Sunday, December 23, 2012

On "The Hobbit"

"The greatest adventure is what lies ahead. Today and tomorrow are yet to be said..."

I saw The Hobbit while in Athens. It was good. Not so good that I'd like to see it again, and sometimes painful to sit through. Some points:

-Definitely should have been one movie. Sooo much bloat, and I felt the length. Simply put, you cannot string an epic story out of this material. Every story beat takes too long. I think Tolkien himself would have stopped in the middle of writing the Silmarillion to tell them to wrap it up. Towards the end, when I'm watching trees fall down and dwarves throwing pine cone grenades and dwarves hanging from the legs of other dwarves and Thorin slo-mo battling some main antagonist they made up for the movie, I'm thinking, "Really? All this to get to the eagle rescue? Just have the birds pick them up from the trees."

-There are a lot of callbacks to the first trilogy. This can be cool, as the Lord of the Rings movies have been around long enough to have their own mythology. I loved the Frodo cameo (until it went on too long), and geeked out when Saruman showed up. Certain motifs in the musical score come along at just the right moment, like that choir when the eagles come, and it works.

(Speaking of that council scene, I loved how, while Elrond and Saruman and Gandalf are taking their meeting super serious, Galadriel is just walking ethereally in a circle, looking at them out the corner of her eye and having side conversations with Gandalf. Screw this second coming of Sauron stuff, she just wants to pose. And I love how Gandalf is the quintessential employee, kowtowing to his middle manager Saruman while engaging in telepathic gossip.)

On the other hand, a lot of it is lazy filmmaking. That part where Radagast is outrunning the orcs on his rabbit sleigh? Arwen already did that. The Goblin Town fight? The Mines of Moria. Walking on the side of a mountain in a nasty storm? Just like the first movie. The party getting surrounded by possibly hostile horsemen? Taken from the second movie. There was no reason to have an orc hunting party chasing the heroes, yet here they are, like in Fellowship. It's not a good sign when a filmmaker starts homaging himself. There has to be a balance to these things. For instance, I enjoyed the part where Bilbo falls on his back and the ring falls on his finger. A clear callback to Fellowship that visually links Bilbo and Frodo. Other times, it seemed like Jackson wasn't trying. Using the same upshot as when the hobbits were hiding under the knoll in Fellowship does not work because an orc on a warg is NOT AS SCARY as a Nazgul.

Yet there's also comfort to these familiar scenes. Going into LOTR, I already had a general outline of how the trilogy would pan out. With The Hobbit, I REALLY knew how the story would pan out, so there's no suspense. Add this to the fact that so much of it is retread, it makes for an altogether comfortable film, with familiar faces doing familiar things. And it was great to see my old buddy Gollum show up like no time had passed since his epic fall into Mount Doom. In the ever-capable hands of Andy Serkis, he still has that mix of pathos and menace that made him so compelling. But I'm not sure this makes for great filmmaking. I am comforted to see Hugo Weaving show up, but Elrond doesn't do much of anything in the story. Meanwhile, Jackson keeps treading familiar territory. It's sad that an Oscar-winning director hasn't progressed at all in ten years.

Unlike any LOTR film, I felt the length. For instance, the scene with Frodo. The two Bagginses discuss the Sackville-Bagginses and the party for what seems like five minutes, and I could swear I saw this same scene in the extended edition. Then I wondered if Jackson had simply cut out an EE scene and stuck it in a theatrical film. That's not the case, but it felt that way. This whole movie felt like one of the extended editions. They work great as home DVDs that you can pause every once in a while, but as movies they are bloated and redundant. I swear, that goblin chase was, like, a page in the book. The whole affair needed at least a half hour cut off.

-The part where they're on the rock giants was beyond stupid.

-Martin Freeman is great. I'd never heard of the guy before, but he's definitely got the everyman thing down. I'd say he's well-equipped to be the focus of this trilogy.

-They nailed Riddles in the Dark. This was the one I was worried about, as its a battle of wits/dialogue scene between two characters, without special effects to really on. Serkis and Freeman were great, and Gollum had a palpable menace. Goes to show that, at the end of the day, it's about the actors. The scene where Bilbo spares Gollum was easily the most emotional part of the film for me. The way Bilbo kept holding his sword in different ways, as if any of them would make the kill easier, was spot-on. And Gollum just looked so sad and human. A perfectly executed version of one of the best things Tolkien wrote.

-Another wonderful scene: the morning after the 15-hour "Unexpected Party." Bilbo is walking through his house. Everything is back where it was, other than an emptied pantry. He can continue with his life like nothing happened. Then he sees the dwarves' contract. Right then and there he is faced with a choice. On the one hand is the life he knew; on the other hand is the unfamiliar. Jackson perfectly captures that call to adventure that the best stories have. It's there when Taran decides to chase Hen Wen. It's there when the Pevensies go through the wardrobe. It's there when Matthias decides to find the Sword of Martin. Every time, the hero makes a choice, and Jackson nails that decision. Enchanting scene.

-I'm going to be in the minority, I feel, but I liked Radagast. When I go to see a fantasy movie, I want fantasy. I want little gnome guys with blue orb-y things in their wizard staffs nursing hedgehogs back to health. And i don't mind the rabbits sleigh, because I'm sure he does enough for those rabbits that they don't mind dragging him around. That he doesn't work tonally with the rest of the film goes back to problems with them trying to squeeze an epic trilogy from a children's story. Sooo...really all they needed this whole time to defeat the orcs were rabbits? Those suckers could have ran circles around the Uruks at Helm's Deep.

I really don't know why they couldn't just film it as a kids' flick. I'm more interested in seeing a quality children's fantasy film than a kinda-kids'-flick-kinda-LOTR-retread at this point. For instance, I saw Wreck-It Ralph a few weeks ago. That movie was confident in what it was, and was pretty much better than Hobbit in every way.

-In the end, I did get one thing I missed from my beloved trilogy: high-octane male bonding! That hug Thorin gave Bilbo in the end? Waterworks. Give me more, please.

Anyway, there were some thrilling parts, and some emotional beats that worked, and some of the trademark Tokien "quaint" that I found charming. But Rankin-Bass has nothing to worry about. Their Hobbit is still the gold standard. I have no real urge to see the second one. This first one already drew too much from the Appendices, so I can only guess the next will have a major case of appendicitis in order to fill three hours. It's a shame del Toro dropped out, because this is a franchise that needs new blood. Jackson's not challenging himself at all. Anyway, I'll probably go see the third because, you know, dragons. Ugh. It was George Lucas who started this bloat thing, designing a whole trilogy of prequels where only the last one mattered. Now it's a fixture of how Hollywood goes for the geek dollar. Doesn't make for good storytelling at all.

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