Thursday, December 13, 2012

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” – Peter Jackson has gone to the dark side.

After watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first thing I thought was that I could smell faint whiffs of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. There was far too much reliance on CGI, too much focus on making things visually pretty, too much content aimed at children, and a slew of characters and dialogue that made you want to drown yourself in your gigantic soda pop. Above that, there was the undeniable fact that this was the first part of a trilogy that is a prequel to arguably the best trilogy ever made. Or how about this analogy – we get to watch the One Ring’s origin just as we had to endure Darth Vader’s origin in the Star Wars prequel. If that’s not a big enough red flag, then Peter Jackson’s announcement that The Hobbit would be broken into three movies instead of the planned two was a flag even the dead wouldn’t miss.

The second thing I thought after leaving the screening was that Jackson is suffering from the same disease George Lucas contracted. This disease includes symptoms such as forgetting (or ignoring) who your audience is, fixating on CGI and visuals, and overindulging in every possible way simply because you can – in other words, Gigantic Head Syndrome. Lucas can at least be partly forgiven due to the twenty year gap between his sequels that included the birth and development of CGI. Jackson has no such excuse, especially considering how deftly he balanced CGI with live actors and real special effects in The Lord of the Rings trilogy just ten years ago. The only thing that saves Jackson here is that The Hobbit is a great work of literature while The Phantom Menace is a floater in the swimming pool of cinema.

(It’s at this point I offer the obligatory SPOILER alert, although I have no idea who this is for. If you’ve somehow managed not see the LOTR trilogy, read the trilogy or The Hobbit, you probably eat dinner by yourself and only watch rom-coms featuring Sandra Bullock.)

One of the main things you’re going to notice is that the film progresses very similar to The Fellowship of the Ring. It starts off in the Shire at Bilbo’s house, the quest begins as our gang of dwarves, hobbit and wizard set out, they get chased by a pack of orcs (rather than Nazgul), narrowly escaping and finding themselves at Rivendell, Elrond and Gandalf convene a council to discuss the dark lord, there’s a ruined fortress housing bad guys, the party tries to cross along a high mountain ledge while dodging avalanches of rock (instead of snow), they end up inside a mountain stronghold filled with goblins (instead of orcs; though, according to the source material, goblins and orcs are interchangeable), battle the hordes while trying to escape, and end the film standing on a precipice (always a precipice) looking at their goal far off in the distance. While I realize Jackson didn’t stray from the book much, the similarities going to down to small details are too much to write off as just following a formula. The scene that really hit it home for me is when they’re all hiding in trees, surrounded by orcs, Gandalf whispers to a butterfly and you know what comes next – giant eagles. At that point, I thought “well, at least the next movie will have a dragon.” However, this is just a minor annoyance that I point out simply because it felt lazy on the part of Jackson.

The real problems lie in the insipid characters (think Jar Jar Binks) and occasional cartoonishness of scenes that ruin the majesty of Middle Earth. Though none of the characters are as blatantly absurd as Jar Jar, there are a handful that will have you wondering if you are hallucinating from a combination of 3-D viewing and too many Junior Mints. The first are a trio of trolls that temporarily capture the party intending to eat them. These three have maybe the worst dialogue in the film and act like the Middle Earth version of the Three Stooges. It’s a small miracle that one of them wasn’t hit on the head with a frying pan. Next up, is the Great Goblin – a fat, wart-covered monstrosity with a ludicrous amount of chin-fat that could easily be mistaken as a cousin of the king of the Gungans from The Phantom Menace. Like the three trolls, he came across as a dopey character that only small children might find frightening and all I could think about as I watched him was why he was at least twenty times the size of any other goblin. I realize that’s kind of nitpicking, but when you’re well into hour three of a movie that easily could have been cut to two, your brain starts to wander. Finally, there is the Pale Orc, the somewhat debatable antagonist (until we get to the dragon) that was like every James Bond villain we’ve come to loathe. He monologues, he stomps and struts, he kills lackeys for single failures, and when he finally has a chance to kill the Dwarf King, he orders a lackey to do it instead of doing it himself. He also has a physical deformity (aside from the albino appearance, which I’m not sure came from the book) in which a hunk of metal resembling a claw has been shoved through his elbow as a makeshift arm and hand. Yeah, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds and just like the Great Goblin and the troll trio, he is not the least bit intimidating or scary. In fact, this sole common trait is what makes this movie so much less likable than the LOTR trilogy because you never feel like the heroes are really in danger.

These silly characters are part of what I meant by cartoonishness. In addition to them, there are a couple of scenes that were either far too Disney or far too Looney Tunes. The first occurs early in the film when the dwarves have invaded Bilbo’s house. After crashing around and eating all of his food, they proceed to fling dishes around while washing them, singing along as Bilbo frets. Seriously, this happened…and involved exactly zero Disney princesses. Topping that is a scene that occurs as the band is escaping the goblin hordes in the mountain. They end up riding a pile of wood, formerly a bridge, off a cliff, down the side, where it is slowed down by the two cliff sides coming closer together, hitting the bottom in a pile of kindling and bodies. One of the dwarves makes a bad joke when the gigantic body of the great goblin smashes on top of them like a giant rimshot. Like Wile E. Coyote getting crushed by an anvil, everyone gets up unharmed, dusts themselves off, and continues on their way. It’s difficult to fear for the heroes’ safety after seeing a scene like that.

At this point, you’re probably wondering if you should bother watching this movie at all. Even with a PG-13 rating, it’s plainly geared toward the PG crowd, the mood is almost the opposite of that in the LOTR trilogy (it borders on jovial), the screenwriters try to insert humor that comes off as flat and desperate, and stretches of the movie do nothing to advance the narrative, forcing you to check your watch on more than one occasion. But there are some positive aspects to the film. The first is that the high frame rate used (48 frames per second instead of the standard 24) makes the 3-D version much more enjoyable and smooth than every other movie besides Avatar. The second is that Ian McKellan (Gandalf) and Andy Serkis (Gollum) are just as good as ten years ago. The third is that Martin Freeman (Bilbo) perfectly captures his character and is easily the highlight of the movie (a statement that is unsurprising to anyone who watches BBC’s Sherlock, featuring Freeman as Dr. Watson). Finally – it’s The Hobbit. As much as I have criticized it here, it’s still a great story and a film that resembles its predecessors, even if it does feel slightly redundant.

I really don’t mean to be overly critical. I am a big Tolkien fan and love the books and movies. I suppose the real problem is that the LOTR trilogy was so fantastic that I should have expected a slight drop-off. But I honestly believe that shouldn’t have happened, considering the film has the same actors (at least the carry-overs) and the same director, filmed in the same location. All I really expected was that The Hobbit simply live up to the same standards rather than cater to the lowest common denominator. I just hope we’ve seen the last of the Star Wars-esque characters and that a little more post-production work gets done to camouflage the CGI in the next two films or the next review is going to be just as harsh.

Rating: Ask for three dollars back. You still have two movies to go and they should apologize for the Great Goblin.

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