Thursday, December 13, 2012

[Review] The Hobbit

There will be [movie] spoilers.

So, I finally got around to watch The Hobbit in the local cinema last night. 'Finally' sounds kind of weird a word to use considering the film's been out for one day; and it also doesn't really work in the sense that I've long been anticipating this release because I really haven't. Didn't get hyped up until a couple of weeks ago, and then only mildly.
I didn't have any high expectations because I've been quite convinced all the way that The Hobbit wouldn't be able to live up to the previous trilogy, even though that one had its flaws as well.
Of the things I was (mildly) concerned about were the Dwarves, who in previews and promotional pictures seemed 'off', the integration of this film into the overall story-line followed up with The Lord of the Rings, the (ab)use of CGI, and blunt links to the first three movies (you know, nod nod wink wink). Of these four concerns, the film surprised me positively on one of these points, while the three others were as I had feared.

The Dwarves turned out to be quite enjoyable entertainment, and with some excellent acting too - both Thorin Oakenshield and Balin were portrayed in a manner that made me believe in them (the other Dwarves were relegated to the background mostly, though we got a few scenes with the two least Dwarf-looking of them all); the makeup and their movements were far more convincing on the screen than in the previews and pictures, so that was a relief. Also, perhaps surprisingly perhaps not, Jackson didn't go entirely in the 'dwarves are a joke' trap like he did with Gimli son of Gloín in The Two Towers and Return of the King. There are a few comedy bits here and there (few got laughs from the audience, however; the laughs were mostly reserved for Bilbo Baggins himself), but Jackson manages to portray the Dwarves in a more sober manner, tying them closer to the vision of Tolkien - fortunately. In a few flashback scenes with the Dwarves of Erebor we get to see them being great fighters, durable workers and hoarders of riches. Thorin Oakenshield has a strong presence throughout the movie to the point the film could almost have worked as The Dwarf Prince (in fact I felt that Bilbo was underrepresented in this film). Yay for the Dwarves then, mostly. 

I was worried that Jackson would take The Hobbit and build it to be too similar to The Lord of the Rings, and he did. Instead of giving the film (and the two sequels to come) a stronger identity of its own it feels more like a fourth LOTR movie. The references to the existing trilogy come hard and fast, especially in the first half of the film, to the point that it becomes a little bit silly. Entire lines of dialogue are lifted from the original trilogy (feels so weird to call it original trilogy - that's a title reserved for Star Wars isn't it), many of the large-scale scenes are set up to be as epic as those of the three first films (which hurts the film more than it does good, in my opinion, more on that later); and frankly the film throws us one too many familiar face from the originals as well - to the point of the audience laughing during the scene at Rivendell where Elrond introduces Galadriel who was brought there by Sarumann. The scene is clunky because they all show up conveniently and quickly. Of course, The Hobbit does feature Lord Elrond and Rivendell but I feel the film takes it too far in connecting it to Fellowship of the Ring which I find unnecessary. 

There are some nods and winks that do work, however; the entire opening sequence where they go back to the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring but show us different scenes works wonderfully and helped settle me back into Middle-earth; as an example we got to see Frodo hang up the "No admittance except on party business" - sign on Bilbo's fence gate. A natural tie to the first of the films which is fun for those who can run Fellowship through their heads and not a problem for those who don't see the link. 
Gandalf banging his head in the lamp in Bilbo's hallway is another little nod that works in context.

The CGI was one of the biggest problems for me personally. It was also one of the things that bothered me a lot with LOTR. I felt, however, as if Jackson turned it up yet another notch with The Hobbit which I find wrong; The Hobbit should be more subdued, less epic, to allow him to build toward the next two films and the next trilogy in the sequence. Instead, endless hordes of CGI orcses are thrown at us; we're given more wargs (design-wise a big step up from the criminally stupid looking wargs of The Two Towers, but looking just as fake); Goblin-town is basically a repetition of the flight from Moria but with yet more CGI stupidity and unbelievable heroics; while the party does see giants in the mountains in the novel, it doesn't mean Jackson has to give us mountain-sized rocks in the shapes of men throwing rocks at each other only for the spectacle - their appearance is a scene devoid of emotional impact but hey, I am more thirty-eight than I am thirty-six now, and the kids probably gobble this up. The mountain giant scene is a good example of what went wrong here. A display of CGI that doesn't look too bad, but neither does it look convincing; the absurd epicness of it taking away from the dramatic impact; excising the giants and have Bilbo simply slip off the ledge would have been infinitely more exciting than having the party "surf" crashing mountain slopes (similar to the fellowship surfing bridge pieces in Moria in Fellowship). 

To further illustrate the point, consider the finest scenes of The Hobbit. All of them are about character, all of them are scenes that advance the plot and gives us insight: the riddle scene with Bilbo and Gollum is the best example. Yes, CGI is used for Gollum but in this case there's dialogue, there's tension, there's drama, there's characterization. Effects support the story here, and the audience grew quiet and apprehensive, interested in the riddle game. It drew us right back in after a long stretch of endless boring scenes of cartoon characters fighting other cartoon characters usually viewed from a distance to encompass the epicness of it all. Other good scenes are mostly found in the first half, with limited special effects; the Dwarves ringing on Bilbo's bell, the party crossing country on horse and bantering on their way; really, the first half or so of the film almost reaches the excellence of Fellowship of the Ring, while the second half takes on all the flaws that made, in my opinion, The Two Towers and Return of the King less interesting.

Azog, then; the freaking big orc thing with more than a passing resemblance to Voldemort, is another example where CGI ruins the immersion. He looked kind of awesome in his first scene (flashback scene where he decimates Dwarves left and right) but devolves into an uninteresting foil for Thorin Oakenshield, never looking quite real as he rides his cartoon wolf in pursuit. The whole Azog subplot added to The Hobbit is tacked on to pad the film, and though Azog is a Tolkien invention, the film could just as well have done without him. His motivation is simple, kill the Oakenshield because he took off my arm, there's no development or anything with Azog. He's just... there. To suck. 

Seems I already have covered my concerns for the 'blunt links' upward of this sentence so I won't rehash that. Let me quickly drop in a few more thoughts and objections before coming to a conclusion.

Radagast was, in my opinion, just so unexpectedly off course that I didn't know what to make of his scenes at first. Somewhat amusing, but so far out from what we know of the five great Wizards of Middle-earth that, well yes, they took him too far. They are taking most things too far in this film, don't they? Just look at the dish washing scene with the Dwarves throwing around plates and cups and utensils. Was that really necessary? I understand doing the dishes is an important part (it featured in Fellowship as well, remember) and it's the small things that keep the darkness at bay, but making an unbelievable sequence out of it just for the sake of...I don't know why really Jackson deemed it important to show us how good the Dwarves are at throwing kitchen supplies around in a totally disruptive, unbelievable manner. Their escape from Goblin-town: way over the top with gravity-defying feats of acrobatics,taking away any real emotional punch and thus feels as immersive as the lifeless CGI worlds of prequel Star Wars

However, unlike George Lucas' prequel trilogies, The Hobbit has some excellent actors working for it. Martin Freeman inhabits the role of Bilbo Baggins satisfyingly, down to the quirks first employed by Ian Holm (who made a, for me, surprising appearance); it is also Martin's facial expressions and earthly lines of dialogue that generate the most laughs and I suppose empathy from the audience. He should have been more prominent throughout the entire film; he's the winner.
The guy who plays Thorin Oakenshield, Richard Armitage, likewise does an excellent job of inhabiting the character, coming off as both heroic, a leader and a Dwarf. 
The old crew - Ian McKellen specifically - repeat their roles, with Gandalf occasionally spouting similar or exact lines from the Rings movies; the repeat of his 'do not take me for a conjurer of cheap tricks' - cheap trick was especially annoying, because it didn't feel right in the context and it takes away from the first time he does this in Fellowship. Sarumann and Galadriel and Elrond all feel stilted, unnecessary and the movie could have done just fine without them - one of them would've been enough, and that would've been Elrond. They did a good job making them look younger than in the Rings with the exception of Gandalf who looks older and Bilbo who looks right but sounds ten years older instead of younger. Minor minor niggles, just occurred to me so I wrote it down. Elijah Wood was almost as awkward as he was in the first films, but if you blink you'll miss him. He didn't have to utter the word molldor though, that's a good thing.

Ack, so much silliness in this film. I truly wonder in some instances how Jackson could come to the conclusion this or that was a good choice. I was surprised to see the characters coming within sight of Erebor toward the end of the film (and why those stupid eagles set them down on a fricking tall plateau instead of, you know, on the ground) when we have potentially six hours more of movie ahead. Also surprised to have Bilbo find the ring so early on, I believed it would be the centerpiece of episode two. Anyway, no need complaining about what could have been, or what is missing, or what have you. What we got was a deeply flawed movie with some great acting, some good scenes...

...when the end credits of Fellowship of the Ring began rolling back in 2001, I had tears in my eyes. The film had sped past and suddenly we had come to the end of the first part of the story. Even though it had its problems - similar to The Hobbit's in fact - it was a heart-warming adaptation of Tolkien's book and still the best of them in my opinion. When The Hobbit's end credits began rolling last night, I was relieved it was over. The film dragged, and I mean dragged, for long periods. By the end I was so tired of the impossible battles, one after the other, with nothing of worth happening, that I was glad it was over. I overheard a few kids in the hallway today speaking excitedly about the film, but even they seemed to agree that it was a CGI overkill and that by the end they'd had more than enough; also they seemed to agree with me that it is the first half, the build-up and characterization, that was where the movie was at its best.

I do remain a geek and will probably watch it one more to re-evaluate my first opinions. I know I was just as bummed out after The Two Towers but that film grew on me. It also struggled with pacing, overblown CGI, stretches of plodding etc. but it did have a stronger story to tell. 

The most irritating part of the story, however, remains an invention of J.R.R. Tolkien, however: those fricking Deus Ex Eagles, always coming just in the nick of time to save everyone from certain doom. Already employed in Return of the King, their return here becomes, even if they did appear in the books as well, a bit of an eye-rolling event. The scene also shows - again - how bigger and better is not more exciting. The Dwarves are on a precipice, everything is burning down around them, orcs and wargs aplenty, there's always someone dangling above dizzying heights, it gets boring and repetitive. It's in these cases Jackson should consider deviating from the plot to bring us something fresh; as it stands, The Hobbit, especially to people only used to the films, will feel like nothing but a rip-off. Compare it to Fellowship: Both begin with an introduction of ye olden days with cgi battle aplenty; both continue in the Shire with the Hobbits; both have treacherous walkways through the mountains with rocks/ice dropping down on them; both have a vast underground realm of goblins through which the party fights; dialogue is repeated, character facial expressions are repeated; both have Rivendell at the centre with Elrond; this is where Jackson could have tried to make things a little different (but not too different). Oh wait I wasn't finishing bashing those damned eagles. They are so contrived, they do still not look that realistic; Tolkien could have written significantly shorter books based on their existence. "In the ground there was a hole...there lived a hobbit. One day a wizard and thirteen dwarves showed up. The hobbit decided to go on an adventure with them. Gandalf whistled and big fricking eagles came down and carried them to the gates of Erebor." Same goes for LOTR, why didn't those eagles fly Frodo at least some of that horrendously long way to Molldor? Had I made The Hobbit I certainly wouldn't reintroduce these big birds. 

It is all so blown up, so overly dramatic without becoming more believable, so...annoying that they couldn't do the book justice. Two more things that I feel ruined the experience: Reusing music exactly as it was written for LOTR seems to me a cop-out. In some cases it is warranted, like hearing the theme of the Elves when Thranduil the Woodland King arrives (he was cool), but it is never subdued or altered a little to make it unique; it sounds like they just added directly from the LOTR soundtrack CDs; there is an epic choral moment from The Two Towers that gets repeated in an entirely different context in The Hobbit and it is grating. It is like when they copy/paste Yoda's theme over a totally unrelated bit (the droid factory video game sequence) in Attack of the Clones. Bah!

Another thing that looked fricking silly to me was when the party went to Rivendell; first, they are out on a wide open plain eerily similar to Rohan in The Two Towers (probably same shooting location?), they fall down a cave, follow a crevice and suddenly they are in Imladris, bounteous and lush, as if they stepped through some fricking portal. Or Warren. Yes, yes...a Malazan movie would be cool...so cool....

Arf, I think I'll leave it at this, though there's even more to be said. I've never hated on the LOTR films like many Tolkien-fanatics seem to do; I liked them for what they were, and agreed to many of the deviations Jackson devised for his movies. But in The Hobbit I am afraid he fails to sell his vision to me.

I'd give it a 6 out of 10. I am very surprised to see so many raving reviews over at imdb.com



2 comments:

  1. Hey Slynt, a good review and really spot-on, at least in my eyes. I saw the movie yesterday and was annoyed by the exact same things, so I like that you point out small scenes like the Gandalf-rage scene and it's effect on the whole context. Same thing goes with the reuse of the original music.
    The one thing I would add is that I still immensely enjoy the landscape shot of the trilogy, especially in The Fellowship, and was looking forward to seeing some beautiful shots again. But with the 3D and the increasing use of CGI I am now unable to recognize if a shot was an original New-Zealand-shot or 90% CGI and that was a real bummer for me.
    Well, keep it up!

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  2. Thank you Shadrik, I admit there were some beautiful landscape shots in this one as well, but yeah, it definitely didn't evoke the sense of grandeur that 'Fellowship' had.

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