Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Reviewing Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at this late date feels a bit futile. The film arrives as a presold property, banking on audiences familiarity with not only the J.R.R. Tolkien source material but also the three Jackson Lord Of The Rings films. There's nothing wrong with a filmmaker working in the same vein of course, but Jackson plans to make three films out of The Hobbit. What we have here looks awfully like a cash grab.

 The time Jackson (working with cowriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro) spends setting the scene is some of the deadliest I've ever spent at the movies. We get a bit of old Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo (Elijah Wood, briefly) at home before flashing back 60 years to the moment when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has his quiet life forever disrupted by Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a band of dwarves. The bumbling, burbling dwarves stage a raid on Bilbo's pantry in a series of scenes meant to be hilarious before inviting Bilbo to journey with them in an attempt to win their homeland back from the dragon Smaug. The story of the dwarves' previous encounter with Smaug is given its own serie of expository scenes, which also serve to explain why dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) won't accept help from any elves. The other dwarves in Thorin's party are barely individualized, though if you look carefully you might recognize familiar character actor James Nesbitt as the good-natured Bofur.

 I didn't reread The Hobbit in preparation for seeing the film but as I watched I found myself wondering if certain scenes and characters were from the novel or taken from somewhere else in Tolkien's universe. I didn't remember a pale orc called Azog who hunts Thorin to avenge an old grudge and who bears a resemblance to that giant from the God of War video games. Nor did I recall a sort of hippie wizard names Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) who is introduced nursing a hedgehog back to life and who serves as a warning of the rise of the dark lord Sauron. (Both Azog and Radagast play small roles elsewhere in Tolkien's writing.) Did you know Benedict Cumberbatch was in The Hobbit? IMDB tells me Cumberbatch plays a necromancer who figures more prominently in the next two Hobbit films. Why does any of this matter? Jackson doesn't owe The Hobbit more fidelity than any other filmmaker adapting a novel, but his additions overstuff the film and exhaust even the audience members most willing to be won over. Only the key sequence in which Bilbo meets Gollum (Andy Serkis) and finds the Ring has the magic of the original trilogy. Serkis continues to be brilliant in this role, and the scene introduces the theme of power and its possible corruptions that is so rich elsewhere in Tolkien.

 No one is obligated to prefer a book to a film, or vice versa, but in discussing that film it is fair to bring up the motives it was made and the sort of experience it provides. This first installment of The Hobbit feels both like Peter Jackson had too many toys and too much to prove, though his command of this world isn't in question. I hope Jackson chooses to trim some fat from future films as Bilbo and his company get closer to The Lonely Mountain.

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