Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movie Review: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" by David Pretty

When I heard that Peter Jackson was going to split the economically-paced children's book The Hobbit up into three films I immediately thought of King Kong.  During production of that failed re-make, director Peter Jackson could often be heard extolling the ample virtues of the original 1933 film.  Which is why so many fans were perplexed when Jackson took a perfectly good, lean-and-mean, pulpy, thrill-a-minute action film and inflated the run time with needless subplots and endless CGI demo reels.

Which is why the announcement of a Hobbit trilogy filled me with Nazgul-like levels of dread.

Admittedly, there isn't very much fat in the film's rousing trailer.  P.S. The dwarf-song doesn't count as extraneous 'cuz it's awesome.

The Hobbit is J.R.R. Tolkien's precursor to The Lord of the Rings.  In an extended dance mix prologue we learn about how the human village of Dale was razed to the ground by the dragon Smaug, who then decided to take up residence in the gold-choked underground city of Erebor.  Over time the deposed dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) gathers together a rogues gallery of refugees for the express purpose of liberating their subterranean home from Smaug.

Knowing that such a mission will require a modicum of stealth Thorin is keen to hire a professional burglar.  Just like in the real world, landing a job boils down to who you know.  After getting a solid reference from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), understated Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) shoots to the top of the candidates list.  Yes, apparently nepotism is just as prevalent in Middle Earth as it is here.

Although Bilbo is more sedentary then a High School Vice Principal, Gandalf is convinced that there's more to the diminutive Hobbit then meets the eye.  Oblivious to the fact that he's been tapped for the job of professional pilferer, Bilbo ends up hosting Thorin and company as they map out their expedition.  After much hand-wringing and soul searching, Master Baggins eventually decides to join their quest.

The journey to Erebor leads the company through a variety of environments, challenges and random wilderness encounters (see: D&D Expert Set).  Trolls, mountain giants, goblins, orcs and wargs all menace the adventurers at various points in time.  Since the first film only takes us up to Chapter Six in the book, Unexpected Journey hangs it's climax on the Bilbo and Gollum riddle-off and the dwarves flight from the Goblin Kingdom.

Now, before I go any further I want to prove to you that Peter Jackson wasn't the first dude to split The Hobbit up into a trilogy:

In fact, the first issue of this 1990 comic book gives us less of the story then Peter Jackson does in his first Hobbit film.  Indeed, the comic ends just as Bilbo and Gollum are about to begin their EPIC RIDDLE BATTLE OF HISTORY.

So although I'm no longer pissed that Peter Jackson made The Hobbit into a trilogy I am pissed that An Unexpected Journey clocks in at almost three fucking hours long.  Which brings me back to Jackson's take on King Kong.  Like Kong, I've always seen The Hobbit as a propulsive bit of kinetic fantasy, not nearly so serious nor as epic as The Lord of the Rings.  Why weigh it down with a slew of exposition and action beats that look clever on paper but fail to further the story or the characters?  Honestly, there's no good reason as to why this film shouldn't be under two hours long.

So why is An Unexpected Journey the Bombur of book-to-movie adaptations?  Well, it's because Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro decided to take a veritable shit-ton of casual references in the original novel and spin them out into long-winded conversations and fully-realized flashbacks.  And this level of indulgence very nearly cripples the first half of the film.

Want some examples?  Well, a throwaway reference to Bilbo's parentage in the book gets chewed over at great length by Gandalf.  A casual nod to Thorin's grandfather Thror being killed by Azog the goblin in Moria becomes an entire revenge subplot.  A deus ex machina question posed to Gandalf about wizards results in a superfluous sequence introducing Radagast the Brown (so named, presumably because he has no problem with little woodland creatures pooping all over him).

All of this leads me to believe that Peter Jackson might be suffering from a mild case of Georgelucasitis.  After all, he had to fight and scratch to make The Lord of the Rings three films instead of two.  Now fully vindicated and let off his leash, Jackson seems to be running riot with his newfound sense of freedom.  It's as if Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) is here just to make up for Tom Bombadil's absence in The Lord of the Rings.    

I'd accuse him of living in Peter Jackson World for too long, but many of his alterations actually make sense.  Even though he nearly flat-lines his audience's attention span with an endless spate of prologuery, I'm glad he got it over with at the beginning of the film rather then derail the meeting scene via a Thorin Oakenshield flashback.  At least Jackson shows us what happened instead of telling us what happened.

It also makes sense to generate some more connective tissue between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Hell, even Tolkien himself was guilty of redaction.  Radagast investigates the sudden appearance of a mysterious necromancer who unearths a Morgul-blade-wielding Witch King.  Gandalf, Elrond, Sarumon and Lady Galadriel have a tense summit meeting about the possible return of Sauron.  Although it's great to see all of these accomplished actors in a scene together, it's superfluous to the central story and might have been better off in a home video extended cut.

The changes I liked most were the ones that empower the central character.  In the book, Gandalf practically has to root Bilbo out of his Hobbit hole with a Rake spell, but in the film Bilbo voluntarily runs to catch up to the dwarves after they leave the next day without telling him.  And instead of Gandalf pulling a Ben Kenobi to distract the trolls, it's Bilbo who jive talks them until the sun comes up.

Some of the other stylistic choices are a mixed bag.  When I first saw The Hobbit's dwarf-portrait poster, I thought that things looked a bit off but I couldn't put my finger on it.  And then, when I realized that the film wasn't going to have an Aragorn or a Legolas it finally dawned on me: actors made up to look like traditional bald n' bearded dwarves have absolutely no sex appeal whatsoever.  Hence the presence of Aiden Turner as Kili the Hawt Dwarf.  Not that I want to give the guy a hard time since he gives a decent performance and I thought he was good in Being Human.

Also kinda lame is the rock-fight between the "Mountain Giants" who look less like actual giants and more like the love children of Godzilla and The Thing from the Fantastic Four.  After the dwarves find shelter in a cave, they fall victim to a classic pit-trap and end up in the heart of the Goblin City.  And then, all of a sudden, all past transgressions fall by the wayside and the movie finally kicks into high gear.

A chief catalyst for this is the appearance of the Goblin King, voiced by the wonderful Barry Humphries.  Talk about inspired casting, who better to depict a bloated, vaguely-flamboyant monarch then the guy who played Dame Edna Everage for almost sixty years?  Weta's animation is equally game, bringing to life a fully CGI character who is by turns creepy, belligerent, decrepit and woefully overconfident.

From there on in, the film doesn't let up for a second.  Gandalf makes a timely re-appearance which sets off a frantic flight to the surface.  During this we're treated to some truly inventive and unrelenting action sequences involving a series of precarious catwalks, a pack of seemingly indestructible juggernaut-like dwarves and, by all accounts, approximately thirty-eight hojillion pissed-off goblins.  

And although Jackson still shoots a melee way too tight, he does give us some wondrous visual panoplies, dizzying camera angles and some gag-like stunts which flirt with the idea of slapstick.  But where Gimli getting crushed under an avalanche of dead wargs and goblins in The Two Towers seemed counter-intuitive to dramatic tension, the wackiness of the action here feels somewhat appropriate.  This is, after all, an adaptation of a kid's book.  A wildly imaginative, incredibly detailed kid's book, but a kid's book nonetheless.   

In terms of an effective application of style and crackerjack editing, nothing rivals the riddle-war between Gollum and Bilbo.  Fans who were blown away by Gollum in The Lord of the Rings will be thanking the technology gods for giving us ten years worth of character evolution.  Even more of Andy Serkis's brilliant performance can captured now, especially when it comes to facial expressions.  If I didn't think that it would result in the creation of a veritable host of vastly-inferior CGI creatures, I'd strongly suggest that Andy Serkis be given the inaugural Oscar for Best Motion Capture Performance in a Motion Picture.

Since I was already familiar with Martin Freeman's ample talents from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Sherlock, I knew that he was going to be perfect.  Above and beyond accusations of no-brainer casting, Freeman really does some exquisite work as Bilbo.  Not many actors can embody befuddlement, irascibility and indignation all in one line reading.  Above all, he's the perfect sounding board for the average shmoe in the audience who might be rolling their eyes at the sometime-ludicrous things happening on-screen.

Saying that Ian McKellan is great as Gandalf is like saying that Harrison Ford is great as Han Solo.  But at least Ian gets more to do here and fans are all the richer for it.  This time out you really get the sense that Gandalf is some otherworldly being who is gently trying to prod events away from ruin and towards the greater good of Middle Earth.  McKellen seems to be having a lot more fun in his "Grey" (as opposed to "White") persona since it gives him ample opportunity to carouse and be cheeky.  

As an appropriate Thorin Oakenshield, Peter Armitage has his warhammer jammed firmly up his ass.  Although a lot of his performance is filtered through a clenched jaw, he does start to defrost a bit as Bilbo begins to prove his worth.  Although Thorin is actually more of an asshole in the book, Armitage steers the character more towards Ahab.  You really get the impression that the loss of Erebor was a terrible affront to his family's honor and he's willing to do just about anything to get it back. 

Honestly, if a film is half awesome and half mediocre, it really helps that the second half is the superior one.  Even though I know that there's more appendix-plundering wankery to come I also suspect that the more tedious setup has dispensed with and there are better things to come.  

But a part of me really hopes that when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey comes to home video it'll be the first film in cinema history with a Director's Cut that's actually shorter then the theatrical cut.  

   Tilt: down.

P.S. To see how the film stacks up without all of its 3D / 48 fps bells and whistles I decided to see the film in a standard presentation.  Which is no mean feat in this day and age.  

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