Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a beautiful film presented in the ugliest format imaginable. I'm talking about HFR, which means “High Frame Rate,” which means everything looks like it takes place on the set of a PS3-generated Spanish soap opera.

I'm not going to dwell on the format, here; so many negative things have been said about it, and so little has been said about the film itself, that it seems wrong to speak of it much further. But I can't not mention it because I don't believe a single minute went by where I wasn't utterly distracted by the camera, or the lighting, or the jarring disconnect between CGI and reality. Thankfully I saw the film two days later in good old 2D, 24 frames per second. As I suspected during my first viewing, this is a wonderful film marred mostly by the negative hype surrounding its length and format.

The Hobbit has a different tone than The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and you might not much like it. Tolkien fans know this going in, but general audiences, judging by the conversations I overheard leaving the theater, are likely to be surprised by the series' shift toward the lighthearted. It's a more whimsical story, with sillier characters, wordier wordplay, and slappier slapstick. It's also, as a result, a bit more warm and heartfelt than anything we've seen so far from Peter Jackson's Middle Earth. But you might not be coming for warmth and whimsy (the dude sitting next to me complained about the abundance of “cartoonish bull****.”). I was never of the opinion that Jackson's original trilogy was an unquestionable, flawless masterpiece (though I think it's very good) but one can't deny that the previous films contained a little something for everyone: fans of more lighthearted fantasy had the Hobbits to root for; fans of dudebro badassery had swashbuckling Aragorn; fans of attractive men also had swashbuckling Aragorn, and Orlando Bloom's abs, if that weren't enough. Here we have only one little Hobbit, thirteen pudgy Dwarves and a very old Wizard. Their battles are almost all comical and graceless, and the last one involves throwing pinecones. If you're coming for “cool” you're going to leave disappointed. But if you're coming for “A Delightful, Adventurous Romp!” or “Fun For the Whole Family!” you're going to have a grand old time.

I had a grand old time.

The film's greatest assets are its dedicated performances from Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins) and Ian McKellen (Gandalf), the former of whom is an immediately more likeable character than Frodo, probably because he has a wide range of emotion, is genuinely funny, and has a face that doesn't always look like this:

and the latter of whom pretty much had the entire audience applauding every time he appeared on screen. McKellen has tapped into something with Gandalf that I frankly don't understand, nor that probably can be truly understood. The man just commands attention and exudes wisdom, and his grandfatherly demeanor toward Bilbo gives us a genuinely affecting relationship that serves as the emotional core of the film.

We also have a great deal of Dwarves, who are not as fleshed-out as characters, but are always entertaining. One night, the sheltered, introverted Bilbo has his home unexpectedly bombarded by a group of no less than thirteen Dwarves, who proceed to drink all his wine and eat all his pastries and generally make a noisy, filthy mess of things. Unbeknownst to Bilbo, Gandalf (who is always up to something) has recruited Bilbo to accompany these thirteen Dwarves on an adventure to The Lonely Mountain, which used to be the home of the Dwarves, ages ago, before it was overtaken by the fearsome dragon Smaug. There the adventurers will slay the dragon, reclaim the gold he has stolen from the Dwarves of olden times, and make their leader, Thorin, king of the mountain, or something. That the film is called An Unexpected Journey is telling, because it is certainly the journey that is the fun part here, and not the destination.

And what a journey it is. The adventure proper starts off in appropriately ominous fashion, with all the Dwarves gathered around a fire, singing a grim, bellowed hymn about the trials they will soon face; and soon enough, with a stunning synthesis of practical effects, CGI and masterful set design, the fifteen adventurers (thirteen Dwarves plus Bilbo and Gandalf, for those keeping track) encounter a fantastical array of characters, monsters and set-pieces, culminating in one of the more thrilling finales in a blockbuster this year. By the time we reach the Rock Giants of the Misty Mountains and the Battle of Riddles with Gollum (Andy Serkis giving the best performance of his career) we've forgotten all about all those boring parts in between.

Ah, the boring parts. There are a few. The first at is the beginning of the film itself, which features an awkward bit of exposition that I frankly don't think was needed at all. We have one of those sweeping epic historical recaps that The Fellowship of the Ring started with, only this one narrated by Ian Holm, reprising his role as Bilbo. And then, after epic battles are recounted and the history of the Dwarves' plight is recapped, Bilbo ends with “And this, my dear Frodo, is where I come in...”

Except then the film lingers on a five minute scene where Bilbo actually doesn't come into the story at all. Instead of just jumping into the narrative we're forced to watch Iam Holm pretending to write There and Back Again while Elija Wood makes a distracting and unnecessary cameo as Frodo, and we're supposed to be thrilled as the two talk about nothing and generally waste five minutes of movie time before we really get to the story. It's weird.

Now, fortunately, this introduction is short, and then we're off to the races. Unfortunately, the races take a pit stop in Rivendale just as soon as they get interesting, and that bit's not short at all. It's very long, actually, and most of it involves Gandalf sitting at a table talking with characters whose relevance to the film we don't understand about mythology and Tolkieny stuff that most people don't care about. It all comes at the worst possible time; just as the film has settled into a steady, adventurous pace, we arrive at Rivendale and everything comes to a dead halt for what feels like half an hour. Aside from the very beginning and end of it, almost the entire sequence could have been completely cut out, and the film would be better for it.

With these two scenes removed the film would be about half an hour shorter, and that would still leave it as being pretty long. Much has been made about the film's length, and I must admit, despite my aggravations in Rivendale, I didn't particularly notice or mind the length at all. But I'm also a really big fan of The Hobbit. It's a simple truth that not all audiences will be willing to put up with a three hour movie whose action sequences are more comical than suspenseful, but the one I saw it with last night laughed at every joke and seemed generally pretty thrilled by the experience. (of course there was that one guy who wrote it all off as “cartoonish bull****.” Can't win 'em all, I guess).

Perhaps the oddest thing about An Unexpected Journey is that it currently has a 65% on Rotten Tomatoes. It can't say I particularly understand it. It has state-of-the art visuals, compelling performances, stunning cinematography and several of the more compelling scenes in Jackson's entire Tolkien series. It is a long film, to be sure, but not any longer than the other Lord of the Rings films; it is an occasionally digressive film, but not any more than King Kong. The truth is that some people just aren't going to be on board with Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, for the simple fact that it is a trilogy. I don't think it's a stretch to say that we're all a bit sick of trilogies at this point. We're franchised-out. The thought of another trilogy, even one by a considerable, Academy Award winning director, is just a wearisome thought for most.

See, the original Lord of the Rings trilogy came at just the right time: just when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace had come out and disappointed nearly everyone over the age of thirteen, Fellowship came along and captured the adventurous spirit of the original Star Wars in a way that Menace utterly failed. It was the right film at the right time. The Hobbit, unfortunately, is the right film at the wrong time. It is a three-hour, action fantasy epic in a movie-going world filled with three-hour action fantasy epics; it is a new franchise in a world filled with new franchises. In the end, many will be turned off by the very idea of it.

And yet to think like this is to apply cynicism to a completely uncynical movie. Once again Jackson has captured the wide-eyed, optimistic magic of the original Star Wars and applied his own personal stamp to it; in areas where he could have simply rested on the majesty of the set design and costume work and you know, New Zealand, he enhances already beautiful shots by doing something unexpected with the camera; he is able to apply what the original series taught about fight choreography to quieter scenes, resulting in an amazing scene early on where 13 Dwarves are rummaging around Bilbo's house in 13 different rooms, all doing 13 different things at 13 different times, and Jackson captures it in a single shot. Yes, this is an overblown franchise action flick, but that doesn't stop Jackson from trying to make it the best overblown franchise action flick.

So. There are a number of things that might turn you off about An Unexpected Journey, chief among them being the fact that it exists as the first part of a nine hour trilogy. But separated from the Hollywood landscape, separated from the darker tone of the original TLOTR trilogy, and separated from HFR projection (for real: just see it in 24 fps) this is another beautiful film in Jackson's Tolkien cannon, with all the things that made The Lord of the Rings great, and all of the things that made them flawed.

No comments:

Post a Comment