The Hobbit: an unexpected journey - 2012
Rating: three stars (from a possible five).^
Although Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies would rank as among the best I have ever seen, and although filming The Hobbit is - in principle - a perfectly straightforward matter by comparison with LotR - I never had much hope for the Jackson Hobbit project.
Almost everything I heard about it rang alarm bells. Sadly my fears have turned out to be correct.
In sum: The Hobbit movie reminds me, here and there, of a book by JRR Tolkien I have read scores of times. But it feels nothing like the book - except in a handful of scenes.
That is because the movie contains a very low proportion of the book - and a very high proportion of made-up stuff.
The Baggins-centred plot of the book has been partly-framed and partly-replaced by a new, overarching plot about The Wise defeating the emergent Sauron/ Necromancer. What is left of The Hobbit has been seriously mutilated and distorted by the operation; the result made even more disfiguring by a great deal of additionl plastic surgery on the fine detail of the remaining scenes and especially the character motivations.
All this to the extent that the Hobbit movie is mostly made-up stuff, and its very essence is made-up stuff. It is not really an adaptation at all; but more one of those mainstream Hollywood 'from the book by' movies, where similarity is just a matter of the title and a few character names.
Naturally, I tried to approach the movie as a movie - and let myself take the movie on its own terms.
But what was surprising is what an inept example of narrative movie-making the Hobbit turned out to be: they have actually managed to make The Hobbit drag, I mean, the movie is actually rather tedious in several points and feels distinctly padded-out.
There are many set-piece scenes (of various types: peril, battle, discussion) which go on for about twice, or three times, as long as they ought to.
This serves to emphasize the unbelievable level of improbability of the escapes and victories as depicted: almost every such change evoked incredulity (the escape from the underground goblin kingdom was ridiculously improbable).
In principle, in a magical movie for kids, strict probability ought not to apply - but that only works if you establish a magical atmosphere - whereas the hyper-realism of the movie Hobbit inevitably enforces a realistic mode of evaluation - which is thwarted.
The reason is easy enough to understand - they have messed-up the book's structure, big time, by dispensing with Bilbo as the central protagonist whose presence and reactions unite the disparate adventures of his quest.
So, the main bad thing about the Hobbit movie, considered strictly as a movie, is that it does not hang together; and because it does not hang together it is not fully engaging, and because it is not engaging, then its structural flaws becomes very obvious.
In sum, it is not a good piece of movie making.
Naturally, however, there are plenty of good things on show.
Like the LotR movies, this is visually gorgeous - a living depiction of Alan Lee's landscape illustration style. The look of Bag End and the Shire (seen from various angles in panoramic shots, and in many close-ups) is simply superb.
The opening shots of the dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, and indeed the dwarf civilization, were a revelation - making convincingly apparent what I have always had difficulty picturing.
The central scene with Gollum, the riddles and the discovery of the ring is pretty much perfection.
McKellen's Gandalf is extremely good (except when he is forced by the script to say and to do unGandalf-like things). Martin Freeman's Bilbo is fine, and better than fine in some places. Hugo Weaving as Elrond is a lot better than he was in LotR - although there was the annoyingly uncanonical statement that not Elrond but Galadriel was in charge of the forces for good in Middle Earth.
Christopher Lee as Saruman looked ill, behaved like a tetchy and semi-senile old man; and surely the actor should have been encouraged to lie down and rest, to make way for an understudy.
The inserted plot to feature Radagast seemed unintegrated stylistically (in terms of appearance, acting and incident); as well as being a part of the only semi-coherent new plotline.
The dwarves are not really one thing or another; at some times cartoon comic characters (which is how the appear in most of the book; gradually elevating in seriousness throughout the last part), at others they are almost like superheroes; at first sight they behave like yobbish teenagers who have wandered-into Bag End from Beavis and Butthead - later they are depected as noble Norse warriors, at other times they are merely inept; some dwarves look like normal handsome men, others like living caricatures.
What was presumably intended to create a set of distinct characters, ends-up as just a mess of genres.
(I cannot forbear to mention that the very first dwarf we encounter has his head covered in tattoos: surely, in so many of the current mainstream movies [TV programs, comics etc] that are explicitly aimed at children, this gratuitous insinuation of tattoos, especially in relation to 'cool' characters, represents a strategically evil theme - a deliberately subversive intent on the part of movie, TV and comic creators?).
As for the interaction of characters... suffice it to say that the least enjoyable aspect of Jackson's LotR movies, I mean the recurrent, compulsive, insertion of multiple micro-conflicts and fake dissent between the major good characters and races, is here unleashed to the extreme. Apart from Bilbo, Gollum and Gandalf these are not Tolkien's characters at all - but different people with the same name; different people whose major trait is a tendency to bicker and harbour petty grudges.
The way for a serious Tolkien fan to watch the new Hobbit movie is to focus on the look of it, switch attention on and off as required, and just try to ignore the intrusive film school tropes and ludicrously over-blown and silly CG special effect set-pieces - especially the compulsive insertion of so much pork pie peril+.
So, the Hobbit movie is revealed as what I always feared it would turn-out to be - a misconceived exercise from the bottom-up; with its flaws baked-in from the start of the project.
What was needed was simply an adaptation of the book, suitably adapted for the screen, and as a stand-alone movie; taking advantage of modern CGI and the studios proven ability to realize an Alan Lee inspired mise en scene.
However, Jackson never aimed to do this, and hasn't done it; and has instead created a mash-up of The Hobbit book (with different minor characters) inserted-into a poorly realized framework expanded from a few sentences by Tolkien - and then has sprawled this out over three movies...
Thus the New Hobbit has ended-up as something like the film equivalent of a 1970s, progressive rock, triple LP concept album in a gatefold cover with art by Roger Dean - and in the process Peter Jackson has become the Rick Wakeman of movie-making.
And as such there is much stuff here to enjoy, (for all of Wakeman's cape-wearing absurdity, he had talent; which we know for sure Jackson had in spades) as a whole this movie is over-blown, show-offish, striving for effect, and - because it spreads not enough material too far - it is rather boring.
Jackson's whole approach to putting The Hobbit on screen was arrogantly disrespectful to Tolkien in the manner of a know-it-all petulant adolescent; and this is what comes through in the result.
The movie left behind an unpleasant taste.
^Note: My star system goes something like this: Five = excellent, must see (assuming you are similar to me); Four = very good, worth seeing; Three = some good elements may make it worth seeing, but you would not miss much by skipping it; Two = bad, waste of time, not worth seeing; One = actively harmful.
+Note: for the definition of 'pork pie peril' see - http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/pork-pie-peril-in-movies.html