Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Some part of me must bitterly admit that out there in the world are those people who were glad when Return of the King was done, because it meant the Ring craze would finally die down. Well, sorry you un-nerdy philistines! It only took the better part of nine years to return to Middle Earth, but thanks to the tireless efforts of the visionary Peter Jackson and his brilliant creative team, the days of Middle Earth have returned to theaters. The result is an entirely new film consistent with the spirit of the novel, though not entirely consistent with the previously established Middle Earth of the Lord of the Rings movies. The results are fine, but… mixed.

Depending on your level of acquaintance with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you may or may not notice Middle Earth feeling a bit different this time around. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey goes to great lengths to identify itself closely with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, with cameo appearances by Lord of the Rings characters that strictly speaking, ought not to appear in The Hobbit from a purist's perspective.  But for the moment I won't trouble you my reader too much with talk of the book, even if it is one of my favorites of all time. Back to the point, while the Hobbit takes some creative opportunities to identify itself with The Lord of the Rings, it takes a few steps of its own that are entirely unlike The Lord of the Rings, giving The Hobbit its own distinctive style.

The first and most obvious of these divergences, are the villainous beastly orcs and goblins (the distinction between the two is especially hazy here). A goblin commander is introduced here named Azog the Defiler, who is tall and pale with battle scars and a nasty club grown into his elbow where his arm used to be. There is no doubt that this Azog is not just another growling goblin, but a hero to his side of the conflict. But I have a slight issue with Azog, beyond his presence contradicting certain details of Middle Earth history: he's too clean. Other than the club in his arm a few battle scars, he looks like he showers often-- his flesh itself is just very clean. I am not trying to indicate that every goblin and orc must aspire to be like the sordid leader of the Uruk-Hai from The Fellowship of the Ring, but Azog's lack of weathering fundamentally affected my perception of him. In the past these sorts were disgusting-- they looked sticky and wreaked of rotting flesh and unhealed wounds. Here they are still ugly, but more than capable of walking about in daylight as though they own it, without bothering to even think about lurking in shadows. As odd as Azog may have been, he was nothing compared to the Goblin King. 

The Goblin King was a spectacular display of the influence of Guillermo del Toro, but His Majesty was a bit too comical to be taken seriously as anything other than Jabba the Hutt with legs. After the capture of the dwarves, the Goblin King is seen dancing and stamping his feet as he sings a jolly tune about crushing their bones, only to be cut off abruptly from his lively song when someone's sword accidentally falls into view and scares him. This convenient diversion gives the company enough time to scramble about and collect themselves into fighting mode so they can slash and push their way to the exit. The Goblin King reappears menacingly, and then dies in a forcefully comic manner so anticlimactic, that even His Royal Ugliness could not come up with better parting words. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the goblins are not much better. Personally, I found it difficult to really accept most of the goblins and other orcs as flesh and blood. Perhaps it was the lack of ooze that I was accustomed to after three Lord of the Rings movies, but these goblins often felt like computer generated foes who possess too little wit to do anything but shriek and twitch and fight at the outsiders. When the band of dwarves make their grand escape and many goblins meet their doom at the tip of a sword, there is something amiss. In The Fellowship of the Ring for example, in the battle of Moria, each sword was plunged and clashed with conviction and fury. The heroes sweat with the exhausting efforts of defeating such great numbers. The factor that makes you wince when a being is sliced by sword, or the tension of knowing how much the character is putting himself out to defeat said foes, is simply absent. Ill-timed comic levity also breaks up the intensity of what could have been a very engaging fight sequence, making it more akin to Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Now that the goblins have had some roasting, I move my attention to the dwarves. The first thing I will say in praise of the dwarves was the wise idea to individualize each of the fourteen into distinctive characters. The most striking among them is Thorin Oakenshield, played excellently by Richard Armitage. Armitage gives the character Thorin the heart and depth of a convincing leader and courageous warrior, while still leaving room for development later on. For the most part, Thorin is a hard and somewhat edgy-tempered dwarf, but his eyes soften when he speaks of his home and his desire to reclaim it. He is just, in a word, passionate. He is passionate about his homeland and the mission to reclaim it, passionate about his hatred of elves, passionate in his leadership of the dwarves, and so on.

The rest of the dwarves are a mishmash band, most of whom look absolutely nothing like Gimli from Lord of the Rings. To be fair, fourteen Gimli look a-likes would be overwhelming and it was hard enough to keep track of them all with so many of them onscreen. That is why I said it was wise to individualize the fourteen into distinctive characters. Even then however, there are too many to keep up with. Aside from Thorin, Kili and Fili are the only ones who really stand out, and that’s because they’re the young whippersnappers and the most attractive. Seriously speaking, I strongly suspect that the overnight success of Orlando Bloom due to Lord of the Rings contributed to the casting choices here, as if someone said “we need some pretty faces…it will pull in the young female crowd and sell posters.” Not that I’m complaining—they both behave in a properly dwarvish manner, but with a bit more Merry and Pippin type look of mischief in their eyes. It was a fair casting choice, but probably also a strategic one in terms of marketing. The oldest and most distinguished dwarf called Balin is the only other one that really makes an impression, and that’s partially because he narrates a bit of history. He’s also a nice old boy whom Thorin is quite tender towards, and sometimes shares the mantle of wise elder with Gandalf.

I had wondered on whether or not I should really mention this, but since I’m here I may as well and you may choose not to read it. It seems that along with deciding to cast the younger dwarves as attractive sorts, someone must have also determined that there should be a character to represent the metrosexuals and a character to represent those who were bullied in school. Yes, you read that correctly. There is a dwarf with finely combed hair who is a connoisseur of fine wine, and one rather skinny dwarf with a bowl haircut and no facial hair who talks with a bit of a stutter. By nature of the culture, dwarves are great stoneworkers, metalworkers, and smiths. The odd characterizations of the two mentioned above go against this significantly, and really do not add anything to the story.

The strongest performances and characters here are Thorin, Bilbo, and Gandalf. Ian McKellen reprises his role as Gandalf, with no real surprises. The only real surprise to Gandalf’s character this time around is how he comes off so carefree at times, and uncertain at other times. However, an important thing to keep in mind is that the times of The Hobbit are far less precarious than the times of The Lord of the Rings, and Gandalf’s attitude reflects that. He is overall less serious here, often contributing to the comic levity throughout.

Bilbo, ingeniously portrayed by Martin Freeman, makes for a lovable and connectable protagonist. Bilbo begins as a determined homebody, and really no one would blame him for loving his life full of good food and pipe weed. As a lead protagonist, I must say that Bilbo is extremely personable with his quirks, outbursts, and love of domestic life. Of all the scenes in the movie, the sequence with Bilbo and Gollum pitching riddles back and forth to each other is probably the most masterfully done. The life that Andy Serkis breathes into the mysterious Gollum is both comical and chilling. While the audience laughs at the dual-personality that is so brilliantly portrayed onscreen, the fact that he might turn on Bilbo and try to throttle him at any moment is still an ever-constant threat. Gollum's facial expressions captured by the miracle of technology are delightful, and make the character real and touchable. 

Thus far I have come down hard on what I perceived to be the missteps of The Hobbit, but to be fair, not everything is done poorly. The moment when Bilbo unknowingly acquires The One Ring is given adequate reverence, and the bit of added history did put some perspective on the dwarves and their long-standing bitter history with the elves (which is referenced throughout the trilogy between Gimli and Legolas. If you pay attention to names, you’ll make the connection that Legolas’s father ditched the dwarves in their moment of need, essentially costing them their homeland). The writers here draw attention to the cultural tendency of the dwarves to sing, and weave it in so seamlessly that at no point do their spontaneous tunes seem out of place.

I understand that the tone and times of the Hobbit are not the same as The Lord of the Rings, and I honestly would not take issue with this if the movie had not labored to tie itself to The Lord of the Rings, and present itself as an equal epic. But because the Hobbit took very specific steps to ensure that the audience felt familiar with this Middle Earth, the changes feel out of sync with the previously established world. This presents a conflict in a few ways. The first is that The Hobbit rides the success of The Lord of the Rings, and therefore needed to tie itself to those movies in some way. However, had The Hobbit followed the same tone of The Lord of the Rings, it would have completely betrayed the spirit of the novel, which is starkly different than The Lord of the Rings. In light of all of this, I must conclude that The Hobbit does very well walking a bit of a tricky line, but falls off track a few times. The movie tries to elude to the fact that there is more stirring in the darkness of the world than a simple matter of a dragon’s invasion, but throws off the foreboding tone by presenting characters like Radagast, who seemed that he belonged more in a Narnia movie than Middle Earth.

The result is that the movie is good, and although it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as The Lord of the Rings, there is enough of the story left that The Hobbit may still have some tricks up its sleeves. The movie closes with a long journey still ahead, and the greatest battles not yet begun. Therefore, as The Hobbit has a way to go before its journey is complete, I withhold my judgment of the trilogy until it is. It may yet make a place in movie history.

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