A film review by Craig J. Koban December 20, 2012
2012, PG-13, 169 mins.
2012, PG-13, 169 mins.
Bilbo: Martin Freeman / Gandalf: Ian McKellen / Thorin: Richard Armitage / Gollum: Andy Serkis / Elrond: Hugo Weaving / Galadriel: Cate Blanchett / Frodo: Elijah Wood
Directed by Peter Jackson / Written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS
trilogy was worshipped by a legion of devotees of J.R.R. Tolkien’s
books and emerged as a critical and box office success (17 Oscar wins and
$3 billion in grosses), but it remained only modestly appreciated
by me. The desire for Jackson
and company – after a rather long, tedious, and contentious
pre-production battle that was a drama in itself – to bring the 1937
prequel book THE HOBBIT (or THERE AND BACK AGAIN) to the silver screen
seems obvious enough.
enjoyed THE LORD OF THE RINGS films as dazzling works of visual majesty,
even though – as a Tolkien agnostic – I found them a bit too solemn
minded and elephantine in their plotting to be considered truly fun
cinematic experiences. Even
though THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (its full title) certainly
betters its antecedents in terms of having a stronger sense of spirited
whimsy about it, it nonetheless suffers even more in the arena of story
pacing and momentum. Part of
the problem is the film’s overt sense of gluttony and wanton excess:
Jackson et al have taking a relatively slim 300-plus page children’s
fantasy novel and have egregiously stretched it out to a near three-hour
film…that is just the beginning of a…trilogy, with two more
parts of equal running times (!).
HOBBIT clocks in at a hefty 169 minutes, which seems indefensibly long at
best, especially considering that that it’s but a fraction of the length
of, say, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.
The manner with which the makers have strained to embellish the
modest material from Tolkien’s literary text into something this
cinematically long reeks of overblown artistic self-indulgence.
Arguments can be made as to whether or not this was done primarily
out of artistic aims or financial ones, but it’s abundantly clear after
screening THE HOBBIT that it’s the former; this is a film that has no
business being as long as it is, let alone being further elongated to two
more entries; it just leaves me crying foul.
film opens with a bit of an unnecessary prologue that shows events that
directly lead into the first LORD OF THE RINGS picture, but more or less
gives the makers an excuse to bring back old cast members to placate fans.
Just in time for his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) sits
down to prepare his memoirs, which he aspires to share with his nephew,
Frodo (Elijah Wood). Then the
film whisks back 60 years to the Shire (which mostly looks the same) as a
younger Bilbo (the fine Martin Freeman) has a chance meeting with the
wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen). Why
the film just didn’t begin with this scene set in the past and
didn’t scrap the needless one involving old LOTR alumni is questionable.
comes with an invitation, of sorts, along with 13 incredibly battle
hardened – and hungry – dwarves to go on a special quest to retake the
dwarf kingdom under Lonely Mountain and reclaim the massive treasure that
is now guarded by a powerful dragon named Smaug. The leader of the dwarf fellowship, Thorin Oakenshield
(Richard Armitage) hopes to add a figure of stealth to his battalion, but
doesn’t seem convinced of Gandalf’s desire to have Bilbo fit the bill.
Neither does Bilbo himself, but he begrudgingly decides to join the
caravan and brace whatever dangers lie ahead in hopes to assist the
dwarves with taking back their land and riches.
himself may be a bit less developed as a character than the previous
hobbits that dominated the LOTR films, but Freeman is a more engaging actor
than, for example, Elijah Wood, which assists with given THE HOBBIT a sense of
freshness that it otherwise requires.
Freeman's sly verbal wit and timing occupies and accentuates the film's
greatest scene – which comes really, really, really late into the
proceedings – as he has a chance meeting with a rather disgusting and
schizophrenic creature named Gollum (once again played by the great Andy
Serkis, in body and spirit). During
this intoxicating 10-minute sequence the pair engage in a battle of riddles, with Bilbo hoping to win as it would lead to Gollum showing
him the way back to his previously lost companions.
For these few minutes I became lost in the characters and their
spirited interplay, something that the rest of the film desperately
needed. That, and Gollum - as a state-of-the art CG character and
one that's endlessly fascinating because of Serkis' motion-captured
performance - remains as riveting as ever.
the real conundrum of THE HOBBIT is that there's simply not enough
scenes of the kind just mentioned, not to mention that its narrative
pacing is as slow as an giant smelly orc and it takes so bloody long to
get to the real meat and potatoes moments like the Gollum/Bilbo stand-off.
The first 45-50 minutes of the film keeps us in the Shire and
digresses into scene after scene of verbal exposition to the point of
putting non-Tolkienites to sleep. To
make matters worse, the already bloated running time is riddled with
back-story subplots (many which were never a part of the original text)
that grind the pacing down even more, like a flashback to how the dwarves
lost their kingdom, or how Thorin earned his name, or another throwaway
one featuring another wizard named Radagast the Brown.
Many of these filler scenes – including the introductory ones of
the Shire set in FELLOWSHIPS’ time – could have been easily trimmed or
excised altogether to make a leaver picture.
film’s swollen nature also left me asking too many distracting
questions, like how come Gandalf appears older than he did in LOTR despite
being 60 years younger? Also,
as a wizard, why doesn’t he use his magic more often than primarily when
the screenplay deems it convenient to save his fellow friends?
The film does indeed generate a pulse in its final stages, which
are considerably more action packed and thrilling, as the dwarfs, Gandalf,
and Bilbo find themselves battling nefarious and dangerous orcs, goblins,
trolls, rock giants, and…at least in Bilbo’s case…that pesky Gollum.
The visual effects this go-around are as superlative as ever;
Jackson, to his credit, is in supreme command of the cinematic
technological craft. THE
HOBBIT is a pioneering masterpiece of effects wiz-bangery.
film’s much reported 48 frames per second (fps) 3D presentation,
though….not so much. Jackson
has opted to shoot the film digitally utilizing twice the normal frame
rate (which is 24fps, the standard for as far as films go back), which
certainly gives the film a crispness and brightness that compliments the
usually dim palette of 3D quite well.
Yet, here’s the issue: Jackson hopes to recreate how the human
eye perceives images in reality (which is closer, I’ve read, to 60fps),
but the reason people go to the movies is to escape reality. The ultra-enhanced smoothness of the image (which all but
removes motion blur) erodes the warmth, texture, and nuanced grit that we
have all become used to by watching 24 fps films.
The unpleasantness of 48fps is not that it makes scenes from the
film less realistic looking, but rather that it robs the silver
screen of its aesthetic character. Sometimes,
the subtlest of movement now appears jerky and sped-up and actors are
like they’re appearing on daytime HD soap operas.
Too much of THE HOBBIT feels like the LOTR as filtered through the
Discovery Channel. Bummer.
Will Tolkien die-hards mind the hyper-real and – ironically enough – unnatural look of THE HOBBIT’s 48fps 3D glow? Probably not. Will they mind the film’s lethargic plotting? Again, not really. As for the rest of us uninitiated to the church of Tolkien, though, THE HOBBIT may come off more as a sleep-inducing endurance test than a thrilling and absorbing fantasy epic and worthy prequel to the LOTR. There's simply no questioning Jackson’s supreme skills as a visual filmmaker that incorporates state-of-the-art effects and production design to immerse us in a return-trip to Middle Earth. For the most part, I felt transported to the film’s universe, an ethereal sensation that great out-of-body films elicit. My main complaint with the film is that I just wasn’t involved in the story set within this universe to care, not to mention that the narrative required some shrewd editing to make it more taut, tightly paced, and exciting. THE HOBBIT could have benefited from some Gandalfian magic…even if the grey-bearded one often does not use much of it himself.