Thursday, December 20, 2012

THE HOBBIT Proves That The Magic Is Still Strong In Peter Jackson's Middle Earth


- The Lord of the Rings books are some of my all-time favorites - I first read them as a young kid, and that experience has stayed with me ever since, and helped inform the kinds of stories I sought out and still do. I completely love the LOTR movie trilogy, and named them as my picks for Best Films of the Decade circa 2009. Over the last several years, it's been a pleasure to watch Peter Jackson become one of the most exciting and inspiring film directors of our time - a man whose passion for the material he works on is tangible in his movies, a man who is nearly the equal of Spielberg in his ability to craft set-piece action sequences, and up there with Ridley Scott in his skill at creating fully-realized, visually-dazzling fantasy worlds. And so, my anticipation for THE HOBBIT was off the charts. The long road towards production made it all the more satisfying when the film finally coalesced into a reality. When Jackson and his team assumed the reigns, after many false starts, all felt right in Middle Earth. Jackson, reunited with the likes of Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee, making The Hobbit. This is how it was supposed to be.

Somewhere along the way, however, something seemed to feel a little off about the endeavor. Sure, Jackson's trademark "making-of" videos were fantastic, chill-inducing fan service. And the casting of Martin Freeman as Bilbo was greeted with universal praise. But later, Jackson's decision to make The Hobbit into three films instead of one, or even two, caused a wave of negativity. If there was any one criticism of the LOTR films, it was their lack of brevity - did Jackson really need to extend The Hobbit - a book that was far  simpler and shorter than the LOTR trilogy - with that sort of elongated treatment? Then, there was the use of 48 frames-per-second in the film. This was another extremely sensitive subject. After all, who *didn't* love the gorgeous, painterly look of the original films? Most wanted new films that felt like a return to a beloved place - not something that looked completely different than what we all hold nostalgic affection for. There was a fear that 48 fps could put a black mark on the whole film.

After seeing THE HOBBIT, both of these concerns, I think, turned out to be at least partially justified. It doesn't feel like three films are wholly necessary to tell this story, especially given how much of this world is already established thanks to LOTR. The movie too often takes the focus off of Bilbo, and instead gives us any number of side stories, nostalgic tips of the hat to LOTR, and extended expository exercises. It remains to be seen how the decision for three movies ultimately pays off. But a little of what I saw here worried me, I'll admit. Meanwhile, the 48 fps technology, in my view, hugely detracted from the film's overall effectiveness. It gives the entire film an overly-glossy, smoothed-over, hyper-real look that severely undermines the beauty of the fantastic sets and costumes in the movie. There's now a stark contrast between the film's real and CGI elements, creating a "layer" effect where there's no longer the seamless blend of CGI and live-action from the original trilogy. The CGI now looks completely unreal, without the earthiness or grittiness that allowed, say, Gollum, to meld with the movie's human actors in LOTR. The filter between viewer and screen now feels essentially lifted, meaning that the suspension of disbelief is much harder. We can see where every CGI effect was inserted, where every dash of makeup was applied, where every fake beard was affixed to an actor's face. The scenes that are primarily CGI now flow with an unparalleled vividness, and the 3D is the smoothest and most seamless I've ever seen in a live-action film. But the benefits of the 48 fps by no means outweigh the costs. Suffice it to say, I kept longing during the film to see it in the same manner as I did the original trilogy.

Now I say these things to get them out of the way at the outset. The fact is, despite these issues ... I still loved THE HOBBIT.

The thing is ... the LOTR movies have always been about more than what's on the surface. There's a certain magic that Jackson and team bring to these movies that, again, is less about the length of certain scenes or the way the movie looks, and more simply about the love they have for Tolkien and Middle Earth. And while the story of The Hobbit may not be as epic or as world-shaking as LOTR, by its nature, Jackson still brings the same sense of respect and care for the source material to this one, and still makes it feel as whimsical, wondrous, and full of imagination as Fellowship, Two Towers, or Return. It's a tough challenge. As a kid, I remember reading The Hobbit, and then being astounded to find that this was just the prelude to a much more sprawling and serious epic. All the little details of Middle Earth that Tolkien sprinkled throughout the book - those were all hints of the gigantic tapestry he was crafting. So for the movies to go in the reverse order - to go from the vast and sprawling and serious epics, to the smaller-scale, more lighthearted, more kid-friendly prelude - Jackson is essentially rowing against the tide here. And yet, what he does is pretty cool when looked at in the context of the whole six-film epic that he will have eventually crafted. He's going back and reverse-engineering The Hobbit as a prelude, dropping quick glimpses of characters like Elrond and Galadriel, and hinting at a rising tide of darkness sweeping over Middle Earth. Does he lay it on too thick? Maybe. But mostly, Jackson skillfully balances nostalgic callbacks to fan-favorite characters and locations with the retroactive need to set up LOTR. Those movies are now a decade old, so it's a little jarring. It will be fascinating, though, to someday watch all the films in narrative order and see how, indeed, they end up fitting together.

Like I said, Jackson captures the magic of the LOTR films, but he also adapts to follow the more storybook-esque structure of The Hobbit. In that book, each chapter is almost like a self-contained short story - an effect of the book's origins as a series of bedtime stories told by Tolkien to his children. And I think it's important to remember that when watching the film. The movie follows a similar chapter format - many chapters lifted directly from the book ("An Unexpected Party," "Riddles in the Dark,"), and others invented for the film (an extended encounter with a group of ravenous trolls, an aside featuring the kooky wizard Radagast the Brown). So, while some may take issue with the film's structure, I enjoyed that it honored the spirit of the book in this way. My only real complaint is, again, that the movie veers too far away from telling the story from Bilbo's perspective. I mean, it goes so far as to use a framing device where Ian Holm - back as Old Bilbo - tells Elijah Wood's Frodo his tale of adventure. So when the movie goes off on extended tangents about Radagast's escapades or Thorin the Dwarf's feud with a nasty Orc warrior - it can feel a little forced.

It's hard to get too upset though when the vast majority of the film is so darn delightful. For one thing, the cast is fantastic. Ian McKellan is again an MVP as Gandalf. The man is basically a wizard - he's got the part down to a science, and wholly embodies the character in iconic fashion. When Gandalf is on-screen, you are entertained ... period. I enjoyed that the wizard we see here is a slightly more whimsical version than in LOTR. He has occasion to be serious and badass, but Gandalf's less-intense personality is emblematic of the fact that this movie takes place in a lighter, brighter age than in the original trilogy. McKellan displays that duality to perfection here. As Bilbo, Martin Freeman is also superb. It's still a little surreal to see an actor I became a fan of years ago - as Tim on The Office - playing this sort of iconic fantasy role. But the same sort of "is-this-really-happening?" impishness that made Tim a classic comedy character serves Freeman well in The Hobbit. What remains to be seen is if Freeman can muster up the sort of wide-eyed earnestness that Holmes and Wood had in LOTR. There are signs of that range here, but mostly, this is Freeman as a slightly disaffected version of Bilbo. Perfect for this opening film in the trilogy - but I'll be curious to see how the fear of death and the toll of the Ring affects Freeman's performance in the subsequent movies.

As for the band of dwarves that accompany Bilbo and Gandalf on their journey to confront the evil dragon Smaug, they are certainly a motley crew of personalities. On one hand, there aren't characters that stand out like Gimli or Legolas did in LOTR. On the other hand, the point is less that these characters stand out, and more for them to be strange and gruff and a device to show how Bilbo is suddenly getting swept up into this wider world of adventure and danger. That said, Richard Armitage is quite good as badass dwarf Thorin Oakenshield. Armitage brings a real gravitas to the role, and lends the film a bit of edge that might otherwise be missing. Obviously, there's not really an "epic hero" equivalent of Aragorn in The Hobbit, so Thorin fills the gap.

Also, even though they play minor roles, I think it's worth mentioning the sheer awesomeness of key LOTR returning players like Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee. Their scenes are brief, but man, are these guys good - iconic, all of them. It's a particular treat to see Lee here as Sauruman the White. Knowing that the actor was ailing at the time of the movie's filming, it feels fitting and proper that Jackson went to great lengths to ensure that Lee was afforded the opportunity to cameo.

I will also reiterate that Peter Jackson still has the ability to direct action like few others. Some of the set pieces in THE HOBBIT tend to be a little bit more cartoonish and slapsticky than in LOTR, but again, that's in keeping with the spirit of the book. But Jackson does big action better than just about anyone not named Spielberg. Some of the film's biggest sequences - an underground confrontation with a horde of goblins, for example - are absolutely breathtaking. Similarly, complaints about 48 fps aside, Jackson continues his tradition of making Middle Earth feel positively alive and real. Locations are rendered in stunning detail. Some are familiar - like Bilbo's quaint dwelling in Bag-End. Some are new - the Misty Mountains, for example. And all are pretty awesome. Some will complain that Jackson throws in some unnecessary stuff. But really, can you complain when that stuff includes giant rock monsters hurling rubble at one another, glimpses of the evil-in-waiting Necromancer, and/or insane battle scenes of dwarf vs. orc armageddon?

The thing is ... Jackson not only has a knack for epic action, but he also has an innate sense for how to get the smaller moments right. At the end of the day, what often made LOTR so great were the little moments of friendship, fear, hope, and inspiration that make the stories emotional quests as well as geographical journeys. Jackson again weaves many such great little moments in The Hobbit. Again, it can be a little hard to view The Hobbit as its one thing in the wake of the previous trilogy. But if you look at it serving the same sort of function as the book - as a gateway into Middle Earth, as a sort of entry point into this world, then you have to admire the sense of awe and wonder that Jackson infuses the film with. Bilbo is our gateway - the Middle Earth equivalent of your average real-earth suburban homebody. We begin with his simple life getting interrupted by an unexpected party, his home filled with dwarves and wizards. But once recruited into their ranks, Bilbo's life becomes one of adventure. And with him as our eyes and ears, we see the big, wider world that's out there. We see its wonders (Galadriel, Rivendell), and its horrors (Gollum, Orcs, Trolls, and Goblins). But through it all, there is the recurring theme that Bilbo is a man who has a greater purpose than just sitting at home by his lonesome. And this, of course, is where The Hobbit nicely dovetails back to the greatest theme of all of Tolkien's work - "even the smallest ones can change the course of the future."

In all honesty, it's nearly impossible at this juncture to have a fully-formed opinion of The Hobbit. A key aesthetic / technical decision - to present it in 48 fps - was misguided in my opinion. But ultimately, that won't affect how the film stands the test of time. Perhaps some of the over-use of CGI will (the Orc leader Azog still looked too cartoony / CGI-ish to me). But mostly, the movie is a great blend of the themes and grandeur of LOTR with the smaller and more whimsical tone of The Hobbit as written by Tolkien. And the magic of the original trilogy is still there ... In the "Riddles in the Dark" sequence, where Bilbo first encounters Gollum deep beneath the earth (Andy Serkis is, of course, exceptionally fantastic, once again, as Gollum). When the company of dwarves, assembled at Bilbo's small home, begins grimly, hauntingly chanting the song of the Misty Mountains in unison. When we get our first and final glimpse at the dragon Smaug, in a teaser of a cliffhanger that gave me the same feeling I got after first watching Fellowship of The Ring: "I want to see the next movie right now." These magical moments elevate the film, make it more than the sum of its parts.

So no, I don't know how this new trilogy will stack up when all is said and done, or how it will fill out Peter Jackson's decades-long Lord of the Rings epic both as a prelude and companion piece. What I do know is that, even with its faults, there isn't a team I'd rather see helming this massive undertaking - no other filmmakers I'd rather see bringing this story to life.

My Grade: A-

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