Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

In the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins unexpectedly gives all his possessions including a gold ring to his young cousin Frodo and goes off to live in Rivendell with the elves. Rewind sixty years, and we get to find out why...

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman the Brilliant) is a homebody. And he likes to know his visitors BEFORE they come visiting. So when thirteen dwarves show up at his house right at dinnertime, and help themselves to everything in his pantry, he isn't too happy. Nor is he too happy with Gandalf the wizard (who else but Ian McKellen!) who brought them there. The large, hairy group talk of adventure, and invite Bilbo to join them, but of course he declines - that would be a unacceptably unexpected thing for a hobbit to do after all! Bilbo is half Took though, and that Took side must rule in the morning, because the next morning finds Bilbo chasing after the company to join them. Quite unexpectedly, and quite without his pocket-handkerchief!

Thorin Oakenshield, Balin, Dwalin, Kili, Fili, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dori, Nori and Ori (And yes, I typed that without reference to anything, because, what's the point of knowing the names of all the dwarves, if you don't brag about it?) are all individual. One of the elements I thought would be the most difficult in bringing this story to the silver screen, and it worked out brilliantly, no doubt because of a lot of thought and hard work from a lot of people, including, of course, the thirteen wonderful actors who played them. The challenge of learning their names off the page became simple with each dwarf have their own distinct look and personality. The leader and would-be king of these dwarves, Thorin, was truly great casting. Though Richard Armitage doesn't normally look like a dwarf at six-foot-two, (and considerably more handsome than, say, John Rhys-Davies) prosthetics and movie magic turned him into a dwarf, and with his talent, and those intense eyes, and deep voice, the result was a rather perfect Thorin.

Thorin Oakenshield. Making dwarves look good since... well, since 2012.

The only new casting that is more brilliant than Thorin, is Bilbo. I seriously cannot give enough praise to the always incredible Martin Freeman for his spot-on performance as the title role. So funny, so endearing... undoubtedly a hobbit through and through, and the perfect reluctant hero. Kudos to director Peter Jackson for refusing to consider anyone else for the role.

Hobbits Bilbo Baggins and Pete Jackson.

And the returning cast... what can I say? Time has been kind to them in every way possible, and they all fill their roles at least as well as ever. I say "at least" mostly because of Andy Serkis. I heard him say it was interesting to bring back such a famous role as Gollum, and that he had to "reclaim him" for his own, not just "do an impression of the old character." I thought that would be hard, and I don't know, maybe it was -- however hard, it was worth it. Gollum is better than ever, and his scene (with Bilbo of course) was hand down the best in the film. Simply magical.

Andy Serkis is the man! ...precious.

But now I must be hard and mention some things I did not find... quite so magical.

It's been ten years since we've seen anything new come from Middle-Earth, and going into this film, I was hoping to feel a sense of coming home; a sentimental familiarity. It never happened to my satisfaction. The moments were there of course - every revisited place was pared with it's original theme music, and lingering shots told us "this is when you're supposed to feel that feeling" - the familiarity was there, but I felt a lack of sincerity in the moment instead of sentimentality. The beautiful sweeping landscapes were a beautiful as ever, but most of the wonder was in my wondering where it went.

My conclusion is that the technology absorbed it all.

Even at it's very best 3D can do nothing to enhance in the quality of a movie. Technology, gadgets and gizmos are not substitutes for real quality film-making. I think somebody missed the memo, and decided to spend a considerable amount of time effort and money giving this movie unnecessary bells and whistles in the form of 3D and a high frame rate of 48 frames-per-second, both of which only either did nothing for the picture, or even, sadly, degraded it. I did not see the 48fps version, but I know no one asked for it, and no one thought it was a good idea. And the general consensus from the few people who did see it that way was bad. It looked like a soap opera, it was distracting, or it made people motion-sick. And while it's still very possible that movies will someday all be made in a high frame rate, and it will become the new normal, I just wish Peter Jackson hadn't been so solely ambitious in this area, and turned his attentions to a different one. If only he had used his genius in concentrating on what really makes movies great, and what has always made movies great. Maybe then the magic would be there. Maybe the familiarity would feel less lifeless, and the new parts of Middle-Earth would stir up that "wow" feeling I missed.

You know... THAT feeling. Right there. And there.

But now I feel like I'm being too hard. It's difficult; I was fan of The Lord of the Rings movies before I read the books, but The Hobbit - the book - was my first taste of Middle-Earth, and I want to love the movie version as well as the book, which I already love. Every careless moment, I easily overlook in Lord of the Rings, but take personally in The Hobbit; everything wrong is like plain disrespect for the beloved source material. But I know it's not true. I believe these filmmakers are just as much fans as I am, so they must really be trying. Maybe they're just misguided... perhaps they don't realize that we don't want "The Lord of the Rings 2.0", we want The Hobbit -- Tolkien's original, beautiful masterpiece in all it's simple, episodic perfection!

One more of Bilbo... you don't mind right?

So don't take my nit-picking the faults of this movie too seriously. I'm overly passionate about what I think is done wrong, so it might not seem like it, but the good here really does outweigh the bad in my opinion. I'm sure more viewings and two more films will find me overall very happy with these films. The "bad" will offend less and less over time, while the wonderful moments I enjoyed and loved will never fade -- like every single scene Martin Freeman is in. Gandalf, and every one of the dwarves are a pleasure, Gollum is brilliant, and would steal the movie... if it wasn't for Bilbo... and New Zealand is as gorgeous as ever. Anyway, how could I be disappointed while I'm so feverishly anticipating the next installment... and Smaug!

Maybe Peter Jackson will have a very interesting dream tonight, where he comes to me at my death bed, and I have something important to tell him...
"I'm disa-- disapp.... I'm disapp--...."
"I know, you're disappointed I couldn't make The Hobbit like The Lord of the Rings."
"No... no no no.... I'm disappointed... that you tried"
As the music swells PJ has his epiphany, and knows what he must now do. 
Then I would quickly add, "of course, I'm not really that disappointed -- I mean, it was a good effort! You really did do a great job with the casting - who else could be Bilbo but Martin after all, and Richard Armitage was totally epic as Thorin too! In fact, all the dwarves were great, and how you defined them-- how they're all their own character-- I'm really actually impressed! Sure, there were some parts that, well, could have been better, but you know, overall... good show! So hurry up and make the next two -- and better if you can -- and I will have nothing to complain about!"
And then he will, and I won't, and I won't even die, because it was all just a dream.

- 4/5 stars