Friday, December 14, 2012

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' (2012) directed by Peter Jackson

Watching this film is like meeting an old friend you've lost touch with.  I enjoyed the 'Lord of the Rings' films when they came out in the early 2000s, even to the extent of watching the extended editions.  I haven't watched them since though, and the thought of putting any of them on feels like a big investment of time.  Besides, all of that wizards, goblins and orcs stuff is a bit... ridiculous sounding, right?  And, whilst it can be fun meeting that friend you've lost contact with, sometimes you quickly remember why you never stayed in touch.

This first instalment of the three-part adaptation of 'The Hobbit' doesn't shy away from throwing you right back into the thick of it.  We open with a monster bit of exposition involving dwarf kings, sunken cities, magical rocks and killer dragon attacks.  Straightaway Jackson has cranked everything up to 11, everything is achingly epic, majestically framed and bombastically scored.  On some level I can see why: it was the enormous battles in the previous trilogy that were the most memorable action sequences and if nothing else this film is an attempt to recapture the magic in a bottle that made the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy such a critical and financial success.

Ian McKellen killin' it as Gandalf.
It's a bit of a relief when we finally get to Bilbo Baggins' cosy hobbit hole, where things become a bit more familiar.  At times the film feels like a reunion, you're meeting all your own favourites one more time.  There's Elijah Wood as Frodo (not looking like he's aged a day) and Ian Holm as Bilbo and so on!   They're (nearly) all here!   I think about half of the characters from the previous films turn up all told, and I'm sure there'll be more in the other two films that makes up this 'Hobbit' trilogy.  

Being re-introduced to all these characters while knowing their ultimate fates in the Rings trilogy is risky business.  I generally avoid prequels, they seem to fall into a wink-wink nudge-nudge jokiness where the film-makers drop hints of their eventual destinies.  The most recent offender was 'X-Men: First Class', where James McAvoy as Professor X pretty much says "gee, I sure hope I don't go bald!".  The nadir, of course, are the Star Wars prequels.  So I was worried that we'd go down the same route here, with portentous overtures made to what happens in the previous films.  Thankfully most of that gets avoided here, 'The Hobbit' confidently stands up as a film on its own.  

Lots of dwarves.
The performances from both those returning and the newcomers are uniformly excellent.  It's like if you get enough British character actors in one place some kind of critical mass is reached, and everyone's performances get boosted by what's going on around them.  Everyone is good here, although there are a few stand outs.  Sylvester McCoy is convincingly  and pleasantly bonkers as the mushroom-addled woodlands wizard Radagast.  Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee are obviously both amazing and emit gravitas like no-ones business, but  they get to wear priestlike robes and pose with their wizard sticks.  McCoy does all that, but while having bird-shit streaked down his face, being high as a kite and somehow selling us that a sled driven by rabbits is perfectly sensible.  

Another performance of note is James Nesbitt as the dwarf Bofur.  There are an awful lot of dwarves in this film, and I'm sure if this were being produced and directed by anyone other than Peter Jackson these 13 guys would be compressed down into 3 or 4.  Obvious trouble has been taken to visually differentiate them and give each of them at least the sketch of a personality.  One of the reasons I enjoyed the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy so much is that while it had huge, world-shaking action sequences, it also took the time to show us smaller, personal character moments.  Bofur gets probably the best one of these.  The dwarves just want to go home to their stolen city, and at one point Bilbo inadvertently deeply offends Bofur by angrily exclaiming that dwarves are suited to living rough, and that they don't really know what's it like to miss their home.  Nesbitt manages to convey anger, sadness, resentment and finally acceptance in about 5 seconds.  It's probably the neatest little character moment in a film that consciously cranks up the epicness at every opportunity.

Martin Freeman being great.
But the biggest and most effusive praise for a performance has to go to Martin Freeman's Bilbo, who is immediately and eminently likeable.  At the beginning of his story he's an unimaginative grump, extremely put out by the way his neat and tidy house is invaded by hungry, chaotic dwarves and a slightly cheeky and dismissive wizard.  As an audience we've come to see this film for adventure, but Freeman does such a good job of making this insular little man relatable that we find ourselves wishing these imposing and dirty brutes would just shove off and leave us alone.

As the character experiences more and more of the world he begins to find his feet, and learns how to deal with hardship and extreme danger.  I guess this development will conclude in the final of the three films, but the change we see in his temperament even in this first third feels enormous.  We're so on side with him that when we see him weighing up whether to be brave or courageous, we don't urge him into battle purely because it'd be exciting to watch, we do it because like him, we've decided that it's the right thing to do.  

I like a protagonist in a film like this who doesn't even know how to swing a sword.
Quite unobtrusively, Bilbo is the character through whom the central themes are conveyed.  They're not big or complicated themes, one of them boils down to that we should strive to make the world a nicer place even if it is through tiny, individual acts of mercy and kindness, something that would feel simplistically soppy in less capable hands.  The other is the importance of having a home, a place to treasure, to call your own and to fight for.    Bilbo has this, the elves have it in Rivendell and the dwarves want it.  Again, this seems a very small thing to ask for, but much like the titular hobbits, the film underlines that it's the small things that are important.  Freeman's unobtrusive, underplayed performance concentrates on the small things.  You see him fiddling nervously in tense scenes, being the only person to appreciate the true wonder of the scenery and (my favourite) feeding an apple to his pony when he thinks no-one's looking.  From top to bottom he's an utterly human, compelling presence, and watching this we can know that whatever happens in the next two films in the trilogy, Freeman has totally nailed it.

Despite this smorgasbord of acting treats, this film has several big problems, most of which are primarily a question of pacing.  After the action-packed opening, things quickly down-shift when we're hanging out in Bilbo's hobbit hole.  I'd heard about this before seeing the film and I must admit it wasn't quite as slow as I'd been told.  Even the two dwarf musical numbers weren't quite as dull as I'd feared.  Quite frankly I had the opposite problem at the other end of the film.  In the last 45 minutes to an hour or so there is so much action that it becomes wearying.  We watch our characters dashing around, narrowly avoiding death so often that any sense of danger quickly saps from the film.  There are some excellent battle scenes here, but these tend to be the ones on a smaller scale.  It's far more scary and dynamic seeing our characters struggling to take down three trolls early in the film than it is seeing them fighting an innumerable army where each foe is less of a threat to their lives and more of an obstacle to dispose of without thought.

Hugo Weaving as Elrond
There's one quiet lull after a huge action sequence that feels well earned; these are visually exhaustive action scenes, every corner of the screen teems with life and we can sense the  character's fatigue and relief that it's over.  But it's not!  Straightaway we're into another half hour long action sequence that's as intense and dramatic as what's just come before it.  Keeping the tension and excitement so amped up has a detrimental effect on the audience, by the time we're mid-way through the 'finale' of the film I was tired out and waiting for the credits to show up.  There is only so much sustained 'epicness' I can take in one go before boredom inevitably begins to set in.  It's one thing to be bored during a long dialogue scene, there you can at least tell yourself that this is exposition that needs to be established that'll pay off further down the line, but if you're bored during a big action set piece then the film has bigger problems.

This conscious 'epicness' and self importance is another issue.  'The Hobbit' is a fairly short and relatively light-hearted children's book.  The film feels slightly at odds with this, at once straining to be as 'big' as possible while also slavishly staying accurate to the book as much as possible.  In practice this makes the light-hearted scenes feel a bit out of place.  For example, the dialogue of the three hungry trolls feels like its strayed out of a film with a much more comedic tone, as does Bilbo's improvised cooking advice for them.  I see this tonal confusion as a consequence of adapting 'Lord of the Rings' before this.  The built-in audience wants more 'Lord of the Rings', but book of 'The Hobbit' isn't that.  For one it was published nearly twenty years before 'Lord of the Rings', and isn't quite as self consciously 'important' as 'Lord of the Rings' can get.

Thorin (Richard Armitage) and a dwarf I'm not of sure of, hey there's a lot to keep track of!
These films are probably in the right when they treat the prose of Tolkien as sacrosanct.  There's a reason why these stories are so iconic and well-loved, and deviating from them too far is risky.  Sticking close to the source material worked well enough in the previous trilogy anyway.  Here though, there are some problems.  The main one being the almost complete lack of women in the film.  Cate Blanchett as Galadriel is the only female presence, and all she basically does is stand around looking like an angelic statue.  Aside from this the film is a total sausage-fest.  Nearly everyone apart from Bilbo has some kind of enormous beard and you feel like you've wandered into a 'bears' night at a gay club.  Maybe an all male adventure story wasn't such a weird thing in 1937, but it stands out as pretty odd in 2012.  Young girls seem to enjoy these films just as much as boys, and it seems like a shame that the film is entirely devoid of any strong female character.

Additionally, while the film is obviously pretty, that can also get wearying in its own way.  Some scenes set at sunset take on an unbearably chintzy feel, where everything is so perfectly lit and composed that it feels more like we're staring into a Thomas Kinkade painting rather than any kind of believable reality.  I prefer these films when they're at their muddiest and chaotic.  So these saccharine sweet, overlyidealised compositions rub me up the wrong way, strong arming the audience into a sense of wonder rather than letting us imagine we're feeling it spontaneously.

Ugh, tone it down a bit guys.  We get it.  It's pretty.
So it's a mixed bag.  I'd say it's worth seeing purely to see some brilliant and touching performances, as well as the absolute pinnacle of production design and special effects.  But the structure all of this is woven together on is mis-shaped and bloated.  Funnily enough Bilbo himself  summed it up best when he said:
“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” 
Incidentally I feel a bit duty bound to mention the technical side of the film, namely the HFR framerate.  All I will say is that I saw it in 24fps 3D and thought the film looked magnificent.  I have spoken to a friend who went to a HFR screening, who didn't think of much of it at all.  I won't bother going back to see it in HFR, and I don't think you're missing out if you skip it.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is on general release from today.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey' (2012) directed by Peter Jackson”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights