Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (2012)

12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I’ve made it known in the past that I’m not the biggest fan of the “Lord of the Rings” movies. I’m not audacious enough to say they’re bad films. Wizards and elves just aren’t so much my thing. I don’t besmirch the people who love these things. Having said that, I’ve always preferred “The Hobbit” to Tolken’s more epic trilogy, reading the book as the kid and frequently watching the Rankin/Bass animated adaptation. I like Bilbo as a character, which is more then I can say for Frodo or Aragon or any of those guys. Plus it’s got ugly goblins and a badass dragon, appealing to this monster fan. After the massive success of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, an adaptation of “The Hobbit” was inevitable. For a while, Guillermo del Toro was going to direct it, threatening to turn this project into something really interesting. However, following a number of set-backs better chronicled elsewhere on the internet, del Toro left and Jackson stepped in, to the pattering of many a fanboy’s heart. In the end, I think that was for the best. Not only does it add a consistent visual style and approach to the entire cinematic Tolken universe, it prevented del Toro from getting roped into a single 300-paged novel getting bloated to three, excessively long films.

Which isn’t to say that “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first part of the unexpected trilogy, isn’t a good film. I might even enjoy it more then any of the previous “Ring” pictures. But it is undeniably bloated. Jackson seems committed to adapting every miscellaneous bit of Tolken-ilia to the screen. Commerce no doubt is the primary motivator there but the director is obviously just that invested in the material. The relatively simple story of Bilbo’s recruitment and the dwarves eventual encounter with the goblins is padded out extensively. There are two very long prologues. The first of which illustrates all the business about the Arkstone and Smaug, which probably would have been necessary anyway. The second is a lengthy scene of Old Bilbo and Frodo talking and hanging out, taking place before the story proper. An entire subplot is invented about a band of vengeful orcs following the heroes, determined to settle a score with Prince Thorin, obviously added to provide a proper villain to this extended first act. These elements don’t distract too much from the story, unlike an unresolved subplot about Gandolf investigating a necromancer and the growing dark powers in Middleearth. When the quest to slay the dragon is interrupted by a long scene of a goofy wizard trying to save a hedgehog, the pacing starts to suffer. At the very least, it gives them an excuse to put Christopher Lee in the movie, which is always appreciated. And I haven’t even mentioned the rock giants yet!

(I’m not even going to address the controversy surrounding the 45 frames-per-minute decisions, as I didn’t see the movie in that speed. Sorry.)

Easily the most likable thing about the film is Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Freeman’s established persona of an Englishman exasperated and baffled by the crazy circumstances around him has been used before in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” movie and “Sherlock” TV show. This ends up being perfect for the character. Bilbo’s initial reaction to Gandolf and dwarves barging into his home and setting up the pieces for this epic quest is frustration. That little wishing part of his brain can’t turn down the adventure, however. Freeman’s comical aggravation starts out very funny but ends up informing the best character arc in the “Rings” universe. Bilbo really doesn’t belong on this trip, does he? He doubts himself at every turn. The film naturally proves why he is so intrinsic to the quest by the end but spends far more time then expected focusing on the hobbit’s doubts and second-guessing. Bilbo’s own self-realization is much more satisfying then the well-done if obvious conclusion of the dwarves recognizing his strength and importance. Beyond being hilarious, Freeman delivers two stirring monologues, one wracked with self-doubt, the other quietly, gingerly illustrating his decision to stay. It’s the most captivating stuff in the movie. Freeman’s performance is the backbone this entire overlong saga is built on and probably what will get me into the theaters again in 2013 and 2014.

It’s a good thing Freeman’s performance is so central to the film, since the rest of the cast is somewhat unimportant. There’s not much development for them is what I'm saying. I don’t think even Tolken kept track of all the dwarves. (Who am I kidding? That dude had his own Lonely Mountain of notebooks filled with obscure family history and shit.) There’s a fat one, an old one, the brothers, a grumpy one, a young one, on and on. None of them are developed beyond trademark characteristics. Instead of just loading the movie with unrelated bits of Tolken writing, maybe the right way to expand on this story would have been to develop the rest of the cast? Of course, the make-up is all great and I’m sure a massive amount of work was put into costume and design. There are occasional moments of character shining through for a few of them. No, I don’t remember the names or which one did what. Perhaps the next two films will work on that. I hope.

Beyond Bilbo, the characters with actual personalities are Gandolf and Thorin. Ian McKellen brings the gravitas to the character that he naturally carries. “The Hobbit” allows Gandolf’s quiet humor and whimsy to take center-stage more then the grave-intoning that made up “Fellowship of the Rings.” There’s some of that too. The newly hung-on subplots allowed Gandolf to furrow his brow about the growing evil in MiddleEarth. However, the general good humor is a nice touch. It also helps deflect the fact that McKellen obviously looks a lot older now. That’s what you get for making the prequel ten years after the originals. McKellen’s best moments are his interaction with Cate Blanchette, which drips with romantic chemistry and sexual tension. Another thing I like is that McKellen, or more accurately his stunt double and CGI replica, kicks so much ass. Gandolf kills a lot of goblins and actually piles up a surprising bodycount. It’s good to know that the old wizard still has some swashbuckling in him.

Richard Armitage is the film’s second lead, Thorin the Dwarf King. It reminded me a lot of the inflated self-seriousness that defined so many of the characters in “Rings.” Oh, it’s not a bad performance. Armitage imbues the part with a lot of intensity and passion. He’s obviously a very proud character and his family history means a lot to him. Once again, the entire subplot about his battle with the orcs was so obviously added to make this movie more action-y, to please the fans of the first trilogy’s combat. At the very least, Armitage makes the character’s development natural and unintrusive.

The first act is a little longer then it needs to be. At least all that sitting around and talking in the shire actually serves a purpose, as opposed to the other padding. It gives us a good idea of Bilbo as a character and lays out some of the story’s more convoluted exposition in a gentle, handy way. There’s a lot of humor, which adds plenty of levity. The troll sequence, which is pretty perfectly realized from the source material, is a good example of this. You certainly can’t imagine goofy stuff like troll snot sight gags happening in any of the “Rings” movies. For the record, I like the songs. “Misty Mountain Cold” is particularly haunting and is repeatedly reprised throughout the rest of the score. I could bitch about how the stuff about the map only working on a specific night, which just happens to be this night, is contrived. I suppose that’s normal fantasy plot device stuff. It comes with the territory. You just have to go with it, I guess. These moments, and there are several, remind you that you’re watching a genre film.

Naturally, the special effects and cinematography are spell-binding. These movies are in many ways three-hour long tourist advertisements for New Zealand. The landscapes that aren’t just the natural, gorgeous green rolling hills of the islands, in other words the ones made in a computer, look nice too. Riverdell, in particular, is beautiful and I like the way the camera winds through the secret pass in the rocks. The movie’s mastery of special effects is most evident in Gollem. He looks even more real then he did in “Rings,” which was impressive to begin with. You can see the pores of his skin and the translucence of his eyeballs. Clearly, the special effects guys earn their paychecks. It’s a good thing that work done on Gollem is so exemplary because the camera spends a lot of time focusing on his big, expressive eyes and face. It’s cute and funny. Andy Serkis is as fantastic as ever.

The action scenes are, at times, surprisingly shaky. When our fellowship are ambushed by the orcs at the secret pass, there are a few times when it’s difficult to tell which character is shooting arrows and swinging swords. The big flashback scene that sets up the mutual grudge between Thorin and the Azog feels kind of dreary, as it’s filled with a lot of slow-motion, melodramatic shouting to the heavens. Characters clang swords and shields, dismember limbs, none of it meaning much to the audience.

If the action drags for most of the movie, it makes up for a lot in the last act. All of the Goblin City scenes are uniformly awesome. First off, the goblins look great. They are much more visually interesting then the orcs, with their asymmetrical limbs and gnarled, warty faces. The Goblin King, played with hilarious relish by Barry "The Dame Edna Guy" Humphries, is nicely grotesque. Don’t tell me all that fat hanging off his chin doesn’t intentionally look like a ball sack. Moments like these remind us that Peter Jackson once made over-the-top horror indulgences.

The best action also steams from this sequence. Characters leaping from one level of bridges to the other, dispatching enemies along the way, always racing forward, is the movie’s violence at it’s most poetic, creative, and thrillingly constructed. The flaming tree sequence that follows it the movie’s proper climax. While it feels one-hundred percent engineered, some suspense is built. At the very least, Jackson manages to fit a defining moment for Bilbo into yet another scene of fantasy characters yelling at each other and narrowly avoiding blows. It’s a good thing too that we get some character resolution here, since there’s very little actual story resolution in that moment.

My opinion of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” seems to fit most critic’s opinion: Good, but too long. The cliffhanger ending admittedly gets me pumped for seeing Smaug the dragon fully realized in the next film. I mean, when was the last time we got a truly bad ass dragon in a movie? “Reign of Fire?” It’s fairly easy to see how the next two films will dissect and build on the established story. Part two will clearly be everything to do with the dragon and the elves while part three will be the Battle of the Five Armies, I suppose? Despite the fact that these future films will almost assuredly have the same problems as this one, I’ll be there. “The Hobbit” has, undeniably, hooked me in a way “Lords of the Rings’ didn’t. See you in 2013, MiddleEarth. [Grade: B]

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