Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a more late-teenaged, adult tone compared to The Hobbit which leans towards the children's story end of the spectrum.  When the chief antagonist is a fire-breathing dragon who covets gold and fine gemstones, you are more than likely treading Harry Potter or Narnia waters than swimming in an ocean of truly depraved villains.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and its expected sequels will naturally and quite rightly be compared to their decade-old predecessors in terms of filmmaking but also in story.

If Peter Jackson had only adapted the novel into one feature film, then he would probably escape the majority of the criticism about the story; he would be limited to the central plot points concerning Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the 13 dwarves, and their fight to reclaim their mountain home from an invading flying reptile.  However, Jackson carries the trilogy bug in his blood.  He chopped up The Hobbit into three films and rather than adapt the original source material, he created original sequences and included characters only read about in other Tolkien stories, but not in The Hobbit.

As in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Hobbit begins in The Shire and in the exact same house.  Jackson's Bilbo creation is much more of a homebody than Frodo.  He enjoys his routine, his quiet solitude, and venturing out to fight a dragon with a clique of dwarves is not on his well-structured and comfortable agenda.  Gandalf (Ian McKellen), one of Middle Earth's meddling wizards, shows up on Bilbo's doorstep with 13 dwarves in tow.  They want Bilbo to sign a contract to join their gang as a burglar, not for his lock picking and thievery skills, but because he is tiny and overlooked by towering trolls and orcs who are slow, plodding, and quite unobservant of wee folk.  Hobbits are perceptibly shorter and frailer than dwarves.

A challenge which must have taken Jackson and his multiple screenwriters considerable time to figure out is telling all 13 dwarves apart.  If the audience continues to play catch up trying to remember who is who it will taken them right out of the movie and be a source of some frustration.  Each dwarf has his one characteristic to distinguish him from his brethren.  There is Dwarf King Thorin (Richard Armitage) who is taller than the rest, has long, black hair and walks around with a regal air about him.  Balin (Ken Stott) is the oldest with a long, white beard, and there is the fat one, the archer, the one with a tattoo on his head, etc…  I could recognize most of the dwarves by the end, but certainly could not match names to all of them.  It is not integral to the story to achieve name and facial recognition for each dwarf; Jackson at least recognized the conundrum and attempts to address the issue throughout the film.   

As Bilbo is compared and contrasted with Frodo, the dwarf committee can and should be sized up with the Lord of the Rings fellowship which, to its credit, was not limited to just dwarves; the fellowship included humans and elves too.  With only one hobbit this time, there is less humor concerning food and break times and without humans and elves there are certain battle capabilities and side issues which are omitted.  One character who does show up again, not part of the fellowship but quite familiar, is Gollum (Andy Serkis).  Gollum is an extremely irritating and grating character.  Listening to him talk, add on the letters -ses to every other word, and peering at his enormous blue eyes bulging out of a sinewy frame was unpleasant for the first trilogy and it feels even more unpleasant now.  Gollum has his role to play with the ring and his more than unhealthy obsession, but that alone does not make him a fan favorite; he is more an entity to endure than enjoy. 

Gollum is not the only familiar character to pop his head up either.  Saruman (Christopher Lee) the wizard returns to play the contrarian, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) the elf is the same wooden figure, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) remains a character who seems to have the potential to solve everyone's problems with an eyelash flutter but is once again shoved in the background, and a new wizard turns up, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).  Radagast lives in the woods and prefers the company of animals to humans.  His sole purpose is to set up the next film installment by calling Gandalf's attention to weird things happening in the woods.  Saruman turns up his nose at Radagast because of his animal preference which is strange; Saruman does not appear to take much pleasure in the company of others either.

There is an option to watch The Hobbit in HFR - high frame rate.  Instead of the regular 24 frames per second (fps) which audiences are accustomed to, Jackson released a version in 48fps which looks much more fluid and smooth to the eye.  While it is much better to watch the 3D version in 48fps, your eyes are not used to watching movies this way.  It is definitely smooth, but it looks cheap.  Nothing about The Hobbit was made on the cheap, but the 48fps makes the New Zealand setting look and feel like a sound stage - or a daytime soap opera.  The 3D effects are much more effective this way; however, in the entire two hour and fifty minute run time, I never got used to the 48fps.  I noticed it the whole time and it took me right out of the movie experience.  I was mindful I was sitting in a theater watching a movie instead of enjoying the feeling of losing myself in the movie.  Those movie-goers who see a lot of movies in the theater should see it in HFR because it is so rare.  Those of you who venture to the cineplex just every now and then, steer clear and make your way to the 24fps showing.  

It is not because The Hobbit was filmed years after the first Rings trilogy which makes it feel like its little brother; it is because of the story.  The characters and themes are less mature; the dwarves in fact are one-dimensional.  Also, it is not its fault, but the wonder and unfamiliarity of Middle Earth is gone for the audience.  We know what the mountains and the fields look like, what bloodthirsty orcs look like, and what the music sounds like.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an example of the law of diminishing returns; it is good to see Middle Earth again and watch a gang of dwarves trek through inhospitable territory, but we've seen it before. 

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