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MoMA and its Amazing Technicolor Film Series – Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

MoMA’s ‘Glorious Technicolor’ series has come to a close, and it’s hard to imagine we’ll see a line-up quite like it until Technicolor celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2115. It’s harder, of course, to imagine anywhere, even an institution as diligently respectful to film history as the Museum of Modern Art, still screening Technicolor prints one hundred years from now. The moving image archival sciences suggest the films, properly stored, can survive until then, but who will still care to view film on film? Who will still care about these 200-year-old examples of “modern” art?

Pivotally, the audiences that exist now for these films, 60 years or 100 year old, suggest the future is not as grim as my fearmongering might imply. Many of the events I attended during ‘Glorious Technicolor’ were filled to capacity, even on some beautifully sunny days when being indoors for an old movie should be heresy (and especially on some exceptionally humid days when your skin just wants to crawl off your body and escape down the nearest sewer vent).

beckysharp

The first film I caught in the second half of the series was a pivotal one, if one that all but the purest cinephiles and factoid-devotees are still aware of: Becky Sharp. Rouben Mamoulian’s 1935 adaptation of Vanity Fair, focusing as the title suggests on the novel’s saucier anti-heroine, was the first feature film produced in three-strip Technicolor. It’s a rather dull affair overall, sanitised and gifted a happy ending, and the film, much like The Adventures of Robin Hood and A Star Is Born (Mark I) lacks the radiance of what we consider today true Technicolor. The reds of the dragoons’ jackets are not quite that luscious Technicolor red, but some of the background details, notably purple curtains, stand out as definitively Technicolor. The film was partially lost for decades after the 1930s, only restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in the ’80s; the most notable repercussion of this being the fate of the final reel. No 35mm materials remained for it, so as the film reaches its climax suddenly the picture quality collapses into two-colour Cinecolor, sampled from a 16mm print. It’s a sad fate for such a cinematic milestone, although the film’s dramatic and pacing weaknesses would likely have condemned it to obscurity either way.

More tragedy indeed could be seen in a 20-minute Technicolor lighting test for Becky Sharp which preceded the film. Mostly just footage of the actors trying to keep straight faces while standing perfectly still to see how their costumes and makeup would look in Technicolor, the clapperboards that preceded each take bore the name of Lowell Sherman, the film’s original director, who died of pneumonia just a few weeks into the production. The footage however is an interesting study of just how much care had to be taken to get Technicolor looking just right on its extended debut.

A Saturday afternoon in mid-July had to be given over to watching one of Technicolor’s greatest triumphs, Gone With the Wind. The film’s vast scope, incredible story and writing, its pitch-perfect acting, sweeping score, and still-controversial politics, often obscure the fact that it is an astonishingly beautiful film from beginning to end. Gone With the Wind is surprisingly unshowy with its use of Technicolor (well, given its length, that is). Certainly some of the costumes and décor burst with three-strip radiance, but often the browns and beiges and greys of the South before, during, and after the Civil War are hardly colours Technicolor is noted for. Even the film’s most famous gown, Scarlett O’Hara’s dress sown from curtains, is off-emerald green, so as not to completely leap from the screen and belie its pauperish origins.

GoneWithTheWind

When the film’s colour does excel, however, it is by playing Technicolor’s two strongest hands – deep reds and strong blacks. Most notable during the violent sunsets and firestorms that precede the intermission, the vibrancy of the red backgrounds with the film’s principals in thick silhouette before them are Gone With the Wind’s most iconic images. Seeing this on a 35mm print, this one courtesy of George Eastman House, is one of those screening opportunities all cinephiles should seek out, regardless of their opinions on this sometimes difficult movie.

Cobra-Woman

Perhaps the purest artistic counterweight to Gone With the Wind in the Technicolor canon, Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944) is a 70-minute B-movie-ish South Seas adventure. One of Universal’s first Technicolor movies (hard to imagine in the year of Furious 7 and Jurassic World, but they were once lagging far behind the other major studios), it was also, somewhat ironically, perhaps the most pristine print I saw during the entire film series. The film is delightful trash, with Maria Montez vamping in dual-role as sexualised serpent queen and her modest mouse-ish twin sister. Lon Chaney Jr. plays a brown-faced mute, while Sabu plays that role that Sabu plays in everything (Black Narcissus excepted), swinging from every imaginable dangling object even when totally unnecessary. It’s a fascinating film (one of a number of adventures Universal made at the time) because it looks so incredible, despite its bare-bones plot and how it almost suffocates on its own camp. Film history tries to not let us associate Technicolor’s magic with such thoroughly minor fare, and yet here it is, more colourful and dazzling than many glorified colour movies; critical darlings and award winners. It was a delighting break after so many grand and important Technicolor triumphs, and as such proved a triumph in its own way.

Nakedspurposter

A handful of Westerns played ‘Glorious Technicolor’, but I was only able to catch The Naked Spur. And very happy I was with that, it proved by some distance the best film I caught in the two-month-long programme that was new to me. “Packed with Technicolor thrills!” roared its poster back in 1953, and it certainly is, particularly because of how untamed the Technicolor in it is. As I mentioned previously, the Technicolor corporation controlled the studios’ use of their apparatus through regimented overseership. Thus all of The Wizard of Oz’s scenes were shot indoors – despite being mostly set outdoors – where Technicolor technicians could best control lighting and the appearance of their product. The Naked Spur, however, was shot largely on location in the Rocky Mountains, a sign of technological improvement that allowed for less bulky, more mobile cameras.

the-naked-spur

As such The Naked Spur looks like few other Technicolor films, with the barrage of natural greens and blues and greys out of the control of the designers. Gone are the rich reds and deep purples of the studio-based melodramas, here the colours of the wilderness are captured in a heightened realism that allows the locations to serve as a stage for a complex drama of greed and distrust. Colour cinema could finally roam the wild, instead of just lumbering into it and shooting whatever was nearby.

A_Star_Is_Born

Of all the losses of the Technicolor age, none has been written about more than A Star Is Born (Mark II, 1954). George Cukor’s musical update of the early Technicolor classic infamously had half an hour ripped from it by studio bosses shortly after its debut. Much of that material is now lost, but much was restored in an acclaimed 1983 reconstruction, which filled in gaps with recovered audio played over on-set photographs. These scenes remain thoroughly jarring, with the lavish Technicolor replaced with its veritable visual antithesis: still black and white frames. And yet, they also reveal the degree of dedication to the restoration. Similarly evident of this was that A Star Is Born was one of the only films shown in the entirety of ‘Glorious Technicolor’ shown on a DCP (digital cinema package) rather than on 35mm, as the surviving elements have proven too delicate to strike new prints from.

The film itself is a strong remake, which becomes a little too much a beat-for-beat repeat in the final act. Still, the central musical number, Judy Garland’s ‘Born in a Trunk’, could rival many of Singin’ in the Rain’s finest big numbers for Technicolor opulence.

20-000-leagues-under-the-sea-1954

A Star Is Born’s James Mason was up again in the next film I saw, Disney’s 1954 take on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Another rather standard adventure film, this lacked all of the gorgeous lustre of Cobra Woman, and was easily the most disappointing film I caught during the series. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus has been imagined as a dull, rusty brown submarine, one of the only colours that the Technicolor process has proven slow to improve. With its gruelling length of more than two hours, only briefly surfacing for a beautiful Technicolor beach scene or a mildly thrilling giant squid attack, it’s hard to imagine 20,000­ Leagues could have been as popular as it was back in the day. I suppose it does have a comic-relief sea lion. Always a crowd-pleaser, that.

snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs

MoMA rounded out its summer of Technicolor with a weekend dedicated to animation. The backbone of this was a number of Technicolor prints of classics of Disney animation. I was lucky to have a chunk of spare time, and got to three of them. Snow White and Seven Dwarfs, I had not realised before, gets its unique, Grimm look from those teething pain days of Technicolor, before The Wizard of Oz and co. electrified everything. As such, its many muted fairytale colours actually help the lips red as blood and hair black as night to pop the way they do.

Fantasia, shown in all its original grandeur with intermission, could hardly look better than in a Technicolor print – it may represent Walt Disney’s ego at its most extreme, but the visuals that ego inspired are beyond compare. ‘Rite of Spring’, with its wide swath of colours and fiery reds as the world is formed, stands out dramatically, as do the bright tones of the centaurs, pegasi, and other creatures of Greek myth featured in ‘The Pastoral Symphony’ sequence.

fantasiariteofspring_zps14c3007brainbow pastoral fantasia

The final film I caught was a first for me, Melody Time (1948), one of Disney’s mash-up of shorts during those difficult post-Fantasia, post-War years. It’s colossally hit-or-miss, with some of the musical shorts delightful or charming, while others drag on ceaselessly (‘The Legend of Johnny Appleseed’, in particular). In some ways though, this saved the finest use of Technicolor for last. In one of the more middling segments, ‘Blame it on the Samba’, Donald Duck and José Carioca (that parrot you’ve seen in so many pictures but probably never seen in a movie) are brought out of a funk by the combination of alcohol and samba music. When the pair finds themselves in a giant glass of liquid samba, the sequence dissolves into a whirlwind of shapes and colours, an acid trip lava lamp, complete with live action organist and demented physical comedy courtesy of the Aracuan Bird. On the big screen, in all of glorious Technicolor’s glorious colours, it is quite a sight to behold.

I was very fortunate to see as many films as I did during ‘Glorious Technicolor’, and so often in prints of such superb quality. And yet, I missed many more than I saw (Leave Her to Heaven was a particular sore one for me). I was especially sorry to miss the great range of shorts programmes MoMA had running, from classic cartoons to travelogues, and fragments of early, mostly lost Technicolor features. What I did catch was the 1949 industrial film imaginatively titled Technicolor for Industrial Films, played before Cobra Woman, that is both sales pitch and triumphant example of what Technicolor can do. It’s also a great example of awful, awful 1940s voiceover work.

Powell and Pressburger’s magnificent 1946 afterlife drama A Matter of Life and Death is famous for inverting the colour stylings of The Wizard of Oz: its heaven is monochrome, its earth – life itself – is bursting with colour. As a heavenly messenger, played by Marius Goring, travels between worlds, he stares lovingly at a rose as it blooms into redness. “Ah,” he exhales, “one is starved for Technicolor up there.” In this age of digital desaturation, Netflix, and poorly calibrated TV screens, we’re all a little starved for Technicolor down here these days too. For one summer in New York in 2015, we feasted.

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MoMA and its Amazing Technicolor Film Series – Part 1

(the above trailer for ‘Glorious Technicolor’ has been removed since the series concluded)

Technicolor – company, chemical process, aesthetic. The word is part of our common lexicon, representing the bright, the luscious, an effervescent burst of colour. It transformed the look of Hollywood cinema, and, due to its high costs and complicated use and development, became a prestige product, akin today to IMAX. With no sizeable competitor for almost 20 years from the launch of the three-strip process in the early-mid ’30s and the arrival of the far cheaper monopack Eastmancolor in 1952, Technicolor reigned supreme in its time. Its patents were so locked down that no one could compete, and the company had its contracts allow its representatives creative control of lighting on the set of major studio films. At its height, Technicolor was as big a name as Universal or MGM.

Now celebrating 100 years since the company was founded (although it made little impact until two-strip Technicolor emerged in the mid-’20s and did not become an iconic term until 1937 saw the dual release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and A Star Is Born), Technicolor has a withered role in the industry today, but its name still carries that unmatched prestige. At the Museum of Modern Art, a summer-long series of Technicolor classics is currently running, and is the highlight of the season for most New York cinephiles.

Programmed by Josh Siegel, ‘Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond’ has some 80 films on show, mostly 35mm presentations, representing the earliest incarnations of Technicolor to the final three-strip films made in the U.S. in the mid-1950s.

While the series opened with La Cucaracha (1934), the opening night presentation was a breathtaking 35mm print of The Wizard of Oz, the film best positioned to be the standard-bearer for Technicolor. Oz is the ideal Technicolor film, creating a brightly coloured otherworld, but entirely within a studio, where the hulking Technicolor cameras could be best controlled to capture the choreographed action. Better still, that infamous transition shot from the sepia prologue to the dreamy Technicolor land of Oz is the perfect ambassador for the process, capturing in one shot what Technicolor brings to cinema. Beyond that, the film is actually surprisingly subtle in its use of Technicolor (its also way way funnier than you remember, go revisit that asap). The four leads are all dressed in pastels, dull earth tones, and silver, none of which (ruby slippers aside) are colours that pop in Technicolor. Because of this, the Land of Oz itself bursts forth, with its yellow road, and emerald city. The Munchkins’ town is all browns and greens, but when the Munchkins themselves emerge they are all dressed in bright reds, royal purples and deep blues. The Technicolor hits all the harder for the restraint shown.

If The Wizard of Oz represents a fantastical magic of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then Gene Kelly represents the pinnacle of Hollywood star power, a different but equally wondrous kind of silver screen magic. A Gene Kelly double bill took place at MoMA on June 20th, made up of his two greatest movies, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris. Perhaps unwisely screened in that order for those double-dipping (Singin’s energy is locomotive throughout, while American dips in its final act but demands the awakiest of attention for its final Gershwin ballet, so drowsiness was inevitable), the two films showcase Kelly’s finest dancing, choreography, and comic chops, as well as the full glory of detail in Technicolor.

Singin’ in the Rain (I won’t discuss the story, you’ve already seen it. You have seen it, right? RIGHT?!) is relatively subtle with its use of three-strip at first, mostly waiting until ‘Beautiful Girl’ to show off its full range of colours as used in some horrendous 1920s fashion. But its Kelly’s glorious ego trip, the Broadway Melody sequence, that blasts the audience’s eyes with Technicolor like David Bowman travelling through a flamboyant Stargate. In its central dance number, there’s a divine fusion of colours, with the crimson background, Cyd Charisse’s emerald green dress, and Kelly’s pink tie and waistcoat so yellow it’d put a canary to shame (“It’s so yellow, I think I’ll kill myself,” a canary is said to have remarked at the film’s premiere).

By comparison, An American in Paris is far less showy with its colours (although far more showy with its ballet). Where the Technicolor really shows off is in the final scenes at the masked ball, where everyone is dressed in black and white. More so than any other colour process (including and especially digital), Technicolor gets blacks truly black, giving the scene a rich checkerboard look. It is one of the oft-forgotten ironies of the name Technicolor that black and white are two of its strongest colours.

A Douglas Sirk double bill was less successful, for a few reasons. Certainly his two most famous Technicolor films (All that Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind) were absent – Imitation of Life is Eastmancolor – so the choice of Magnificent Obsession and Captain Lightfoot seemed perhaps unwise. One of the great benefits of Technicolor is that the imbibition process used to stabilise the colour dyes has the effect of keeping the colours as they should be seen far beyond that of other film processes. Eastmancolor, by comparison, has been notorious for the colour fade in prints even within a decade of being struck. But no film is immune to physical damage, and the print of Captain Lightfoot MoMA presented had seen better days. The film itself is tremendously difficult to take seriously, with Rock Hudson trying his best brogue as an Irish highwayman who joins the Republican cause in the early 1800s. It regularly forced this Irishman to suppress giggles, while the final 20 minutes features more unnecessary plot twists than any film should have. The film was actually shot in Ireland, a country whose grey skies and greyer buildings don’t quite lend themselves as advertisements for glorious Technicolor, making it all the more curious a choice for the series.

Sirk is a filmmaker it took me a long time to come around to, until Written on the Wind helped me crack the code of his particularly brand of camp. I was loathe to give Magnificent Obsession another chance, but this time its melodrama-on-steroids and hysterical religious undertones actually worked for me, overall. But it’s far from Sirk’s brightest and most colourful work, with only small details in flowers and dresses blooming properly in Technicolor. What’s more, the print appeared to be quite heavily water damaged, distracting often from the cinematography (and occasionally garbling the soundtrack). In a series of numerous highlights, this was one of the few letdowns.

Rouben Mamoulian was the first filmmaker to shoot a feature in Technicolor (1935’s Becky Sharp), and his 1941 matador melodrama Blood and Sand is a fine example of his flair for colour cinema. (Although of his best movies were in black and white, no contest) Used to great effect in illuminating the costumes of Spain, and for highlighting the white gowns and red lips of arch-seductress Rita Hayworth, Technicolor is curiously not used to pronounce the reds in blood, until the final, groan-inducingly unsubtle last shot.


Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film series so far was a new print of Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, from a new restoration undertaken by MoMA’s Peter Williamson. The print looks completely different to almost any version of it seen in the past 75 years, with the colours far less saturated, and far less blatantly Technicolor – similar to its contemporary A Star Is Born. The film looks far more natural now, although the classic Technicolor triggers, especially purple, still pop in costumes during the archery tournament. It may be a disappointment for those used to seeing undiluted Technicolor on their Errol Flynn, but keeping to MoMA’s standards of film preservation, this is probably as close as we can now get to how it looked in ’38. (although probably not close to how things actually looked in the 1190s)

But if there was any surprise to demonstrate what Technicolor can do when masterfully deployed, it was Vincente Minnelli’s 1948 musical The Pirate. Yeah, don’t worry, I hadn’t heard of it before either. The film, a charmingly slight comedy of mistaken identity, shown at MoMA in a spectacular print, would be largely forgettable if it weren’t for its stars, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. The pair, especially Kelly, show off everything they’ve got, while faking chemistry in a way that actors have since forgotten how to do. But the highlight of the film comes in its fantasy ballet, when Garland imagines Kelly’s womanising actor as a marauding pirate. Kelly, his legs limber trunks beneath his tiny black shorts, proceeds to dance, pillage and murder, in front of a glaring sky lit up in Technicolor red. On the big screen, on a glimmering print, it’s an intoxicating sight to behold.

Continuing for another month, ‘Glorious Technicolor’ still has a plenty to offer, and will culminate with a series of unmistakable classics from the early days of Disney. It’s the sort of film history kick that reminds cinephiles why we love the movies, and for those whose hearts still prefer celluloid to digital, a chance to get your yearly fill of 35mm in just a few weeks.

One of the most affecting moments of the series came before the opening night screening of The Wizard of Oz, when Josh Siegel made a few welcomes and thank yous while clutching a tiny girl in his arms. His daughter, not yet three years old, was there to see a film on the big screen before. Murmurs of terror rumbled through the audience at the thought of the tiny tot being scarred forever more by melting witches, flying monkeys, and effeminate manlions, but sure enough when the lights went up she was still there, and still awake. Chances are she may never remember the experience, but seeing The Wizard of Oz on the big screen, on a 35mm IB Tech print; that’s not just being introduced to the movies, that’s how lifelong love affairs with cinema begin.

Part 2

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Blancanieves – Silent White

Matadorest of them all: Snowhite (Macarena García) in Blancanieves

Matadorest of them all: Snowhite (Macarena García) in Blancanieves

It may not be fair to say The Artist is solely responsible for the existence of Blancanieves, a Spanish silent retelling of the Snow White tale, but certainly without Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winner this film would never have been released in these parts.

Silent films never actually went away after the ’20s, but for the most part they remained in the realm of the arthouse and the experimental. Like The Artist, Blancanieves is an excellent production that presents a simple story in a manner that modern audiences are no longer accustomed to, but can quickly adapt to.

Set in Seville in the 1920s, Blancanieves retells Snow White with the king a champion bullfighter paralysed in the arena and the evil stepmother his nurse, an ambitious flapper living off her new husband’s fortune.

After her caring grandmother dies, Carmen is sent to live with her father and his wife, where she is locked away in a shed and is put to work as a servant. But she soon learns the truth about her father, the bullfighter, and mother, a beloved flamenco dancer. If this film were any more of a Spanish cliché their daughter would be unemployed right now.

Things take a sudden if expected turn after an assassination attempt on Carmen goes awry and she survives, waking up in the company of a band of travelling bullfighting dwarves. Conveniently amnesiac, this beautiful ‘Snowhite’ shows a remarkably adept skill at battling the calves the dwarfs fight with. They take her in as their star attraction, and soon she is the most talked about, and indeed fairest, person in all the land. A vengeful stepmother is quick to take notice.

The update of the story works rather well, with fashion magazines of the 1920s standing in for a magic mirror and the stepmother’s medical background representing the sorcery of the fairytale. Snow White’s friendship with the animals is here replaced by a cute relationship between the young Carmen and a comic relief rooster. In 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman the film tried to be modern and edgy by having there be eight dwarfs instead of seven – here there are six, but the missing seventh gets referenced in a nice little gag. The climactic confrontation is as macabre as the Disney version’s, while the ending has a unique twist on the fairytale’s famous ending.

Un Chien Andalou - Encarna (Maribel Verdú), our evil queen for tonight's proceedings

Un Chien Andalou – Encarna (Maribel Verdú), our evil queen for tonight’s proceedings

So why a silent film? Well, why not? We all know the story, and the dialogue, perhaps through lazy translation, perhaps through over-familiarity, is easily the film’s weakest point. If anything, there may be too many intertitles explaining what’s going on. Old-timey techniques like circular frames and closing oculus cuts are used sparingly and to good effect. The black and white is crisp if a little too heavy in contrast, and while many of the scenes look like they might have been shot in old Hollywood, the handheld camerawork that intrudes on certain scenes kills the illusion of this being a 1920s film in a way The Artist never suffered from. Film nerds will likely be peeved that while the film is framed in the suitable Academy ratio, the intertitles break out into 16:9, as if desperate to use the whole screen.

The music is infused with a Spanish flavour that energises the film for the most part, with plenty of twanging guitars and flamenco claps. The performances are mostly fine, with a little too much camping in certain cases. Macarena García makes a decent stand-in for Bérénice Bejo as Carmen, but the real charm comes from the young Carmen, played by the very sweet and capable Sofia Oria. The dwarfs all excuse themselves well, although writer/director Pablo Berger’s decision to have their leader, the Doc of the group, play a secondary antagonist to ramp up the drama does not succeed.

A huge dip in energy in the second half of the film (Carmen doesn’t become Snowhite until more than halfway through the film) means Blancanieves overstays its welcome, but the ending almost makes up for it. It’s a terribly pretty film with some fun ideas that stands as further proof that silent cinema is far from dead, even if it has been in a magical slumber for a very long time.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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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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