16 December 2012

TOLKIEN ON FILM: VERY AMUSING FOR ME, VERY GOOD FOR YOU - AND PROFITABLE, TOO, VERY LIKELY, IF YOU EVER GET OVER IT.

The very best thing I can think to say about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is this: it has left me with absolutely no reason to assume that 2013's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is going to be half as much of a slog. If nothing else, that sequel's title, in relation to the content of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, promises that the film shall have a great deal of something that An Unexpected Journey rather disappointingly lacks: content.

And if we could marry the flash-and-dazzle popcorn adventure theatrics of An Unexpected Journey to honest-to-God content, well heck, we'd have a movie right there.

I am, of course, being snitty: there is plenty of stuff in An Unexpected Journey. It's damn well full of stuff, in fact, stuff all the way up to a bloated 169-minute running time. But stuff is not exactly the same thing as having a rich and complicated plot, or at the very least a panoply of events. Upon learning that producer, director, and co-writer Peter Jackson, in concert with fellow writers Philippa Boyens & Fran Welsh (and a credit for Guillermo del Toro that smacks of being a bit more of a contractual thing than an actual sign of his involvement), had decided to turn a 310-page children's book into a film trilogy augmented by the material from the appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings, it was easy to assume that the new films were going to be so overburdened with the epic machinations of Great Men, hidden in the background of The Hobbit or missing altogether, would form a huge bulk of the trilogy's plot, overwhelming the simple little story of a homebody who was thrust on an adventure and found that he thrived there.

This is not the case: other than a lengthy scene right in the middle, almost everything in An Unexpected Journey is taken from the first third of the book, a book extremely light on detail, especially in that selfsame first third, and depicted in exacting detail; or, when necessary, the writers take a paragraph of general description or even just a sentence glossing over a story development, and use it as the crux for a scene. It is a film in which you can very nearly see the sweat as it struggles to invent things to happen, and the sense one gets isn't that An Unexpected Journey is 169 minutes because Jackson couldn't figure out how to shorten it any more, but because he was goddamn well not going to release a Tolkien adaptation that came in under two and three-quarter hours.

In a way, this is soothing: one recalls the last time Jackson and company opened up a fantasy trilogy in 2001, with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, that movie was hectic and frenzied in its attempt to cram an incident-heavy plot - the busiest of any individual volume of The Lord of the Rings - into just a bit under three hours. For An Unexpected Journey to instead take its time to linger over its sets and its plot points and characters isn't actually a sin, then. Except insofar as those things aren't, by and large, all that interesting: the design of the world has a definite "been there, done that" feeling to it, and while I imagine the trilogy's faithful legion would have every reason to be ecstatic to see good ol' Bag End and good ol' Rivendell again, the new film's insistence on the familiar and the domestic makes it feel less like a movie in its own right, more like a tribute to how proud the filmmakers are of the original trilogy, and want to remind you of it (certainly the length of time spent at just these two recurring locations - by far the longest pauses in the journey of the title - adds to this impression). As for the characters, the script does its best to differentiate the 15 principals, but even with only nine and more time to explore them individually, The Fellowship of the Ring still left a couple members of the titular group feeling painfully undernourished, and An Unexpected Journey has a mostly undifferentiated mass of dwarves, of whom at most four emerge from the general mass, and two of them more for their physical characteristics (Fat One and One With Pointy Hair) as for their personalities.

That leaves the film feeling more like a solo affair than an ensemble piece: and luckily, in the form of Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (played by Ian Holm in the original films, and in story-opening cameo here), An Unexpected Journey has a tremendously effective lead performance: quite possibly the best job of casting anywhere in the whole franchise, and a performance at the level of even the very best of the originals' packed casts - and since the best actors in those movies reprise their characters here, Ian McKellen as the twinkling, mysterious wizard Gandalf the Grey, and Andy Serkis as the motion-captured cave creature Gollum, it's easy to compare Freeman to them directly. Freeman's Bilbo hits all of the right notes: easily flustered, easily offended, but also enough of a closeted romantic that he secretly enjoys himself too much to be genuinely afraid of the perilous situations that confront him.

If only the film surrounding Freeman matched his nimble, fun, unfussy performance! But it is not, except in patches: the film has the good fortune to open and close with its best sequences, a myth-tinged retelling of how the great dwarf kingdom at Erebor was crushed by the thieving dragon Smaug, and a revisit with Gollum in a note-perfect dramatic version of "Riddles in the Dark", the most famous and beloved passage in all of Tolkien's writing, that finds Serkis actually better than his already best-in-show work in The Two Towers and The Return of the King; followed by a battle scene that is much the best of the film's action setpieces. And this sandwich helps to make the movie a bit more palatable.

But everything in between these end points is generally stiff, uninspiring, bland fantasy filmmaking: a leaden scene with old Bilbo and his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) that retells, in excruciating detail, what happened in the 10 minutes before The Fellowship of the Rings opened, mostly to add recurring names to the cast list; far too much business with far too many unspecific dwarves before the plot actually asserts itself, and they and Bilbo and Gandalf all go journeying through fairly unspecific locations (though as always, the New Zealand scenery is glorious), while having clumsily-staged fights along the way - until the end, there's not a single action sequence that I can get behind, with one (the characters caught in the midst of a fight between giant stone monsters) that is a complete failure of editing and visual effects compositing, and one (a chase through a subterranean city of goblins) that looks in every way more like the cutscenes from a video game based on the movie than the movie itself.

Good things crop up every now and then: the design of the Goblin King (Barry Humphries) is pleasingly yucky (and his aide-de-camp is a dead ringer for the zombie baby in Jackson's wonderful Braindead), and a LOTR reunion between McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee is fun until it becomes obvious how much their scene together is interfering with the little bit of narrative momentum that has managed to accrue. The CGI is pretty terrific throughout, and the new technology used for Gollum results in a subtler and more refined visual depiction of that character than before. In general, the film's evocation of the lighter, children's story tone of the book works fairly well - there's even a musical number that works pretty well - though Jackson's attempt to marry the book's silliness with the seriousness of his own LOTR movies (this is as violent a movie as any of them) works very poorly - there are moments where McKellen looks genuinely wretched at having to square the things he's saying with the character he has already established - and not even the book's light tone can justify the extraneous depiction of comic relief wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), with his moss-covered face and rabbit-drawn sled, and his garish bumbling even in the face of the film's one truly dark and grim location (which already looks like a carbon copy of a location from Fellowship).

Basically, the film is unfocused and stretched-out, and the good things seem almost as arbitrary and accidental as the bad things. But the Howard Shore music booms out effectively - I frankly liked it better than any of his LOTR scores - and the sense of scale in the mise en scène is there, even if it's not in the narrative yet (the final scene almost thumbs its nose at how "little" An Unexpected Journey has been, in light of where it still has to go), and Freeman is amazing. And look at what we have coming in December, 2013: spiders, barrel-riding, dragons, and were-bears. Surely there has to be something effervescent and exciting in all of that, and I look forward to regarding the current picture as "the set-up movie" instead of "the boring movie".

6/10

16 comments:

Brian said...

Sounds mildly disappointing, but about what I've been expecting since they announced it was going to be three movies.

Out of curiosity, what presentation did you see? 2D, 3D, or 48 FPS 3D? (the third isn't even an option anywhere near where I live, which I'm not sure is a blessing or a curse.)

Chris D said...

Yeesh. Sounds like all of my fears regarding the movie came true. At this point, I'm not even sure I can be bothered seeing it at all, or at least not until right before The Desolation of Smaug comes out.

I shudder to think what the extended cut's going to be like.

Brian said...

Sounds like it might put my love of extended cuts in general to the test.

Tim said...

Brian- 48fps, and I'll be discussing that tomorrow.

Chris- I refuse to believe in the extended edition until it's actually been released. There is nothing left to put in.

hayley said...

The back half of the film is splendiferous. This is Jackson unfettered. Jackson unchained. Jackson “I already got my Oscar and my legacy’s secure and now I’m gonna take my toys home and go completely bonkers and either love me or leave me alone.” At 48 fps, I saw a film so clear it seemingly hovered above the theatre. Scrotum-chinned Goblin King one of the finest character designs I have ever seen. His scribbling little messenger goblin an inspired touch. The appearance of Gollum so evocative people literally gasped at my showing. Emotions written so clearly on Smeagol’s face; every time he does his slurpy, eye-twitchy, air sucky “Fffhhhh---“ movement, you feel his every emotion and your every response to his every emotion. Setpieces spectacular. Escape from goblin lair resounding. Humor. Dashing. Danger. Bravado. Creativity is off the charts. Broad emotional scenes. Gandalf’s confession to Galadriel the great humanizing moment in the film. Bilbo’s speech on his return a completely earned empathy. Thorin’s about-face on the Halfling a tear-stifler. IT.WAS.FANTASTIC. As worthy of a double digit ticket price to a film as any I can recall over many, many moons.

Andrew Testerman said...

I liked it well enough, though I didn't love it. I totally agree that it's a set-up film, and the other two will be lovely, or more so than An Unexpected Journey. Shore's Lonely Mountain theme was fantastic, and I dig the world-building that Jackson is so good at, even if the rest of the movie couldn't support it as well. Still, good enough until next time.

One thing that did bother me the whole time, though: the teal and orange is absolutely out of control in An Unexpected Journey. Gone are the greens and earth tones of Fellowship and the sun-bleached pale browns of Towers, and in their place are the Power Point gradients of bright tangerine and deep sapphire from hell to breakfast. Even Frodo's costume was blueish. I'll be glad when this paradigm stops being a thing.

Riley Redgate said...

Ah. This is, then, as I feared. /sigh

I am still unabashedly excited to see Martin Freeman's Bilbo, I've got to say. He's just so brilliant as Watson in the BBC's Sherlock ... and well, let's be honest, the parts do have some distinct similarities.

By the way, the new tagline on your blog is hilarious. Though in the spirit of the season, I feel it is my duty to add a little Gandalf: "Tim's reviews are never long, nor are they short. They end precisely when they mean to."

RickR said...

Only sort of semi-off topic rant, but.....can we please just kill the whole idea of a "set up movie" as a legitimate way to describe a film that failed to tell its own engaging, self-contained story arc? I only became aware of this as a thing when "Phantom Menace" apologists used it to justify that film's complete narrative inertness. "Well, it's really just a setup for the next installment."

How about this- if your first installment in a series failed to tell a self-contained story arc, YOU STARTED TOO EARLY IN YOUR STORY. In other words, you fucked up, and you need to just own it.

/rant

Thrash Til' Death said...

I'm on about the same page as you, Tim. I make no apology for loving Jackson's original trilogy like life itself, and on the whole I had a good time with this one, but I'd have to be a pretty blinkered fanboy not to acknowledge some serious issues of pacing and tone. Some points to add:

- There IS, I think, a narrative arc of sorts; this is the film dedicated to Bilbo demonstrating his worth to the dwarves and to himself, which I thought his final speech rounded off quite nicely. A bit weak for 169 minutes, yes, but it's something.

- The decision to exclusively use CGI for the creatures rather than makeup effects is a travesty. The orcs in LoTR were a masterclass of grotty, warty physicality. Now they look like generic enemies from God of War 3, and it probably cost more to achieve that.

- Andy Serkis rocks. That is all.

-I had this problem with the original story too, but does anyone else feel that in The Hobbit, Gandalf comes across as... well... a dick? He's just sort of this manipulative figure who uses the dwarves' excursion to suit his own mysterious purposes, risking their and Bilbo's lives and bossing them around to no end while hardly ever sticking his own neck out. Doesn't really square with his guardian angel/Obi-wan-mentor-type-guy status from LoTR.

-As much as I enjoyed hearing Howard Shore's score again, I couldn't help thinking that some recurrent motifs invited direct and unflattering comparisons with equivalent moments in the original trilogy. I'm thinking particularly of a beat in the cavern chase scene when a pack of rope-swinging goblins get wrapped around a collapsing scaffold, and the music drops out completely for a couple of seconds to savour the sound design. It's near-identical to a moment in Two Towers when one of the Uruk-hai siege ladders falls back on to the army. It only serves to emphasise how goofy is the new scene and how comparatively little is at stake.

swjm said...

I wonder how heavily the choice of how to see this movie weighs on how people enjoy it (2D, 3D, special fps, etc).

I'm fairly certain I saw it in 2D, no special fps magic (if that was an option), but one thing stands out here - The CGI was just god awful. And I wonder if it works well in another version. Here it was seriously unpardonable, most easily comparable to some 90's video game.


Anyways, even regardless I'm pretty surprised the review is this positive. I won't deny there weren't excellent scenes - the riddle in the dark bit was spot on - but for every perfect scene, there were hordes of unnecessary draggy long annoying ones.

You mention that "Jackson's attempt to marry the book's silliness with the seriousness of his own LOTR movies (this is as violent a movie as any of them) works very poorly" - I'd say that it was on movie-killing levels of 'very poorly'. This thing just did not work.

For me, at least.

DerFuhrer said...

1. Sometimes, I wonder whether you live inside my brain and just pluck the words straight out of it, because you managed to voice out the things that I want to say but cannot articulate. My own personal view veers more towards the positive side of 6/10 rather than negative, but otherwise, I nearly agree with everything you have to say.

2. I did not take to liking the opening sequence as much as you did, probably because I was spending the entirety of it trying to get used to the 48fps thing. I concede that it is a great way of getting the exposition out of the way, if not for the fact that it delays starting the first chapter by 10 minutes (and that pre-Fellowship scene after that urgh)

3. Don't be too dismissive of the notion of an extended edition. This movie could have been worse. Much worse. The teaser trailer has a shot of Bilbo Baggins staring at the shards of Narsil, which is the cinematic equivalent of Peter Jackson nudging painfully at your side while giving knowing winks at you every 5 seconds. One could only hope that Jackson does not release the cut footage of Bilbo accidentally stumbling upon Aragorn and Arwen having sex.

4. As much as love the Hobbit score, and I do very much indeed, there are times when I wished it wasn't painfully obvious and unsubtle. I was hoping against all hope that Howard Shore will not choose to announce Bilbo's finding of the ring with the One Ring theme, and yet, he does it, with all the strings of the original trilogy. And at times, his use of the original themes are really obscure (I talk of the use of the Ringwraith theme when Thorin was facing down Azog the Additional Secondary Villain)

5. Does anyone seem to notice how, well, unneeded the 3D is here? For a movie which showcases a lot of vast landscape shots of New Zealand scenery, the depth of the frame seems somehow shallow? I was expecting vistas! Vistas stretching out into the infinite horizon! (the Eagles scene did give that) I suspect it is that blasted forced perspective thing again, which would have been an absolute nightmare to make it look convincing in 3D.

6. This movie is so frustrating. I would rather just assign it to "disposable", but there are a few scenes scattered here and there which are done great, and some even perfect (Riddles in the Dark). But Radagast! And Dol Guldur! And the Tooks! And the White Council! And Azog! And all that extraneous shit! Man, I hate it when I'm ambivalent towards a movie.

Tim said...

Hayley- Always good to have a contrasting viewpoint, it makes it a bit harder to turn things into a big old echo chamber. Which I do prefer to avoid

Andrew- Okay, I though there was a lot of teal and orange, but I know that sometimes I'm a grinch about it, so I figured I was just looking for things to be mad at.

Riley- Haven't seen Sherlock myself, but given that the next movie is going to be something of a Sherlock cast party, I'm going to put in the effort between now and then. Thanks for the compliment!

Rick- A damn fine point about set-up narratives. I remember making a similar point in, I think, my Spider-Man 2 review this summer: if origin stories are usually boring, just skip right to the good stuff, and let us catch up on the fly.

And boy, did that ever fail to be a justification for The Phantom Menace.

Thrash- Your first point is quite true, and of great concern to me: it's basically the same character arc of the book itself, and it doesn't reach this point until the "Barrels Out of Bond" chapter, which at this rate will be two hours into the next movie. So what they're going to use for a character arc there, I can't even guess.

I go back and forth on the CGI bad guys. Goblin King - cartoony fun. Azog - unbearable.

I missed that moment in the score! But that sounds like an absurdly wrongheaded decision.

swjm- I am deeply concerned about your judgment against the 2D CGI. I very consciously thought to myself, "well, the floating 48fps thing was a problem", and made the assumption that WETA couldn't possibly be that bad, so I extrapolated that it must be okay in the "real" format, which is how I'm going to regard 2D, 24fps from here out. To know that this is not the case is horribly disappointing.

DerFuhrer- Yeah, the opening scene was harder to get into because of the 48fps, but outside of the most disastrous camera movements where I felt like I was going to puke, I actually managed to stay much more focused there than on the actual plot.

Also, no forced perspective in this one - all done on computer. McKellen had some snotty things to say on that subject.

Vilsal said...

When I saw old Bilbo writing the story before giving up the ring, I figured Jackson was going to fill out the running time by going all meta. The first edition of The Hobbit famously had a different version of Riddles in the Dark, where Gollum agrees to give Bilbo the ring and is distraught when he can't fulfill his promise. In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien rather cleverly explained this contradiction by saying the ring's influence made Bilbo lie about how he got it. I was not overjoyed when I realized the purpose of the framing device was Elijah Wood.

Rebecca said...

Also, that scene with Frodo makes Bilbo look incredibly senile. Frodo explicitly tells Bilbo where he's going and why. Then skip ahead to "the next scene" in LOTR and Bilbo can't understand why Frodo isn't getting the door. I had forgotten about this until just now, and it's possible that bugged me more than any other issues.

Brian said...

Just want to point out that the Extended Cut is indeed a real thing that has been released. It isn't a massive extension though, only 13 minutes, but, still, how?

(And, of course, that damn collectors mindset of mind led me to buy the blu-ray...)

Pan Miluś said...

I think Peter Jackson did a way better job with his Hobbit films then what he did with Lord of the Rings series. I did like his LOTR films buth I often skip some parts for being to boring or just plain bad, with Hobbit I love it all from the begining to the end and I find most of the changes improvments.