Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thoughts On Film: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

 I have taken a vacation, somewhat unintentionally, from blogging the past several months. My job has been very busy and at times overwhelming, and for various reasons the urge to write simply hasn't been there. I can tell you that I have some ideas I'm excited about for the new year, and come January I expect to be posting here with much more frequency. Having said that, on with the review!

 I haven't read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien since I was in middle, middle school. I've read his magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, much more recently in addition to having seen Peter Jackson's film adaptations of the latter several times. Extended versions, of course. So I was eager to see the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, once the crowds died down a little bit.

 While it seems natural that the man who achieved so much success with LOTR should adapt its predecessor, negotiations over the book rights and financial problems at MGM (which produced the film in conjunction with New Line and Warner) dragged out the production schedule and resulted in co-writer and original director Guillermo del Toro dropping out of the project to pursue other things. Jackson stepped in to take the reigns, and here we are. The decision to expand the film from its planned two-part structure to a trilogy was met with equal parts anticipation and puzzlement. With many cast and production team members returning to New Zealand for this film, it fits in quite well with the visual and stylistic universe established in the first trilogy. Screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens are back (with Jackson and del Toro), as is Weta Workshop's costume/prop/make-up guru Richard Taylor, the Weta Digital visual effects house, composer Howard Shore, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, and cast members whose characters appear in both sagas. In many ways, for a fan of the first trilogy, this film is like going...well, there and back again.

 Jackson takes pains to connect the two trilogies as much as possible, starting the film with "old" Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) as we saw him in The Fellowship of the Ring, writing an account of his adventures for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood) on the day of his big 111th birthday party. The story concerns the appearance of Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan, excellent as always), a wizard who has taken up assisting a group of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) who want to reclaim their lost kingdom of Erebor, aka Lonely Mountain, where their vast stash of gold and jewels has been taken over by the vicious dragon Smaug. Tasked with finding the group a "burglar" who can move unnoticed, Gandalf chooses "young" Bilbo (Martin Freeman) for the job. Bilbo's typical Hobbit aversion to adventure and danger eventually gives way to his curiosity and he goes along. Meanwhile, dark things are afoot, as trolls are roaming about, giant spiders stalk the forest, and another wizard, Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, discovers the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), who can raise the spirits of the dead. If that last part seems unfamiliar to fans of the book, that's because Jackson and company have mined Tolkien's other works to fill out the story with concurrent events from his mythology. (Thus, what was a single-volume work of children's fantasy has become a film trilogy with a length comparable to LOTR, which is a much longer book.)

 The performances are quite good, with Freeman making the reluctant Bilbo likably fussy.  Armitage is a natural leader for the dwarves, his warrior personality a good contrast with the somewhat cartoonish company he keeps. (This is consistent with the book, and overall the tone of the film is a bit lighter than is found in LOTR.) McKellan owns the role of Gandalf, a bit flustered here and there but commanding when the situation is dire. Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Christopher Lee (Saruman), and Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) also reprise their roles and have the presence one expects from such great actors. And of course, Andy Serkis is back as Gollum, who loses his eventually-important magic ring to Bilbo. The game of riddles between the two is a highlight of the film, a great showcase for Jackson's under-appreciated skill at presenting a confrontation of words rather than weapons. Freeman and Serkis have fantastic chemistry, and the motion capture digital creature looks absolutely convincing. It's time the Academy wised up and nominated Serkis for his performance while they have the chance, given that Gollum probably won't appear in the remaining two films. (Depending on how faithful they stay to the book, of course.)

 Now, some words about the presentation of the film. Jackson chose to a daring way to film this movie, utilizing two non-standard techniques: 3D and HFR, or high frame rate. Most films are shot at a speed of 24 frames per second (fps). HFR uses 48 fps, meaning that twice as much visual information per second is being shown. The movement and detail are closer to what the human eye perceives in real life, so the image is more lifelike. In conjunction with 3D, this results in a visual experience quite different from a typical film. Many viewers have balked at HFR, complaining that the image looks like a television sitcom more than an epic film, and this actually does seems apparent in the beginning of the film. I believe this is a combination of the HFR and the fact that the early scenes in the movie are brightly lit, with relatively little shading. As I became used to watching the movie and the visual tone became darker, the image seemed more "film-like" while still maintaining its clarity and smoothness. The most notable difference seemed to be in the numerous battle scenes, which are startlingly clear and easy to follow. Jackson is an expert as staging action sequences, and this technology really shines in these scenes. The caveat is that, just as in LOTR, the viewer may begin to experience "battle fatigue" as the action just keeps going. But the lovingly designed sets, models, costumes, and makeup, combined with the gorgeous New Zealand scenery, make for a memorable visual experience.  Seeing Gollum in his cave, I found myself thinking, "so this is what Gollum really looks like." Rather than watching a film on a screen, it is easy to imagine you are looking through a window and seeing the actual events.

 I remember back in September at DragonCon hearing LOTR veteran John Rhys-Davies talk of visiting the set and proclaiming that this film will be a "game changer." (He also proclaimed that he will not be in any of the new films, as his character is not part of the story and he refuses to put the makeup on ever again.) I don't know if HFR will catch on, but if you are a fan of this story you owe it to yourself to check it out as it was filmed. It is a technical marvel, but the tech does not matter if the story and performances are not convincing. For me, it was easy to get lost in Middle Earth again and appreciate the story being told. Keep in mind, this is based on a simpler book for younger readers, and the film reflects that difference in source material. Fans of the book will be pleased to know that many of Tolkien's songs have been retained in this version. (Thorin's song in Bilbo's house about the loss of Erebor is chillingly magnificent.) No doubt there is difficulty in matching the success of the first trilogy, and Jackson and company probably felt like they walked a tightrope keeping the spirit of the book but matching the scale of the previous films. I suppose the jury is out on whether the story can be sustained over two more movies, but I eagerly await the next installment to find out.