The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an expected prequel

Return to Middle Earth (again)

It seemed for a time there like we might never return to Middle Earth, that incredible world which provided us with one of the finest cinematic triumphs of the last dozen years. But like the Pevensie children wondering if and when they might return to Narnia, fate (and finances) would deem it was always to be.

And yes, I am aware of how confusing an analogy that is.

So after nine years, some rights squabbles and a directorial switcheroo (or rather switch back), The Hobbit is finally on the big screen.

Peter Jackson, who brought us The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and more recently the pointless Lovely Bones and, in producer mode, surprise hits like District 9 and the disenchanting The Adventures of Tintin, is back in control of his fantasy sandpit, and has taken some strange, and some arguably unethical, decisions with it.

Dialling back the whimsy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s childish adventure book (though not entirely, with a hit-and-miss effect), Jackson has expanded the world of The Hobbit using extracts from Tolkien’s extended writings about the greater events that preceded and surrounded the story, to give a more epic, Rings-like flavour. The most controversial result of this has led to the relatively short book being broken up into not two but three films – the second and third instalments will follow in 2013 and 2014.

It’s okay Bilbo, you have three films to learn how to ride a pony

An apparent cash-grab on Jackson’s behalf, it is still only fair to judge The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a stand-alone film. Successful feature-length adaptations have been made of short stories only a fraction the size of The Hobbit (The Dead, Brokeback Mountain, Total Recall), so the question is not the morality of Jackson’s decision, but whether or not it works.

And the answer is: eh… sort of?

Using the same technical team that helped create his opus, Jackson has indeed rebuilt and expanded Middle Earth, and much of the magic still exists in the sets, CGI, costumes, armoury and the impossibly enchanting landscapes of New Zealand. “Well,” said Sam Gamgee, “I’m back.” – and it’s hard not to feel that same sense of homecoming when we first see the hobbits’ homeland of the Shire and hear Howard Shore’s indomitable music.

Launching into proceedings with a preface set during the opening act of The Fellowship of the Ring (officially making The Hobbit a film prequel as opposed to The Lord of the Rings being a premature sequel), An Unexpected Journey takes its good time setting up the history of the dwarves and their conflict with the dragon Smaug that sets the story’s events in motion. An explosive siege against the dwarven stronghold Erebor by the beast, kept largely unseen through clever cutting to withhold some surprise for film two, puts us firmly back in the epic setting of The Return of the King before we launch into pastoral antics akin to the early half of Fellowship. A clever smoke-ring cut transforms our narrator, Ian Holm’s Bilbo Baggins, into his younger self, played by Martin Freeman. Greeted by the grumpy but truly good wizard Gandalf (the ever-perfect Ian McKellan), the anally retentive hobbit soon finds himself playing host to a bevy of brutish, slovenly dwarves, 13 in total, with whom he is caroused into embarking on an adventure to retake the distant fortress of Erebor.

More Gandalf! This guy never gets old!

Even more the fish-out-of-water than the hobbits in the Rings films, Bilbo’s discomfort agitates some of the dwarves, particularly band leader and would-be king Thorin Oakenshield, while endearing him, cautiously, to others. But his surprising courage, hobbity ability to be easily ignored by the worst of creatures and occasional moments of ingenuity eventually make him an accepted part of the team.

On their journey across New Zealand, the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf encounter some strange and terrifying creatures, before a late encounter with the Great Goblin (voiced by a brilliantly camp Barry Humphries) and his slithering hordes deep inside the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo has his fateful meeting with Gollum and the Ring.

Bouncing from one encounter to the next, Jackson attempts to keep the pace going by inserting action scenes where they are uncalled for. Between Bilbo’s famous encounter with the trolls and the band’s arrival at the sanctuary of Rivendell, Jackson inserts a wholly unwelcome chase sequence, in which orcs riding wargs (giant wolves, thankfully less hyena-ish than in Rings) pursue the dwarves across an ill-defined landscape. The dwarves are rescued thanks to the help of elves, who dispose of the orcs off-camera, causing the excitement levels to plummet. Unfortunate comparisons are easy to draw. A similar sequence at a similar point in Fellowship, after Gandalf confronts the Balrog, where the heroes were to be chased by orcs to the safety of Lothlorien, was cut in the editing room, because a chase sequence was deemed uncalled for at that stage. Ten years later, it seems Jackson has not only failed to learn from his mistakes, but is now making them where he evaded them before.

But it’s not the newly invented or the sourced-from-other-texts scenes that really throw this film off, rather it is an inability to pace scenes within themselves. The dinner party introducing the dwarves goes on that little too long. The troll encounter runs a beat too long. A council between Gandalf and the most powerful beings in Middle Earth contains just a pinch too much information.

And it’s this overflow from scene into following scene that causes An Unexpected Journey to feel so much longer than it actually is, so much more crammed and cramped; and given it is the first part of an easily argued needless trilogy it’s hard to not come away from the whole experience feeling something went very wrong in the editing room.

But so much has gone right elsewhere. The production values remain at the pinnacle of the game, with individual costumes and weapons having more skill and design in them than any landscape from Avatar. Makeup, from bulky, bearded dwarves to the blight-riddled faces of orcs, could hardly be bettered. The CGI is mostly excellent, with wargs and trolls looking weighted and textured. The Great Goblin has a suitably cartoonish but still real presence. Gollum, whose very follicles are now plainly visible, makes the award-winning Gollum of The Two Towers look like Jar Jar Binks.

Ugh, not you agai- no wait! You’re the best part!

While the design fits in perfectly with the Rings films, there are some additional touches brought in by co-writer and one-time-attached director Guillermo Del Toro which spice up the visual palette. A cackling gremlin of a goblin, who appears to be the Great Goblin’s P.A. and runs errands on a zipline about his caverns, feels like he just zipped in from Hellboy 2’s Troll Market. Another sequence in the Misty Moutains, where Bilbo and the dwarves encounter giants made of stone, also feel like they leaked from the brain of cinema’s most inventive fantasist. Of course, the stone giants throw up more problems in this adaptation – referring to a single sentence from The Hobbit about giants hurling rocks (that can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for a thunder storm), Jackson has once again shown his inability to resist turning such an event into a scene of peril, as the band are nearly crushed in the fray. One is left thinking of the Fellowship sailing past the Argonath, the two mighty stone statues; sometimes it’s good just to show wonder, not everything needs to be life or death. Jurassic Park would not be the film it is if, upon first seeing a brachiosaur, Sam Neill suddenly found himself in the midst of a stampede (à la, yes I’ll go there, Jackson’s King Kong).

And the action sequences are a tale of two halves, with the skirmishes between the dwarves and their enemies exquisitely choreographed, each dwarf revealing variations on a fighting style based on their weapon of choice, while the escape from the goblin caverns and the stone giants sequence reveal an over-reliance on video game imagery. There is a subconscious urge to press the A button every time the right-scrolling dwarves have to leap a chasm, and as they wait for a swinging platform to swing back their way, visions of Sonic the Hedgehog impatiently tapping his foot come to mind. Gandalf splinters a boulder from a wall and rolls it down a hill, crushing several goblins, in a feat Donkey Kong would be proud of.

Jammed full of scenes, Jackson’s film is oddly low on character. Most of the 13 dwarves might as well have personalities based on their names like in Snow White; Prissy, Fatty, Yokelly, Deafy, Mentally Disabled (the dwarf with a small piece of axe permanently buried in his skull seems to stutter out his sole line of dialogue, in what could be the most offensive moment in one of Jackson’s films since Meet the Feebles). Thorin (Richard Armitage) is given backstory and a bit of fleshy dialogue to work with, but he is little more than stoic and, towards Bilbo, disbelieving. Bilbo at least gets real fun to work with, and Freeman has a blast with his awkward mannerisms (some impressively based on Ian Holm’s), discomforts and terrors. Freeman carries the film on his back from start to finish, a tremendous achievement for a one-time typecast TV actor. The film’s highlight comes when he is thrust into the dark with Andy Serkis’s Gollum, taking what might have been a dull recitation of assorted riddles from the book, and turning it into a menacing match of wills. The writers and Serkis have taken the schizophrenic Gollum of Rings and imbued him with the creepish, toying playfulness of the famous film psychopaths who followed in his wake; Hans Landa, Anton Chigurgh, the Joker. The scene, while not shot with any of the ingenuity of the Gollum scenes from Rings, is still a standout one of writing, acting and CGI, and shows that Jackson still has what it takes to deliver the goods.

Thorin – handsome dwarven badass

It would be wrong to not take a paragraph to address the most significant contribution this film has made to film history; the introduction of HFR (higher frame rate) technology, shot at a smoother 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24. This addition, a pet project of James ‘have I left my mark on cinema yet?’ Cameron, does indeed make 3D look more natural, and in certain sequences the visuals flow beautifully, but the negatives outweigh the positives. As the eye takes its time to adjust to the new film speed, everything appears unpleasantly sped-up. Who wants to see Bilbo, the world’s fastest geriatric, hobbling like lightning around his hobbit hole? While the eye does eventually become accustomed to the HFR, every now and then the effect slips, and everything appears like those sped-up scenes in Tom Jones, except without the intentional comedy. The detail is immaculately crisp, but almost too much so. Real life doesn’t look this real. Audiences (and Hollywood) may decide it is here to stay, but it seems unlikely, and less likely for the best.

But the visual (and audio) tableau that makes up Middle Earth is the real reason this film remains an essential recommendation, despite its flaws. The world looks better than ever, from its green hills to its torch-lit caves. The soundscape is second to none, and Howard Shore’s score, borrowing a little too much from themes originated in The Lord of the Rings, is never short of epic. His major new creation, a theme for the dwarves, is first hummed in burly baritone and bass, before erupting in a maelstrom of brass and woodwind – it’s as grandiose a piece as anything composed for Rings.

While Jackson may have irritated some viewers with the length and pacing of his film, he has still achieved a great feat with An Unexpected Journey, getting this wonderful tale underway. What comes next may prove an even greater challenge. There’s little denying that were The Hobbit two films as previously planned, the end point of that film is exactly where this part ends. It remains to be seen how he can draw the rest of the book out over two filmic volumes. But since they will continue to look this good, it shouldn’t really matter in the long run.

There’s no denying, it’s good to be back in mythical, mystical Middle Earth.

3/5

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