Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

(Special Christmas Edition)

Marley was dead, to begin with. And Dang-Blasted? He was a Lord of the Rings movie fanboy. I walked into The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a fanboy, and took it in with all the unbridled glee you’d expect. When Howard Shore’s music filled the theater and those familiar glimmery opening credits started up, I wiggled. Every time a familiar face popped into view -- Gandalf, Galadriel, Gollum, Grodo Gaggins -- my heart did a small cartwheel. It’s hard to believe a decade has gone by since Peter Jackson made the LotR trilogy, hard to believe that after all this time, we’re being gifted with more Middle-Earth shenanigans. Merry Christmannukahwanzaa or whatever the heck you celebrate!

And the thing is, I was nervous. I put this movie on my Cautious Enthusiasm list, and in the intervening time, my foreboding only increased. There was the splitting of the book into three films which, given the novel’s slender size and kid-friendly vibe, seemed like a folly -- or, worse, a cash grab. There was the whole 48fps thing, which got an extremely mixed response and branded Peter Jackson as a possible successor to George “Franchisepocalypse” Lucas, more interested in technical tinkering than making good movies. There was the alleged animal abuse (which, considering how late in the game it arrived, probably was a cash grab). There were some unpleasant reviews. I try to go into a movie with an objective heart, but damn, did this whole production cough and sputter its way to the finish line. And?


I can’t help it. I wanted to love it and I did. Do I love it as much as I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy? It’s kinda early to decide, but probably not. It’s not as grand, but then, neither is the source material. Some critics have sneered at the “dumbing down” of the old aesthetic, but I’d advise them to recall that The Hobbit was written first and was intended as a fun adventure for children, and everything else -- the scope of the world, the history, the exhaustive details and appendices -- were mostly mere sketches in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mind. Jackson’s Hobbit movies are lighter, goofier, faster-paced, less profound, and more tongue-in-cheek, and I am okay with that. After all, it’s sixty years prior to Sauron’s rise to power and Frodo’s acquisition of the One Ring. Things in Middle-Earth are pretty chill, and there are only vague rumblings of a future threat. (More on that in a moment.) Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is happily bourgeois, sunk in the stupor of good food, a cozy home, and pipeweed. When Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen, as endearingly mumbly as we remember) appears to yank Bilbo from his predictable life, it’s like the spark that kindles a fire in all Middle-Earth: the easy times will soon be over, but with danger comes great adventure!

I think the prologue was really what yanked me in. Sheer visual fireworks bombarded my senses as we were shown the glory of the Dwarven kingdom of Erebor, only to watch it fall to ruin under the clawed heels of a teasingly-glimpsed Smaug the Dragon. Since Dwarves are somewhat marginalized in The Lord of the Rings (except for Gimli), it was great to witness the sheer scope and beauty of their underground society, as well as have it visually confirmed that Dwarf women also sport beards. It’s the quest to reclaim Erebor that drives a motley crew of Dwarves to gather under their brooding leader, royal heir Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage, who can barge into my home uninvited any day). Food is snarfed, booze is quaffed, things are decided, and the quest begins, with Bilbo Baggins getting a crash course in heroism, often literally. Freeman is terrific as Bilbo, with a whole catalogue of stammering protests and anxious hand gestures that gradually segue into square-jawed determination. The band of Dwarves are wonderful to look upon, each one visually unique, especially in the facial hair department. Sadly, it’s a lot of supporting characters to keep track of, and Tolkien never bothered assigning much personality to each Dwarf. As a result, most of them get a token character trait (the Badass, the Fatty, the Feckless Youth, etc.) and a line or two, then spend the rest of the time running and yelling in the thick of the mob. And there’s a ton of running and yelling in this film, so be warned.

Yeah, the plot’s basically a series of entertaining episodes, broken up by Big Serious Stuff. The former is what’s taken directly from the book, such as a hairy encounter with hungry trolls and an extended battle for survival in an underground goblin city. The Big Serious Stuff is Jackson and co’s attempt to plug the Hobbit films into the overall mythology of Middle-Earth by expanding upon Tolkien’s supplemental material. Suddenly, everything has to be connected. The angry politicking between the Dwarves and Elves gets more play, and much is made of the sinister Necromancer who has taken up residence in the vast forest of Mirkwood. FUTURE SPOILER ALERT: Tolkien buffs will know that the Necromancer is Sauron himself, clawing his way back to absolute power. The Elf rulers and Wizards confer about this shadowy threat in the arch, sonorous manner we recall from LotR, and it kinda clashes with the lighter, more boisterous feeling of Bilbo’s exploits. I’m not saying this clash of tones is bad per se, but it’s a wee bit distracting. So’s the overly waxy makeup job intended to make Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee look younger, but I digress. One thing that fits perfectly with the bouncy tone is the character of Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), a bug-eyed, tree-hugging nature wizard who careens around on a sled pulled by bunny rabbits and is either awesome or insufferable, depending on who you ask. Since you asked, I think he’s awesome.

Then, of course, there’s Gollum; I think that little bastard deserves his own paragraph, don’t you? Everyone else has said so, but it’s ever so true: “Riddles In the Dark” is probably the best scene in the whole damn movie. When Gollum first crab-walked onscreen, I heard an intake of breath throughout the theater: oh, yes, here we go. If the Academy is ever going to nominate Andy Serkis for an Oscar (they won’t, because they suck), this is the time. In the midst of fighting and yelling and goblins and mayhem, nothing was more thrilling than watching Bilbo and Gollum match wits and trade riddles. Their scene was creepy, hilarious, brilliantly acted, perfectly realized by the special effects guys at Weta Workshop, and all-around sublime. I won’t even spoil any of Gollum’s lines, because they’re just so much fun. I also appreciated that the Ring isn’t played up as THE RING, not yet. It’s just a magical trinket...for now. But when Gollum realizes he’s lost it, his panic and wretchedness is palpable. In a twisted way, he’s one of the more sympathetic characters in the franchise, and that’s why it’s such a shame when he vanishes again, presumably for the rest of the trilogy.

That’s actually one of my minor quibbles with the film: its treatment of its villains. Now, most of this isn’t the movie’s fault. They’re still working with the original narrative. Smaug doesn’t appear until later, and An Unexpected Journey gives us just enough of him to make us eager for the full reveal. The Necromancer is only fleetingly depicted and isn’t relevant to the main quest anyway. The trolls, the goblin king, and Gollum are fun, but they’re all one-shot antagonists. I can live with that. The problem is, the filmmakers apparently felt they needed a more consistent bad guy, and so we get this nasty albino orc dude who holds a major grudge against Thorin Oakenshield (it’s complicated) and spends the movie hunting the good guys down. Again, I didn’t HATE this, but Nasty Albino Orc Dude was the one element that just didn’t seem to fit. He had no personality, his connection to the plot was frayed and tenuous, and he served only to ratchet up the tension and look cool. I guess it was sort of important to the character of Thorin, who’s got some serious issues to work out, but I felt it was forced and arbitrary. In a film with several tones that often clash, the inclusion of this limited-edition bonus villain was the clashiest. They’re just twiddling their thumbs until Smaug takes center stage, that’s for sure. I’ll forgive them because there’s two movies to go.

Eh, whatever. If I watched these movies for their flawless plot trajectory, I’d have given up in disgust around the time Arwen showed up to sexily save Frodo in Fellowship of the Ring. I watch these movies to have a ball. I watch them to marvel at the swarming, dazzling special effects; to drink in all that gorgeous New Zealand scenery; to lose myself in the grand setpieces, the awesome costumes, the cool swords, the glorious beards. I watch them because of Peter Jackson’s reliable tendency to go over the top. (“Our heroes are trapped in flaming pine trees by giant wolf-hyena monsters? All well and good, but let’s also stick them atop A ZILLION-FOOT CLIFF, MWA HA HAAA SCHNAARGLEBARGLE!!!”) I watch them for the moments that make me guffaw, or make me tear up. And the little moments that are just plain cool, put there by people who are totally in love with making movies. Do I wish I lived in Middle-Earth? Do I want to meet and be buddies with Dwalin, Balin, Kíli, Fíli, Dori, Nori, Ori, Óin, Glóin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur? Yes and yes. Did I willingly get the end-credits tune, “Song of the Lonely Mountain” by Neil Finn, stuck in my head? Yep. With all due respect to Enya and Annie Lennox, Finn’s thundering ballad kicks nineteen kinds of ass. Nineteen.

I watched An Unexpected Journey in 2D, without the 48-per-second frame rate. So I can’t say whether the tech gimmicks hurt the film or not. Maybe they do, and if so, that’s a shame. A film shouldn’t have to be be gimmicky to entertain. Nor should it be some kind of cautious, respectful ode to the films that have come before. The Hobbit trilogy is walking its own crazy path, and I’ll follow with a whoop and a holler. It has its flaws (I didn’t even talk about how much the goblin city action scenes reminded me of Angry Birds), but watching it, warts and all, just made me so, so happy. It’s not a film for the overly cynical. It is a film for those who want to have a blast of a time. And no, three films is not all that excessive, because this one never felt too long to me and I was pissed off when it ended, not because I felt let down, but because it’s gonna be another freaking year until we get Smaug and the giant spiders and Laketown and the dude who turns into a bear and, and, and....yeah, okay, I’m a hopeless case by now. Jackson, you sonofabitch, you’ve roped me in all over again. THANK YOU.

I remain a fanboy. May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “The Valar bless us, every one! Especially Gollum; his Christmases tend to suck. He did have this one eventful birthday, though.”

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