Dec 16, 2012

Movies: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Ok, let's save the annoying intro about huge expectations, the dramedy of changing directors, and the horrifying decision to turn a small children's book into a giant movie trilogy, and cut to the chase. And the chase is this - The Hobbit is finally here. And it is big. But is it big enough?

No, it isn't. And yes, it kinda is. Coming as a prequel to the biggest fantasy movie franchise ever made, carries a lot of pressure and expectations. The visuals of Middle Earth are inherited, and a huge change in aesthetics is not only unnecessary, but undesirable as well. However, The Lord of the Rings was a dark epic story, while The Hobbit is a fun children-friendly adventure. So how do you translate the visuals of a dark epic to that? The answer is - you go multiple personality on it. An Unexpected Journey is much lighter in tone, but features elements that do not match this. We remember goblins in The Fellowship as those blood-thirsty, wall-crawling clicking monstrosities, yet here they are more of a fairy-tale affair with British accents... who still look exactly the same as before. Ditto for trolls who LOOK like the elephantine aberration we saw in Moria once upon a time, yet do snot-jokes and argue about how to cook dwarves best...

But instead of fraking up the tone of the movie, this dissonance works pretty neatly more often than not, and when it doesn't, it doesn't really take that much from the experience. The real problem with An Unexpected Journey is that it's quite... surface. It looks like The Lord of the Rings, but it doesn't really speak like it. The characters each have their clear individuality, but none of them - with the possible exception of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) - is really explored in any capacity. They are interesting, and cool, and they're just kind of there. Meanwhile, every epic scene feels just a tiiiiiny bit too much like posturing than real story-telling, every appearance of an old character is on the edge of fan service. Whether it teeters on the other side is up for debate, but one thing is hard to deny - The Hobbit is trying to be like something else (the original trilogy) instead of being its own thing.

That said, it tries hard and it gives its best, and it is a damn good entertainment for it. Apart from a sluggish (though very fun and charming) opening, the movie is a fast-paced adventure in Middle Earth that in fact shows more of it than the LotR movies - with their Saving the World stakes - did. And the new cast is simply magnificent. Martin Freeman as Bilbo is as good of a choice as could have possibly been made, and he gives us the absolutely best hobbit imaginable. He is charming, awkward, a bit stiff, but crafty, smart and beneath the whole proper rural gentleman facade - a true hero. I loved every second of his performance.

The thirteen dwarves are a mixed lot, though each and every one of them - even those with no lines - is memorable in some way. Of course, it's Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) that steals the camera among them, though ironically he is the least original in the lot - a brooding brave dethroned prince with a lot of determination and anger. Armitage does make the role strong though, so we forgive the fantasy stereotype.

Of the old acquaintances, it is Gandalf (Ian McKellen) that we see the most of, and he is somewhat... meh? A mixture between "tired of the role" and "why is he being so weird?", as far as I was concerned, the 2012 Gandalf is somewhat erratic in his behavior (more so than before), and combines epic splitting of stones with sneaking about like a guilty kid. As far as the rest of the Council is concerned, I thoroughly loved Galadriel (Kate Blanchette) whose over-the-top fantasyesque presence was completely out of this world (and also made of cameo posturing), was indifferent to Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and was somewhat annoyed with Saruman (Christopher Lee) who was way too obviously evil for my taste.

The true gem is Gollum (Andy Serkis) who of course features in probably the most iconic scene in the whole book, and one of the most important moments of the entire Middle Earth Mythos - the riddle game and the stealing of the One Ring. It is by far the best scene in the entire movie, with the dynamic between Gollum and Bilbo absolutely delightful and entrancing, and I believe the special effects animating the poor wretch have evolved considerably since last we saw him. The moment when the invisible Bilbo makes the choice to spare his life is so touching with Gollum's expression of helpless vulnerability that you feel absolute certainty that, were you in Bilbo's shoes, you'd be unable to swing the sword either.

Special effects (see that smooth transition, eh? Eh?) are of course phenomenal, though the shooting process (of which I don't know enough to actually talk about it without embarrassing myself, beyond the fact that it is new and supposedly smoother) has made An Unexpected Journey a tad too bright and colorful for good taste, and some of the more dynamic scenes get blurred in the 3D. Speaking of dynamic scenes (see? I did it again! Smooth smooth smooth), although most action sequences - and particularly the final one - are incredibly good, a few go overboard and turn into vaudeville. A good example is the dwarves escape in the goblin mines, which turns from an epic fight-chase into an almost Dreamworks/Pixar-like scene where the villains as good as step on shovels and slam their heads in the handles. Those are moments where the dissonance between fantasy epic and child-friendly adventure, which I mentioned earlier, simply does not work.

But in the end, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first truly good fantasy movie since... well, since Return of the King. And even if it doesn't quite live up to the original trilogy, it still has a lot to offer - breathtaking visuals, amazing action, a fun - if underdeveloped - cast, and a great adventure story. Is it everything we hoped it would be? Hell no! But it is absolutely awesome all the same.