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Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Review: The Hobbit

 Happy New Year everybody! I'm back with my promised review of The Hobbit. This has been a difficult task for me. It was tough for me to write this, so let's just go to it:


 I have always been a fan of sci-fi and fantasy movies. Since I was a kid, my parents (who were also sci-fi fans) instilled in me a love of sci-fi and fantasy. In particular, my parents both loved the original Star Trek (they were both around for the first run in the 1960s) and Star Wars. Naturally, there was a ton of this in the 1980s- and due to their influence I watched 'em with them: Star Trek, Star Wars, Conan, Krull, Dragonslayer, Legend, Alien, etc. I have always been partial to those movies, and my love for this genre has only grown over time.

In 2001, I fell in love with a "new" mythology, that of the Lord of the Rings. I was only familiar with it via the old "The Hobbit" cartoon. When I saw Fellowship of the Ring- well, that was it for me. The movie was simply amazing- I immediately got the books and read them. The movie did a wonderful job of making a fantasy world come to life. Great actors giving the proceedings everything they've got. A fantastic, fully realized world, with a creative mix of practical and CGI, which combined to make you feel like "you are there". A wonderful musical score, terrific action sequences, and a cliffhanger ending. When the movie ended, I wanted to see it again. That moment, as a matter of fact. I felt that way upon seeing The Two Towers and Return of The King (for the record, I love the "endings"of RotK- this isn't wrapping up a movie, but a huge trilogy and the "endings befit this).

The most successful element in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, however, was not the epic action scenes or great special effects, or even the fully realized fantasy setting, though. For me, the movies "got me"with it's characters. Fellowship of the Ring takes its time introducing its characters- the warm moments between Gandalf and the Baggins' family is just wonderful, and sets up so much for later. The friendship between the 4 Hobbits is totally relatable, and each character gets a moment or two to shine. Then, as the other Fellowship members are introduced- I mean, Aragorn is so incredibly complex, even from his first scenes. Gimli is typically humorous for a Dwarf, but again. he's so brave, and he obviously wants to protect the Hobbits. You get regal performances from the Elves that, even if they are not fully drawn (yet), you just "get them". And, of course, you have some real villainy from the treacherous Saruman. Though the movie doesn't really dwell on WHY he switches sides, you just know that this is a terrible blow to the heroes, even before they've started. As for the action- well, that's the thing. The action ALWAYS has our group of heroes as the focus. No matter what happens, from goblins to Balrog to Urak Hai- the fights/action are always done in the service of our main characters. The action is in a fantasy setting, but it is always done realistically- swords and arrows and even frying pans clash in desperate combat. The characters are in danger, and you worry about them- they get hurt, they bleed. The action scenes also change the characters- you learn they have courage, or fears, or connections to the others... Well, all the action in the world isn't worth a damn if the characters aren't at the fore.

In the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, these characters are front and center. Throughout the din of armies clashing, giant spiders attacking, and a primordial evil returning to the world to wreck havoc, it is always our heroes that you are concerned about. You identify with them, root for them, feel for them. As the stakes get higher in The Two Towers an Return of the King, with bigger and more complex battles / action sequences, it is still (and always) character above spectacle. See- that's the secret- compelling or relatable characters trump every single time. You love Star Wars because you love Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie. In the recent Batman trilogy, you feel for Bruce in a way you never have before (in movies that is), and his allies like Alfred and Gordon are made into human beings (rather than just mere exposition pieces), which you sympathize with. Look carefully, and you'll see that The Matrix starts with strong characters, but that loses out to the special effects in the next two movies, sadly. The SW prequel trilogy also does that, and you can see the poor results for yourself (though it almost recovers by Episode III, but it's too late).

Well, that brings us to The Hobbit. It has been over 10 years since Peter Jackson and company first produced the FotR. Now, everyone was saying that The Hobbit as a book is more lighthearted, not as epic, not as action packed, etc. I wasn't concerned about any of that. I wanted Jackson to bring these characters to life. I wanted to see young Bilbo setting out on his "adventure". I wanted to see how Bilbo formed his bond with Gandalf the Grey. I wanted to see him match wits against Gollum in the darkest cave, despite his fear. I wanted to see Bilbo become a hero, seen as worthy by his Dwarven compatriots. I wanted to laugh, smile, feel some chills and thrills, and feel connected to our characters.

And that's the problem. There are moments where this happens. When the Dwarves first come to Bag End, you can totally sympathize with Bilbo, while still laughing at the antics of his "guests". When Gandalf is trying to convince Bilbo to join their quest, you get where both men are coming from. Radaghast the Brown, for all his weirdness, is interesting and funny all at the same time. The White Council is brilliantly realized, and you get the impression that they are good people (even Saruman!), but they are divided as to what the best course of action is. The Dwarves get a few moments to bond with Bilbo (the Troll scene). And yes, the Riddles in the Dark scene is great fun and thrilling.

However, add that up, and its about an hour. The rest is--- oh no. What have they done? It's all crazy action scenes, filled with POINTLESS fighting and STUPID physical feats. Jackson and company nearly totally forget why they were successful the first time around- the characters are not at all developed, and hence you don't care about them. The Dwarves are, for the most part, just bodies- you don't really get to know them at all. Yes, Thorin is tough, but he's SO damn one-note ("I want to get my home back and I have nothing else to say"). Balin is well played, but he's mostly just exposition. The rest of them are just forgettable arrow fodder. Jackson should have cut them down to a more manageable number (purists be damned! If Jackson could get rid of Tom Bombidil, meld characters, re-arrange events, and still make LotR kick ass, then he could have cut 5 Dwarves and nobody would have noticed). As it is, the audience doesn't really know them, and hence, doesn't care.

The most unforgivable sin, though, is how they handle Bilbo. Now, don't get me wrong, Martin Freedman is really good at the role. It's not the performance, its the writing. For huge swathes of the film, Bilbo is silent, a bystander at best. If he is "us"- how the average person might fare thrust into such an adventure- well, he isn't developed enough. The 4 Hobbits are developed more carefully in FotR than Bilbo is in this entire film- and he's the only Hobbit and the main character. We don't get to know him, and it hurts the film. Ian McKellan is again stately as Gandalf, but he is given less to do (the White Council scene not withstanding). When Gandalf's biggest laugh is him COUNTING the # of dwarves he has with him after an action sequence, well... it may be humorous, but it is also a sad commentary on how little Gandalf is developed or used here.

Then, there's the staging of the action itself. So much of it is CGI. Now, I wouldn't care IF I had strong characters, but, since I don't, the endless sweeping CGI shots quickly become pointless. When Radagst takes to his sled to drive the Orcs away- it is so frantic, without any sense of geography or any sense of menace or dread, it just looks stupid (to compare, look at the scene where Arwen is trying to escape the Wraiths with Frodo- it is a strong chase scene. Radagast's chase is similar in idea, but horrible in execution). When the Dwarves are fighting the Goblin King and his warriors on the wooden bridges- half of it is the dwarves running wildly in all too obvious CG. Then, when their bridge collapses and they kind of glide on it and hit rock bottom... an obvious disregard for physics and common sense (again- its instructive- look to FotR, at the Bridge of Khazad Dum scene. It is filled with peril, as the wrong move would cause them to fall to their deaths- there is tension in the scene, as the goblins shoot arrows and the bridge begins to crumble- you don't want these characters to fall, and it just feels like that could happen at any moment). This bit is laughable in The Hobbit. By the time the last action scene comes, you're exhausted, because you've seen enough action, but really because you just don't care as much as you know you should.

That is the sad part of this movie- you just don't connect to it as much as you did to LotR. Now look, the LotR trilogy isn't perfect (whatever is, anyways?), but whatever weaknesses it has become inconsequential compared to what the movies accomplished. With The Hobbit, the characters are never developed enough for you to latch onto- you don't know them, so you don't care. That fatal flaw derails the whole movie. The maddening thing is- there are moments that show this COULD have been excellent. The scenes at Bag End, the White Council, the Riddles in the Dark... all are great bits that had energy, momentum, humor, and SOME character beats. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just a mess of rapidly sweeping camera shots, overuse of CGI, and stupid action moments that undermine the "fantasy reality" that LotR established. I'm giving this 2 Marks of Chaos, and I'm saddened that I have to.



Now, all is not lost here. There is a huge possibility that recovery can be made. There are 2 more movies here- and the damage can be fixed. Here's what I'd like to see happen, and I hope it does:

1. Bilbo becomes the focus of the next 2. Here, he's the main character, buy he's a cipher for a good chunk of it. Give him some time, show how he grows. Let us see through his eyes, as we saw through Frodo's.  Make him the CENTER of the movie, and that will go a long way to make the audience feel invested.

2. Same for the dwarves. Now, you can't possibly develop them all. But, for heaven's sake, let the audience get to know a few of them. Give them close ups. Heroic moments. Small moments with each other. Moments with Bilbo. Kill a few- just to show that there is real danger here. The audience will bond with them if they feel for them being in constant danger.

3. Speaking of danger- stop the damn CGI sweeping action bits that are more at home in a video game than a movie. Give us close quarters combat. Show these dwarves being brave against Orcs or whatever. Show us some blood, some sweat, some fear (all of which were present in spades in LotR). The action scenes must have real stakes in order to be gripping. It was done for all three LotR movies- it can be done here.

4. Develop the antagonists. I didn't mention this earlier, but the "enemy" isn't developed here at all. LotR had a ton- Sauron, Orcs/Gobblins, Wraiths, Saruman, Grima, Gollum, Urak Hai, Easterlings, Haradrins, Shelob, etc. Here, the enemies are simply wave after wave of CGI sprites to be dispatched. Give them some personality. The Gobblin King had some, but it was too little too late. The Orc chasing Thorin (whose name I can't even remember at this point) is barely seen, and does little to stand out from other Orcs (metal claw not withstanding). In the next one, give us the bad guys- Smaug, the Necromancer, the Spiders. Make them evil, and cunning, and intelligent. Now, since they've casted Cumberbatch to be both Smaug and the Necromancer, there's a great chance of them being strong antagonists, which is sorely needed at this point.

5. Its the little moments. Yes, as I've been saying the whole time, develop characters by giving them time to breathe. The Hobbit seems to be so damned concerned with getting to the next "cool action bit" that a vital element is lost. The best part of the LotR trilogy are the quiet parts, the small moments for reflections, camaraderie, grieving, humor, frustration, quiet acts of bravery or personal sacrifice. Watch RotK and notice how Sam doesn't eat, so that Frodo has more food to keep going. Or when Aragorn looks back at his army, with all seeming lost, and says "For Frodo" so quietly, but with total conviction. Look at TTT and see how Theoden looks to his niece, and with a small look tells her that Aragorn is dead- look at their faces, and see pain and sadness. When Gimli begs Aragorn not to "tell the elf" about "tossing a dwarf"- so funny, but also a great character moment. Its these little scenes that add power and depth. And that is just a few! The Hobbit ignored most opportunities to do these things.

Sorry about the rant. It's just that I love what Jackson and company did with Lord of the Rings so much. I knew that The Hobbit wouldn't reach those levels, nor did I want it to, actually. I simply used LotR for comparison, since they are so closely related and all. The truth is, they left out vital elements which ANY movie needs. Since you never get drawn to the characters, there is little chance that you will get invested in the movie. Now, that's OK for a mindless action movie like Taken, but for The Hobbit, with its great literary and cinematic pedigree, it is almost tragic.

2 comments:

  1. Great review! That was very concise and easy to follow. Thank you!

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    1. Thanks! I was not happy writing this review. I had so wanted it to be a better movie. And it wasn't the action or scope, it was the lack of compelling characters and an utter disregard for narrative tension. So sad.

      However, I did see Django Unchained on Monday. It was absolutely amazing- funny, action packed, great camera shots, drama, and unforgettable performances. If you're a Tarantino fan, you'll love it for sure. My wife ISN'T a fan, but she loved it too... I plan on writing that review soon.

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