Friday, January 25, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Movie Review

Peter Jackson’s expansion of his mega-profitable behemoth of a franchise has gone from being a labor of love and an astounding cinematic adaptation of a beloved trilogy of books to a cynically calculated cash grab. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just the first in a three part film adaptation of Tolkien’s single book prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Clocking in at just under three hours, it is already nearly twice the length of the 1977 animated version that was already a decent adaptation.

The decision to split it into three films and release them in successive years is designed to extract as much money from the built in fan base as possible. Surely they haven’t been fooled into thinking this decision was an artistic one, any more than it was an artistic choice to split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Twilight: Breaking Dawn into two films each. But those fans, those who already loved Tolkien’s books long before Jackson’s first trilogy and those converts who came on board following will fork over their money for this film. Then they’ll buy the certain-to-appear extended edition Blu-Ray, followed by tickets for film number two. Then wash, rinse, and repeat.

For every major fan, there are also people like me, who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings films a great deal (I own the extended DVD versions even though I’d now prefer the originals) but will not fall prey to a bloated and self-important adaptation of what is essentially a children’s novel. The Hobbit should be much more whimsical and airy than The Lord of the Rings. That’s why it worked so well as a cartoon 35 years ago. This time around it tries so hard to match not only the look of The Lord of the Rings, but the overall tone as well. The stories are all part of the same world of the mythical land known as Middle Earth and there’s a great deal of character overlap: Ian McKellen reprises his role as the wizard Gandalf; Hugo Weaving is again the wizened elf Lord Elrond; Cate Blanchett’s role as Galadriel is expanded slightly from what was asked of her a decade ago. Ian Holm and Elijah Wood even make glorified cameos in a prequel scene taking place earlier in the day of the first scene of The Fellowship of the Ring.

The story begins to set up (there’s still presumably another 120 hours of Hobbit material to get through over the next two years) the events that will eventually lead to Sauron’s search for the ring. Young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman in a role he seems born to play) is kind of suckered into a making a pilgrimage with a dozen dwarfs led by King Thorin (Richard Armitage) to recover their lost gold from a dragon. There’s a lengthy prologue that explains all this. In any adventure story, the first key to crafting it cinematically is to limit back story and exposition as much as possible so we can just get on the road. The audience just wants the journey to begin. So how did Jackson and his old screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with Guillermo del Toro, decide to handle this? By introducing us to the dwarfs (who appear much tidier than Gimli ever did in the other films) and then having them hang around Bilbo’s house for a half hour. At the end of this long slog of time we aren’t any more familiar with them as individuals than we would have been if it had taken ten minutes, or five minutes even, except we might remember that the dwarf Gloin is Gimli’s father. Just think, Jackson was setting up character exposition ten years ago when he had Gandalf refer to the Lord of the Rings character as “Gimli, son of Gloin.” What foresight!

So they finally get on their way and it’s adventure this and battle that and it’s all so dreadfully laborious. How as 400 page novel expanded into what will probably end up as a 10 hour film trilogy? By including material that is only glossed over, expanding battle sequences that are mentioned in passing. My patience and good will toward any filmmaker has limits and it tends to be reached at the very moment I start sniffing out self-indulgence. And I can’t really think of another way to describe The Hobbit. It is the product of a filmmaker who thinks he can stretch and pad until the screen is bursting simply because a select few will eat it up and scream for more. Well, I was a fan, but I’ve been turned.

The absolute best thing The Hobbit has going for it is a quiet scene that takes place between Bilbo and Gollum (an even better motion capture performance from Andy Serkis) in Gollum’s lair. As they play a game of riddles with high stakes (for Bilbo at any rate), Bilbo secretly hides the precious ring in his pocket. There is nothing else in the film quite like this, the only moment that makes good use of shadow and suspense. It ends up feeling like something significant, a sense that is missing from the rest of the film, although there’s an obvious attempt to ascribe such importance as was felt in the first trilogy.

Oh, the movie looks and sounds marvelous. Howard Shore’s score is basically a retread of the work he did for The Lord of the Rings, with some new material. That’s not a bad thing. I loved his scoring for those films. The visual effects that were so artfully rendered ten years ago have only improved with age. I can’t speak to the power of the 48fps or the 3D because I decided to see it in traditional 2D at 24fps because I can’t stand the “soap opera effect” in cinema. There is such a thing as motion that is too fluid. It begins to look unnatural. If I had the time and money and I didn’t feel general revulsion toward the movie, I might have given the 3D a try, but no thanks. Jackson lost me at about the 100 minute mark.

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