Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I’m just going to say this at the beginning of the review to get it out of the way early…  I read “The Fellowship of the Ring” and vowed to never read another novel by Tolkien again. Boring, drawn out and bogged down with pointless characters and descriptions, I found the book a chore that I had to slog through. Everyone seems to have some sort of insane love for his Middle Earth books, but I cannot fathom why. Not to say that there isn’t a great story there, there most definitely is. Tolkien’s writing style is what completely turned me off, so when I heard a trilogy of movies based on his novels was being released I was excited to finally be able to see what all the fuss was about without having to read one of those tedious books again.

Peter Jackson’s adaptations were absolutely fantastic for the most part (I’m not a fan of The Two Towers). And now, ten years later, he’s returned with the film version of Tolkien’s prequel story, The Hobbit. The problem is that he’s taken a book that one could read cover to cover in an afternoon and broken it up into three movies (the plan was originally to be two movies, but in the summer of 2012 New Line Cinema demanded out of greed that Jackson produce a third as well). The end result is that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an unnecessarily long and slow mess of gargantuan proportions.
60 years before Frodo set off on his adventure to destroy The One Ring, his kinsman Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is volunteered to help thirteen dwarves reclaim their home from the dragon Smaug by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan). Along his journey he meets the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) and comes upon The One Ring.

Like all Peter Jackson films since The Lords of the Rings trilogy, everything looks absolutely fantastic from the set design to the special effects to the cinematography. He manages to make even the most bland landscape look stunning and the most humble set look like a million bucks. His talents in the technical departments have never been in question, and I’d like to think that they will stay that way in the future. His problem is that he doesn’t know when to reel in his tendencies to revel in pointless details and long-winded dialogue scenes, which has been an issue since his overblown King Kong remake. It’s this issue that pretty much killed my interest in this film as I watched it.
The first hour of this is absolute torture. While we do get some decent character development of Bilbo and Gandalf, the dwarves are pretty much all glossed over except for Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) regardless of the excessive amount of time we spend with them in The Shire. The dinner scene where all the dwarves invade Bilbo’s home feels like it was shot in real time and lasts for what seems like an eternity due to its lame attempts at humor and the aforementioned multiple underdeveloped characters. The problem is that all the dwarves are introduced at the same time and aren’t given any chance to separate themselves from one another, therefore they all look and act pretty much the same and makes it difficult to tell them apart even after their names have been given. Truthfully I couldn’t tell you which one was which if asked. The characters have what are supposed to be meaningful dialogue exchanges, but it all feels forced in order to pad the run time. At least in The Fellowship of the Ring the story moved away from that setting pretty quickly, like within the first half hour. Here we spend nearly an hour there and nothing of note really happens.

Once the story moves on from The Shire we are introduced to the world outside, and while this is all supposed to be new and wondrous it seems overly familiar and tiring because we’ve seen it all before in the previous films. The scene with the trolls is a welcome break in the tedium, but it too goes on for far too long and outstays its welcome. This is what happens for the entire run time. Walking, walking, walking, some random action scene happens that turns out to not really be an action scene that drags on and on and on, rinse and repeat. For the first half I have to admit that I was fighting the urge to take a nap because of this. I was not being entertained, but bored to death due to the episodic feel of the whole production. Where the story of The Fellowship of the Ring was constantly moving forward (due to the movie being based on one complete book instead of a third of one), here it is constantly taking sidesteps instead of just getting to the point.
It’s not until the characters reach the Misty Mountains and Bilbo stumbles upon Gollum in the goblin tunnels does the movie finally begin to live up to its pedigree. The scene between Bilbo and Gollum is nothing short of amazing in both performance and writing. Gollum looks better than ever due to the advances in CGI since we last saw him. Those huge expressive eyes show more emotion than any of the CGI creations in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy. The following action scene with the goblins, while very derivative of the Mines of Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, is quite exciting and slightly comedic (“That’ll do it!”). Although I tired very quickly of seeing the characters falling off cliffs and having to be pulled back up (it happens probably four times). But I did gather more information about these characters in the last hour than I did for the first hour and forty-five minutes, which says a lot about the choice to make three movies out of source material that would barely fill out one.

There are pointless characters introduced as well, like Radagast the Brown. His scenes are somewhat silly and unnecessary, and his appearance is just plain goofy. The dude has a bird’s nest in his hair and his face is covered with dried streams of bird poop. He also rides on a sleigh pulled by rabbits. I know this was all part of a children’s book, but c’mon! It was nice seeing Elrond, Galadriel and Saruman once again, played by Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee once more, but the entire scene with them in Rivendell was not needed and yet again dragged out the story needlessly.

The inconsistency in tone is also an issue. One moment we'll have characters taking pratfalls and the next a villain is graphically being disemboweled. The fact that the source material was designed as a children's story made me think that the film would take the same direction and be a lighthearted adventure yarn. But Jackson has the tone swapping back and forth from childish to dark and disturbing way too frequently. He should have picked one style and stuck to it, but instead he unsuccessfully tries to give the kids stuff to giggle at and adult fans of the previous trilogy what they want. It's very distracting and annoying at times.
And here’s something I’ve finally noticed after seeing how it played out here as well… Gandalf is kind of a dick. We know exactly what he can and can’t do magically speaking after seeing how powerful he is in the original trilogy, yet he seems to hold back on using his gifts for no apparent reason other than to allow his fellow adventurers to fall into effed up situations so that he can swoop in and rescue them at the last second. He does this at least three times here, and even more in the original trilogy. Example: Frodo is dying on the side of Mount Doom after destroying The One Ring, and Gandalf comes to save him with a flock of giant eagles that take him to safety. Why didn’t he just have the eagles take everyone to Mount Doom in the first place?! Asshole!

The acting from the leads is spot on. Martin Freeman does an admirable job as the young Bilbo, McKellan is a joy as always and Armitage does a decent job as Thorin, giving his somewhat unlikable character a nice sympathetic feel as the story moves on. I couldn’t tell you if the actors playing the other dwarves were any good since I couldn’t tell one from the other. Andy Serkis pretty much steals the show once he turns up as Gollum, which is a given since he did the same in the original trilogy.
Howard Shore’s score once again was tops! I’m not a fan outside of his Tolkien work (Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs being the only exceptions), and he once again delivers a sweeping and epic musical accompaniment to the film. Most of the time the music does a better job of getting the point of certain scenes across that the visuals.

I guess I’m just extremely disappointed by this film. I’m not going to automatically like something just because it’s part of pop culture. Every franchise has its stinkers and I’m afraid to say this falls into that category with me. Peter Jackson has grown quite an ego since he won his Oscar for The Return of the King. His follow up movies, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, were nothing more than examples of him making films based solely on his newfound clout. King Kong was an excessive boring mess while The Lovely Bones had the distinction of being my choice for the worst film of 2009 due to it glorifying the murder of the main character. I know he has a passion for this material, but he’s treading a fine line here by stretching the story out this thin, and as far as I’m concerned he is holding onto that line by his fingertips. I could care less if he’s using info from “The Silmarillion” to fill out the story or not, I wanted to be as entertained as I was with The Fellowship of the Ring and I was not. This should have been a one shot film and that’s all there is to it. Instead we are being given sub-standard product, and being ripped off in the process, due to greed. Not unlike the nine kings, wouldn’t you say?

2 out of 5

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