What you're going to get out of it will depend a great deal on the expectations that you had when you walk into the theater, but even that's a bit murky and not nearly as cut and dry as you'd think. One man I saw the film with absolutely loved it but acknowledged that he loved the material so much that it'd be difficult for him not to like the movie, while another was such a big fan of the novel that he left the theater with a heavy, heavy heart. On the other hand, the rest of us and our varying degrees of fandom liked the movie well enough but had to acknowledge a few flaws.

First, the good. . .

It felt so good to have the chance to visit Middle-Earth again. I think that anyone who fell in love with The Lord of the Rings feels exactly the same way. I don't want to beat a dead horse, but I think that that trilogy is this generation's Star Wars with the kind of collective thrall they cast over people the world over. The cast of characters is uniformly strong, with Martin Freeman's performance as Bilbo Baggins deserving particular note. He plays Bilbo as a very pragmatic kind of person, which I think is a lot easier to identify with than the eternally earnest angst that Elijah Woods brought to Frodo. There's a wonderful bit where another character tells Bilbo that he had doubted him from the start, and Bilbo says, "well, that's quite all right, I would have doubted me too." Another standout new character is Radagast the Brown, an absent-minded wizard that reminded me delightfully of a friend of mine. He's got the most wonderful way of getting around too, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling it for you. I'd anticipated the sheer number of dwarves being a bit difficult to keep track of, but am pleased to report that the script finds a happy balance between giving each character enough to do while refraining from beating the audience over the head with names, names, and more names.

I don't think that you'll be surprised to learn that perhaps the film's real standout is Andy Serkis' Gollum. He manages to seem even creepier this time around, with eyes that glow in a way that they never did in the original trilogy. The game of riddles that he plays with Bilbo is one of the film's finest sequences, and I'll be curious to see if he reappears in any of the other films in the series. I don't think that he's featured anywhere else in the novel, but I feel confident that Peter Jackson will find a way to work him back into the narrative.

Now, the not so good . . .

I think that the issue arises from a somewhat schizophrenic tonal approach. From what I understand, the source material is a lot more whimsical than the somber events of the Lord of the Rings, and while that sense of whimsy comes through at times (albeit somewhat strangely), Jackson seems committed to tying The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to the earlier trilogy of films. That might not be an entirely good thing.

Trying to tell the beginning of the story after the fact isn't entirely unheard of, as George Lucas tried to do something similar with the Star Wars prequels. Although, to be fair, that case was a bit different, as Star Wars is an original work, rather than an adaptation, and the decision to start in the middle wasn't readily apparent. That said, Peter Jackson's conundrum is a bit different here. He's got to try and find the middle ground of appealing to fans of the book as well as fans of the films who might not have any knowledge of this part of the story.

One area in which the two different tonal approaches conflict is apparent right off the bat. The stakes just aren't as high this time around, so when characters solemnly parade around (particularly in the Rivendell sequence) it comes across as self-serious and somewhat exaggerated. The first time around, it was the fate of the whole world at stake, so please, Mr. Gandalf, take all the time you need! Additionally, there are bits that were clearly thrown in for fans of the original series, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, when you look at the way they're handled, it can seem a bit strange. For example, when Galadriel first appears, it's almost as though PJ is going for a near-biblical moment. Now, don't get me wrong, she's one of my favorite characters in Tolkien's universe, but it just seemed a bit silly in the way it was handled this time around, particularly with regard to the way that she's introduced in the earlier trilogy.

PJ's decision to shoot the film in 48 frames-per-second has gotten a lot of buzz, and it was interesting to finally have the chance to see it for myself. I'm notoriously opposed to high-frame rate forms of exhibition with regard to home media, as the "enhanced" experience seems, to these eyes, to remove all semblance of grace from the cinema in its reduction of even the slowest pan to a herky-jerky form of visual stuttering. I had the opportunity to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in "high frame rate 3D," and the experience was interesting, though not as groundbreaking as it might have been intended to be by any stretch. The combination of the style of 3D glasses we used and our excellent seats (square in the center) did a fine job of removing peripheral vision in such a way as to eliminate the blurriness that sometimes pops up elsewhere. The extra frame rate was readily apparent early on, but I found that I soon adapted to it. I hadn't expected that to happen, but after a certain point, I only noticed the extra frame rate when I consciously thought of it.

That said, it doesn't really make that positive of a contribution to the entire experience. During the film's introductory segment, the high frame rate renders the action sequences nearly incomprehensible from a visual standpoint, and I'm told it was that much worse in standard 3D. While the 3D was much more vivid than any other film I've seen in that format, the enhanced image actually seems to make the "extra dimension" that much less noticeable. Once the film got going, I tended to forget that it was even in 3D at all, unless some kind of flying object did the stereotypical "pop out" or my nose started to rebel from having two sets of glasses double-parked on it.

Additionally, the visual effects don't seem as strong this time around. I'm not sure if that's due to the higher frame rate, but there are multiple characters that look rather fake. The film's primary antagonist (who's apparently a completely original character), in particular, has that stereotypical "CG" look to him.

Another point of curiosity stems from the decision to make The Hobbit a trilogy, instead of telling the story in two parts. To me, it seems like a blatant cash grab by a team that knows that their audience will see anything that they do with any kind of Tolkien stamp on it. Personally, I think that the trilogy was born from the realization that the Extended Editions of the previous trilogy were such a success that they could easily release the new films in their extended forms, shoot a little more footage, and voila! Three films! I'm sure that they've rationalized it in their own minds, and there's probably no small nostalgic influence on this decision. After all, what other stories can they set in Middle-Earth once they've finished here? I already feel a bit dubious about the decision to populate the third film with content from The Simarillion, appendices, and Unfinished Tales.  

Ultimately, where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey falls short for me is in not being a true part of The Lord of the Rings, but that's not the fault of the material. After having the bar set so high with the original trilogy, I wish that Peter Jackson had taken a stronger stance in either making a film that was more faithful to Tolkien's source material or making a direct extension to his own past work.

On its own, it's a solid adventure film, but seen as part of a larger whole, things tend to get a bit murky. That said, my reservations don't exactly have teeth. I'll be there opening weekend for each of The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again.

I'm not fooling anybody.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

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