Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Concerning The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Without going through all the normal writing steps I normally take when considering a review, I can go ahead and wonder on these pages if anything could have truly made Peter Jackson's much awaited return to Middle Earth something more to crow about. Arrived home mere moments ago, and still feeling like the proposed first chapter "An Unexpected Journey" came off little more than expected by that trailer footage I first set eyes on one year ago. For a story that was so well contained within a mere one-hundred-plus pages, there is an almost excessive amount of meat added to this particular bone, and yet matters feel so much less full than they did merely a decade ago when Jackson and his intrepid team unleashed the first two chapters of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy unto the world. And perhaps that's just it; we all knew this time around didn't have a great deal to offer outside of a means to flesh out the world's myriad of cultures and histories. All the while charting the first Hobbit adventure as unlikely hero, Bilbo Baggins joins Gandalf The Grey, and a cadre of dwarves, as they embark on a mission to reclaim their lost home from the clutches of a greedy fire breathing dragon. On one hand, it functions as part prequel, part victory parade, and that's perhaps my biggest disappointment.

And yet still, there is much enjoyment to be had as Mr. Baggins (Martin Freeman) is enlisted to leaving the safety of the Shire, to become the dwarves' much-needed burglar. And true to the original book, it's a brighter, happier affair with just that tiny hint of darkness for the days that lie years ahead. As expected by Jackson and his band of filmmakers, there is a definite feeling of home along certain stretches of the film; especially during the story's earliest sections as Bilbo's home becomes a meeting place for an unruly band of dwarves, and dwarf prince (played with brooding sincerity by Richard Armitage), and a wizard. It is here that much of the film's feeling of fun and comfort go on for almost too long before the adventure actually begins. This sequence, followed by perhaps the famous "riddles in the dark" sequence that carry with them not only familiarity, but a certain enthusiasm that only happens in fits and starts throughout. Andy Serkis's return performance as the lowly Gollum, while only a small section of matters, remains solid proof of how an actor can truly own a character, and continue to deliver us the same mixture of junkie's disgust and pathos that almost redefined creature performance with the previous films. Freeman makes for an effectively memorable Bilbo, and Ian McKellen slips back into his famous role like a favorite coat, albeit clearly feeling a little extra weathered. The return of Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving also contribute a healthy feeling of ease in a sequence that while pure fan service, also functions as thread creation for future films.

Which leads me to my overall feeling that the film is at best, adequate. While it does indeed have its charms, it may be important to keep in mind that as mentioned, as the film version had been in the filming stages, studio wishes eventually pushed toward this becoming another trilogy, when the original work was well beneath the length to necessitate it, creating more of a reason to pad the film with an almost insane amount of supplemental material often culled from other Tolkien works, such as the LOTR appendices, as well as his incomplete work, The Silmarillion. This leads to what could only be seen as less a narrative film, and more an overall celebration of the author's world, and the multitude of beings that inhabit it. Which plays so much more heavily into the reality that at one time, this was to be directed by fantasy/horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro. And An Unexpected Journey is riddled with his fingerprints, even after court problems and additional production delays led to him leaving the filming duties to Jackson.

And despite much of Jackson's often affable work on display, this feels so much more like Del Toro film as it finds itself often more enamored with monsters, and action than the character work which was more present in Rings. And even if the original Hobbit book did little to flesh out but only a few of the main characters, we never truly get a proper essence of what hangs in the balance, most notably, the dwarves who have long lived without a true place to call home. The script by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Del Toro, does what it can to create an emotional bridge regarding belonging, and in Bilbo's relationship to this band of unlikely heroes. And there are moments when it does feel like it's working, but often important character beats are either poorly conveyed, or aren't present at all. Often cutting away to more spectacle, and plenty of ""nudge-nudge" nods to the previous films to cover up what is often unaddressed, especially in regards to how Bilbo sees himself amongst people with an actual purpose. Freeman does the best he can with the material he's given, but we never really get a good footing into his arc. If this was indeed to be the first in a trio of films, it might have been important to make sure we find ourselves more invested in him, largely because a quest tale like this requires its own identity, and the beasts and dangers out there are merely there to bring this out of the cast. It becomes more a parade of things our characters are witnessing, rather than interacting with, something the previous films took that extra time to flesh out. Underneath all the trappings, a human story is at the core of even this simple tale, and at a near now-standard 3 hour length, it should spend a little more time making this more apparent.

And speaking of borderline superficial, another more minor grip lies in the film's visual composition. Filmed on the Red 3D camera, what once looked lived-in, and grungy, often looks overtly bright, clean and flat in places. For a few moments, I quickly was taken back to Jim Cameron's AVATAR, with it's overt details in soft light, and occasionally strange feeling aura. While this may seem to be fine and good, it does make me pine a little for the grimy, almost elegiac quality which were understandably present before. A little additional textural hint of that future would have been nice. There is a less of a sense of the lived-in this time, and it leaves less of a burning impression. I'm grateful to not have caught it in its now controversial 48 FPS format, as it likely would have driven me up a wall.

And so the first part of a simpler, less world-shattering is at hand, and while I could say I enjoyed it, there was definitely a feeling of longing. Not so much for the next chapter, but for perhaps a more sensitive portrayal of the story, something less rushed, less..well business-driven. This time around, it seems that a certain spirit simply isn't there. Much like a certain urgency is not apparent in the source material, neither is the drive behind the scenes to push matters full throttle once again. An Unexpected Journey turned out rather as expected, and for that I guess it should be worth asking; Should they have bothered? Sure. Do I recommend this alongside the previous trilogy? Optional.

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