Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nassty Hobbitsezzzzzzzzzzz

About halfway through yet another interminable fight scene, I knew that my prevailing thought about The Hobbit was going to be: "Oh God, make it stop." Alas, there was to be no divine intervention and I would have to wait through the whole thing. I'm seriously questioning whether I'm willing to sit through two more over the next couple years.

A suitable instrument for slow torture? Oh, yes...
When the project was first announced under the command of Guillermo del Toro, it was going to be one film. I think the idea was that del Toro would give his dark fantasy spin to what was originally intended to be a children's tale. Anyone who's seen Pan's Labyrinth would understand that such an approach is right up his proverbial demonic alley. Creative conflicts ensued and del Toro left the film. Peter Jackson, slated to be the producer, picked up the reins with his usual team of wife and friend (Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, respectively) and decided to make two films out of it. I understand the desire to do so, as The Hobbit is the foundation from which The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion (and mountains of backstory) would spring. There are brief mentions of things, like the Necromancer, in the book that wouldn't be appropriate to drop into a film, but could easily be expanded into their own segments. Hell, I wanted to see the White Council challenging the Necromancer. Why not? It sounds cool. We all know what it leads into in the later books. But I guess I still envisioned the Hobbit being a two-hour movie and then perhaps the Necromancer material being its own thing, because the book is only about 200 pages. There's not enough there to make an epic. And, of course, once some studio executive who'd never read it heard about all the footage that was shot and left in the editing room, I'm sure he immediately thought: "It'll be a SECOND trilogy just like the FIRST one!"

You guys don't look like you're enjoying the genius of this idea.
Except... well, it's not. The Hobbit was a fairy tale. Lord of the Rings was a genuinely epic story about cultural change and Christian mythology. I could sit through a trilogy of three-hour (or even four-hour) films drawn from the latter. The former is a single three-hour movie, at most. Stretching it in this fashion makes it tedious and that's exactly what this first offering was. Most of the scenes lost my interest after about a minute and they all lasted ten. I don't think Jackson realizes that while he's been off working on other projects, we've all been watching his extensive CGI and liberal use of circling helicopter shots over and over on TBS. We've been there and have the really expensive T-shirts to show for it. But The Hobbit is just more of the same; more and more and more of the same. Ian McKellen, reappearing as the constant Gandalf, actually had a little unintentional insight on the whole project early in the film when he mentions Radagast the Brown for the first time. He tells the group that the Istari are actually five wizards, including the two blue ones whose names he can't recall. He can't remember them because Tolkien didn't name them until his son collected his notes for Unfinished Tales and Jackson probably didn't want to bother explaining even more. But he really did name them in this film because I know their names: Exposition and Padding. They were the stars of the show.

First lesson of fiction writing: Avoid expository dialogue. Show your story. Don't have your characters tell it. But the meeting of the White Council in Rivendell was exactly that and this is the material that was added to the story. The four of them stand around for over five minutes of screen time, arguing over whether an evil knife means anything and giving everyone insight into how the Necromancer is really the Enemy (but maybe not really.) This scene goes nowhere and contributes nothing. It's precisely the kind of scene you'd put in if you were spoon-feeding your story to your audience because you don't know how to make it a story, rather than a Wikipedia article. People stood around and talked in Lincoln, but they were talking about big ideas that propelled the film. This was tedium disguised as backstory.

My sword actually glows blue from angst.
What makes it even worse is that the action scenes were no better. A chase through a cavern where people are falling? Sure. Moria. Been there. Running through the woods or over hills being chased by warg riders? Yep. The added scene in Two Towers. Seen it. Jackson was essentially ripping himself off for two-and-a-half hours. You could even recognize some of the same locations in New Zealand. And the action scenes not only wouldn't stop, but he had to add the extra moments of melodrama to make them even more grueling. Did we really need to see Thorin stalk off the burning tree in full righteous outrage to confront his "nemesis" that he'd met all of one time before? In the book, Azog was a detail, a snippet of Thorin's story that established him as a warrior who'd experienced some profound personal trauma (snd just as important to the story of Dain of the Iron Hills.) In the film, Azog is a cheap recurring villain with a motivation as thin as "See familiar dwarf. Kill."

By far, the best scene in the film is one of the two best scenes in the book: the riddle contest.
You were saying the director took too much time?
Andy Serkis once again does an excellent job of making the repellent and pathetic Gollum a highly entertaining character that the audience laughs with as much as they laugh at. I wrote the title of this review in that fashion because I almost fell asleep during the troll encounter, but I was wide awake and perfectly enchanted during the riddle scene, even though I know the riddles and the result by heart. This scene demonstrated that, once again, CGI doesn't have to be explosions. Even though Serkis' character is mostly generated, it was the dynamic between him and Martin Freeman that makes that scene come alive. Acting and dialogue makes a film work? Who'd'a thunk it? At the very least, I noticed that Serkis got a promotion for his efforts, as he appeared in the credits as the second unit director. And one has to at least credit Jackson for inserting the Wilhelm scream into the escape from the goblin kingdom. Freeman's Bilbo was solid for Freeman. He's an excellent actor and I love his Watson in the Sherlock TV series. But it wasn't solid for the Bilbo Baggins from the book, who is at least mildly neurotic and still quite frantic even at the end of the story during the Battle of Five Armies. Freeman just isn't a frantic person. He's too level-headed for that. So, while he makes a good lead and performs well, he's not what the story really calls for.

Perhaps the most telling moment of my experience was walking out of the film with the collection of 20-somethings around me. These are people who literally grew up with Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies so, in many ways, this is kind of their Star Wars prequels moment... with exactly the same result. They were as dismayed as I was because Jackson essentially abandoned his profound sense of story in the first trilogy for cheap melodrama and lots of explosions and blurred action in the second. This is why directors generally need to avoid material that they've mined before.

I was interested to see the film both because I love the books, I loved Jackson's LotR movies, and I honestly wanted to see the impact of the high frame rate on the audience. I didn't see the 3D version because I detest it as a marketing tool that does nothing but make people pay more for the same film and that's the version cited in the Gizmodo article as the source of the problem (and confirmed by more than one friend.) I can't say that I saw any real difference in visual quality and I certainly didn't dislike the film because my visual receptors were overloaded. I disliked it because it was bloody awful. If you want to experience the Hobbit, read the book again. You'll probably finish it before you could make it through the film (and you'll probably stay awake.)

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