Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Long Expected Hobbit

Martin Freeman is a perfect Bilbo Baggins
It has finally come. The long-awaited prequel to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy has made it through years of development and hit theaters in a brand new 48 frames-per-second 3D format. The original films rank among my favorite of all time, and I grew up with an audiobook of The Hobbit, so this is a story and world I'm familiar with. I'm not alone in this, so the film is landing with tremendous expectations. Added to that, this time around Jackson and company have decided to split a short novel into three long films. After the jump, I'll take a look at how this has worked our.

Richard Armitage is Thorin Okanshield
First, I should take a minute to talk about the high frame rate (HFR). HFR is weird. It's as jarring as the introduction of 3D, and in a film like The Hobbit, it's hard to say either technology adds anything. I will say HFR compliments 3D. Action in 3D tends to be jerky, and HFR smooths that out. Unfortunately, it speeds everything else up, so action looks great and people look weird until you get used to it. Of the people I saw the film with, one didn't even notice the difference, and most of the others said they got used to HFR after 15 or so minutes. I took over an hour before I was completely adjusted. I get the feeling that after seeing a few HFR movies, it's not going to be an issue, but I don't think The Hobbit was the best place to introduce the format. The film itself has a few issues and doesn't need the complaints HFR is going to generate. I mean, here I want to write a review of the movie and get sidetracked by the frame rate.

Now, on to the actual movie. Below there be spoilers.

Okay, so as I mentioned, Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro have have cut short book into three movies. The justification for this is that J.R.R. Tolkien's novel quickly skips from one sequence to the next. Plus, thanks to the extensive appendices of The Lord of the Rings, there's a lot of off-the-page action that the film makers wanted to put onto film. Cutting the into three pieces gives everything room to breath. Hypothetically. Let's see how it worked.

Prologue: Not great.

The movie opens with a info-dump filled prologue telling the story of the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and how there home was attacked by the dragon Smaug. It's as complicated as the prologue for Fellowship of the Ring. It's so much information so fast, while the HFR is making everything look funky, and most of the stuff we learn here is repeated later. After that prologue, we get another of Ian Holm as Old Bilbo and Elijah Wood as Frodo, before the party in Fellowship, which establishes this as a prequel for Lord of the Rings. Old Bilbo is writing his memoirs and says the classic, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," opening line from the book.

Bilbo and Gandalf: Great

Ian McKellan returns as Gandalf the Gray
Finally, the film cuts to the Martin Freeman Bilbo and the story officially begins with the arrival of Ian McKellan as Gandalf. Freeman is perfect as Bilbo Baggins, and his scene here with Gandalf is one of the best in the film. Much of dialogue comes straight from Tolkien, and it sets the tone as lighter than the previous films. Bilbo is what make this film. With a lesser character or actor, the film would be crushed--Star Wars-prequel style--under CGI, set-pieces, and HFR, but Freeman doesn't let that happen, and gives us an everyman hero that even Lord of the Rings never truly managed.

The Party: Good

The first big sequence from the book when Bilbo meets thirteen dwarves, who show up for a party he didn't know he was throwing. It's a fun sequence, though it suffers from the fact that even I have trouble keeping Balin, Dwalin, Fili, Kili, Bifur, Bofur, Bombor, Dori, Ori, Nori, Oin, Gloin, and Thorin separate when they're all introduced at once. Jackson has given each dwarf unique quirks, and some are more memorable than others. There's dwarven singing here too, and then a sequence when Bilbo is invited to join the quest which is genuinely good, though it also involves repeating all that information we heard in the prologue.

A classic scene from the book is hit-and-miss in the film.
Trolls: Toss up

The big sequence is the encounter with the three trolls. It's a fairly weird scene in the book. Bilbo and the dwarves are captured by trolls, who spend so long arguing about eating them that they are caught by the sunlight and turned to stone. It's not improved by added butt scratching and snot gags, but it probably plays better to young viewers. It does give Bilbo his first sort-of heroic moment (there's a change from the book in exactly how things are resolved), and leads to acquisition of Bilbo's sword, Sting.

Galdalf meets Radagast (Sylvester McCoy)
Radagast: Toss up

Here's the first big addition to the story. Gandalf's fellow wizard, animal lover Radagast the Brown. There's a scene where he rescues a hedgehog that's been poisoned by a new evil (this is a spoiler for future films. It's from the book. Highlight to read it) (The evil, of course, is Sauron, who has taken up residence in Mirkwood. He's know by the alias) The Necromancer. Radagast does have an awesome Bunny Propelled Sleigh and Sylvester McCoy is a fun new addition to Middle Earth, but he also slows down the movie in the same way Tom Bombadil slowed Fellowship... oh wait, that's why they cut him out of that movie.

Kili (Dean O'Gorman) and Fili (Aiden Turner)
Hot Dwarves: Good

At some point during production, word leaked that Peter Jackson was trying to make at least some of the dwarves a little bit sexy. Let me explain that. The previous dwarf was Gimli, and that was John Rhys Davis covered in prosthetics and epic facial hair. He didn't have the same appeal as Aragorn or Legolas (and I'm saying all this as a straight guy). With thirteen dwarves, there's a chance to change that. Does is work? Sure. In particular, Thorin, Fili and Kili are not the bearded buffoons you'd expect. Richard Armitage as Thorin transforms the character from a pompous prince into a seriously cool hero, and Fili and Kili are the new Merry and Pippin. But don't worry, the other ten dwarves have all the classic beards and comedy you could ask for.

Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee return briefly
White Council: Boring

Here's the second thing from the appendices. The White Council is made up of Galadriel, Saruman, Elrond and Gandalf, and they meet to discuss that aforementioned mysterious evil. It's means familiar faces from the previous films show up, but the four of them just sit and talk and don't make any decisions, so it just feels like fan service, and not in the good way. These characters are probably going to meet again in one of the next films, and that time it'll probably be awesome, but four characters speculating about stuff that barely relates to the current story just isn't good storytelling.

Goblins and the Misty Mountains: Action Overload

The entire Misty Mountain and Goblin King encounter reeks of action scene overload. It starts with random stone giants, and then there's an over-the-top Goblin King and Gandalf shows up and there's a bunch of fighting and everything gets really crazy. So apart from a few minutes of cool action, everything else is just a sensory overload of action beats that are supposed to be funny.

Andy Serkis is back as Gollum for a memorable scene.
Riddles: Great

And then we have one of the classic scenes from the book. Riddles in the Dark, where Bilbo first meets Gollum and finds the One Ring. Maybe the amount of time spent on this scene is fan service too, but it's the very best kind. Once again, Andy Serkis and Weta Digital prove that a CGI character can act, and another round of straight-from-the-book dialogue makes this the single best scene in the film.

There's a whole new plotline for the Wargs.
Wargs: Great

The Wargs show up in the book after the company escapes from the mountain. However, since this film basically lacks a villain, they get an expanded role. In the Lord of the Rings appendices, Azog was goblin king who was killed by Thorin's cousin. The filmmakers have revised history and have Azog killing Thorin's grandfather before Thorin chops off Azog's arm and leaves him for dead. Azog orders out his orcs and Wargs to bring him Thorin's head. With one caveat, the final showdown in the trees is the best action scene in the movie. That caveat is Azog himself, who is either badly CGI or an actor in shiny plastic prosthetics. Either way, the Captain Hook Orc never looks real, and that's disappointing.

So in Conclusion

I really liked this film, but it wasn't perfect. It's no secret this movie was supposed to tell more of the story, which would have added in a couple more action sequences and meant that a lot of stuff would have had to be trimmed. Compared to the Lord of the Rings EXTENDED films, this was great, but as a film in it's own right, it gives critics too many openings, and for reasons that don't have any logic. I'm putting this at #2 for the year, and I don't doubt that heavy setup in this film is going to pay off in parts two and three. Anyway, I've got the trailer here, and if you want to pick up the book, it's on Amazon. Just in case you want to see what's going to happen next.

No comments:

Post a Comment