Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit

This past weekend I went to see The Hobbit. These days I don't get out to the movies much, so I really have to want to see it in order to make the effort.

 Prior to seeing The Hobbit I had heard that critics were saying "it's too long, unless you're a Tolkien geek." That made me think that Peter Jackson got it right. While naturally making the movies is a money-making venture, I also think that a good part of Jackson's motivations is to do Tolkien's work justice, and to make the movies something that will last decades, rather than a film that will start strong and flame out in a few weeks to be forgotten and/or forever reviled as trash (q.v., anything made by Michael Bay).

I am an avid Tolkien fan, and something of a purist, but by no means a rabid one.  For example, I was ok with most of the changes that Jackson made for The Fellowship of the Ring, somewhat less so, but still sanguine about The Two Towers, and annoyed with many changes made in The Return of the King.  (As far as The Return of the King goes, I think it is a film with many fantastic scenes, but also with some awful ones, so I remain ambivalent about it).

Also, I was curious as to how Jackson would handle the vast difference in writing style between The Hobbit and The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit is a children's story, while The Lord of the Rings is not.  Tolkien himself explained the difference in stating that The Hobbit was told from Bilbo's perspective, and in though it is third person, the tone is such that it could almost have been Bilbo that had done the writing.  I have tended to go along with this sort of interpretation, and assumed that some of the perhaps "sillier" parts of The Hobbit was either embellishment or perhaps Bilbo injecting something of his own personality into the story.  Examples include the vast amount of light-hearted singing on the parts of the Elves of Rivendell and the goblins of the Misty Mountains.  Also, the battle between the stone giants in the Misty Mountains sounded to me like embellishment--consider that Bilbo had never before left the Shire.  A thunderstorm in the mountains is frightening enough--it is easy to imagine him conjuring up images of the mountains themselves fighting each other to enhance his tale.  I was curious as to how Jackson would deal with this aspect of the story.

No matter how many times people are told that The Hobbit is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, and of a vastly smaller scope, I am sure that Jackson was under great pressure to produce a spectacle on a scale at least equal to The Lord of the Rings movies.  Also, by watching the trailers, I was able to deduce that Chapter 6:  Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire would mark the end of the first movie.  That chapter, while perfectly good for its location in the book, did not have the oomph necessary to be the climax of a film.  So I went into it expecting some Hollywood hyperbole.

Thus forewarned, I went to see The Hobbit.

Be warned, spoilers ahead:

The film begins with the expected linking scenes, tying The Lord of the Rings to this trilogy, showing scenes of Bilbo and Frodo together before Bilbo's farewell party.  I endured this, eager to get on with the truly "new material."  What follows is a montage where Bilbo describes most of the backstory, and we are treated to the history of Erebor and the dwarves, and Smaug's attack that drives the dwarves out.  These scenes are wonderful, with some great visuals.  They also do an excellent job of demonstrating the fear and terror of a dragon attack--without ever showing the dragon.  Dragons these days are a staple in science fantasy, but it's easy to forget that The Hobbit was the seminal work for almost all of it. 

After Thorin & Company arrive, we learn more backstory, and the famous "Misty Mountains" song that is chanted by the dwarves.  The song is beautiful, but I was chagrined to see that what we have seen in the trailers--two verses--is all there is.  Perhaps there will be an extended version?  I don't think that they would have lost the audience if they did the entire song, or even half of it.  The atmosphere generated by the baritone choir of dwarves was powerful, and it seemed like just as it started to gather steam, it ended.

I will make an aside here and mention the Rankin/Bass (1977) production of The Hobbit.  Since the Jackson versions of the story have come out, the Rankin/Bass version has received lots of derision.  This annoys me greatly--I grew up with this version of the story.  Yes, there are some strange decisions made for the film (it was an animated TV special aimed at children, but I will refer to it as a film nonetheless), most notably the depiction of the Wood Elves, but as a self-contained story, it is fantastic.  Along with the later Rankin/Bass production of The Lord of the Rings, I think both of them handle various scenes much better than Jackson.  Examples include the "Misty Mountains" song, where in the Rankin/Bass production the dwarves sing the chorus, and Gandalf does a voiceover of the lyrics of (most of) the rest of the song, over images of the story the song tells--the glory of Erebor and the terror of Smaug's attack.  Even today I get chills from watching that film during this verse:

The pines were roaring on the height,
the winds were moaning in the night.
The fire was red; it flaming spread,
The trees like torches blazed with light.

Jackson may have similarly been affected by the scene, as it is one of the two verses he kept.  Other scenes that I think Rankin/Bass did a better job include Gandalf's stand against the Witch-King at the gates of Minas Tirith, and Eowyn's confrontation against the Witch-King in the Battle of the Pelennor fields.  Jackson turned both into extended action scenes which in my opinion weakened both scenes.  (The extended edition of Jackson's The Return of the King fixes part of Gandalf vs. the Witch-King, but in many ways I still prefer the Rankin/Bass version).  In any event, I suspect that Jackson was well aware of these scenes, and felt he had to go in a different direction lest he be accused of copying them directly.  So while I prefer the Rankin/Bass depiction for some scenes, I cannot hold Jackson entirely to blame for doing it differently.

Back to Jackson's version.  The company leaves on its quest, and we see Gandalf astride his horse and the dwarves on their ponies.  I was wondering how they would handle this--you just stick Ian McKellan on a horse, but putting all the dwarves on ponies is more difficult, since they are all played by full-sized humans.  What it looks like to me they did was use all horses, but they "dressed up" the horses ridden by the dwarves in shaggy coats to make them appear to be ponies.  When you saw the ponies' heads, they looked, while the shagginess of the ponies' coats bordered on alpaca-ish.  In any case, they just didn't look quite right to me.

The encounter with the three hill-trolls occurs with more action than is discussed in the book, but I almost found it a distraction--I knew they would be captured so I found myself thinking "just get on with it."  I find myself thinking this about a lot of Jackson's action scenes.  I know where it's going, and while visually interesting, they always tend to feel very drawn out and longer than necessary.  

The interlude with Radagast is a welcome addition, and it does a great job of giving Radagast the quirkiness such a character needs.  The rabbit-team seemed a little much...but I'll just overlook it.  The "return" to Rivendell was excellent, and I pleased to see Elrond again, with some new cool-looking armor, it appears.  The scene with the White Council was excellent.  I did not know that Christopher Lee would be back, as I had read that due to his age he did not want to travel to New Zealand again.  In my opinion, Mr. Lee, you can't retire or die yet;  you're too good of an actor and we haven't seen enough of you yet.  The cinematography of the scene seems to indicate that it is possible that his parts of the scene were filmed in a different location, and edited in with those of the other actors.  In any event the White Council would not be complete without Saruman, so it was great to see him.

On to the Misty Mountains, and we run into the storm giants.  I imagine that Jackson (and the studio execs) saw the one page of the book describing the thunder battle, and immediately thought "ten minute CGI action scene!"  Frankly, I found myself bored with this scene, and it could have been cut in its entirely and the story would not have suffered.

Down, down to goblin-town, and I found myself annoyed (although I expected it), that Orcrist did not glow as does Sting.  It always irked me that Glamdring didn't glow in the presence of orcs in The Lord of the Rings.  I know why they did it; I just don't agree with it.  The goblins in goblin-town are a much different beast than the ones we're used to from Moria and Mordor.  For the Goblin-king I was expecting a hulking brute, perhaps not quite as badass as Azog, but something along those lines.  Instead we got a buffoon, but for the purposes of this story he works fine.  

The escape from goblin-town is another scene that went way over the top.  Parts of it were fantastic--and those parts tended to be the close-ups when we're with the dwarves during their hair-raising escape.  The cuts where the camera angle is wide and careening through the caverns at supersonic speeds is where it loses me.  You get none of the claustrophobia of fighting in caves and tunnels that I expected--instead it was like fighting in a football stadium filled with rickety scaffolding.  

I knew that the story was going to end with "Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire".  As the climax of the film, I knew that the scene was going to be embellished significantly.  Ultimately, the changes to the scene work as a finale, but I agree with some other reviewers in that Bilbo's "moment of truth" comes too early

This probably could have been delayed to Bilbo's encounters in Mirkwood in "Flies and Spiders", but I think there was a lot of pressure for a grand finale to end the first film, so as to build momentum for the second.

There was much that was familiar with The Hobbit, and with the experience of seeing The Lord of the Rings, nothing was unexpected.  I was not blown away by anything in particular in the film--I went in expecting to see something good, and I got just that.  An Unexpected Journey is a worthy addition to The Lord of the Rings.  If Jackson can continue with this level of quality for the remaining two films, we will have a sextet of films for the ages.

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