Saturday, December 22, 2012

THE HOBBIT: AN EXTRANEOUS JOURNEY - A Movie Review

How so like Peter Jackson, a wizard of scanning CGI wars and panning Kiwi tors, to offer something completely unexpected in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The unexpected nature of the film will be readily apparent to anyone who has read J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic The Hobbit, a story of one Bilbo Baggins, esq., a stolid upper-middle class hobbit with not enough fight in him to tussle with a tough bit of beef. The book details his mock-epic quest for Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, wherein he not only finds adventure but the innate reserve of Tookish toughness that underlies the staid and respectable Baggins’ flab. What was unexpected in the film adaptation, you may ask? It is, sadly, that Bilbo has become a sideshow, just another bit part in a Hollywood epic, not demonstrably different from the cast of garish dwarves with limited speaking roles that surround him.

In fact, Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, retains the same confused look of irritation for most of the film, perhaps because his costume caused undue chaffing, or, more likely, because he has relatively little to do in a film ostensibly written by and detailing the exploits of his character. Freeman seems genuinely hobbitish, but not necessarily one of the Bagginses, and is certainly not of the acting caliber of the great Ian Holm (who reprises the older Bilbo Baggins role he played in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy). Looking at turns put upon and sulky does not equate to acting the part, but again, this is not necessarily Freeman’s fault; after all, the movie has more subplots than a sprawling development of tract homes plopped indecorously in the suburbs.

What is this incessant need of Peter Jackson to undermine a classic with a superfluity usually reserved for dementia patients in a hospital ward? No, I am giving Jackson too much credit, and I apologize to the dementia patients. Somewhere in the labyrinthine, cobwebbed corridors that twist and turn in his troubled brain, I believe that Mr. Jackson somehow believes that inventing plots wholesale is part of the scriptwriting process. Never mind that one has one of the endearing and supreme fantasy stories of the 20th century to work with, a tale cherished by children and adults alike, passed on reverently from generation to generation, it is just not up to snuff as far as a cinematic thrill ride for the 21st century.

Ergo, Jackson, a fan-fiction writer at heart and prone to sanguine bouts of dizzying violence, has decided to completely rewrite The Hobbit in his own image and likeness, relying on scripting culled from back when he was a struggling director spitting out B-grade horror flicks with plenty of camp, buckets of blood and enough gore to fill an abbatoir. Never accused of subtlety, Jackson hammers the audience with an onslaught of combat scenes and then hits them upside the head with slapstick comedy: belching dwarves, snotty trolls, and psychedelicized wizards addled by mushroom ingestion. The clever nature of the humor imbued in the story with philological care by Tolkien can only be seen in brief snatches in Jackson’s film, before it is buried in tumbling dwarves, collapsing bridges and skewered orcs.

Speaking of orcs, the entire subplot of the albino orc Azog, the requisite Hollywood CGI villain used to stretch the plot to interminable lengths so that it can be teased and tortured into a three-movie marathon of orkish overkill, is completely and utterly unnecessary. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins himself, the first movie of the trilogy seems to be thin and stretched, like not enough toilet paper over too much bum. Likewise, the White Council scene, featuring the lifelike mannequins of Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (as Elrond), Sir Ian McKellan (as Gandalf), and the corpse of Christopher Lee (as Saruman), is so stiff and flat one can reuse the sequence as underlayment for a bowling alley, and it pained me to listen to the fan-fictional excess of Nazgul buried in suspended animation, a plot point I am not sure a teenage writer would have the hubris to exploit.

And Radagast the Brown (wisely absent from the White Council scene, given that an annoyed Saruman would undoubtedly and justifiably throttle him - and I would gladly assist), is a caricature of a zany wizard. No, not a caricature, his appearance is a direct theft of Merlyn from T.H. White’s classic The Once and Future King, wherein Merlyn is described thusly:

“It was not that he had dirty finger-nails or anything like that, but some large bird had been nesting in his hair…with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This is the impression which he [Wart] gathered from Merlyn. The old gentleman was streaked with droppings over his shoulders…”

Oh, I could go on about the similarities of Merlyn’s disheveled cottage in comparison to Radagast’s messy treehouse, or the daft inclusion of a hedgehog named “Sebastian” (Sebastian! Seriously?); whereas, an urchin (hedgehog) plays a role in both The Once and Future King and the sequel The Book of Merlyn as well. In this case, the hedgehog has a wonderful Yorkshire accent (“Ah doan’t ‘ee nip our tender vitals, lovely Measter Brock, for ee wor a proper gennelman, ee wor, and brought us up full comely on cow’s milk an’ that, all supped out from a lorly dish.”). It works well for T.H. White, but it all seems so out of place for J.R.R. Tolkien. And a rabbit sled? Only if C.S. Lewis co-wrote the script. And this was Narnia.

Of course, Peter Jackson’s self-aggrandizing over-amplification of monumental effects goes absolutely off the deep end here. Erebor is now so grandiose a dwarvish kingdom, so ornately gilt and overlaid, that Moria looks like a shabby tin shack in comparison. And Goblin Town? There is a half-hour long movie version of “Chutes and Ladders” underground, with more bridgework than that completed by every dentist in recorded history. The GoblinKing is larger than a troll (why have Uruk-hai when Sauron could breed an army of pachydermic GoblinKings?), and the elephantine goiter swinging about its neck is probably due to Jackson’s inherent need for over-the-top accoutrements (like the WitchKing’s ridiculously oversized mace). The stone giants (primeval Transformers) make an appearance with so much destructive mayhem that one wonders how the Misty Mountains were not renamed the Misty Rubble Quarry.

There were aspects of the film I enjoyed – not surprisingly, when Jackson adhered somewhat to the original story: the dwarves dining at Bag-end, the cockney trolls, and the absolutely precious dialogue between Gollum and Bilbo during the Riddle Game (the only part of the movie where Bilbo actually seemed like Bilbo). Like The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, the best actor unfortunately is a CGI character, and Gollum once again shows more thespian ability and more range than the entire ensemble combined.

The soundtrack gave the impression that Peter Jackson was desperately trying to recapture the auld Oscar-winning magic of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Anywhere Jackson could drop in a bit of the old score to make moviegoers teary-eyed reminiscing over his one great success was dolloped liberally thoughout the movie. The highlight musically-speaking was the dwarves singing in Bag-end. The rendition of “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” sung by Thorin and Company was genuinely moving, but the song by Neil Finn for the closing credits “Song of the Lonely Mountain” was reedy and abysmal, and sounded more like a corporate decision from the marketing department than a tune worthy of Tolkien.

And what of the dwarves, you might ask? There were thirteen of them, after all, surely they made some sort of impact? Well, no, not really. Thorin is a one-dimensional dark cut-out of a rueful and vengeful man (not a dwarf, he bears no resemblance to a dwarf whatsoever). He could have been Boromir’s bitter cousin, Angrimir. Any sort of pompous humor or high-falutin’ speechifying that Tolkien gave Thorin has been removed. He is as dull as he is stereotypically vengeful. And Thorin does not age. Balin ages, but not Thorin. Thorin, the oldest of the dwarves, looks absolutely the same from the Battle of Azanulbizar up to the Quest for Erebor. Don’t let the few wisps of grey in his beard fool you, Thorin has a picture up in his attic just like Dorian Gray. Of the other dwarves, I would say Balin was the best, and poor Bombur had no lines at all that I recall - which is probably just as well, as the sophomoric scripting would require him to be the butt of some fat joke.

In the end, I would classify The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a blockbuster Hollywood action movie epic. If you go in for that sort of thing, you'll enjoy yourself and be satisfied wiling away an afternoon (an entire afternoon, mind you!); however, I was not being complimentary. Given the fan-fictionalization of the annoyingly superfluous subplots and extraneous material grafted on the original story like attaching a chrome grill and hubcaps to a racing stallion, I would say that it was not necessary to make this a movie derived from Tolkien’s book at all: any generic swords-and-sorcery fantasy world would do the job quite adequately.

As I mentioned previously, the parts that worked the best were taken nearly verbatim from the book; unfortunately, these seemed like forlorn set pieces, all too brief sequences of splendid and literate display hiding an empty fa├žade, and behind that blank wall the detritus of explodey things, decapitations, manic chases, violent combat and farcical pratfalls – the very definition of a Hollywood action movie, not a Tolkien book. Thorin could have just as well spat out “This is Sparta!” and I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. The movie was nearly three hours long, and I could feel it (and it wasn’t just the $10 soft drink welling in my kidneys either!). Had it been trimmed of all the excess fat and inane, ham-handed extrapolation, and then reduced to a two-movie set, it would have been extraordinary. I am being quite honest. Had this been two movies rather than three, it would be sublime. How sad that it isn’t.

4 comments:

johanna said...

Excellent vocabulary, analogies, and critical assessment! I'm just sorry you had to spend your time and money on such a film in order to give the review.

If only Hollywood folks would realise that a good story, plot, and real-yet-flawed-and-still-courageous characters are what make for a great film...

Great review, thanks!
~ Jody

Sloane Jensen said...

Wow, someone actually has the guts to criticize Peter Jackson; thank you so much for standing up for Tolkien. I myself will not be seeing to the first 'Hobbit' movie. I don't like ''the Lord of the Rings'' movies much anymore and when the ''Hobbit'' came out I was like ''Meh''. After seeing movie stills of Radagast the Brown and that horrid White Goblin thing I was like ''noooo way...'' My mom read me the Hobbit book once a year when was a kid and I don't want to see a childhood favorite blown up and torn apart in such a fashion. Thanks to this review, I see all my fears were justified.

Phil Dragash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Dragash said...

You are a brave soul, Morthoron. As someone who occasionally lurks around "The Barrow Downs" forums, I always admired your stance towards the film adaptations (particularly the hobbit films), and think that your review reflects my opinions almost exactly! I'm glad I wasn't alone here.

Also, your eloquence and knowledge is just the beautiful icing of this cake.