Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

2012, 169 min. PG-13
IMDB says... A younger and more reluctant Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, sets out on a "unexpected journey" to the Lonely Mountain with a spirited group of Dwarves to reclaim a their stolen mountain home from a dragon named Smaug.

The 73rd Virgin says... I saw this in glorious 2D and have no opinion on the high frame-rate 3D. I shall use the name “Jackson” and the term “he” to describe Peter Jackson and his extraordinary team of screenwriters, assistant directors, and production designers. I know nothing of the art or science of movie-making but with each Tolkien adaptation, I admire the entire crew even more.

Bear with me as I set forth my qualifications as a Tolkien and fantasy movie consumer. It’s been about 20 years since I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Hobbit, once each, and I never read The Silmarillion which apparently provides some background material for this movie. They are the only “fantasy fiction” books I ever read, unless you include the Narnia books and some Ursula K. Leguin - which I highly recommend - but otherwise nothing.

I did not play Dungeons and Dragons. Ever. I think the first Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back combined are among the 50 or so greatest movies ever made, and that the rest of the Star Wars panoply is miserable hack work. I liked the Narnia and Harry Potter movie series, but probably wouldn't go to the trouble of seeing them again.

I was a typical “college bound” high school student of the late 70s, and later a self-directed lit and poetry reader, who was exposed to vast amounts of Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Buck, Bellow, Joyce, Steinbeck, Roth, Updike, Williams, Salinger, Faulkner, on and on…And I think the Lord of The Rings trilogy is the best English language novel of the 20th century. So there.

This brings us to the movie version of the 1937 children’s book that provided some of the background legend that Tolkien eventually fleshed out into LOTR. It is already revealed wisdom that this movie is too long and too slow to begin. I even expected to feel the same. But I didn’t.

Jackson had a choice: go entirely with the sole source material of The Hobbit; or infuse this movie with some of the relatively adult sense of mystery, epic struggle and sacrifice which is central to the LOTR book and movies. By opening with a few minutes of set up and the history of betrayal and distrust between dwarves and elves, he helps us get used to the notion of dwarves as the main characters, cleverly countering any human-centric prejudice of the viewer.

Just as admirably, I think, he then gives us several minutes of re-introduction to Hobbits as a distinctive character set. Both the theatrical and extended DVD versions of LOTR open with a bare minimum of Tolkien’s leisurely description of Hobbit culture. In 2001, when hundreds of millions of dollars were on the line and there was a need to launch this franchise in a way that pulled in as many viewers as possible, it would have been dramatically very burdensome to devote long opening chunks of film to “Concerning Hobbits”.

But Jackson and crew make up for it by mining the “Concerning Hobbits” chapter at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring and transporting the feel of that chapter back to the beginning of this movie. The audience is pretty much secured; their butts are in the seats, and there is time enough for everything.

And he re-introduces Frodo (Elijah Wood) as the beloved nephew of Bilbo in a manner that circles back around neatly to the beginning of Fellowship. It’s heart-warming and artful at the same time.

When we finally get to where The Hobbit story begins, the introduction of the 12 dwarves and their comical intrusion into Bilbo’s settled life is almost exactly as I remember the book. And what many book fans missed most about LOTR in the movies – the sense of pastoral life, long slow travels, poetry and songs – are allowed to play out here. It is, in my opinion, beautifully done.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo should be up for an Oscar sometime in the next couple years. He has the tricky task of portraying a fuss-budget stay-at-home- Hobbit without being overly cutesy or feminine, but also has to develop an aura of resigned, reluctant team member. His line readings are calibrated to be wry and funny but convincingly heroic when needed. His straight-from-Tolkien line about how adventures “make us late for dinner” is an early highlight. I’m only vaguely aware of him as Dr. Watson in the recent BBC Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but he owns this. Best casting imaginable.

In fact all the acting seems as good as LOTR. I’ve seen Richard Armitage (Thorin) interviewed with his midrange tenor voice and soft manner, but here he brings out a vaguely Scottish brogue in full grumble or full roar, like he used in BBC's North and South. I can’t think of anyone better.

All is not perfect. Jackson did a miserable remake of “King Kong” a few years back, and the bad instincts that led to the dinosaur-stampede-that-simply-would-not-end show up in a few places in The Hobbit. The character of Radagast is all wrong and his sled bunny chase across mountaintops is pointless. It feels like Lucas inserting the endless racing sequence into “The Phantom Menace”, just to tie into the video game market. Also, if you are too early in the movie to kill off any of the main characters, then staging ridiculously long chase scenes where they ALMOST get killed is a waste of time and energy. Most of the chase sequences could have been cut by a few minutes.

But when Bilbo winds up in the mines with Gollum, stumbles upon the Ring, and survives the game of riddles, any Tolkien fan should be ecstatic. These scenes are just amazingly perfect. Andy Serkis as Gollum’s motioned-captured soul jumps maniacally between puppyish manipulator, pit bullish aggressor and broken-hearted victim.

It’s been a couple weeks since I first saw this, so the sequence of scenes is a bit hazy, but the Trolls and Goblin King and Moria are all here. It ends about where it should, with the crew’s first glimpse of the Lonely Mountain and some humorous foreshadowing.

I was never bored, and was quite happy with the reportedly slow pacing. As a challenge, I would ask any reasonable viewer to compare the slowest moment in The Hobbit with any of the “action” sequences in the Star Wars prequels, and ask yourself honestly - which one lacks energy?
I suppose for hardcore non-fans, the early scene where all the dwarves sing some of Tolkien’s lyrics might seem like 12 Lee Marvins singing Wanderin’ Star…
…but for the rest of us, it’s all good.

and the preview...

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