Friday, December 14, 2012

Review - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

J.R.R. Tolkien’s tale of a hobbit and his unlikely adventure is one of the most beloved books of the last 100 years.  It’s a personal favorite of mine and like many others, I was eager to see this film, but wary about how it would be adapted for the big screen.  The only other adaptation I’m aware of is the 1977 Rankin-Bass animated television movie.  It too was a favorite growing up, having watched it long before I read the book.  It seemed inevitable that a feature film would be made, but the project wallowed in limbo for so long while legal issues were being worked out that director Guillermo Del Toro finally dropped out of the project.  Eventually the studio got its act together and convinced Peter Jackson to direct, a welcome development given the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I liked the Lord of the Rings trilogy a lot.  There were many elements Jackson absolutely nailed (Gandalf, Gollum, the Ents).  But Jackson, like many in Hollywood, believes the only good hero is a reluctant one, so he completely gelded the character of Aragorn, and that has always been a long standing personal gripe of mine.  Another problem I have is Jackson’s lack of faith in the audience.   The LOTR trilogy is almost of devoid of the subtle story telling that fills the pages of Tolkien’s books.   The evil of the One Ring was revealed carefully and with a light hand by Tolkien.  Jackson prefers the hyper-dramatic, using a sledgehammer to drive home the narrative and its themes.  When it was revealed the story would be split into three films, I, like many others, became skeptical, wondering how they were going to stretch a 300 page book into three feature length movies.  So it was with great hope, and some trepidation that I anticipated this movie.

The Hobbit begins much like The Fellowship of the Ring, with a prologue that gives history and context to the story.  It’s well done and features some neat visuals, while revealing much more about the dwarves as people and characters than we knew before. With the exception of a flashback or two, the rest of the film follows the narrative of the book pretty faithfully.  Like LOTR, The Hobbit, in my view, had to get certain characters right for this film to work.  The original trilogy largely succeeded.  This time, with thirteen dwarves to juggle, Jackson opts to focus on just a few characters and I’m happy to say nails them all.  Ian McKellen, reprising his role as Gandalf, is excellent. Richard Armitage is superb as Thorin Oakenshield, even though he’s not what I pictured from the book.  The film builds upon Thorin’s character, but in a way that stays faithful to the book and serves enrich the character and the story.  Thorin is heroic, but proud, and holds bitter grudges for the tragedies that have befallen him and his people.  His story also gives insight into the animus dwarves have against the Elves.  Most important of all is Bilbo Baggins.  And thankfully, Martin Freeman is not only up to the task, he is absolutely brilliant.  Freeman seems to hit the character’s every note.  Both Bilbo and his dwarves discover there is far more to him than a frightened hobbit, clinging to his comfortable and predictable life in the Shire. He is courageous, loyal and compassionate.  There is not a great deal of comedy in The Hobbit, and most of it is sight gags involving the dwarves, none of it especially funny.  But Freeman makes up for it with subtle, comedic timing as a character who has no business treasure hunting or fighting orcs.

One of the principal rationales for three movies of nearly three hours each is that the films feature a fair amount of material taken from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Simarillion.  They involve events that took place chronologically at the time of Bilbo’s quest, but off page, such as the White Council, the Necromancer taking up residence in Dol Guldur, and Radagast the Brown.  The reclusive, nature-loving wizard is featured prominently despite never appearing in the book, but is mentioned in the LOTR.  He’s played by Sylvester McCoy (the 7th Doctor Who) with a quirky energy.  He too, is not exactly what I pictured, but his portrayal is both original and interesting.   One addition that doesn’t work is the inclusion of a nemesis from Thorin’s past who plays a fairly significant role, despite getting little more than a mention in the books.  His presence complicates the movie, while adding very little.  Aside from this, additions are weaved fairly seamlessly into the story, and generally add to it, but the scope of the story is greatly expanded from that of the book.  As such, the film becomes more and more like a prologue to the LOTR, continuously making connections to the trilogy.

And like the LOTR films, The Hobbit has its flaws.  First of all, the film is overwrought with CGI.  Where the LOTR used actors in make up for most all the characters and the orcs, The Hobbit uses CGI for every character and creature outside of elves, dwarves, men and hobbits.  This was particularly noticeable with the Orcs, who were better in my opinion as actors in makeup and prosthetics.  All the action scenes were just laden with CGI, evoking memories of The Mummy franchise.

And that leads to the next issue.  The action scenes are fairly mindless, by the numbers affairs.  I found them to be almost devoid of drama or suspense.  By the time you get to the end of the movie, there have been so many group battle scenes, and people hanging over cliffs, you start to get bored. Especially overdone and overlong is the dwarves' escape from the goblins in the Misty Mountains.  Not only did it seem to go on forever from one implausible series of circus stunts to the next, but it looked 100% CGI, with frenetic, wide sweeping camera shots that spin around at all angles.  I don’t know why Peter Jackson chose to do this.  Perhaps he felt like he needed to live up the spectacle and action of his earlier films, even though there’s very little of that in the original Hobbit story.  This is Jackson’s biggest weakness as a filmmaker – he doesn’t know when less is more.  Like LOTR, he repeatedly eschews subtly and suspense for the kind of action that will numb or bore you.

The final problem with The Hobbit is that it’s just too long.  There’s just no reason for the first episode of a trilogy adapted from a 300 page book to be 169 minutes.  The problem isn’t necessarily the extra material (although that’s part of it).  The script is filled with superfluous dialogue, a lethargic pace at times, and way overlong action sequences.   A good editor could have easily cut 30 minutes from this film.

Having said that, The Hobbit gets enough right to overcome these flaws.  Particularly satisfying is the film’s fidelity to Tolkien’s themes of loyalty, filial love, mercy, and the courage of common, everyday people.  Gandalf captures this sentiment beautifully in the film:
Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that it is not what I've found. I've found it is the small things, every act of normal folk that keeps the darkness of at bay — simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.
An added theme in the film is the dwarves desire to have a home.  There’s a great scene toward the end of the movie where Bilbo asserts himself and expresses his commitment to help the dwarves regain their home.  It’s a moving scene, and for me, reason enough to look forward to the next chapter.

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