Sunday, 23 December 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a pretty good movie. For the most part it’s a well made adventure chock full of great visual effects, creepy monsters and enough solid action to keep audiences reasonably entertained across its mammoth two hours and forty five minute running time.

But it ain’t no Lord of the Rings. A fair way from it unfortunately.

Now I’ve not read Tolkien’s The Hobbit but the story (at least as seen on film) is very simple and very episodic. Like The Lord of the Rings it is a journey and a quest film and is made up of a collection of mini adventures in the form of frantic chases, fights and last minute escapes. All of which is fine. But what’s not fine is that The Hobbit’s action sequences are just too silly and chaotic to make any real impact. And too often they have no real bearing on the actual story being told or on the characters involved. For example, I have no idea what all that mountain rock giant stuff was about. Why were they fighting each other? I don’t get it. And the chase through the underground Goblin Kingdom is just a frantic, cartoonish piece of nonsense with no real structure or pay off. Sadly there’s nothing in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to rival the emotional and visceral intensity of the Mines of Moria from Fellowship, Helms Deep from Two Towers or the final battle of Pelennor Fields from Return of the King. The thing about LotR is that every fight/battle/escape feels as if it comes at a price, taking a major toll on poor Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Boromir et al. Their battles are scary, hard won, bloody, painful. You are genuinely afraid for them. Here though, you just don’t get that. The fights and battles and escapes play more like unconnected levels on a gorgeously produced video game. You’re never really invested in what happens because it all looks and feels too OTT and cartoonish. I kinda zoned out in parts, not feeling very engaged by or emotionally involved in what was going on. I mean, there’s only so many endlessly collapsing bridges/mountains/buildings/trees and stupidly high falls for obvious CGI stuntmen that I can be bothered to care about.

Another problem is Martin Freeman. I’m not his biggest fan and he pretty much just plays himself as Bilbo – kinda hapless and bland. Lots of comedy double takes and bewildered expressions. The band of dwarves fare better with Richard Armitage very good as their leader, the grim, brooding Thorin, along with other familiar faces buried beneath make-up such as James Nesbit, Ken Stott and Being Human’s Aiden Turner. Meanwhile Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and Christopher Lee all reprise their old Lord of the Rings roles and are all wonderful (as to be expected). Other supporting roles are perfectly fine. But by far the stand out of the cast is Andy Serkis, back as Gollum. The sequence known as Riddles in the Dark featuring Serkis as Gollum riddling against Freeman’s Bilbo, who’s become lost in caves below the Goblin Kingdom, is utterly fantastic and well worth the price of admission alone. The CGI motion capture used for Gollum is better than ever and quite astounding. But it would be nothing without Serkis’ funny/tragic/pathetic performance. In fact, it is with Gollum that the film finally comes to life, recapturing some of the sense of magic and giddy thrill it’s been missing. Boo then when its back to business as usual with yet another last minute frantic chase followed by yet another Gandalf save to end the movie on.

So, apart from the awesome Mr Serkis, is there anything else that stands out as being particularly good?

Well, yes, Howard Shore ’s score for one. It is lush and rousing and exciting, utilising familiar themes along with new ones. Also the film’s design and art direction are pretty good, as is Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, though it does feel a little flatter than it did in LotR. Weta’s effects are mostly pretty good too if a tad cartoonish with the reliance seeming to be more on CGI this time instead of the wondrous miniatures and high quality make-up of old. Oh, and one can’t forget the sheer beauty of New Zealand and how it still thrills the eye with some simply gorgeous scenery and vistas. Another great advert for tourism to the land of the Kiwi.

In the end, I enjoyed The Hobbit well enough but not as much as I should have done. I get the feeling it should really have been just the one kick ass movie, or at a push, two kick ass movies with a lot of the fat trimmed away. But we’ll see. I hate being harsh on Jackson as I utterly adore his Lord of the Rings trilogy. And things could well pick up and improve quite a bit seeing as how next Christmas promises a very, very big dragon to fight along with plenty more nasty orcs. I just hope The Desolation of Smaug can recapture some much-needed magic and excitement and can actually make me care about all the frantic CGI shenanigans going on onscreen. I really, really do hope so. 3.5 (out of 5)

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