Monday, December 17, 2012

Burning Hobbit Experience

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Getting ready to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been an unexpected rollercoaster for me. My emotions have ranged from hope and excitement when the movie was first announced, to joy and delight at the initial trailers and sneak peeks, to fear and dismay when they announced that they were stretching the movie to two, and then three movies, to disgust and despair when I learned about exactly how they were padding the movie to triple ticket sales, and finally back to a tentative hope when reviews from friends and Internet acquaintances showed that it wasn't as bad as it was feared, and might actually good.

I'll be straight with you here: my feeling swelled to glory and delight with the opening scenes... and quickly descended into a solid, abiding disappointment - the kind where there aren't enough good things to talk about without dipping into things that were "ok" or "could have been worse."

Will I see the next two movies? Certainly, and not just because it's The Hobbit. Will I love them in the same way that I loved the Lord of the Rings films? Is The Hobbit film a similarly brilliant testament to a sub-culture's love of a seminal text? No on both counts. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is mediocre at best, actively bat at times, and contains only a few gems of true greatness.

Let's break it down.

The Good

The first thing I liked about this is a weird one, because I'm also going to criticize it: the much-storied frame rate. 48 frames per second created a weirdly crisp image. Overall, however, I liked it. It was sharp, dynamic, and realistic. I'm looking forward to seeing more movies filmed and presented in this way.

The phrase, however - "looking forward" - is key. I feel like the director didn't quite know what to do with this new technology. The special effects weren't up to the task of the greater frame-rate, and looked unrealistic and pasted on. The customs and prosthetics that made the orcs orcs and the wargs wargs made them look like muppets. Even some basic movie things, like lighting and colors, weren't quite right.

But I'm patient. These things take time. I'd rather see movie-makers attempt to move into the world of this new and crisper technology than sit back and hang out in the world of the old, tired technology, just because they're afraid to be the first. I don't mind that they started with The Hobbit - in fact, I'm honored. Just... get better at this, ok? I felt like I was watching a moderate-budget BBC historical rather than an epic tale of, well... The Hobbit.

Also despite those problems, some of the visuals were striking. The first glimpse of Rivendell, for example, was as beautiful as it always was. The shots of Erebor, for example, and the way they contrasted with the probably-it-has-a-name-but-I-can't-be-bothered-to-find-it-out goblin city, were pure gold.

I also feel like the creators did a good job of capturing the spirit of The Hobbit. Oh, sure, there were problems - and you'll hear about them in good time - but their hearts were clearly in the right place. This was still the Middle Earth we all know and love, just a little brighter, gentler, and sillier. In other words, this was Middle Earth at the end of the long peace that preceded the War of the Ring.

Finally, there were the changes I liked. I know this is a sore topic among my fellow nerds, but I have long subscribed to the belief that some things need to change when a book becomes a movie and when an old work (guys, The Hobbit is 75 freaking years old) becomes new.

I liked that the dwarves developed distinct personalities and styles - even if it meant that Fili, Kili, and Thorin became man-candy. Let's face it, The Hobbit had four characters: Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and Bob the Dwarf Blob. While that might have flown in the 30s, it doesn't work with modern audiences and isn't actually good writing. Giving the dwarves distinct styles, writing them some actual dialogue that actually distinguishes them, is all to the good.

I also liked some of the Silmarillion-esque digressions. The initial digression I could have lived without - the 1977 animated version did just as well in a third of the time by turning the dwarf song into a brief flashback - but I rather enjoyed the scenes that showed Gandalf's maneuvering and manipulation behind the scenes. Sure, the stuff about Radagast was kind of odd, and I'm not sure why they decided that they had to make the Necromancer (AKA Sauron in a funny hat) a modern occurrence, rather than something Gandalf had dealt with already... but all in all, it was a fun digression and it added to the sense of building tension, that this fantasy romp was more than it seems.

Because as we all know, it is.

Finally, I can't leave without talking about the songs. Tolkein's songs are another controversial point. Some of us can't live with 'em, some of us can't live without 'em. I'm one of the latter. I still sing the songs from the '77 Hobbit when I'm bored. I enjoyed this movie's rendition of That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates and Under the Misty Mountains Cold. I'm glad the creators of this movie chose to include them, and feel that they added a lot to the atmosphere.

The Meh

What could I have taken or left? Where's the "meh?"

First of all, as I mentioned previously, I wasn't a fan of Dwarven History 101 with Professor Mithrandir. Perhaps it really was too much. Perhaps it's just because I've seen that twenty minutes of movie handled with a five minute monologue (thank you, '77 Hobbit). Either way, I thought it was, frankly, sloppy.

Secondly, I just wasn't impressed with the violence of the movie. It didn't break my heart, either, but the fact is that they managed to cram eleven fight scenes into the first movie alone. Eleven! The Hobbit is supposed to be a story about how "if more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." Frankly, The Lord of the Rings is about the same thing, but at least that story is intended to be story of the heroism of folksy regular Joes against a backdrop of the horrors of war. The Hobbit was not as bloody as The Lord of the Rings for a reason... a reason that the creators of this movie seem to have forgotten.

Ultimately, however, I wasn't surprised. Just a little sad that we live in a world where gore and glory is so important. "If more of us valued food and cheer and song" indeed.

Finally, there were moments that just seemed mailed in. The Goblin King is one example. He didn't sound like a goblin or move like a goblin. He spoke clearly and moved like the final boss of the Gobling City level of the inevitable video game. He was a joke, a delivery engine for one-liners, and a midboss, and it was a missed opportunity. Similarly, Azog (pardon me - Azog the Defiler) was insufficiently nuanced to be a three-dimensional villain and insufficiently evocative to be a force of nature villain.

The Bad

I know I try to be the kind of nerd who appreciates the need for change, but there's one - and only one - thing that just pissed me off, and it's a change, and I think I can make an argument for it.

Azog the motherfucking Defiler.

Seriously, was that really necessary?

The Hobbit already has a personified villain. It has Smaug. It already has plenty of midbosses, from the Great Goblin to the giant spiders of Mirkwood and the King of the Wood Elves. It has metaphorical villains in the suspicion and selfishness of the Dwarves, the clannishness and cowardice of the Hobbits, and, in the background, the fears of the Elves and the weakness of Men. The Hobbit didn't need Azog or rather, it shouldn't have needed him. Honestly, he was a cheap trick, included as a sloppy patch for the inertia the project lost by being between one and two movies too long.

The Last Math

In the final arithmetic (see what I did there?), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was mediocre. In this effort, Peter Jackson's reach exceeded his grasp, and the studio's mercantilism exceeded his spirit. This movie may have been a labor of love, but not the kind of love that really understands and cherishes. I don't doubt that Jackson loves The Hobbit, but he he doesn't understand it. He wants to take The Hobbit out on a date, but doesn't get what The Hobbit really wants. He dragged The Hobbit out to see a movie and paint the town red, but The Hobbit really just wanted to cuddle in front of the fire, maybe watch a rom-com on Netflix.

What we have here isn't really The Hobbit. It's the Star Wars prequel. It's The Lord of the Rings: Part 0. It isn't bad, but it isn't good. It was fun, but I've basically already forgotten it.