Bloated (But Pleasing)

by wjw on December 19, 2012

I saw The Hobbit today in all its 48fps glory, which shows considerable restraint considering the hype I endured all those weeks Down Under.  An example of which I offer you here, the safety video I sat through on each of my Air New Zealand flights.  It was funny the first time.

I was prepared to go into the theater and roll my eyes a lot, since Peter Jackson has turned one children’s book into three whole films— that’s on the order of two minutes of screen time per printed page.  Jackson is a director who does not know the meaning of “enough,” and I was prepared for another flabby, exhausting epic like King Kong.

Watching the film, I found myself pleasantly surprised.  The Hobbit is quite watchable, all things considered.

Yes, there’s padding, with backstory and episodes drawn not from The Hobbit but from Lord of the Rings.  Practically all the new episodes involve combat, because Jackson loves big violent scenes, and to that end he provides Thorin Oakenshield with an Arch-Enemy— one who speaks exclusively in Movie Villain Cliche— so that whenever the narrative threatens to become too, umm, narrative-like, Jackson can throw in another Azog Horde for our heroes to despatch.  And quite frankly, once you’ve seen a dwarven warrior hack down an orc, you don’t need to see it a couple dozen more times.

Azog and his dialog provide the film’s weakest moments.  Also for some reason Azog is entirely done in CGI, while most of the other orcs are provided by actual actors.  It’s a peculiar decision, because a CGI critter cannot yet be rendered so perfectly that he doesn’t seem odd standing amid a group of real people.

And it’s not as if there weren’t enough orcs in the original story.  After all, the plot of a quest fantasy goes something like this: walk-ACTION-walk-ACTION-walk-ACTION-walk-BIG ACTION FINALE-crown the king-the end.  Adding a few more ACTION scenes just delays the ending without adding much.

And Jackson makes far too much even of the novel’s action scenes.  The escape from the Goblin King’s lair was too reminiscent of an episode of a mediocre Xbox game— I could all too easily imagine using my control pad to make my little dwarf figure run along the suspension bridges, hop from one to the other, time the leap from one swaying platform to another, grab a weapon to barge through a group of orcs, and in the end plummet two hundred feet, bouncing off cliff faces the whole way, and end up unharmed because my character was composed of pure CGI.

Radagast the Brown, who is comic relief, is also a little trying, but unlike Azog he’s an actual character, one that fits well enough with the lighter tone of Tolkien’s novel.

And speaking of tone, the movie’s tone is mixed in a way that doesn’t quite work.  The novel is fairly lighthearted, but the movie throws in a lot of dark, ominous moments more appropriate to LOTR.  

We can’t spend a couple hundred million bucks on a mere lighthearted adventure, I guess.   Not once you’ve got knighted for something like LOTR.

And can Gandalf please stop winking into the camera?  Because that’s just weird.

So what does work?  Pretty much everything drawn from the novel.  The scenes at Bag End.  The motley dwarves.  The camaraderie of the company on the march.  Thorin’s prickly personality, Gandalf’s rather deranged optimism, and Bilbo’s bewildered good nature.

For a movie in which the characters spend more time hacking down CGI figures than they do conversing, The Hobbit has a surprising amount of heart, mostly provided by Martin Freeman as Bilbo.  His scenes with Gollum are wonderful, and of course Andy Sirkis has done Gollum so long that he’s got the character pat.  He could have dialed in his performance, though as it happens he didn’t.

And the famous fast frame rate?  I don’t think it added much, one way or another.  It made artificial things look more artificial, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your aesthetic.

The 3D didn’t make my head hurt, which is always a good thing.

I enjoyed my three hours at the cinema, and now I’m a bit more optimistic about the series than I was.  Though I still have the suspicion that the final episode will consist entirely of combat, with the POV shifting between the Battle of Five Armies and the Battle for Dol Guldur.

Prove me wrong in this matter, Peter Jackson!  Prove me wrong!

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