Monday, January 28, 2013

The WoW Factor or, 'The Hobbit' reviewed

Over on his blog Jamas has just posted his review of the book of The Hobbit, making him (I think) a movie-first, book-second person - although with the full trilogy yet to be completed (let alone finish shooting), that claim could be a little shaky. I am of course book-first all the way, and I believe that adaptation or not, movies should be judged first and foremost by the standards of their own medium. So what did I think of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?

Find out after the jump...

In parts I liked it very much – like a lot of reviewers the riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum struck home wonderfully, but around it there’s a lot of visual showiness and derivative storytelling that counteracts those smaller moments. You know the movie makers are up against it when there’s a third eagle rescue to mount (Jackson must have shaken his head in dismay when he read that chapter – and there’s another one yet to come, of course), but it’s another thing to see such blatant lampshading in the added scenes – pointedly, Bolg swatting his way to a fallen Dwarf king mid-battle like Sauron before him in Fellowship.

I would argue that a big part of adapting a story as old and familiar as The Hobbit absolutely needs newness, as much as a remake of an earlier work does (see: Dredd 3D, which succeeded by having to and being able to throw virtually everything the earlier Stallone movie offered out the window.) The problem for me with The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey however isn’t in its familiarity, but it doesn’t help it. Where the movie lets itself down is the ham-fisted introduction of the newness to the established.

Consider this: before The Hobbit we already know Gandalf, Bilbo, Gollum and Elrond from the Rings trilogy. Yes, each of these characters must be tweaked a little to mark earlier versions of themselves (Bilbo especially), but the broad strokes are there. The makers of AUJ had the Dwarf race also broadly indicated through the characterisation of Gimli which, even in the movie’s prat-falling moments, still didn’t seriously undermine what a Dwarf essentially is – proud, stubborn, loyal, grounded and not given to sentiment. All that’s left, surely are a new band of elves and a dragon. It’s a children’s story - we can cope with the rest, right?

One of the failings I see with The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey is its lack of trust in its audience. Here’s a movie with a lot of flash – Hi-Definition, 48 frames per second, 3D RED camera filming – none of which are necessary to telling the story and little of which sold the movie to me. This is the format I saw it in, and despite concerns I might suffer from ‘motion sickness’ reported by others, or for the effect to somehow ‘not work’ for me, it did, bar some opening shots where character movement was too quick and definitely stood out. Once I’d settled in, it  was okay – but I wasn’t sold on it. Ironically, in an age where TV is increasingly being ‘film-ised’ in post-production, The Hobbit to me (especially in the prologue sequence set in the Renaissance-like setting of Dale) resembled little more than a History Channel dramatisation of the life of Leonardo or Jesus.  I didn’t feel drawn in to the action. The technique’s enemy seems to be daylight scenes – Rivendell has a real Hallmark Cards effect now, with its amber sunset lighting, while the scenes set in bag End, under the Misty Mountains and, especially, the wonderful 'Riddles in the Dark' sequence, work so much better.

Character-wise the principles are great – Freeman is a fine Bilbo, and the returning regulars each put a different spin on their characters convincingly (a more whimsical Gandalf, a friendlier Elrond, a more sinister Gollum). My opinions on the interpretations of the various Dwarves are making their way into my various Oaken’s Twelve postings – I can see the need with thirteen readily-identifiable Dwarves to cover (and I’m glad nobody’s been cut out yet), but there’s almost too much going on here, and not enough of the subtlety that made the slow reveal of Boromir’s character absolutely work in Rings. Mark Hadlow’s meek Mavis Riley-like Dori and Adam Browne’s village idiot Ori are my chief complaints.

The design of Erebor I was looking forward to, but its gaudiness and unsurprising continuity made me think less of Tolkien’s dark halls of Moria and more of an over-lit World of Warcraft setting. Too much – everything is biggened, scaled up, made more epic, because we can’t have The Hobbit being a small story. Rateliff argues that Tolkien’s revision of The Hobbit via the off-limits for adaptation The Quest for Erebor diminishes Bilbo’s quest by making him a small figure in a larger quest. Of course, Bilbo's finding of the One Ring changes that context again, but I think the appeal of the larger canvas, of the necromancer, Smaug, the fall of Erebor and the promise of Moria, have drowned this little Hobbit out. To revise the story takes a very skilled balancing act, and I don’t think the movie’s writers have been up to the task, and certainly haven’t been helped by the direction. 

The lack of trust also continues with the added story elements. I don’t mind Radagast’s presence, and even liked Sylvester McCoy’s take on the character (informed, I guess, by Peter Jackson’s penchant for adolescent humour). The White Council/Dol Guldur subplot will be fine, I’m sure. Gandalf’s absence in the book is explained in the barest way, and this is an aspect of the adaptation’s expansion I do approve of. I wanted to see the Battle of Azanulbizar, and Dwarven halls (as gaudy as they were). But please put me in the camp that doesn’t want Azog as the principal enemy of this movie. It’s not that he should be dead at the end of Azanulbizar (and by the hand of Dain Ironfoot, no less), but that there’s a better substitute in Bolg that could have been there – or better yet, no chasing Dwarf at all. Thorin’s quest didn’t need to be a chase movie at all, and this set up only draws more attention to the episodic nature of the book’s first half. I'm mixed over how the climactic confrontation between Thorin and Azog pulls Bilbo’s heroism forward. In a three movie arrangement perhaps this relationship of trust between principal Dwarf and Hobbit needed to be advanced early, but I preferred it in the book where Bilbo earns Thorin’s trust through his presumed skills (stealth) in the Elvenking’s halls, and by using his wits, rather than a questionable display of brawn. His rescue of Thorin is a movie cliché – the body blow from out of shot, and belongs, along with a lingering shot of a child’s doll in the ravaged streets of dale, in the bargain bin of Hollywood visual shorthand. Again, a lack of faith is on display here.

To my regret I found myself checking my watch several times during the film. I hope this issue of pacing will be addressed in the next two installments, because at this stage I’m not hanging out for an extended edition with more scenes and less organic storytelling (the elves’ arrival doesn’t lead into the Company’s emerging in Rivendell, for example – a wasted opportunity). And though I’ll see the next two movies in the same format, I won’t be rushing out for a 3D TV to play them on at home. 

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