Thursday, 13 December 2012

Movie review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey


When I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring, eleven years ago, I finished with tears in my eyes - tears of relief that They Hadn't Fucked It Up.
I'm glad to report that I had the same experience watching The Hobbit: an unexpected journey, today.

For the record, The Hobbit has been released in three formats: 2D, 3D, and "High Frame Rate" 3D (Oh ... and IMAX; that makes four I suppose). The HFR version has had some negative press by people claiming it made them dizzy, they didn't know where to focus, or that it "looked wrong". I'm not qualified to comment on this because I saw the "normal 3D" version.

And it looked awesome. That's the first thing. The Lord of the Rings has some dodgy CGI in places (especially The Two Towers for some reason) but I didn't spot anything rubbish in this first viewing.

There's going to be a few comparisons between LotR and The Hobbit in this review, because this is a film that could not have been made before the LotR trilogy. I mean that in a literal sense: if someone had set out to make The Hobbit from scratch, without ever having seen the other movies, it would not have looked anything like this. It's not just the reappearance of familiar actors and locations; it is, in a deeper sense, a return to a fictional world that the viewer is presumed to have some familiarity with. A "blind" version of The Hobbit would never have included a White Council scene at Rivendell, because everyone would just have said "Who are these poncy dudes slowing the action down?" Historical references are flung around like confetti (The Witch-King of Angmar, Gondolin, Durin). If you don't know what they mean, you just have to ride them out. Which makes me wonder what a Tolkien virgin will make of this - particularly child viewers.

The movie opens just before Bilbo's Eleventy-first Party, so we have an unhurried introductory scene involving Bilbo and Frodo (both looking no older, a decade after their last screening, and the same goes for Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman further down the line, so someone in makeup or SFX has done a stonking job of rejuvinating the actors).

This is a massively detailed world we are entering, and this movie grabs that fact in both hands and runs with it. Throwaway lines in the book version ("he saw that across the valley the stone giants were out, and were hurling rocks at one another for a game") ("Your grandfather Thror was killed, you remember, in the Mines of Moria by Azog the Goblin") ) are expanded into eye-popping set pieces or vital backstory exposition. It is like Alice opening door after door in a long corridor, and through each one seeing a new vista. The scriptwriters are determined to tie together thread after thread to create a vast tapestry of faux-history that makes sense.

And here we see where the movies really enrich the story. Lord knows I love and admire the Tolkien books, but the one thing the man was not good at was character. He was writing heroic mythology, and frankly didn't bother to make any of his characters three-dimensional. In fact, of the twelve dwarves in the book, all but two of them fail to even make it into two dimensions - the lucky two being Thorin ("pompous boss dwarf") and Balin ("kindly dwarf"). The rest function as a mob of extras. Just as Jackson managed in LotR with re-writing Aragorn and Boromir and their evolving relationship, in the movie version of The Hobbit each dwarf is treated as a plausible character with his own striking appearance and personality. They've all made it to 2D, and we've still got two films to go!

Isn't this a bit strange? Aren't movies supposed to simplify the literary complexities? Yet in this franchise exactly the opposite is going on. And I am soooo pleased!

Thorin in particular is a standout character. Played by Richard Armitage with charisma and gravitas, he's never treated lightly. The other dwarves may piss about, but this Thorin is a Shakespearian tragic hero ... and we all know how that ends up, don't we?

Along with deepened characterisation comes proper motivation: in the book version, Bilbo goes off on this crazy life-threatening journey because Gandalf bullies him and he's too weak to say no:

"But-" said Bilbo.
"No time for that either! Off you go!"
To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside without a hat, walking stick, or any money, or anything he usually took when he went out..."

In the movie version, he makes a choice. And he gets a speech near the end explaining why he's sticking it out in the face of danger and massive ingratitude, which isn't just moving but actually makes psychological sense. That's all new stuff.

If you recall the book, you'll know that The Hobbit starts off as a jolly, whimsical, very English children's tale full of tea and pocket-handkerchiefs, and ends up somewhere else entirely - with death and loss on a massive scale. We're going to see a lot of that, I think. And The Hobbit also foreshadows The Fellowship of the Ring:  a group set off on a perilous quest; they learn to love and depend on each other even as the moviegoers start to invest in the characters - and then character flaws stretch that loyalty to the breaking point, ending in the destruction of the Company/Fellowship, and tragedy.

But we haven't got that far yet - this is only Movie One. It's full of singing (oh yes!) and giggles and slapstick (and the officially permitted One Dirty Joke), and there's a running fight in the goblin warrens that is just mental. I grumble a little that Radagast the Brown is played for too much whimsy, what with his rabbit sledge and a hedgehog called Sebastian. But even so I can see why they did it - another imperious/mysterious Gandalf-Saruman-alike would have been overload. 

Martin Freeman as Bilbo, by the way, is perfectly cast. And Gollum is wonderful, as ever; their riddle contest in the roots of the Misty Mountains manages to be as dramatic as any battle.

And I got goosebumps when the eagles rescued them from the orcs. Which is stupid, yeah, because I knew it was going to happen. Nevertheless ... goosebumps all over.

Can I find a fault? Yes. That feckin' theme song HAS BEEN STUCK IN MY HEAD ALL WEEK.

And I have to wait another whole year for the next part. Oh god...


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more.

Janine Ashbless said...