Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Just got home from watching the first part of The Hobbit, the "prequel" J.R.R. Tolkien story of the epic Lord of the Rings (LOTR) directed by Peter Jackson during the past decade. It's always a challenge writing a review for this page because I'm never certain of the interest or knowledge of the audience. For grins, I'll assume that you know the events of LOTR to some extent and go from there.

As the "prequel" description implies, The Hobbit occurs some 60 years before the events of The Fellowship of the Ring and concern the adventures of Frodo Baggins' uncle, Bilbo, who found the One Ring that created such a fuss in those other stories. "And what is a Hobbit?" asked Tolkien in one of the opening lines of his charming 1937 book. Imagine a human being about 3-4 feet tall but perfect proportional. In this world of Middle Earth, they're called "halflings," when they're seen at all. In our world, you can picture the Hobbits of the Shire as miniature Englishmen, rather content to stay home, plant gardens, have supper, drink their ale, and smoke a pipe. This perception was changed quite a bit by the adventures of Frodo and his three friends, but I digress.

In this earlier time before Frodo and friends got into trouble, Bilbo was a happily settled bachelor, enjoying the quiet life of the Shire in his turf-covered hobbit "hole." Then he got a knock at the door by Gandalf the Grey, a wizard among men, who invited him into an adventure to help a group of Dwarves regain control of their home, the Lonely Mountain, from a ferocious dragon. Bilbo is not the adventuring type, and initially refuses, but eventually finds himself drawn into the quest and, as my buddy Widge likes to say, "hijinks ensue." I will do my best not to issue any "spoilers" in this review, but these things happen.

An aside on Widge, if I may (and I may, it's my blog): given his background as a literature, comic book, and science fiction geek, he has a perspective on movies that is similar to mine. This is why it's sometimes bad for me to watch one of his Wayhomer reviews of a film I plan to see, as his perspective can distract me from whatever ideas I have before I see it. Be that as it may, I have provided a link to his review of The Hobbit, refer to it on occasion, and then see what else I can add from the literature/comic/SF perspective.

Visual World Building
First, it is always a pleasure to "revisit" Tolkien's Middle Earth. Peter Jackson's team did a remarkable job conjuring up (so to speak) that world out of New Zealand's spectacular landscapes. In addition to Hobbits, there are Men (humans), Elves, and Dwarves as contentious but good creatures of the realm and Orcs, Goblins, Giants, and other nasty beasts on the side of evil. Men in Jackson's Middle Earth resemble Vikings, more or less; the Elves are ethereal, nature-loving creatures comprising two major families: a blond-haired strain concentrated in the forests and a darker-haired family that dwells primarily in a mountain retreat called variously Imladris or Rivendell; while Dwarves are more or less the same height as Hobbits but sturdier, rowdier, and more warlike. In addition to their characters, Jackson put a lot of work into the art design and costuming to create a visual "grammar" that helps the viewer easily recognize who is whom. That design work, so meticulously crafted for the LOTR, is repeated here, with more attention given to the Dwarves since this is primarily their tale.

And so we come back to two components of the Hobbit film experience: the story itself and the visual experience the audience sees on the screen. This is where I must refer the reader to Widge's excellent and nearly comprehensive video review of the visuals. His perspective on the film was almost distracting to my movie experience. He did not like his experience--he rated the film 1.5 out of 5 "cups" (his website is we both saw the 3D version with the "high frame rate." Widge understands the technology better than I do. For the non-cinematic viewer, the best way I can describe the visuals of The Hobbit is that it seems to bounce back and forth between a "film" look and a "video" look. It's like the film shifts between indoors and outdoors, and it's more than a little distracting if you're looking for it. Personally, I like the "outdoor" aesthetics of film because I can watch "indoor" visuals on TV.

If you're not interested in the visual quality of what's on the screen, great. I'll try to talk about characters and acting from here on.

Storytelling in Middle Earth
The Hobbit brings back the spectacular Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, Andy Serkis as the voice and motion-capture actor for Gollum, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond. Other characters from the LOTR movies (or the book The Hobbit) appear in cameo roles, but I won't spoil whom. Suffice to say, it was nice to see them and to see Peter Jackson taking his Tolkien mythology seriously.

Other casting choices pleased me, including Martin Freeman as Bilbo. I'd last seen Freeman in the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, though I needed to remind me of that. Freeman's character in that film--as an Englishman in out of his depth among strange and alien things--made him a natural for Bilbo. Another excellent casting choice was Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the Dwarves. Even though they never identified him in the trailers, his intense look and aura of command made his role obvious to anyone familiar with the book. He played a bad guy in the Captain America movie, and before that seems to have done a lot of British TV work, but his face was unknown to me. No matter: he's a better embodiment of the character than whatever image I had in my head when I read the book 30 years ago.

As for the film overall, it's difficult for me to evaluate the film for a few reasons:
  • The story isn't over yet. For reasons that elude me they're turning one book into a trilogy, where for LOTR they made three books into three films. In my mind, you could squeeze Hobbit into two films with some judicious editing. But I'm not Peter Jackson. Still, Mr. Jackson's editing is getting a little sloppy. As with big-name authors in today's publishing world, big-name, big-money directors seem to get a free hand when it comes to editing. This is how you get 900-page works by Tom Clancy or Stephen King or 600-page books by lesser-known authors when 200 to 400 pages would do. (Note to the viewer: make all necessary stops before watching this film. There's rarely a good time for a bathroom break, especially if you're unfamiliar with the story.)
  • I know how the book ends. As with LOTR or any book-made-movie, I'm watching to see how the director executes the author's material. (An aside: I'm probably a heretic for saying this, but Peter Jackson's movies were more entertaining than Tolkien's novels, and the visual element is a primary aspect of that.)
  • I will concur with Widge that the visual experience is a bit frustrating for the viewer, bouncing as it does between a "film" look and a "TV" look. I wouldn't go so far as to say it damaged my perception of the film, it was just one of many factors affecting my viewing experience.
  • I am enough of a fan of the books that I will watch the other two. But I don't like having my patience tried. My inner editor could've cut 30 minutes from this film, easily, and lost none of the narrative thread. The Onion did a spoof on the nature of Jackson's editing by making up a story that he was going to include a 53-minute scene about Bilbo deciding what to pack for his journey. Well, there's nothing that blatant here, but the film does drag on longer than it needs to, and I'll be less inclined to buy the "director's extended version" when the DVD comes out in a year or two. 
I know I've griped a bit here, but this movie deserves to be seen. It's really taken this long for movie-making technology to do justice to great fantasy epics like Tolkien's. My sister asked me a question I couldn't answer: Why didn't Jackson make this film first? Thinking about it now, I suppose it was because he could convince a movie studio that he could compress three books into three movies more easily than he could convince them to fund a three-film version of one book. But yet one must consider: if Peter Jackson could convert three books into three movies, why didn't he try to shrink this book down to one--or at most, two? Never mind, I don't have the answer to that, any more than I can explain Star Wars Episodes I-III.

Happy Hobbiting!

No comments: