Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I love "The Lord of the Rings" movies.  Personally I consider them to be among one of the finest film achievements of all time, easily the greatest fantasy movies ever made.  They're easily one of the most important movies made during my lifetime, and are unrelentingly epic, beautiful, and amazing.  In fact, in repeated viewings I've found that I've come to love them more and more over the years.  I enjoyed them the first time I saw them when I was a little kid, but they were never equal to a "Star Wars" movie or a "Batman" film in importance to me.  Now, "The Hobbit" is one of the biggest movies of the year, all thanks to Peter Jackson's flawless and majestic film adventure.  They're so good that they make actually reading Tolkien nearly impossible for me.  Because who needs this dry literary masterpiece?  I got the extended editions with twelve hours of some of the most perfect movies ever made.

So "The Hobbit 1" obviously was not going to be able to match the original trilogy in terms of impact, quality, and tone.  Because "The Hobbit" is not a "Lord of the Rings" book, its a small charming children's book focused more on a whimsical fantasy story than an epic adventure.  Unfortunately that's a tonal problem that I don't think Peter Jackson or anybody else was ever going to solve.  You can see the problem just with the main cast.  In a kid's book (or a kid's animated movie from the Seventies) it would make sense to have thirteen dwarves running around.  Thirteen dwarves is a pretty impressive number to a little kid, even though the thirteen dwarves are basically just one bumbling character that Bilbo has to save several times.  But when its a serious dramatic film, thirteen dwarves is a massive weight, since all thirteen of these people need some kind of individual character beyond being one-dimensional comic reliefs.  How exactly do you connect together a scene where trolls get trick into being turned to stone by sunlight with the Battle of Helm's Deep in a single dramatic tone?  Or create a film trilogy that begins with dwarves singing songs about Bilbo Baggins' plates and ending it with a huge battle that will set up an apocalyptic war for all of Middle Earth?  I don't think you can.

Now "The Hobbit 1" is not a bad movie, but its still noticeably the worst of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films.  The decision to divide "The Hobbit" into three movies is still controversial, though I can see how it might have worked.  But what I don't really understand is why this movie is so loong.  That shouldn't be a major surprise since "The Lord of the Rings" films are already three hours long (with another hour thrown in if you're watching the Extended Cuts like you're supposed to), but in the theater they didn't feel so long.  This one feels like a long movie, without the same single-minded sense of purpose and pacing that made the original trilogy work.  This movie feels padded and bloated.  "The Dark Knight Rises" is about equal length, but there's not a scene or subplot that I would have removed.  Just off the top of my head I could imagine at least a half hour of cuts that would have made "The Hobbit" flow better.  Still, its a mostly solid movie, I'm willing to see the others, but know, there is a clear step-down in quality.

Also, see this movie in a regular framerate, the 48 frames per second business is awful.  And see it in 2D.

I guess the first piece of material that I should talk about is the way I saw the movie.  I saw "The Hobbit" the wrong way, and if I had seen the movie in a traditional 2D theater with a normal frame rate, it would have been a much better film.  3D is absolutely terrible for Peter Jackson's epic Middle Earth visuals.  I can watch the original "Lord of the Rings" and be swept away by the visuals and effects.  They're beautiful films and I never doubted for a moment any of the things I was seeing.  But in 3D and with the 48 fps... the magic is lost.  I see Bilbo run across the Shire and it looks like a set.  I see the company of dwarves walking in the rain and I can tell that its just a fake rain shot with a water machine sprinkling water in the direction of the actors while the crew sits in the sun perfectly dry.  I have never been more aware that I'm watching a movie than my time watching "The Hobbit".  Even things that were miniatures and practical effects came off looking like cheap lazy CG.  So obviously I'll have to watch the movie again, since I'm sure a great deal of the lost magic was in the visuals department.

Now as for the 48 fps thing.  It was an interesting experiment, but I really don't see much future here.  In the first few minutes of the movie everybody's movements seems jerky and weird, like watching a DVD that had been sped up 1.5 times normal speed.  Or like a later episode of "The Twilight Zone" that was filmed using a cheap soap opera camera.  I guess this kind of camera work is more realistic and possibly clearer, which might be why Middle Earth looked so terribly like a set to me.  I've been conditioned after twenty-one years of watching films at a normal frame rate that movies are supposed to look one way, and this one looks different.  Its nauseating at first, but eventually your brain kinda learns to accept it.  Still... the action scenes are jarring and bizarre, and at no point can I say this gimmick has made "The Hobbit" look any better than its predecessors from a decade ago.  Then again, maybe the make-up and effects really are just worse this time around, I don't know.

Now for the actual movie review:

"The Hobbit" had a number of goals, some of which, unfortunately, are self-contradictory.  The problem, I think goes all the way back to Tolkien himself, who began his Middle Earth legendarium with a happy-go-lucky child's book, but then saw his Middle Earth growing bigger and bigger and ultimately significantly darker and more mature with "The Lord of the Rings".  Tolkien spent years retconning "The Hobbit" and trying to make the entire thing seem like a single story, but obviously was never going to able to - and didn't have to - solve the massive gulf in tone between "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings".  Peter Jackson, however, wanted to adapt "The Hobbit", but not fully take in the lighthearted atmosphere of the original, he needed it to be just as epic and grandiose with stakes just as impressive as his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.  However, he also wanted to be faithful to Tolkien's original word, which means you keep the thirteen comic relief dwarves and the rock giants and the fat talking Goblin King, when those details don't really mesh all that well with the War Against Sauron.  Plus Peter Jackson is massively expanding the original "Hobbit" story by adding in the background sidestories that Tolkien only imagined years after the fact and then adding even more by throwing in new subplots of his own invention.

However, that doesn't mean the movie had to be quite as plodding and feel as slow and disjointed as it finally did.  Many of the scenes in this film feel like extras you'd only have seen in the fifty disc special "The Hobbit: Extended Edition", when rightfully they should have been cut out.  There are half a dozen scenes that I can think of right off the top of my head* that should have been removed to save the overall integrity of the film.  These include parts a needlessly extended prologue, several intensely silly characters and scenes that do little but interrupt the flow of the dramatic action and ruin the tension, and a couple of completely pointless action sequences.  I really just wish the movie just picked a tone.  Are we going to be a lighthearted action adventure or are we going to be a dark apocalyptic "Lord of the Rings" movie?  You have to make a choice in this.  I figure the later movies are going to be considerably darker, so the tone problem will probably eventually get solved.

That's not to say, of course, that there aren't really great moments, character, and performances in this movie.  Martin Freeman is everything you could want out of Bilbo Baggins, being both deeply exasperated by the events around him but also heroic and funny.  He's probably considerably more likable than Elijah Wood.  All of the thirteen dwarves are excellent, even characters who barely get a scene of dialog manage to give impressive performances that continue to leave an impression on me.  All the returning "Lord of the Rings" alumni are of course, great, except for oddly Christopher Lee who is wasted.  The highlight of the movie is the return of Gollum, who is as always, awesome.  Andy Serkis, even with a veil of CG still manages to be the best actor by far in a movie with Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, and Cate Blanchett.  I know CG characters aren't allowed to win Oscars, but seriously, its something that should have happened. 

I think my personal favorite of the new characters though, is Thorin Oakensheild, this raven-haired dwarf prince with a grim visage.  He's acting like a character from "A Song of Ice and Fire" with a face that flatly tells the Summerschildren that "Winter is Coming".  In his backstory, he managed to defeat an Orc king using a chunk of oak wood as a shield in the movie's most impressive action scene.  That orc comes back as the movie's main enforcer villain, chancing the dwarves around while riding a white warg that I cannot help but compare to Jon Snow's Ghost.  This orc is a pretty impressive villain, with scars all over his body, shark eyes, and a steel claw jammed through his arm stump to replace his lost hand.  Thorin Oakenshield is a no nonsense badass, the third-coolest dude in all of "Lord of the Rings"**, and he was a great addition.  You see, there are numerous things that work in this movie, this being one of them.

I think the various problem with "The Hobbit" can be best seen in a ridiculous chase scene that occurs during the film's main climax, in which the dwarven company is chased out of an underground goblin village by an army of ten gazillion orcs while running along wooden bridges.  At first I thought the subterranean battle with an orc army would have been the highlight of the film, since one of the best moments of the original "Lord of the Rings" was the battle in Mordor against various orc armies and the Balrog.  I was thinking back to the impressive fight the Ring Fellowship had on the crumbled ruins of a broken staircase bridge, shooting back at orc archers while trying desperately to cross this collapsing artifice.  This is a long intense fight sequence but still realistic, gritty, and with a real sense of solid action.  Even the including of a giant troll smashing the place up and a fire god from the Age of Morgoth all felt like physical objects and the combat had a strategic grounding that was easily understood.  "Return of the King" kinda went overboard with the giant elephants and the army of ghosts, but up until then Peter Jackson had done a great job of keeping the fights grounded in an internal logic, seeming like real things that could actually happen.

Unfortunately the chase scene in the goblin town... is awful.  Everything happens at an insanely fast speed, with the company of dwarves basically becoming a long snaking Pod Racer and the enemy orcs being a ridiculously pathetic threat that are sliced through like butter.  There's even a point where the company falls ten gazillion feet on a broken bridge, sliding down a mountain side.  Suddenly this is preposterous over-the-top video game crap, the sort of stuff that has no grounding in reality and is trying way too hard to be exciting.  Its visually exciting, you can't stop staring at the screen, but mostly due to being bombarded by an overwhelming force of signals, bright flashing lights overcoming actual tension and actual stakes.  I got the sense that everybody involved would have, and should have, been killed about fifteen times over.  The sequence even concludes with a literal boss fight in the form of an overweight Goblin King with a giant ballsack on his face who talks in a silly cartoon voice.  The tone is childish and hammy, which would have been fine, if not for the fact that we're also trying to be a "Lord of the Rings" movie.

I hope this review isn't sounding more negative than I'm actually feeling.  The experience of "The Hobbit" is far better than this analysis would ultimately suggest.  Its still a good fantasy movie, but its not a great one, and when you're existing in the same universe as "The Fellowship of the Ring", "The Two Towers", and "The Return of the King", being anything less than great is definitely a disappointment.  I'm still very much looking forward to the next two movies, and honestly, I didn't expect more out of Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" than it actually gave me.  It fell prey to almost exactly the problems I thought it would have.  Ultimately the 1977 "Hobbit" feels like a stronger movie, even if its so short, cheaper, and unambitious.  But that one had a coherent tone and didn't suffer from too much content.  It was charming in a way that this movie unfortunately never can be.  I'm sure Peter Jackson is aware of what went wrong here, and when "The Hobbit 2" comes out next December, we'll have a far stronger movie.  At least, I hope so.

SPOILERS:  The Grand List of Scenes That Should Have Been Cut From This Movie:

1. The frame story opening showing elderly Bilbo Baggins and Frodo (with an obviously older-looking Elijah Wood) talking together to explain that what we're seeing is Bilbo's notes on what really happened during his adventure with the dwarves.  This should have been a minute long, instead it goes on for what feels like ten minutes.  And its not necessary since if you've seen "The Lord of the Rings" - like everybody on Earth, you would already know that Bilbo went on an adventure in his youth.  This could have maybe been a final coda scene for the third "Hobbit" movie, but it wasn't needed here.

2. The Dwarves singing "that's what Bilbo Baggins hates".  This is a scene adapted more or less directly from the 1977 animated version, and its pretty ridiculous there too.  I know its a poem in the book, but we didn't need to adapt every poem, did we?  It already takes us about a half hour just to get out of Bag End, and this was far too silly for a serious fantasy movie.

3. The first scene involving Randagast the Brown discovering that his animal friends are dying.  Totally unnecessary.  I hated Randagast since he managed to become a character even more ridiculous than Tom Bombadil, with half his face being covered in bird shit and riding a sleigh driven by rabbits.  However, Randagast at least serves some purpose by setting up the appearance of the Necromancer.  We only needed that one scene of Randagast at the Necromancer's castle, that was it.  This was a huge five minute scene that I think only really sets up the spiders (who will presumably appear in the next movie), which didn't need setting up.

4. A truly bizarre scene between Gandalf and Galadriel that was preposterously romantic... for no apparent reason.  Gandalf x Galadriel?  What?  Where?  When?  Why?  Galadriel has a husband, and Gandalf is basically an aesexual angel creature.  This is just weird and definitely not something from any Tolkien source material.  Unless of course, this actually is going someplace.

5. The battle between the giant Stone Titans on the top of the mountain.  I know this was a scene in "The Hobbit" but it makes pretty much no sense.  Who are the Stone Titans?  Why are they fighting each other?  Where did they come from?  Which side are they on?  Nobody even mentions this adventure afterwards, its just a pointless action scene, the worst kind of action scene.  We could have just as meaningfully thrown the Company into a manufacturing plant making Droids and had them scurry around forever on conveyor belts.

6. Just about half the long dull running scene in the orc village could have been cut without losing any excitement at all.

There.  That's an easy half hour of the movie I've just trimmed.  Far more tolerable.  I'd also have liked to cut the horrifically dull scene of Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman talking around the table about whether there is or there isn't an evil attacking Middle Earth.  This has zero tension because we know there is, its goddamn Sauron.  It also was slow, plodding, and generally reminded me of the Galactic Senate scenes from the Star Wars Prequels.  I was particularly shocked to see Christopher Lee's mighty screen presence reduced to the pitiful role of a Republican Obstructionist on the floor of Congress pattering on in a rambling filibuster.  Unfortunately this scene has several important plot points hanging around it, so it needs to stay in.  Still it was awful.

** Behind Aragorn and Boromir.


  1. Yeah I hate to admit it, but....This could have been better. I understand what Mr.Jackson was going for and that was what the book was going for. But unlike Tolkien he shouldn't have changed it to try and match it with the LOTR universe. He should have just left it like the children bedtime story that Tolkien first wrote. But like you said the movie isn't BAD, it just tries too hard. And when something tries too hard you can't really sit back and enjoy it as it is. Or at least for me I can't.

  2. I didn't really have any complaints with the movie, although I'll admit that I'm a bit easier to please than other nerds.

  3. Sounds like a decent movie. Maybe they'll take the battle against Smaug and make it the basis for the last movie.

  4. LOTR the book is outstanding, way better than the movies, which are excellent too, but the book is epic! GTH George Martin: Tolkien was the master of High Fantasy!!!