Monday, January 07, 2013

The Hobbit

A few weeks ago I watched The Hobbit, and have intentionally let some time pass before writing up a review to let it sink in. I loved the book, I loved the Lord of the Rings books and movies, and so I had pretty high expectations going in. Experience has taught me that the higher the expectations, the higher the probability to be disappointed - so that was a major hurdle for Peter Jackson.  Did he clear that hurdle?  Not entirely.  I enjoyed the film, and think it is worth watching, but it could have been so much better.

I'll start out with the obvious - The Hobbit is way too long and the plot moves along at a glacial pace. Literally. I think there are glaciers now being formed in Alaska which will migrate and break off into the sea before the last frame of The Hobbit is viewed.  For those that don't already know, this is a relatively short book that is being turned into 3 movies 3 hours long, and I have a friendly 5 cent wager with a friend who thinks that Peter Jackson will split the third installment into 2 films in order to milk every last penny out of the franchise. Anyway, in order to pad the script, Jackson culled The Silmarilian, some of author J.R.R. Tolkein's notes, some of the material from the Lord of the Rings that was cut from those films, and I suspect Jackson just made some of it up as well.   The result is a plodding, bloated mess, and I frequently found myself thinking, "for God's sake, get on with it." Really, how long can you watch dwarves being chased through a cave by goblins before it stops being interesting? I don't know how long that particular scene lasted, but I swear it seemed like half an hour. Peter Jackson's films are starting to make Ken Burns' documentaries look effectively edited by comparison.

There's a good reason that Tolkein left a lot of that material in his notes and didn't include it in the novel, a lot of it just didn't fit. For example, a scene with Gandalf, Elrond, Sauron, and Galadrial, which was just mentioned in passing in the novel but is fleshed out in the film, just seemed out of place. And the scenes with Radagast the brown would have been better left out all together.  I was listening to a financial show that went off the rails recently and began discussing The Hobbit when one of the financial analysts remarked that Radagast the brown is the Jar Jar Binks of the Hobbit franchise. I couldn't have said it better myself (so I didn't). Along with the ridiculous Goblin King character, Jackson is starting to take cues from George Lucas and is adding unwanted comic relief. And everybody knows, you never go full Lucas.

These things aside, it is a good story. At it's core, it's the story of a group of dwarves setting out on a journey to recover their gold and kingdom that were taken from them by a dragon.  The story has adventure, camaraderie, dragons, goblins, trolls, wizards, etc. what more could you ask for? In particular, the interplay between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum was riveting and saved the third act. I'm not sure how much of my enjoyment is colored by my love of middle earth. Still, there were some nice touches, for example I quite enjoyed the dwarves singing That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates as a nod to the old Rankin & Bass cartoon I loved so much as a child. 

The cinematography was amazing.  I didn't see the movie in a theater with a 48 frame per second projector, just the traditional 24 fps, so technically I only saw half of the movie.  A lot of people have complained about the high frame rate, but I can't comment on that.  All I can say is that it is visually stunning in the format I watched.  The beautiful scenery and amazing sets completely blew me away.  They could have filmed a feature length travelogue of Rivendell with Rick Steves telling me where to eat and which sites to visit while there and I would have watched it. 

The unnecessary additions to the story seem to be an attempt to add gravitas, but the source material was perfectly adequate as it was.  The scope of Peter Jackson's vision seems to be too grand, and The Hobbit part 1 ended up being a little disappointing.  But a failure to live up to expectations does not mean it's a bad movie.  I'll close by including a video of Leonard Nimoy singing the Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.  It has nothing to do with the movie, but I think it's so funny that I'll seize any opportunity to mention it. 

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