Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Pleasure - Review (Part II)

"I did not give you that map and key so that you could cling to the past." I loved The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey. I saw the film in 3D (conventional 3D, so there will be no discussion of the controversial 48 Frames Per Second issue here) and found it quite beautiful and immersive. Having seen it again since in 2D, I will say that I felt my eye actually had more to see in the 3D version, and so the film seems edited to favor the 3D experience, which makes sense, considering it was filmed in native 3D using 2 very high definition cameras.

Spoilers for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey follow:

The film is a very fun adventure story, and so very unique in our time. It is based on a third of a book, though I think it would be more accurate to say it is based on a third of a story. Tolkien wrote the entire history of Middle Earth in his books, and this film takes as its inspiration events during this time in that history, not limited solely to events written in The Hobbit itself. It may come as a surprise to many casual book fans that most of the "additional" material presented is not made up; no characters were introduced that do not appear elsewhere in Tolkien's writing, and character histories are, for the most part, respected. Scenes such as the battle outside Moria and the Necromancer are almost entirely lifted from other Tolkien writings, and I think they are well used here. As a child, I was very interested in the Necromancer and Dol Guldor, which Tolkien only briefly references in the book, and am very interested to see Benedict Cumberbatch (of Sherlock fame) play this pre-incarnate version of (spoiler!) Sauron. Since no comprehensive account of this battle between Gandalf and the weaker Sauron exists, this could be quite interesting, especially since, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is clearly afraid of his enemy, and considers him now beyond his skill. (Part of me also hopes the Witch King of Angmar gets his own HBO show, as his history is further hinted at here, and there is enough payoff in The Return of the King to justify a little more of it in the next film). This aspect of the trilogy's plot, which I thought was well set up in this installment, has me the most intrigued, because it is the most original part of the films, and I am curious to see what happens.

I was also pleased at the inclusion of Radagast the Brown Wizard, and shocked and delighted by his depiction. He was actually featured in The Fellowship of the Ring, but removed from the film version. He really gets his moment to shine here though, and I hope we have not seen the last of him. I found the moments of absurdity in the film, such as his rabbit sled, very entertaining. I also enjoyed the depiction of his (and Gandalf's powers) in the film, which are more robust than in The Lord of the Rings. I look forward to the battles between the wizards and the Necromancer; I wonder if Radagast will face death (since he is not in Lord of the Rings, and even in the books, I thought he might be useful), and if Saruman will be guilty of any sort of early treachery. I'd also like to praise their efforts in executing Christoper Lee's return, as his health precluded any trips to New Zealand. They were able to film his dialog on a green-screen set in London, built to match the dimensions of their set in Wellington. I'm not sure if he and McKellen were ever in the same room, but their chemistry was trans-continental.

Speaking of which, this was Gandalf's movie. Ian McKellen gets top billing for the first time (does this make him eligible for Best Actor?) and he earns it. He glides through this film, firmly rooting it and just making it awesome. Gandalf really is, as Saruman calls him, a "meddler," and is orchestrating this whole situation to a purpose. The interplay between these great "guardians of Middle Earth," sent by divine powers is fascinating. I was also struck that of all the wizards, he is the one running around on catwalks with a sword, cutting great goblins to bits, and force pushing orcs into oblivion. It's a very active life for a wizard in any franchise.

I also appreciated the structure of the film itself. Many more critical of the film than I (including some in my family), found the film boring. The film does spend quite a bit of time in Bag End, toward the beginning. This is because the whole sequence is largely preserved as Tolkien wrote it. This sequence is his true introduction to Middle Earth, and if at some point anyone watches these films starting with The Hobbit, that scene will be crucial. It's the slow introduction to fantasy that often works well with first installments; the original Star Wars is structured similarly. It also lets us feel Bilbo's reluctance. If he is off on his adventure in the first ten minutes, we might be tempted to believe this is ordinary in Middle Earth. But the time it takes to convince him proves it is not. In this way, the film becomes a strong character piece for the titular hobbit. They then do begin their journey, pursued by Orcs. I do wonder if Gandalf's question, "who did you tell?", will get answered in future films. We are not given the answer, but I do wonder if the dwarves have a traitor in their midst? Azog the Goblin, played via motion capture by Manu Bennett, is a formidable opponent. I guess what I really liked about him was he is different from the other Orcs we have seen, more wild, and dangerous. CGI characters do not generally bother me in fantasy films, as I don't find a man with makeup and plastic on his face to be more convincing. Azog is sort of the General Grievous of the movie, and I liked Grievous just fine. Same goes for the Great Goblin himself, who reminded me of Jabba the Hutt, in the best way possible. The Lord of the Rings featured many villains, but none of them were particularly comical, and I enjoyed the change. I also really liked the goblin messenger, who reminded me of Jabba's court jester in Return of the Jedi, also in the best way possible. I enjoyed the structure of the film, featuring set up, light action, then rollicking Indiana Jones style action (Goblin town felt like a very 21st century Temple of Doom) leading into the finale. Much like they did with The Fellowship of the Ring, they were able to craft an ending to the first installment that felt both like an end to this part of the story and also teased what was to come. I am excited for the audiences to see what happens next as the worst is definitely not behind them.

Of course, the MVP in all this is Martin Freeman as Bilbo. When he was first shown on screen I instantly thought that he was more like Bilbo than Ian Holm was. Peter Jackson is not George Lucas; as such he creates minor inconsistencies as he goes and ignores them. In Fellowship, Gandalf says Bilbo hasn't aged a day. He clearly has. Of course, in Fellowship, Gollum is black skinned with yellow eyes, so visual continuity is not paramount in this series, and I was ok with that, because I felt this film was true to itself; in particular, this Bilbo is true to himself.

Freeman plays every aspect of this character at once, creating a beautiful inner conflict that is a joy to watch. He is at once out of his element and yet embracing his new element as best as any normal person could. He takes to fighting in a way which we never saw Frodo, which makes him the coolest uncle you could ever have. He is also quintessentially British. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin were both Americans, feigning accents. Of the original four hobbits, only Dominic Monaghan was actually British. So, there is a certain restraint in Freeman's performance that I don't believe we saw in any of the hobbits in the previous three films. In that way, he brings real humanity to a role that could have easily been played as a very over-the-top caricature.  His groundedness allows us to enjoy the other, more fantastical aspects of the film.

I highly recommend this film if you enjoy fun, entertaining movies. If you hate fun, comedy, CGI, or good british actors, don't go see this movie. I for one love all of the above.

Update: I've since seen the film in 48 frames-per-second, and while I do now believe that 3D is the best way to view this film, I found the seemingly accelerated motion distracting and detracting from certain strong actor performance moments I noticed at the standard speed.

Click for part 3 of my review, "The Relevance of the Hobbit Today,"
Or, go back to Part I.

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