Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit - A Great Adventure, But Not as Great as it Could Have Been

Let’s be honest, I’ve been looking forward to this movie since I was about six years old. I’ve followed the process for the last year and a half. I grew up with The Lord of the Rings movies defining my childhood. So when I walked into the theater to see The Hobbit, I was muttering to myself, “Open-minded. Be critical – you’re going to write a review. Don’t get your hopes up.”

(There are spoilers – so be wary.)

But I have to admit, when I saw Bag-End, Frodo, and Ian Holm’s Bilbo, I was geeking out of my boots. In particular, the moment that Bilbo dashes, hatless, coatless, and handkerchiefless out his front door clutching the dwarves’ contract, to a backup of an upbeat version of Concerning Hobbits (a.k.a. The Adventure Begins), I was thinking…Ah, we’re back. This is Middle-Earth. On the other hand, when it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad…

First, what we already know – Martin Freeman is perfection. He was born to be Bilbo, with that underlying attitude of pure Britishness. Frankly, he’s much more Hobbity than any of the four Rings leads, except maybe Samwise Gamgee. He can easily handle both the Baggins sensibility and the adventurous Took side of Bilbo Baggins, adding an element of his own humble charm. He really does carry the movie - and by the end, it's easy to root for him as a plucky and merciful, if unlikely, hero. I wish there'd been more of him, as at many times he was overshadowed by events and kick-butt dwarves.
Sir Ian McKellan is better than ever. He’s as much Gandalf as he was ten years ago, bringing the subtle humor, humility, sagacity, and frustration to the character. His scenes with the White Council reveal a whole new side to Gandalf, placing him in a situation where's he's the underdog, trying to convince his superiors of imminent danger, and ignore Saruman's pooh-poohing. Another interesting scene is his one-on-one with Galadriel, which explores their (purely platonic) friendship, and makes one remember that they probably knew one another in Valinor (thus, they go back). Watching the movies in years to come, it will make Galadriel's grief in Fellowship, following Gandalf's fall, much more tangible. Another of Gandalf's great scenes comes when he gives Sting to Bilbo, telling him that "True courage is not about knowing when to take a life, but when to spare one." This message of mercy (a very true-to-Tolkien sentiment) ought to have been given greater treatment.

Richard Armitage is the Frodo guy, that is to say: the thirty-years-younger-than-in-the-book character, but I’ve known since his casting that he was just right. Thorin is, at core, a snob—he’s proud, melodramatic, and vengeful. Since I’d seen Armitage in North and South, I knew that these were all things he could do, so I couldn’t care less about the age difference. The air of Shakespearean grandeur and tragedy that he brings to the character is great. His pride contrasts with Bilbo’s humility, but his deep sadness and sense of destiny make one sympathize with him despite his flaws. He's got Aragorn's nobility, Theoden's insecurities, and Denethor's pride.

Other standout performances were those of Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett (even better than in Fellowship, I thought, lacking, respectively, Morrrrdor and stiff ethereality), Christopher Lee (he's still got The Voice), and newcomers Ken Stott (Balin - a nice back-up to Thorin), and James Nesbitt (Bofur - hilarious and more fleshed-out than any of the other dwarves, excepting Thorin).

But when it was bad….That’s where Radagast comes in. I get that even in Tolkien he was a rather whimsical character, but one ought to be able to take him seriously. A bunny sled? Really? Almost makes one sympathize with Saruman. The other really bad design decision was the Great Goblin, a hulking, obese, comic character who was way over the top. Those were the two most prominent Mouth of Sauron moments (i.e., horrible because they could’ve been so much better).

Last week, I wrote a post on some of the big questions, and I now have answers.

Bilbo and Graham McTavish as Dwalin
Was it stylistically dissimilar to The Lord of the Rings? That would be a big yes. Almost too much so. When it came to design—it looked little bit too colorful to be real, regardless of the fact that I saw it in 3D 24fps. All the same, the sets were stunning, as was New Zealand in general. When it came to the dwarves, they were a very merry crew, but sometimes exhibited Gimli-esque humor which I found annoying.

Were they true to Tolkien’s Catholic roots? Yes and no. Since there’s less about the epic battle between good and evil (it is a children’s book, after all), there wasn’t much they could do with that. All the same, they hit the high points, I thought. In the book, the two main moral themes were mercy, from Bilbo to Gollum, and the shifting from obsessive greed to repentant humility, in Thorin. The scene where Bilbo has pity on Gollum, who has just tried to kill him, was one of my favorites from the book, and they give it a pretty good scene, if not quite up to my hopes. After all, “the pity of Bilbo may rule the fates of many.” I think this should've been expanded.

Interestingly, Richard Armitage made this statement about The Hobbit: “When I look at it I get a sense of Tolkien’s Christianity. … His idea of nobility, which is expressed through mercy. I think that pervades all of [Tolkien’s] writing and it’s in almost all of his characters.” (qtd. in World Magazine) I knew there was something I liked about the guy.

On the other hand, old Bilbo (I believe), at some point makes a remark about Fate, which is a little morally ambiguous. Speaking of which…

Is it more Harry Potter-esque than The Lord of the Rings? I’m afraid so. There wasn’t much, but there was one scene with a cross-eyed (really) Radagast spouting off weird stuff about black magic and witchcraft, and using his staff to heal an infected hedgehog. That feels totally incongruent with the subtler touches in Rings. I think, for instance, of the scene where Arwen asks that what grace she has be passed to Frodo. There was nothing magic-y about it - it felt more like a prayer.

A few other things – the entire Riddles in the Dark sequence was terrific, and probably the best scene in the movie. Andy Serkis remains the definitive Gollum, with the creepiness, playfulness, and schizophrenia we all knows and loves, precious. Weta's motion capture has gotten so much better that Gollum looks even more real - though on the other hand, Azog should've had a prosthetic. He didn't pack the scary punch that Lurtz (of Fellowship) and Gothmog (of RotK) did, and he looked a bit too CGI.

The music felt a bit like LotR recycled, but as I’m listening to the soundtrack on my iPod, I’m starting to recognize less obvious original themes. Big bad Azog’s vendetta against Thorin lent a dramatic, violent, and surprisingly emotional climax. I’m pretty sure I spotted Benedict Cumberbatch playing a blond Rivendell elf. Smaug’s eye looks awesome. Rivendell and Goblintown were respectively gorgeous and amazing in 3D. My dad made the comment that the movie had a lot of unnecessary scenes, and he was probably right - trimming might have made a better movie. The fight scenes felt too long, and overly dramatic. Some restraint could have fixed many of these things.

I went into the theater determined to be critical, and came out thinking, Man, that was fun. As I mulled over my thoughts, I realized that while there were several individual things that I would have done very differently, the overall effect was positive, and it was, frankly, a very fun movie. It wasn’t as epic or moving as The Lord of the Rings, but it was an adventure, full of fine acting, amazing visuals, and a good story. Ever since I heard that there would be three films, I thought this one would be the hardest to fill in the gaps, and I was right, but hopefully that means the next two will have less padding, more convincing bad guys, serious and not joking violence, more Bilbo, and less Radagast.

My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Tenna enta lúmë,

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. Totally agreed on the Great Goblin. I think they were borrowing too liberally from George Lucas for that entire sequence. It felt like a cross between Jabba's courtroom and Temple of Doom.

    But Martin Freeman IS perfect. He's simply one of the best actors out there, and now he's finally getting the credit he deserves.

    I think he's an interesting guy in real life too, although quite different from the nice, down-to-earth types he's become famous for on screen. In real life he's blunt, kind of foul-mouthed, and very biting/witty. At the same time I have to admire a guy who really does say exactly what he's thinking all the time. In Hollywood, that's rare! And plus, there are just so few interesting people in the world, it's nice to find a real character. He has a ginormous record collection (addicted to old music, like me) he never uses e-mail, he dresses like someone from the 60s. Just a character! What is sad is reading his life story and his thoughts about God. He lost his dad when he was only ten. Now he says he's a theist but not a Christian. For him it's just "Sure, yeah, Jesus, Ghandi and Martin Luther King..." I think he respects Christianity though, in a way many of his colleagues don't. We can pray that one day he finds fuller answers for all his questions.


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