Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Alternate Title:  Once More Unto the Text

One sentence synopsis:  Bilbo Baggins undertakes an adventure with Gandalf and thirteen exiled Dwarves to try and reclaim the kingdom of the Lonely Mountain.

Things Havoc liked:  I was really worried about this one.

The Lord of the Rings films of 2001-2003 were a turning point in my appreciation of cinema. Not only were the movies themselves spectacular adaptations of a notoriously unfilmable book series, they were spectacular adaptations of the holy bible of fantasy literature itself, movies that stunned me with how carefully they brought the lovingly-crafted world of J.R.R. Tolkien to life. Though there were some lingering issues that could be brought up concerning the films, particularly the last one, they were seminal works of fantasy film, and everything produced in that genre since then has borne their stamp. Yet good as the Lord of the Rings movies were, my reaction to the news that a new trilogy was being prepared for the Hobbit brought up uncomfortable comparisons in my mind (and others') to the last time a noted filmmaker with a brilliant trilogy of films decided to make a new trilogy of prequels. And given Peter Jackson's directorial resume since the Lord of the Rings (the mediocre Lovely Bones and the even more mediocre King Kong), I had a bad feeling that we were about to get the equivalent of Lord of the Rings: Episode 1.

Well thank God, that's not what happened.

The Hobbit is a grand return to form for Jackson and his band of New Zealand fantasy-makers, a reunion tour by a band that was simply too good at what they did to break up permanently, picking up where the Lord of the Rings left off (figuratively-speaking) without so much as a missed step. From an opening sequence every bit as good as the famous one from Fellowship of the Ring, to another thematic, epic score by Howard Shore, there is no mistaking this film for anything but another professional, reverent venture into Middle Earth. More important than the crew and style however, is the overall feel of the film, which manages to wring pathos and epic stakes from a story that in all honesty is not terribly well supplied with either. The Hobbit, a children's tale written twenty years before the Lord of the Rings, was much more of a lighthearted romp than its sequel, but while Jackson never does away with the comedic elements that served the original book so well (particularly in the first third), the movie is quite conscious of the fact that we as an audience, unlike Tolkien, know exactly where this story is eventually going, and the epic feel of the Lord of the Rings is never far from the surface of the film.

The cast for the hobbit is cobbled together from roughly equal parts returning LOTR veterans and newly-cast actors, a mixture which on the whole does the movie great credit. The best of the new actors are (fittingly) the two leads, Martin Freeman, playing a younger Bilbo Baggins, and Richard Armitage, playing the leader of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. Freeman in particular, I have to admit, surprised the hell out of me. The original Lord of the Rings movies were not badly acted by any stretch of the imagination, but the epic scope of the films was such that individual acting performances were not precisely the point (not that this stopped Sean Astin or Vigo Mortenson from doing phenomenal jobs). The Hobbit, by contrast, for all the Sturm und Drang of its epic battle sequences, is a more human-scale (hobbit-scale) tale, and Freeman delivers a wonderful interpretation of Bilbo to anchor it. His Bilbo Baggins is perhaps the most grounded character of any Lord of the Rings related movie ever, a calm, rational hobbit of little pretense and deep reserves of good sense. A complete contrast to both Frodo and Sam, Freeman's Bilbo is never hysterical, never absurd, never reduced to food-jokes or outright farce, but a reasonable little hobbit in a world so much larger than himself. Yet lest this sound boring, his unfailingly non-theatrical response to the terrors and wonders he is put through actually makes the character much more relatable than I expected him to be. When over the course of the film he must make decisions of tremendous import, draw lines in the sand, or stand in defense of friends against forces overwhelmingly greater than himself, we sense the fires that burn within him, all without ever needing them dragged out in some elaborate exposition dump. Moreso than any version of the story I've ever seen, including the original book, this movie showed me what it was that Gandalf the Wizard saw in Bilbo the Hobbit to volunteer him on the Quest of Erebor.

But if Bilbo was excellent, Thorin is damn near as good. The film draws very heavily from the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, as well as other aspects of the wider lore (the joke about the nameless Blue Wizards was a beautiful shout out to aficionados), and one of the primary beneficiaries is the character of Thorin Oakenshield. We get a full investigation of his backstory, from the fall of Erebor to the Battle of Moria, and are shown his character in all its glory, good points and bad. Better still, the filmmakers decided here to deviate from Tolkien by substituting in Azog, Orc-King of Moria, as Thorin's personal nemesis, grounding the story in much more of a character-centric theme than the rather generic adventure-quest of the original book. It is, perhaps, presumption to amend the work of the Grandmaster of Fantasy, but if anyone can do it and succeed, it is clearly Peter Jackson, and the end result is to pin the film's narrative to the twin poles of two characters we get to know, and like, very well. It's hard to go wrong in such cases.

Things Havoc disliked:  I could nerd out here, of course, about the fact that Glamdring and Orcrist should both properly glow the way Sting does, about how the Necromancer was supposed to have been established in Dol Guldur long before the book started, and other minor gripes the sort of which I would notice and most would not. But rather than display nerd cred, perhaps it's best we discuss battle fatigue instead.

Battle Fatigue is a term that I encountered some time ago (it might have been of Peter Jackson's invention, now that I think about it) for the dazed, apathetic reaction that overcomes an audience when they have been given an overload of action sequences one after the next, despite the fact that the images they are seeing would appear to be epic and interesting. The Star Wars Prequels were perhaps the ur-example of Battle Fatigue, where all the efforts of ten thousand computer animators laboring for the better part of a decade left me staggeringly underwhelmed (not that those films didn't have other flaws...). Nothing in the Hobbit is nearly that bad, mind you, but by the midpoint of the film, having already seen something like seven separate action/spectacle sequences, I have to confess that it all began to run together. The warg riders' chase sequence, though inventive enough (I shall not spoil what one of the participants is riding in), went on far too long and wound up actually becoming boring, while a segment in the mountains with Storm Giants battling in the midst of a hurricane actually managed, despite the subject matter, to be completely forgettable, coming as it did on the heels of several other "epic" sequences within twenty minutes. Though the film does manage to recover itself by the end (mostly by slowing the pacing down), I was reminded while watching these sequences of the Fellowship of the Ring, a three-hour movie with only two real action sequences, yet both of which I can remember vividly, shot for shot, some decade later. I do not expect the same will be true of any of the Hobbit's scenes.

Additionally, the Hobbit as a source material is a different beast than the Lord of the Rings, being less than a quarter as long and written at a time when Tolkien's universe was not yet fleshed out. As I mentioned above, the filmmakers made the wise decision to pad the movie's material with appendices and other bits of the legendarium, but what I did not mention was how shoehorned some of these sequences are. A scene in Rivendell with the White Council transparently exists as a sort of nerd-fanservice, wherein characters appear because nerds like them, and not because there is anything particularly meaningful for them to do. Galadriel has become a caricature of herself as the "all-knowing, wise elf-spirit" (which, I grant, is something that afflicted her in the last two LOTR movies too), while Saruman's brief cameo makes him appear like the stupid father in a teenagers-save-the-world movie, nitpicking insignificant matters as a way of appearing like the designated 'future bad guy'. Maybe there was foreshadowing being done, I don't know, but at some point, Saruman was considered a respected, wise Councillor. This depiction makes him out to be Principal Vernon from the Breakfast Club, whose sole concern in the world is that nobody ever be allowed to take any action for any reason. I get that Saruman probably has ulterior motives for this obsession, but he's supposed to be addressing Istari Angels and Elf-Lords, not sheepish underlings terrified of displeasing him. Surely one of the multi-millenia-old Immortal Kings listening to this harangue would get an inkling of the notion that Saruman might be the wrong guy to come to with such concerns.

Final thoughts:   Advance buzz on the Hobbit was not good when I went to see it, and at time of writing, remains decidedly mixed, yet despite the criticisms I leveled above, I must confess my disappointment in those who have been spilling so much virtual ink comparing it unfavorably with the original trilogy. No, the Hobbit is probably not as good as the other Lord of the Rings movies, though I will mention that both Return of the King and Two Towers had glaring holes in them corrected only by the release of the director's cuts. Still, it is true that by the lofty standard of yesteryear, the Hobbit falls short, and it is also true that those movies are the natural point of comparison for it. Yet those who end the discussion there, I believe, miss the point. The Lord of the Rings changed filmmaking in a fundamental sense, to the point where every movie with an even slightly fantastical structure made since then, from Avatar to 300 to Pan's Labyrinth, Harry Potter, and even Twilight, has borne the stamp of the Lord of the Rings. To expect the same filmmaker to return once more to the same well that he drew his original masterpiece from and come up with something as radically different from all its fellows as he did the first time, is simply to delude oneself. Filmmakers have spent ten years attempting to replicate the Lord of the Rings, some of them successfully. Is it surprising, therefore, that the Hobbit does not astonish us as its predecessor did?

Ultimately, you can look at this film in two ways. You can say it represents the weakest of Peter Jackson's Tolkien-derived movies to date. Or you can reflect on the fact that after four epic films, the worst thing you can say about the weakest of Peter Jackson's movies is that it isn't as good as the other three.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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