it comes first and follows after

middle earthZOMG SPOILERS, YES YES YES!

The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey (2012):   I’ll just say right up front that I’m one of those people for whom reading The Hobbit in grade school was a life-defining moment.  I read it, put it down for five minutes, then picked it up and read it again.  To this day it defines “good fantasy” for me, mostly because it is a well-crafted, swiftly-paced, funny, and exciting story, full of everything you want in an adventure:  dwarves, elves, goblins, orcs, wizards.  It had a dragon.  There was danger and humor and drinking and wonder.  It was a tale of adventure that I, a child who was pretty sure she’d never do anything interesting, could identify with.  If Bilbo could leave the  Shire and fight giant spiders, well then so could I.  Someday.  I think I read that book five or six times over the course of a few months.  But I’ve never read it since.  I couldn’t tell you why.

Anyways,  Peter Jackson has now brought The Hobbit to the big screen and my childhood self might be a little disappointed.  It’s a fine movie but it’s missing something.  I think that something might be magic.  In some respects, I blame The Lord of the Rings.  That story was substantially darker than The Hobbit and was meant for a more mature audience.  The rollicking adventure of the first book gave way to the deadly serious quest of the trilogy.  Because those books were filmed first (and because no one reads anymore) it’s pretty hard to avoid the shadow they cast over the earlier work and so  Jackson basically treats The Hobbit as a prequel.  Many characters from those movies return.  Ian McKellen once again is Gandalf, Cate Blanchett is the ethereal Galadriel (who she basically plays by standing still and glowing), Hugo Weaving is Elrond, Ian Holm plays the older Bilbo, and Elijah Wood briefly appears as Frodo.   Most importantly Andy Serkis is once again Gollum, the piteous fiend who loves his little golden ring.   (It is an absolute travesty that the Academy will not nominate him for an Oscar for this character.)  Martin Freeman is the younger Bilbo and I must say that although I love him unreservedly, I occasionally felt like I was watching Dr. Watson cavorting about Middle Earth.  Richard Armitage is the proud, stubborn Thorin Oakenshield and a gaggle of people I’ve never heard of play the rest of the mostly interchangeable dwarves.  There is much foreshadowing: Saruman (who wasn’t in the book) is creepy as hell, the mysterious Necromancer is apparently Sauron (also not in the book), and of course there is the One Ring itself.  In The Hobbit it was a powerful magical trinket but of course we cannot possibly forget what it really is, nor what it will eventually do to Bilbo.  So, by default The Hobbit is a darker experience than the book was and although I enjoyed the film it really wasn’t like seeing my old favorite brought to life.

I am not one of those people that feels directors should be obligated to slavishly follow the text when they adapt a book for the screen.  Sometimes what we love about books just doesn’t translate all that well to a different medium.  I’m not familiar enough with canon to argue that point anyways.  Nor am I particularly upset that Jackson took a fairly short book and padded it out to three movies mostly by including materials from other parts of Tolkien’s considerable literary output.  Given that The Lord of the Rings already exists it would be odd to go back to what is essentially an adventure tale for children and tell it straight.  And much of the film is very well done.  The scenery is lush and beautiful, the costumes are fabulous, the dwarves are given a more serious purpose and thus a more noble mien, the CGI is mostly tolerable (what is up with those ponies though?), and you can safely ignore the 3D.  There are some good fight scenes, some fun Middle Earthy ethnic humor (dwarven excess, troll culinary skills, elven frippery, etc.), and most of the actors do a great job with their roles.  And then there is Gollum.  In the book Gollum is not a sympathetic character but Serkis has turned him into a tragic creature, too far gone to save but not so far beyond us that we cannot pity him.  From our first glimpse of him singing merrily to himself as he prepares to eat a goblin that fell into his lake, to his panicked discovery of the loss of his Precious, to his final howled curse at the back of a fleeing Bilbo, every moment he is on screen is a pleasure.  The riddle scene between him and  Bilbo is my favorite one of the movie.

So overall I enjoyed it.  I certainly didn’t feel like it was a nearly three hours long movie and I have a very low tolerance for overlong films.  Still though…it was not the tour de force that The Fellowship of the Ring was.  A lot of it just seems sort of forced and frantic and ponderous.  My biggest issue with it is actually sort of paradoxical.  Although the movie itself does not seem too long, many individual parts of it do.  The introductory set-up, which probably exists to tell the big segment of the movie audience that’s never read the book that this story happens before Frodo’s quest, shows the older Bilbo preparing to write his memoirs.  It is something like 20 minutes before we get to the iconic opening lines of the book and that’s basically 20 minutes of filler.  Don’t get  me wrong, some of it is very good, particularly the depiction of Erebor and its destruction.  The impromptu dwarven feast in Bilbo’s hobbit hole is funny and madcap but…you guessed it…goes on too long.  We’re probably 45 minutes or so into the movie before the company actually gets on the road.   There are many, many scenes of our heroes trekking through the beautiful New Zealand wilderness and they all go on just a bit more than they should.  The scene with the White Council, Galadriel (also not appearing in the book), and the elves in general actually approaches tedium.  (But oh, I could stay in Rivendell forever!)  The scenes with a bird-poop besmeared Radagast the Brown and his sleigh pulled by wicked fast rabbits get old very fast.  There’s a rather longish fight between stone giants (no idea where that came from), another longish fight with the dwarves stuck in a tree, etc.  You get the picture.

All of this culminates in an epic chase through the goblin warrens.  Gandalf and the dwarves fight on the run across rickety wooden structures that cling precariously to sheer rock walls.  Thousands of goblins pursue, pouring down the walls, waving weapons, and howling with bloodlust.  The dwarves use ladders as rams and then toss them across pits to cross from one platform to the next.  Sections of the structure break away and swing wildly out over the abyss and the dwarves fight gamely at one sweep of the arc and then leap onto a rock ledge at the next.  Gandalf turns out to be a badass with a sword.   It’s a clever and exciting fight sequence.  And it goes on forever.  Finally, the section of planking the party is fighting on falls completely away and crashes down to the bottom of the cave.  Along the way the dwarves and wizard ride it like a roller coaster car, it careens from one side of the ravine to the next, and finally crashes in a heap hundreds of feet below where it fell.  If you fell from that height, your insides would be jellied from the impact.  People have survived falls from very tall heights through a combination of very great luck and managing to break their fall somewhat on the way down but there is almost always serious bodily injury.  Our dwarves, however, are made of tougher stuff.   They hit the ground, a goblin that must weigh 400 pounds falls on top of them, and not a single one of them is hurt.  No one dies.  No one is unconscious.  There are no broken bones.  No one even loses their sword.  Every single one of them is able to get up and run out of the cave and down the hill and then almost immediately fight a pack of orcs and their dogs and climb trees and whatnot.  I am more than happy to suspend disbelief for a fantasy adventure film but this was just ludicrous.

This sort of thing is becoming all too common in the movies and every big ticket action/adventure movie that comes out makes it worse.  Audiences want to be impressed and amazed but we are getting so jaded.  Filmmakers are increasingly forced to include bigger, better, faster, and more outrageous action sequences.  The Avengers was notorious for this but it somewhat made sense because they are superheroes.  I am sure that the latest Bond flick suffers from the same need to ignore logic and physics so that Bond can do something spectacular and not wrinkle his tuxedo overmuch.  This can’t be necessary.  A good fight is a good fight even if impossibly superhuman feats are not performed.  In this film, for instance, the battle for Moria was excellently done as was the destruction Smaug rains down on Erebor and neither of those scenes in any way involved anything that just made no sense.    It’s my pet peeve and all my friends tell me it’s a movie and I should really just relax, but there it  is.

Anyways go see it large.  It’s definitely worth seeing on a big screen.  If you like 3D see it that way; if not the movie won’t suffer from watching it in 2D.  Chances are it will be a pretty good time at the movies, if not nearly the fabulous magical adventure you remember from when you read the book when you were twelve.  There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Score:  Meh.

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~ by gun street girl on December 18, 2012.

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