The Hobbit: Slouching Toward Erebor

Getting neither there nor back again

Welcome back to Middle-earth. It has been nearly a decade since writer-director Peter Jackson last set foot on J.R.R. Tolkien's hallowed ground, signing off on a spectacular trilogy of films adapted from the British author's Lord of the Rings novels. There were box office billions and well-earned Oscars aplenty and then two subsequent Jackson projects—King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009)—that suggested the filmmaker might have been stunted by his own mega-success. (With its distended Depression-era prologue and a running time nearly twice its 1933 predecessor's, Kong in particular seemed as thick around the middle as its director now appeared slim.) So it was no real surprise when Jackson announced he would produce two films based on Tolkien's The Hobbit—the single 1937 volume that launched the Middle-earth mythology—and even less surprising when Jackson pulled a Jay Leno on his own hand-picked director, Guillermo del Toro, in order to hold the reins himself. (Del Toro retains a co-screenwriting credit for his contribution.)

Of course, succession is never a tidy business, nor is that of making prequels into beloved franchises. Rest assured, Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey perpetrates no Jar Jar–size transgressions. Rather, it's reverential to a fault, with the director and his regular collaborators Fran Walsh (Jackson's wife) and Philippa Boyens hewing so closely to Tolkien's slender text that, at the end of three hours, we're barely 100 pages in, with mere sentences on the page having been inflated into entire sequences on-screen. The detailed appendices Tolkien included with the final LOTR story, The Return of the King, have also been plundered for inspiration, and the result is a journey whose most unexpected element is just how little ground it covers. (Recently, it was announced that the two planned Hobbit films will now be three, with the next installments set to arrive in 2013 and 2014, respectively.)

Set some 60 years before the events depicted in LOTR, The Hobbit tells of another unassuming Shire-dweller's grand mythopoeic adventure in the company of wizards, elves, and—this time around—a merry band of 13 dwarfs. The hobbit in question is one Bilbo Baggins—uncle of Frodo—played to great effect in the LOTR films by Ian Holm and here, as a younger man, by the likable Martin Freeman (Sherlock's Afghanistan vet Watson). A fussy, pipe-smoking dandy of minimal ambition and even less curiosity, Bilbo is shaken from his life of leisure by a visit from that wise, wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). And if there is one inviolable constant in this first chapter of The Hobbit, it's McKellen's delectable mixture of world-weariness and coquettish vanity, which might be the default posture of any British acting great resigned to Hollywood's inexhaustible need for sorcerers, mutants, and Jedi masters.

Details

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.
Opens December 14

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Gandalf wants Bilbo to join the dwarfs on their journey to reclaim Erebor, a once-prosperous dwarf kingdom long ago decimated and claimed by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, which now lies in wait, guarding its hoard of gold. But The Hobbit takes nearly an hour just to get out of Bilbo's hobbit hole, with much of that time devoted to a long night of drunken dwarf merriment (including not one but two musical numbers) during which you can just about feel the hair on your feet growing longer. For all their Wagnerian bombast, the LOTR films proceeded at a clip, with lots of story to tell and spirited new characters lurking around every bend. There was exuberance in the filmmaking, too, as if Jackson—who cut his teeth on some of the most outlandish, low-budget splatterfests of the 1980s and '90s—still couldn't quite believe he'd been allowed to make these movies. They were generous entertainments that you didn't have to be a Tolkien convert to enjoy—they made one out of you. The Hobbit, by contrast, feels distinctly like a members-only affair. It's self-conscious monument art, but is the monument to Tolkien or to Jackson himself?

Even once Bilbo and company take to the hobbit highway, the pacing is leisurely verging on lethargic, fitfully enlivened by meetings with colorful beasties: giant, cockney-accented trolls that resemble talking phalli; a goitered goblin king (amusingly voiced by Dame Edna him/herself, Barry Humphries); and stone giants that give new meaning to the expression "mountain men." A few welcome LOTR faces also pop up along the way, including elvish royalty Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the magisterial Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman, not yet corrupted by the forces of darkness. As for the baker's dozen of dwarfs, with the exception of their noble leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), they never register as more than an amorphous, knee-high mass.

It should go without saying that all of this is executed at an exceptional level of craft, with Jackson and the real-life wizards of his Weta Workshop once more bringing Middle-earth to life with rich detailing and seamless integrations of live action and CGI. But in the moment of Avatar, Life of Pi, and Harry Potter, such technical mastery is ever more the rule, not the exception. So Jackson has one-upped the competition by making The Hobbit the first feature film to be shot, in 3-D, at 48 frames per second. What that means, in layman's terms, is that when the cameras rolled on The Hobbit, the film (or, rather, the high-definition video) was moving at twice the speed—and hence capturing twice the information—of both traditional 35mm film production and of the "24p" HD video that is rapidly hastening film's extinction. And your reaction to this, in layman's terms, is likely to be either "Wow, cool!" or "WTF?"

Available for viewing only in select cinemas in major cities (the rest will feature a standard 24-frame presentation), this "high-frame rate" Hobbit features exceptionally sharp, plasticine images the likes of which we might never have seen on a movie screen before, but which do resemble what we see all the time on our HD television screens, whether it's Sunday Night Football, Dancing With the Stars, or a game of Grand Theft Auto. (Indeed, most TVs now have a menu setting that can, if you so desire, lend this look to everything you watch—a setting appropriately christened by some gearheads as the "soap opera effect.") Whereas video-shot "films" have labored for years to approximate the look of celluloid, Jackson goes whole hog in the opposite direction, the idea being that this acute video quality comes closer to the way the human eye perceives reality. Fair enough, but the reality Jackson conjures isn't quite the one he intends: Instead of feeling like we've been transported to Middle-earth, it's as if we've dropped in on Jackson's New Zealand set, trapped in an endless "making of" documentary, waiting for the real movie to start.

For the record, I returned to see The Hobbit a second time, at 24 frames, and found it more aesthetically pleasing but no more dramatically engaging. At any speed, the movie only springs to full life late in the day, during the first meeting of Bilbo and the tragic creature who will come to be known as Gollum (once again played by the sublime Andy Serkis), a hobbit reduced to a quivering, schizophrenic mass by his fidelity to a certain gold ring. Suddenly, in one long scene consisting of nothing more than two characters trying to outwit each other in a game of riddles, Jackson the storyteller seems to overtake Jackson the technocrat. The old magic returns, and for a fleeting moment, The Hobbit feels truly necessary, a triumph of art over commerce.

sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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22 comments
dannyjane
dannyjane

While I do think that some of the battle scenes could use a bit of judicious trimming, I thought in the whole, the movie was wonderful.  The characters were either already familiar or they were well drawn and well developed.  Unlike LOTR,which lacked two important passages (Tom Bombatdil and the Scouring of the Shire) there was nothing missing.  Everything I imagined in reading The Hobbit was right there and pretty much exactly as I had imagined it.  What more could one ask?

Talyseon
Talyseon

I find all the dissatisfaction with the movie frankly astonishing.  I watched the same movie, read the same book, Loved every minute, and wouldn't want to see even one frame cut.  I guess there is just no pleasing some people, and most people like that grow up to be film critics. http://bit.ly/U2GsZX

Hmmm...
Hmmm...

Actually, my reaction to hearing that Jackson was shooting the Hobbit on digital video was shock and disgust.  Finding out he was shooting at 48fps, my reaction was one of satisfaction, because I know well what different framerates look like.  After reading of audience reaction to 48fps, and the studio's decision to go with mostly 24fps in cinemas, all I have to say is "serves you right."

jonlostie
jonlostie

@Diezmartinez @dlerer @foundasonfilm ya van a empezar?? Sino es "cine de arte" "lo que eso signifique" no es bueno...?

mpanozzo
mpanozzo

@dlerer @foundasonfilm #tristesa

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@dlerer @foundasonfilm La veremos pronto. El tráiler anuncia más de lo mismo y un pronunciamiento kitsch, es decir esoterismo new age teen

allnotathome
allnotathome

First, Jackson did not "pull a Jay Leno" on Guillermo del Toro. It's been well established by Toro himself, that he left because he was not willing to spend more than 3 years on making the Hobbit movies. What Jay did to Conan (stabbed him in the back) is in no way comparable to what happened between PJ and Toro.

Second, Dr Watson (Martin Freeman) on Sherlock is not an Iraq vet, but an Afghanistani vet. But, hey, coming from an American, at least you were in the area of correct continent.

Stevart
Stevart topcommenter

"found it more aesthetically pleasing but no more dramatically engaging."  Is it just me or does anyone else see the lack of REAL female roles and the lack of an interesting narrative, AND, the abundance of men and boy think that perhaps Tolkien was a bit to fond of the lads...if you know what I mean.  I mean the Brits don't need a NAMBLA now do they?

Jpsemino
Jpsemino

@rogerkoza @dlerer si Reygadas pone un diablo animado y una auto-decapitacion es tracendentalismo, en cambio Jackson es new age.. Por favor!

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer Francamente, no veo por qué la presencia de Satanás y una autodecapitación habría que relacionarlo con la N. Age.

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer prenderé un incienso

Jpsemino
Jpsemino

@rogerkoza @dlerer ahora me quedo claro lo que querias decir. Yo lo interpretaba mas por el lado filosofico... Gracias por las repuesta ...

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer y después te cuento.

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer Una línea sofisticada y secreta en esa línea difusa de la espiritualidad contemporánea. Nada más amigo. Veré The Hobbit

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer E incluso así, es un poco impreciso. Jameson decía algo apropiado sobre la música de Part, Tavener y Gorecki...

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer El único rasgo New Age en la obra de Reygadas recae en sus elecciones musicales: Arvo Part y John Tavener...

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer Sobre Post T. Lux podés decir de todo, pero nada tiene que ver con esa iconografía.

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer Hay varios pasajes del traíler de The Hobbit que remiten a las pinturas de Gilbert Williams. Es del orden de la evidencia.

rogerkoza
rogerkoza

@Jpsemino @dlerer Tolkien no fue New Age, Jackson probablemente tampoco. Su iconografía, no obstante, a veces sí remite a la New Age.

Jpsemino
Jpsemino

@rogerkoza @dlerer las dos situaciones me parecen igual de banal y sin sentido que el apelativo new age para el hobbit

 

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