Friday, December 21, 2012

Two Views: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Martin Freeman as Bilbo and a room full of dwarves

Today, we have two of our critics weighing in on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Neither David Churchill nor Shlomo Schwartzberg know what the other wrote, so this is a bit of a voyage of discovery for them now that the two reviews are up. 

Finishing a Patchwork Quilt

Over the years, there seems to be a building hatred for Peter Jackson, especially in the critical universe, because, as some have said, “he no longer has any street cred.” No, I have no idea what that means (expect maybe they expected him to make low budget splatter movies his whole career). It's just empty verbiage trotted out when they have really nothing to say. It's the critical world equivalent of businessmen who spout phrases like, “new paradigms,” “moving forward,” etc. Granted, Lovely Bones (2009) was a failure with some good ideas, as I outlined here; while King Kong (2005) divided critics too; but the real vitriol began when Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001. There was so much sneering at the first film among the Toronto-based critical community that one reviewer for a major publication was heard to tell another critic he'd put it on his Top 10 not because he actually liked it, but because he didn't want to get nasty letters from Tolkien/Jackson fans. How craven! Was he afraid he'd be banished from the in crowd who thought Jackson had lost his “street cred?” Probably, but what is completely clear is that this critic, who is still employed by a major publication, has no ethics. If you hate it, state it and say why.

Director Peter Jackson & Ian McKellen as Gandalf
Now we have The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and it's all started again. First there were the outright lies about “dozens” of injured/killed animals during the shoot (it turned out one horse was slightly injured, and the rumours had been started by two men looking to score points because they had been fired from the film for incompetence). The second, was the “early reports” that people watching the film at 48 frames-per-second (the standard is 24), as Jackson chose to shoot it, were getting nauseous and disoriented. Having now seen the film as Jackson intended it to be seen, in 3D and at 48 fps, I have only one thing to say: if they got sick watching this film at this “high frame rate” then they have clearly never seen a film before and would probably throw up watching a film at 24 fps too.

Before I get into my thoughts on the film itself and away from this childish “tall poppy syndrome,” my reaction to 48 fps is this: it is the future of film, so get used to it. The clarity of the image is outstanding, and the depth of field is out of this world. Your eye is easily pulled into the imagery and made to focus on the things a supremely talented film-maker like Jackson intend you to see. (And again, you cannot see the “seams” on the costumes, nor the make-up on the actors as some idiots have maintained.) But most vital, the higher frame rate eliminates what I complained about two years ago when I talked about digital cinematography. Basically, I stated that digital photography was terrible especially for action films because when a fast camera pan was required, for example, particularly in low light, image ghosting occurred. At 48 fps it is negligible.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf
For those who are out there condemning it because “everything looks like a soap opera,” I have to agree a little bit. In a handful of the interiors, the lighting seemed to be coming from an obvious overhead light grid that seemed to have no natural source, and it did throw me out of the picture a few times. But this is an empty argument. This is the first feature film to be shot this way. Things will improve. Those who say “no” probably would have thought “this sound thing” in The Jazz Singer (1927) was just a “a passing fad that will never last” too.

But what of the film itself? What must be remembered as you watch it is that it is based on a “children's book.” However, The Hobbit was not a “children's book” like The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgson Burnett's 1910 novel. Where that fine book was a dark parable for children, Tolkien's was a “boys own adventure” set in a magical world. It does not have the dark resonance of Burnett's book, and it certainly does not approach the apocalptic tone of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you think it is going to be like Lord of the Rings, you are bound to be disappointed.

That lighter tone is established from the get go by Jackson. After a brief flashforward to the start of Lord of the Rings (Ian Holm and Elijah Wood return briefly as Bilbo and Frodo to frame the story that is to be told in The Hobbit), we go back in time to discover how Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, Dr. Watson in BBC's Sherlock), a hobbit completely content to live an idyll life in The Shire without challenge or excitement, is visited by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Gandalf cryptically suggests that Bilbo will (not should) join him on an adventure. That night, Bilbo is visited by 12 dwarves who have been told to come to his place for dinner. Bilbo, of course, hasn't been told he is to have dinner guests. These dwarves, with table manners of, well, dwarves run roughshod over his pantry, wine cellar and home. As Bilbo frantically tries to rein them in, Gandalf arrives to fill him in on what is to happen. He has been chosen by Gandalf to join these dwarves on a journey to take their kingdom and gold back from Smaug the dragon who had stolen it. Since hobbits' “smell” is unknown to dragons, so having lived an isolated life in The Shire, Bilbo, Gandalf reasons, is the perfect thief to “burgle” the dragon's stolen booty. Bilbo, of course, is skeptical. Before he can decline, they are joined by a 13th dwarf, their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage – MI-5). Thorin is a strong, brave leader who inspires loyalty and courage amongst his men.

Richard Armitage as Thorin
After much debate, song and playful antics (remember I said this is lighter material than Lord of the Rings?), Bilbo reluctantly joins the 13 dwarves and Gandalf on an epic journey. It is a journey that will include many scrapes, escapes and battles with orcs, goblin kings and mountain trolls (this film's three stooges!). They will visit Rivendell where they will encounter Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee); and Bilbo will have his fateful first encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis).

When this film works, and it works a lot of the time, it is a very rich stew indeed. What was most fascinating is how things that were mentioned in the Lord of the Rings are given far deeper resonance by incidents that occur in this film. Sometimes it's playful moments, such as at the very beginning when we discover why Bilbo – as he and Frodo prepare for Bilbo's 111th birthday – hates his family so much. We also understand the meaning behind the sign he had on his gate in LOTR that said “No Admittance, Except on Party Business." But more telling is that we are introduced to dwarves – characters we begin to like and will undoubtedly get to like more as these movies go along – who we know die terrible deaths in the Battle of Moria in Jackson's first LOTR film. There is also a wonderful line of dialogue delivered by Gandalf that pays off brilliantly later in the film. Early in the adventure, Gandalf says to Bilbo, “Remember this: true courage is about knowing not when to take a life, but when to spare one.” Late in the film, Bilbo is faced with such a challenge and spares the life of a character. What, of course, he does not know, is that his moment of compassion will have a positive outcome 60+ years later in LOTR. What Jackson does so masterfully here is that he is adding the final touches to a patchwork quilt. Things that were interesting in LOTR are now given proper depth because of the nuances he and his fellow scripters (Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyen and Guillermo del Toro) sowed into the fabric of this first Hobbit film.

Performances are another plus. McKellen is again fine as Gandalf; Freeman is terrific as Bilbo because we can see Ian Holm's interpretation subtly echoed here; Serkis is very moving as the corrupted Gollum (his use of talking to the two sides of his personality is really unnerving); Armitage as Thorin is properly kingly and focused as the dwarf leader; and Sylvester McCoy is likeable comic relief as Radagast, a lower-level wizard who is reviled by Saruman (Radagast's rabbit sled is hilarious). As for the rest, it is a bit hard to say. One of the problems with the film is that there are several of the 13 dwarves we never get any sense of who they are. They unfortunately become background players (almost Star Trekian red shirts – although they don't die) who Jackson seemingly has there only because they are in the original novel. James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday) as Bofur, Aidan Turner (Being Human) as Kili, and Dean O'Gorman as Fili (Kili's brother), all resonate, but the rest are basically invisible.

Ultimately, this is not as tight nor as majestic as the the first LOTR movie was. Though I loved the 48 fps, I'm not convinced he needed to shoot in 3D because, though it adds a few moments here and there, it doesn't bring the amazing textures that Martin Scorsese's use of the technology brought to the fantastic Hugo (2011). And I do have concerns that this is an unnecessary trilogy, especially since in the first 30 minutes, I saw several moments where Jackson could have shortened the picture by a good 10 to 15 minutes. But once you get past that bumpy first 30, the film percolates along wonderfully. Jackson has always been terrific directing action set pieces (given an able assist here by Andy Serkis, who, besides playing Gollum, also served as his Second Unit Director), and he does not fall down here. The camera, helped brilliantly by the 48 fps technology, glides smoothly and calmly through sometimes extremely frantic action. So calm in fact that as violence piles on violence we are able to take all this rampaging in without once getting lost in the mire.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a worthy, though lighter, successor to Jackson's Lord of the Rings. As I said, it doesn't have the depth of that truly great trilogy, but there is plenty here to make the journey we are about to take over the next year and a half (the second film opens next Christmas, while the third in the summer of 2014), enthralling indeed.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel, The Storm and its Eye.





A Weak Link

There is any number of reasons that Peter Jackson’s follow-up to his masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy falls short of achieving its goal, but I think the primary problem is that he’s basically adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s short novel into three long movies. Even utilizing the detailed appendices of the Lord of the Rings books, along with The Hobbit, he’s still pushing a thin story into overdrive. Not surprisingly, the first film in the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, thus shows signs of flabbiness, longueurs and a generally uninteresting tone and storyline. It was a film that often left me cold.

Two Dwarves and Bilbo 
The story of The Hobbit is set 60 years before the events of the Lord of the Rings occurred and chronicles the adventure that Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) was writing about at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first ‘Rings’ movie. The tale of The Hobbit, with the younger Bilbo played by Martin Freeman, involves the callow Bilbo being roped by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) into helping 13 dwarves and their King, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) regain their kingdom in The Lonely Mountain and get back the riches stolen by the evil dragon Smaug. Along the way, he’ll encounter all manner of monstrous and dangerous opponents, and also cross paths with some of the key figures who will play a huge part in future momentous events that will form the basis of the trilogy with Bilbo’s nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) at the centre of the action.

In and of itself, it’s not a terrible plot but it’s not that momentous either. There’s a difference between all of Middle-Earth being imperilled, as it was in Lord of the Rings, and a tale of a people, reminiscent of the Irish or the Jews, seeking to regain their homeland. It’s significant and enough for a single film, but it’s not quite the rich stuff of trilogies, which encompass earth-shattering events, historical revelations and life-changing situations. There are trace elements of all three in the first Hobbit movie and, perhaps, the entire Hobbit trilogy will actually match The Lord of the Rings trilogy in terms of ambition and depth, but so far at least, this is a movie that takes its sweet time getting down to the nitty-gritty. And by sweet time, I mean that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and, Guillermo del Toro (all but del Toro also wrote The Lord of the Rings movies) mostly offer up one set piece after another to exhausting effect. The Hobbit, in fact, reminded me most of Steven Spielberg’s underrated action adventure movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which after a highly inventive opener, the Shanghai nightclub scene, simply laid out one complicated Rube Goldberg-like roller coaster ride of a sequence after another. They were highly impressive and worthy of adulation, but they couldn’t disguise the lack of a strong narrative. (The same applies to Francis Coppola’s surrealistic Vietnam film Apocalypse Now; it’s a consistently brilliantly directed movie with awe inspiring scenes that deserve to be called mini-masterpieces, but the paucity of its plot and slack narrative is readily apparent, especially after second or third viewings when you’ve started paying attention to the picture as a whole.)

Director Peter Jackson
After awhile, The Hobbit begins to play out like a monster-of-the-week movie, a Kolchak: The Night Stalker for the 21st century. Bilbo’s encounters with trolls are followed by those with orc, and then with goblins, etc. etc. (That roll call of adversaries does stem from the book, it seems, but if it does, Jackson still doesn’t make it fly on screen, even with the one rabid orc, who's intent on wreaking revenge on King Thorin, who cost him an arm.) Those troll scenes with Bilbo and pals tied up on a barbecue spit are Monty Pythonesque in nature replete with modern terminology – ‘shut your cakehole’ – that strikes a discordant note. And the lengthy goblin cave battle, with Bilbo and company careening from one collapsing bridge to another, ducking and flailing all the way is as energetic as a video game but also as tiresome. And while The Hobbit deliberately opts for a lighter, comic tone (at least in this first film of the trilogy), it also beggars belief that no one is killed amidst the frantic action.

It’s too bad that goblin fight scene falls so flat, because counterpointing the sequence is Bilbo’s provocative and riveting first encounter with the creature Gollum/Sméagol (Andy Serkis), who possesses the magical ring which set all of The Lord of the Rings in motion. The Hobbit’s Gollum is a scary, vicious thing, unlike the later one who, bereft of ring, has been reduced to a pathetic, cringing shell of his former self. Actually, the best scenes in The Hobbit all involve characters from the previous trilogy, such as when Gandalf meets up with elf Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving), elf Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). That major scene, which should pay off in the next two films of the Hobbit trilogy, is truly disturbing, rife with menace and portents of dangerous, foreboding things to come.

The Trolls
By contrast, many of the protagonists in The Hobbit – with the exception of Freeman who is terrific and beautifully written as Bilbo, who is slowly coming to a startling awareness of how truly challenging and grim the world outside his peaceful home, The Shire, can be – are rather lacklustre. Even the dwarf King Thorin, though finely acted by Armitage, is a pale candle compared to the energy of the angry dwarf Gimli (brought so memorably to the screen by John Rhys-Davies) in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Gimli is the son, incidentally, of the one of the 13 dwarves in The Hobbit.) The appearance of Benedict (Sherlock) Cumberbatch as a necromancer, only glimpsed in The Hobbit, does auger well for the next film. TV ‘pundit’ Stephen Colbert is reportedly set to make a cameo appearance in one the next two films, which seems a bit too ‘modern’ for this old fashioned tale.

Jackson further damages, to my mind, the whole of the movie, by over indulging in gadgetry and technology. He’s famously shot the movie at the rare 48 frames per second (double the speed of the traditional 24 fps) because it brings, he feels, a distinct clarity and smoothness to the images, eliminating what he calls the blurriness of action scenes. I suppose, but I don’t think the 48 fps added much to the proceedings. though The Hobbit is perhaps the most vivid film I’ve ever seen. (Overall, the fight scenes in The Hobbit are singularly uninspiring , even confusing in terms of discerning who is doing what to who, which is an oddity considering the 48fps is supposed to make those types of scenes clearer than ever before. That they’re coming from a filmmaker whose battle sequences in the Lord of the Rings films, and particularly in The Two Towers, warranted comparison to the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Kagemusha) is doubly surprising.) The bigger problem is Jackson’s completely unnecessary foray into 3D. As I’ve written before, 3D is rather pointless since the best movies, such as The Lord of the Rings, in effect immerse you in them as if they’re in more than one dimension, so why bother with the 3D? But except for Werner Herzog’s superb documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, where the 3D enhanced the intimate experience of exploring the site of thousand-year-old caves in France, and Martin Scorsese’s fantasy Hugo, which benefited from its depth as it paid tribute to Georges Méliès's specific mode of film-making, 3D is just frills and wrapping that can easily be dispensed with to no adverse effect on the whole. I have, however, never been as distracted as I was with Jackson’s use of it here. The actors emoting in the foreground almost never seemed to be as one with the movie’s gorgeous backgrounds; again why did he need 3D? When you tally the 48 fps, the SFX and the 3D, Jackson begins to seem a like a hyperactive kid with dozens of elaborate toys and an insistence on using them all at once. It’s cinematic overkill. (Guillermo del Toro, director of the excellent fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth was originally set to direct The Hobbit, but dropped out after the project took so long to get off the ground. He would have brought a darker tone to the movies, and probably less of a reliance on gimmickry and pyrotechnics, but I always did want Jackson to direct the movie. Tolkien’s books are his baby after all.)  

The Wizard Gandalf
The Hobbit is not a disastrous Godfather III by any means, but neither is it as supremely compelling as the Lord of the Rings movies. Its highs are fitful and intermittent. (Unlike the movies in the first trilogy – whose ‘extended’ editions on DVD added 40 minutes or more to what were originally three-hour-films, but always to the service of perfecting and completing what financial realities didn’t allow Jackson to do re: length and amount of screenings in the cinemas – an extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, reportedly adding 25-30 minutes to the film, would only make the movie a tougher slog than it already is.) What does remain are the excellent casting decisions Jackson makes, even if few of the protagonists are as memorable as one would like. His actors never condescend to the material. I do think McKellen as Gandalf is a bit bored with the part. He’s okay, but not as lively as he was in the earlier movies. Howard Shore’s luminous score, as in the previous movies, adds much to the film, though this time the turgid storyline undoes its impact somewhat. I’ll concede that it may yet turn out that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will just be the weak link in an otherwise strong chain, much as the middle ‘Ring’ movie, The Two Towers, which bridged the first and third films, was the best of the trilogy. I presume, as it gets down to the main plot point, of the dwarves trying to regain their former glories, that The Hobbit will tighten up and gain momentum, but regardless of what transpires in the next two films (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: There and Back Again), I’ll skip the 48 fps and 3D versions of the movie. Jackson didn’t use them in The Lord of the Rings and doesn’t need to use them here. 2D will do just fine, thank you.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s Life Institute and will be teaching a course there on What Makes a Movie Great?, beginning on Feb. 8.

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