Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012/US/New Zealand)


Julien Faddoul

*   (1 Star)

d - Peter Jackson
w - Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro   (Based on the Novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
ph - Andrew Lesnie
pd - Dan Hennah
m - Howard Shore
ed - Jabez Olssen
cos - Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor

p - Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner

Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Barry Humphries, Lee Pace, Sylvester McCoy

When I was a child, my father let me stay up one night to watch television with him. His favourite late night program was The Late Show with David Letterman. That evening, Mr Letterman’s guests were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I had never heard of either. Apparently, they were film critics – the world’s most successful film critics, in fact. And on that show Mr Ebert said something that shook the child me to the bone and I have never forgotten it. Mr Letterman was complaining that a recent movie he saw, which he other-wise enjoyed, was too long. Mr Ebert’s response was “Dave, no good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough.”

Isn’t it funny how most of us can accept an epigram wholeheartedly yet secretly be guilty of feeling its opposing point? I guess that’s why one should never live by the epigram, out of caution of being destroyed by it. That’s a young person’s problem anyway. But when an incident in one's life reveals it to be true.....that's quite a moment.

There is no two ways about it, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s much beloved novel, is, at 169 minutes, far too long. And I would like to, in all seriousness, see how anyone could earnestly and eloquently argue with that. The novel itself is relatively slim, and when it was announced earlier this year that Mr Jackson would not be releasing two, but three!, cinematic installments of this novel, I must admit that I felt a little faint. His previous Tolkien adaptation, The Lord of the Rings, a complete and utter cinematic and artistic success, was a series of three films based on three books. So the obvious question that half the world asked back in July was “Why base three movies on one, shorter book?” and I’m sorry to say it but everything we all feared might happen, has happened.

The film begins, after a expository and visually striking prologue, as Gandalf (Ian McKellen) recruits the fastidious homebody Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) for a journey, with the goal to eventually slay the dragon Smaug. They are accompanied by a band of Dwarves, who, before departure, engage in a spontaneous feast and eat Bilbo out of house and home. 

That last paragraph consisted of 60 words in total. It most likely took you less than a minute to read. But in Mr Jackson’s hands, all of that was the first 45 minutes of this movie. And this is before Bilbo, Gandalf and the gaggle of Dwarves have even left The Shire. There’s nothing wrong with that per se if the screenplay by Mr Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro establishes Bilbo’s character, Gandalf’s motives or the Dwarves’ emotional stake in the upcoming journey. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s not even remotely palpable as to why Bilbo, who was at first reluctant, calls an audible and runs after the group the following morning. Instead Mr Jackson gives us 45 minutes of Dwarves farcically throwing plates around, eating food by the handfuls, cracking corny one-liners and, for some strange reason, performing two on-screen musical numbers – one comic, one serious. Why Mr Jackson decided to spend such a long and tedious amount of time on a Tolkien karaoke party is mind-boggling.

Not only is it hard to differentiate the Dwarves themselves, but their humor itself is disappointingly trite. “Wouldn’t you like a cheese knife?” says Bilbo upon seeing a Dwarf remove five wheels of cheese from his pantry, to which another Dwarf replies “No, no. He eats it by the block.” It’s almost as if Mr Jackson superciliously feels that his previous films set in this world were so successful that he needn’t bother with setting any stakes.

However, there is one other reason Mr Jackson might have deciced to have this section of the film go on so long. Many screenings of the film will be shown not only in 3-D, but in a new super-high-definition format called 48fps, which unrolls at a frame rate double that of the average movie: Rather than seeing 24 frames of film each second, you’re seeing 48. It’s entirely probable that this technology will one day progress into a utensil that enhances our experience of movies. I found it jarring – the brightness of the shading, the jitteriness of the movement, the high-definition close-ups of the actors that reveal every layer of foundation that has been applied on their faces – it took a lot of getting-used-to from me. It felt like watching a fantasy segment of The Young and the Restless. Eventually I was able to get used to it, and I suspect that Mr Jackson predicted that might happen and cunningly protracted that first section in order for the audience to settle in. I don’t see why this way of making movies is necessary. It may be hyper-realism, but it’s a less cinematic image.

The rest of the picture follows an episodic structure not unlike The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which includes encounters with Trolls, Goblins, Orcs, Stone-Giants, a fellow Wizard, and the Elves of Rivendell. Some of these encounters (particulary the one with Radagast the Brown) are risibly dreary, but most are agreeable and fun. Only in the last act, however, does a scene on the level of LOTR occur. And it’s thanks to the appearance of an old friend. The famous Game of Riddles sequence that Bilbo has with Gollum in the book is, on film, a triumph. A triumph of mood, pace, visual effects and, of course, Andy Serkis’ performance. Staring into those sad and savage blue eyes once again reminds one of the dramatic majesty of the previous films.

The visual effects overall are striking from the first frame to last. They surpass The Lord of the Rings in stability and splendor. But that’s not the problem here. The problem is characterization. It was never a dilemma dealing with the large quantity of characters in the previous film because every single one was given their dutiful heft. Here, Bilbo is a pale, elusive bore – and try as he might with his flickered eye-lids, exaggerated double takes and theatrical clownish movements, Mr Freeman adds nothing but dead air. The Viggo Mortensen slot in this film is filled by Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the Dwarf prince and leader of the mission. He, as well, spends most of his time staring intently into nothingness with zero to add dramatically.

If I sound harsh, forgive me. I am damaged and weakened not only by the movie, but mostly from the fact that I (and most likely everyone else) will have to sit through six more hours of a story that could have been done in two and a half. But no good movie is too long, right? This still to me feels like Peter Jackson's The Phantom Menace, but I guess I will remain optimistic. I mean, it can’t get any worse can it?


  1. I'd like to note that the full film cycle will be about 9 hours long. The book is about 300 pages.

    So you could probably read the book in the time that it takes to watch the movies.

    1. iiago -- I would actually recommend that people read the book instead of watching the movie. It's a more fulfilling artistic experience.