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Pressure can be a mean master. What’s a body to do when they’ve made not just one but three truly wonderful film adaptations of one of modern literature’s most epic and beloved trilogies, that then went on to become the biggest moneymaking trio of movies in existence?  If it were me, I’d have quit when I was ahead and considered it a lucky escape.  If you’re Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings films, you meet the challenge of ‘what’s next?’ head on and dive right back into the JRR Tolkien trove with the first of three more forays into Middle Earth; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Three times less large than the trilogy that followed it, Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a relatively compact bundle of action that for many was the easiest of the Middle Earth books to grasp.  It was, after all, considered a children’s book.  A single tome with a pretty straightforward plot; wherein a Hobbit, one of the highly civilised, small folk of the rural, bucolic Shire, goes on a treasure hunt.  Torn between his love of familiar comforts and healthy respect for survival and the lure of adventure, Bilbo is persuaded by the mysterious and shifty wizard, Gandalf, to assist a troop of homeless Dwarves in reclaiming their birthright.  In their former kingdom on the Lonely Mountain, a gold-loving dragon called Smaug nests upon the piles of purloined Dwarf treasure that the raiders promise to share with the Hobbit, who will act as a burglar for them.  That Bilbo’s never nicked a thing in his life matters not; off go the team of small people and one tall wizard to right some wrongs and bring back some booty.

That’s it.  Pretty cut and dried stuff and the makings for an exciting movie.  The question for Jackson’s adaptation is, is it the makings of three films?  With Lord of the Rings, the director had three separate books to work with, each with its own mood and new characters to add to the overall scheme, pushing the story forward until its climax in Return of the King.  It was only logical to make three separate films to match each novel.  The Hobbit is one book with a simple, bracingly-told story, that for whatever reason, Jackson has seen fit to stretch into three films and the audience can feel the drag.  The movie features several overlong sequences that, while pleasant in the book, would only appeal to hardcore Tolkien fans.  The dinner feast where Bilbo first meets the cadre of boisterous Dwarves that will be his brothers-in-arms for the journey becomes interminable, tiresome slapstick.  Toward the end of that scene, they sing the dirge, “Misty Mountains Cold,” which appears in the book and I suppose is meant to give depth to the characters and their quest, but just feels like more time consumed.  Another problem with the film is that it’s hard to get much of a handle on the different Dwarves, mostly because there are thirteen of them.  Outside of their somewhat varying hairiness, it’s nearly impossible to tell which one is which if they’re not featured prominently, like head Dwarf in charge, Thorin, diminishing a lot of the viewer’s relationship to the characters.  Our main focus is on Bilbo, perfectly rendered by the excellent Martin Freeman, who captures the Hobbit’s fussy caution, as well as his unexpected impish resourcefulness.  Bilbo’s no hero and he knows it:  It’s a measure of dismay to his stout-hearted team, who despair of the Hobbit’s fitness to even be on the journey, but it’s Gandalf’s unswerving belief in the little fellow that stays the Dwarves’ rejection.  The brave Dwarves face threats around every turn, including being hunted by Goblins and nearly devoured by Trolls, but their quest is righteous and even receives the blessing of the distant Elves, who have a precarious relationship with the Dwarves, due to the fae’s abandoning the Lonely Mountain war long ago.  There are some thrilling sequences, like the animal-loving wizard, Radagast the Brown’s decoy flight from marauding Orcs, and the opening scenes recalling the fall of the Lonely Mountain to the dragon, Smaug.  One thunderous battle between a pair of giant rock monsters that puts the entire group of good guys in peril is excellent.  Sadly, these are small moments in a very large tale that runs nearly three hours.  The story is simply stretched too thin and the padding doesn’t work.  Even the appearance of beloved characters from the Lord of the Rings trilogy don’t excite like one might expect, including a big showdown between Bilbo and a rather troubled person from the previous films.  That those recurring characters look almost exactly the same in the first series as in this film, which takes place decades earlier, might perhaps have made sense due to their various species, but just felt kind of lazy.  I can’t imagine Jackson would have had to scrimp much on the production budget, but even the look of Gandalf seemed less thought out and well-executed than in the Lord of the Rings films.  Perhaps that effect might have been due to seeing everything so incredibly clearly.  The new 48 frames per second filming process (double the frame rate of ordinary films), brings an eye-straining clarity to the picture that’s a double edged sword.  Had this been employed for the much fuller-looking initial films, it would have been astounding; but everything about The Hobbit from the story, to the production values -- the sets, even the wigs and beards -- seems less, and the forced closer inspection does no favours.  It is definitely a jolt when you first see the breathtaking sharpness of that aforementioned run-in with Smaug, which in 48 fps becomes a rollercoaster ride that has some of the same physical effects to the viewer’s digestive system.

It’s nearly impossible to consider The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey without thinking of its far superior sequels, which, unhappily for this film, happened to hit the big screen first.  The rub for The Hobbit is that much of its audience will be brought in by their love of that series, and fairly or not, many will judge this piece lacking in comparison.  They might not bear in mind that its source material was, in general, meant to be far lighter than the intense, quasi-Shakespearian character interactions and Sturm und Drang of the Lord of the Rings triplet.  Coming from the same universe, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey often feels very much like déjà vu, with so many of the same action set-ups, bad guys and issues, but without the emotional heft that made so much difference.  It’s hard to shake my faith in Peter Jackson, so I’d like to believe the next pair of films will make up for the drudging slowness and obvious filler that makes this movie such a disappointment.  The best way I can convey the feeling of watching The Hobbit for those who’ve seen the previous films is by referencing the final scene(s) of Return of the King, where the audience thought the movie was ending; things were wrapped up, all was well and all the characters were going to their respective homes, but then it just went on and on awkwardly for an extra ten minutes of ephemera.  That’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, except in reverse; about a third of it is actually well-paced, entertaining stuff, while the rest of it just meanders on and on, not quite knowing when to stop.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 12, 2012

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Stills Courtesy of  Warner Brothers)

 

 

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