Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

To say that I am a fan of Peter Jackson's seminal The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be the understatement of the century.  I have a connection to those films that runs deeper than most franchises (Bourne and Star Trek notwithstanding); The Fellowship of the Ring was one of the movies that got me interested in film over a decade ago.  I have been following The Hobbit for many years now; it was a veritable roller coaster of changes and updates to the project.  First the MGM bankruptcy issue (that also stalled Skyfall, The Cabin in the Woods, and Red Dawn) that ultimately forced Guillermo del Toro out of the director's chair.  Then it was announced as two films.  Then a third was added to bridge the gap between the two sagas.  Then it was scaled back into two films.  At Comic-Con 2012 it was rumored that there might be a third film again.  Just a few months ago Jackson finally confirmed the Hobbit trilogy, and that he and writer Fran Walsh would be drawing considerably from the appendices to the Rings books to flesh out each film.  And then there's the 48 frames-per-second debacle from CinemaCon this year.  Through all of this nonsense and tomfoolery, all that I can say is that I am very glad to be back in Middle Earth once again.

I'm going to try something a bit new for this review - I'm going to break it up into three distinct sections; my overall thoughts, a spoiler-ridden discussion of changes/additions/omissions from book to film, and some thoughts on the 3D and 48-frames business.

It's good to be back in Middle Earth:
That sentence pretty much sums up my thoughts on this film.  Jackson knows exactly how to tug at our heartstrings with nostalgia and references to the previous trilogy.  Starting out the film with Ian Holm reprising his role as Bilbo Baggins, our titular hero, and his nephew, Frodo (again played by Elijah Wood) was an utterly brilliant move.  Bilbo is beginning to write his book, "There and Back Again," just before his 111th birthday.  I felt immediately at home in Bag End, even if the narrative quickly shifts to a sixty-year-younger Bilbo.

Martin Freeman's turn as our hero, Bilbo, is nothing short of fantastic.  He retains some of Holm's mannerisms while putting his own stamp on the role.  Bilbo is not one for adventure (which is the case for most hobbits), but he allows his Tookish side to get the better of him and Freeman plays this part with aplomb.  Ian McKellen is nothing short of fantastic reprising Gandalf the Grey.  Richard Armitage's Thorin is the third of the main-character-trio.  Through most of the film he's fantastic but written to be a bit one-note.  Thorin broods and scowls at the misfortune his people have befallen - he ultimately blames himself for their situation and is pretty emo about the whole thing - and complains openly about Bilbo consistently.  Yet again a stand-out is the Academy Award-overlooked Andy Serkis as the memorable Gollum/Smeagol.  Weta did yet another smashing job with Gollum; his facial expressions and eye movements are truly a sight to behold.  There are several shots of just his reactions to Bilbo that are simply fantastic.

For the uninitiated, The Hobbit is essentially a children's adventure novel, set 60 years before the events of the trilogy.  And no, it isn't a prequel; Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a standalone book with no idea of the trilogy he would eventually go on to write.  "Wandering" wizard Gandalf the Grey is looking for the 14th member of an expedition and chooses Bilbo (Gandalf knew Bilbo as a young, adventurous hobbit).  The 12 dwarves that make up the bulk of this group are on a quest to retake their ancestral homeland of Erebor.  Many years prior a villainous dragon by the name of Smaug invaded their mountain fortress and took their gold and riches for himself.  The grandson of the ousted king Thror, Thorin Oakenshield, leads the charge to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.  What follows is a sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-dark and menacing adventure that involves orcs, goblins, trolls, elves, and wargs.  And rock giants.

The Hobbit is a long film; it clocks in at a staggering 169 minutes.  I knew I was watching a long film but it is a good kind of long film.  The pacing is a beautiful blend of action and expository dialogue that keeps the film clipping along at a decent rate.  Scenes that are uneventful in the book (during which our group is traveling for weeks and even months) are injected with some artfully-shot action that speeds up events and raises the stakes for our heroes.  There are several stand-out set-pieces and moments; an exhilarating chase scene involving hundreds of goblins, an utterly brilliant finale atop a cliff, and of course, the momentous occasion of the One Ring-obsessed Gollum meeting the "Bagginses" for the first time.  Their game of riddles is gripping and is one of the best sequences of the film.

I had goosebumps many times throughout this film...mainly due to the great score.  While perhaps not as memorable as the tremendous score for the trilogy, Howard Shore mixes themes of old with the new "Lonely Mountain" ballad that our company sings before leaving.  This new theme is blended with movements from the original trilogy beautifully; old emotions are evoked while new ones created.  There are a few moments where the old songs rise out of nowhere at pivotal scenes that just left me with chills.  And its not just music that evokes the original trilogy - characters are present in this film that weren't in the book (more on that later), and even certain shots and moments are evocative of Jackson's previous works...which in Tolkien's case that order would be reversed.  Here we get references to events that won't transpire for another 60 years.  In this fashion said references would be able to work either way, depending upon your viewing order of the two trilogies.

If it's not obvious, I loved every moment of The Hobbit - but it's not without its flaws.  I mainly take umbrage with the usage of CGI in the film; the original trilogy felt very real because of the heavy usage of prosthetics and practical effects.  More than a decade has passed since Jackson shot the trilogy and digital effects-work has grown tremendously.  As a result, where there were once actors in makeup there are now wholly digital characters on screen.  At times it works fine but others...not so much. One can only wonder what type of effects we would've gotten had del Toro remained in the director's chair...

If you stop reading here I don't blame you.  You know you're going to see this film regardless of what else I have to say.  It is important to note that The Hobbit is a children's book, and as so the film is a lot more whimsical than its predecessors at times; the gaggle of dwarves provides bits of comic relief here and there, and there are quite a few more songs than we're used to in Middle Earth.  Who knew that dwarves and goblins like to sing that much?

You...shall not...pass!
Still with me?  Okay, so here's where we get to talk about the changes that were made in the transition from book to film.  I'd like to start off by saying the I loved every single addition/change/and omission that the many writers of this film chose to make.  The many changes actually enhance the story and streamline things a bit at times and also introduce characters and ideas much earlier in the film than in the book.

A prime example of this is Azog the Defiler and his relationship to Thorin.  From what I recall Azog is merely mentioned in the book, but the film actually takes us to the battle for Moria, in which a dwarven army, lead by Thorin's grandfather, Thror, attempt to retake the mine from a horde of goblins, lead by Azog himself.  He cuts down Thror in front of Thorin, sending him into a rage that eventually leads to Azog being seemingly cut down.  We quickly learn that Azog is alive and is seeking revenge against Thorin; he and his pack of warg-riding-goblins track and attack our group throughout the entire film.  This addition adds a much-needed antagonist that was absent for almost the entire book.  Smaug is essentially the book's antagonist, but he doesn't show up until the last third.  This build-up of tension between these two characters is handled masterfully and culminates in one of my favorite scenes of the year, in which Thorin confronts Azog in the middle of raging fires while his companions dangle off the edge of a cliff.  In the book there was some tension in this scene, as the attacking wargs were fought off by Gandalf's fire, but the film ramps up the stakes by adding Azog into the mix.

There are myriad changes made to the story in smaller but still-effective ways.  The Arkenstone is introduced in what is essentially the prologue to the film, which actually shows us Dale and the dwarven kingdom of Erebor.  We get to see this thriving culture and their massive mining operation (that results in the discovery of the Arkenstone).  Thranduil the Elvenking (Lee Pace, the pie maker!)makes a quick appearance, paying tribute to Thror and his new stone.  A new subplot is introduced when Smaug shows up to wreck everyone's party; Thranduil and his elven army simply stand by as their dwarven allies are forced to flee their home.  Thranduil isn't willing to risk the lives of his kin to save the dwarves' home.  Thorin now carries with him a deep-seeded hatred for elfkin.

This brings me to another addition: The White Council.  This is only mentioned in the book, but we get to see the Council meet and discuss the trip to Erebor and another briefly-mentioned character (in the book), the Necromancer.  Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (the beautiful Cate Blanchett), Gandalf, and Saruman (Christopher Lee) comprise the group; for fans, it is great to see these epic characters on-screen together, especially knowing the events that come to pass in the Rings trilogy.  It is here than Gandalf reveals another connection to the trilogy, a Morgul blade.  Fans will recall that Frodo is stabbed in the shoulder by a Nazgul, using a Morgul blade, at Weathertop (which is a location that is briefly re-visited in this film).  The blade was given to Gandalf by another new character, Radagast the Brown.  Radagast is given only one sentence in the book, but here his character is expanded quite a bit.  He is more-or-less the protector/overseer of the forest that will come to be known as Mirkwood.  He's the first to really notice the coming evil that will end up being the return of Sauron, and ventures into the lair of the Necromancer.  He is attacked by a spirit (who is one of the resurrected Ring Wraiths/Nazgul) and procures said blade.  The addition of the Necromancer plot line will add some undoubted action to the next film, as we see Gandalf face off against him, and will undoubtedly culminate in the return of Sauron.

There are very small tweaks made that service the story in the end.  How Bilbo gets to the meeting of Gollum is different, but the result is the same.  That is the theme with all of the changes - journey may be different but the destination is the same.  Before arriving in Rivendell, our group is attacked by a pack of Azog's wargs, who are driven off by a hunting party lead by Elrond himself.  This small bit of action is injected into an otherwise-dull traveling sequence.  The group still ends up in Rivendell, but now Elrond is in battle armor (which is totally badass), and we get a bit of dialogue about how his team was tracking these goblins.  The sequence in which our heroes encounter the stone giants has been altered quite a bit; rather than just seeing the giants in the distance, throwing rocks around, our group is now directly in the middle of a three-way battle that threatens their safety.  It's little changes like this that ultimately end up making the story a more enjoyable viewing experience; in a book you can mention that the group traveled for a few weeks or months, but considering film is a visual medium, something new is required to keep our attention and allow the film to flow forward.

The board is set.  The pieces are moving.
The piece in question is the filming of The Hobbit in 48 frames-per-second.  I don't want to get too into what this exactly means, but essentially films have been shot in 24 frames for over one hundred years.  Yes, video games and certain other media have been presented in higher framerates than 24 (most games run at 30 or 60), but seeing a film on the big screen at 48 is something that will take time getting used to.

The easiest way I can describe is it that the lighting is sort of that of a day-time soap opera, and the smoothness is reminiscent of a cinematic cut-scene in a video game.  The motion blur that is present in 24 frames is non-existent with this higher rate.  More frames=smoother picture.  I was used to it after a while, but it didn't quite reach comfortability with me.  I wasn't taken out of the experience, but I was constantly aware of what I was watching.  Action scenes in particular, where the camera is speeding and swooping around, are where the additional frames are most obvious.  One downside of 48 frames is that the digital effects seem that much more unreal.  It is just a bit more obvious that they are digital creations than if I had seen the film at 24 frames.  I am anxious to check out the lower rate version to see the diffrerences.

While most people will probably walk away having not enjoyed themselves, I think this is a step in the right direction.  New technology or ways of film-making require just one person to open the door and hopefully Jackson is that person (there is already talk that X-Men: Days of Future Past will be shot in 48 frames).  The 3D in the film works fairly well; rarely-used are something-coming-at-the-screen-gimmicks.

The Hobbit is a fantastic film that gets just about everything right.  While perhaps it doesn't quite live up to its predecessors, it is most certainly a step in the right direction for this new trilogy.  Just enough homage is paid to what came before that it doesn't overshadow this new adventure and new characters.  The additional story lines and general streamlining of the book's plot does wonders in moving along the story at a brisk pace.  If you enjoyed the Rings saga then this is a no-brainer.  For the uninitiated, this film is a perfect jumping-in point.  The problem is that we have to wait a year for The Desolation of Smaug, and eighteen months for There and Back Again.

The Hobbit is a fantastic, well-executed film that just barely misses the greatness of the Rings trilogy.

The Bearded Bullet.

No comments:

Post a Comment