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Thoughts on The Hobbit

February 2, 2013

Here is a review I wrote up on December 16th of last year, just after getting back from a viewing of The Hobbit.  Figure why not throw it up here:

Some thoughts on a The Hobbit, and a couple trailers that preceded it:  So, we got out to see the first installment of THE HOBBIT this afternoon. I feel like this may be a little silly to have to say about a film based on a bestselling book that is over 50 years old, but there are probably spoilers in here.Before I get to that, however, I wanted to take a moment to mention a bit about two of the movie trailers playing prior to the film, MAN OF STEEL, and STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. After seeing each of these trailers I’m willing to say that both look like the films will be visually stunning, but where MAN OF STEEL drew me in, INTO DARKNESS really turned me off, and here’s why…

MAN OF STEEL looks to be, finally, giving us what I’ve always wanted from a Superman story; the ‘human’ side. Jonathan and a young Clark Kent discussing the morality of allowing people to die puts the question right out front, should a power like Kal-El’s belong on Earth? Just because you CAN do something, does that mean you MUST, and is it more ‘right’ to act, or to let ‘nature’ take its course? We see Superman in chains, clearly viewed as more a potential threat to man than savior of it. In short, it looks like a film that will dig a little more into the psychology and philosophy behind the titular Man of Steel, the human (Kryptonian?) side of the man, not just the ‘awe shucks’ golden boy on display to this point.

A side note, I did find myself wondering repeatedly during the trailer, “how does Superman shave? Is his hair less indestructible than the rest of him (and if so, why isn’t it burning off of him when we see him covered in flames) or does Gillette make a special line of kryptonite Mach 5 razors just for alien orphans?

INTO DARKNESS… What to say about this? It looks like the movie will be just as visually beautiful as the reboot was a couple years ago. Otherwise, I just kept thinking “oh, look, they’re falling back on THAT Trek plot again.” Everyone (possibly everyone in the universe) is in terrible danger and only one ship, and one captain in the entire galaxy can possible save it. Kirk must save the day (and probably caused the problem to begin with). And when in doubt, destroy the Enterprise. That just seems to be the hallmark of a story that the writers probably ran out of ideas for before they made it through a full 90 minutes worth of plot. The trailer looked nice, but left me feeling decidedly ‘meh’.

And now, onto the main course. Here are my thoughts on THE HOBBIT:On the technical side, we saw the film in 3D 48fps, and it looked great. The 3d was done the way I like it, unobtrusively. It was used to add real depth to the world as a whole, not simple sight gags or set pieces. Did it add enough to justify the extra ticket price? Probably not, but I neither have, nor plan to buy a 3D TV anytime in the future, so I figure if I want to see this version of the film, it was now or never. And as far as the 48fps goes, it looked fine. Yes, it had a somewhat smoother look overall than standard cinematic fare, but that didn’t make it look any less epic. It honestly barely registered, and if every professional critic in the world hadn’t acted like it would be the cinematographic equivalent of the Mayan apocalypse, I wouldn’t have even thought twice about it.

But enough about the technical side, what I really wanted to get into was the, you know, content of the film.  And overall, I really liked what I saw.  First thing’s first, this is not really just The Hobbit. Anyone looking for just The Hobbit is best off watching the mostly excellent animated version released back in 1977. This is The Hobbit+. What is the ‘+’ you ask? That would be large swaths of the appendix to The Lord of the Rings and just the faintest touch of The Silmarillion for good measure. The long and short of it is Tolkien had a lot more going on in Middle Earth during the time of The Hobbit, but wanted to keep that book a relatively clean children’s narrative, and left those stories on the cutting room floor as it were. Well, all that fictional history made its way into the ridiculously detailed appendices for LOTR, and they have, in turn, made it into Peter Jackson’s HOBBIT (with some artistic license taken to shoehorn in a familiar face).

The heart of the story is identical to the text. Homebound hobbit Bilbo Baggins is recruited somewhat against his will into a company of dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home from the dragon that stole it from them. The story has been given a new beginning, which acts solely as a tie-in to Jackson’s previous Tolkien adaptations, setting a scene which would have occurred just prior to the events of those films, and reintroducing us to the familiar faces of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the 111-year-old Bilbo (Ian Holm). The story then proceeds in flashback form with the 51-year-old Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meeting Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and shortly thereafter a stream of dwarves.

I’ll be perfectly honest, most of the dwarves blend together. Each has a distinct look, but most don’t have the slightest hint of character development or ‘moments’ in the film. To be fair, they don’t in the book either. They are seemingly designed to be seat-fillers, and interchangeable. The only ones that are really given a truly unique voice are Thorin (Richard Armitage), Balin (Ken Stott), and the brothers Fili (Dean O’Goreman) and Kili (Aiden Turner). That leaves a lot of faces I couldn’t put a name to if I tried, but it isn’t something that really hurts the narrative.

I had heard early on that Jackson intended to keep the songs from the book in the film, and wasn’t sure how they would play out. They play out well. Other than the ridiculous nature of “Blunt the Knives” to begin with, it plays well. And the dwarves beautifully somber rendition of “Misty Mountains” actually sent chills down my spine. Again, with the exception of the choreography behind the first song/set-piece it all felt really organic.

Besides the additions to the story from the appendices, there were some notable changes from the text (that my kids were fast to point out), and while I can see why they were done, I’m still finding myself a little conflicted about how I feel about them. They do make sense from a narrative, and ‘realism’ standpoint.

The orc hunters sub-plot is new, if the characters are not, and it was seemingly just set in place as an added push to keep the dwarves moving forward at a good clip (they spend days/weeks camped out in various places doing little but blowing smoke rings during the book, which reads all well and good as the story of 14 people wandering the wilderness, but kills the pace of an adventure movie). More than that however, they exist for an expository reason. Jackson has clearly decided that, while some people can speak to animals, they can’t speak English back. This poses a problem when large swaths of dialog in the source material are spoken by wargs, eagles, spiders, and the like. Setting a talking creature on top of each warg solves that problem.

The one change I’m least sure of I can still at least understand. That would be the encounter with the Trolls. In the book, this is Bilbo’s first real chance to prove his worth to the dwarves after their capture. Here, yes, he does show off his wits a bit, but he is far more responsible for the dwarves’ predicament than for their release, as it is Gandalf doing the ‘real work’. It sets up another ‘new’ scene later on in which the hobbit really does step up, and also serves to point out exactly how badass these warriors really are, but I sort of miss the ventriloquist argument.

The storm giant battle in the mountains seemed both overdone and over-indulgent, just an excuse to blow a few hundred thousand dollars on five minutes of effects. It would have fit in better in a God of War game, but what came after was nonstop action and a lot of fun.

The goblins are all cgi, and not always particularly well done (at least by the standards WETA have set for themselves), but they come at you so fast and in such great number you hardly have time to process it. The escape from the mountain is ridiculous, implausible, laughs in the face of physics and all logic, and is unabashed fun from start to finish.

And while all this madness is going on, just down below we get what is probably THE signature scene in all of Tolkien’s works: the riddle contest.

Andy Serkis reprises his role as the schizophrenic Gollum, and the beast is brilliant. I would go back just for that scene to be honest. It was fun, funny, creepy, and paced perfectly. You can feel the tension and fear in Bilbo, the frustration, rage, and madness in Gollum. The interplay between the characters is wonderful, and the desperation in both men (hobbit/things) one to escape, the other to find the one thing he still cares about in the world, is palpable.

When it was all said and done the whole family came out of the theater entertained and already looking forward to the second installment next year.

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