Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Hobbit (2012)

(I found it hard to try and maintain an objective view whilst writing this as I openly admit to falling in love with this film (is that possible? Hell if people in Japan can marry video game characters I can love a film) from the opening sequence. Apologies for any gushing praise that may infiltrate this piece… although not really because, as we all know, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”.)

I made a conscious decision to avoid reading any reviews for Peter Jackson’s latest Tolkien adaptation until I had seen it. I finally got the chance to see it today. I left the cinema this afternoon feeling all warm and happy inside and so could finally indulge my passion for criticism. Needless to say, my fuzzy feelings quickly disappeared and I found myself despairing at my fellow man. There’s so much hatred for this film out there that I’m starting to believe a load of film writers were actually shown a fake, shit version starring the cast of Hollyoaks wearing rubber facemasks. To those criticising the decision to make three films out of the book and declaring it “not very Tolkien” I only have one answer: Tolkien was one of the most sedate writers I can think of and it’s the very reason that I love him. It took me several attempts before I actually managed to get through the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy but by the time I did I adored his lush descriptive passages and constant distractions from the plot. It sort of felt like listening to an elderly relative recount a tale from their past and having to make your way through a multitude of tangents before you reach the climax. If you ask me, Tolkien would have been a fan of this three movies thing and, you know what, had he made them he’d probably have dragged it out even longer.

I haven’t read The Hobbit for a good few years (thanks to spending the last few being forced to read a wide variety of pretentious shit before I was allowed to graduate) but I, like many of you out there, am aware that it begins with the immortal words “in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. Peter Jackson made the decision to start in a different way and include some interesting context to the plight of the dwarves that will form such a crucial part of the story (taken from a book published posthumously). This is one of the many things that have outraged a great number of filmy people. How dare Jackson try and give his audience more information relating to the next 9 hours of plot?! The much loved line is included in the film eventually, which I feel is the most important thing, and I have to say that the sequence documenting the fall of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor was a magnificent CGI spectacle.

The action then moves to more familiar territory showing us a brief glimpse of Bag End before the birthday party that kicked off the events of Fellowship. I actually quite liked the scenes with Frodo. I admit it didn’t really need to be there but creating that direct link between the old and the new rounded things off nicely. It’s a useful point for stupid people who may get confused by the similarities between the two sets of films. We kick into action once Bilbo starts to document the adventure that shaped his life: the moment his uncomplicated life is upset after the wizard Gandalf the Grey turns up on his doorstep offering adventure and glory. There was never any doubt that Ian McKellen would be anything other than brilliant when he donned Gandalf’s hat and cloak once more. For his part, McKellen clearly loves the chance to revisit his old friend and explore some his relationship with several familiar characters. He stands out, not just in size, but, thanks to his fun yet stately presence and his knowing smiles and thoughtful facial expressions, manages to capture your attention even in the most dramatic of moments.

Gandalf fills Bilbo’s life and his small home with a ragtag group of Dwarves lead by the gruff warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). The greatest thing about the dwarves is the superb and spot-on casting. Each one of them is played to perfection. Armitage, in particular, is amazing in the role of the emotionally damaged and desperate for revenge dwarf king. I came out of this film without any doubt that Thorin Oakenshield is not only the sexiest of the dwarves but probably also the coolest. As the party boasts a total of 13 of these great warriors it means that many of them fail to get enough of an introduction. The only ones that are given the chance to stand out from the crowd are Ken Stott as the world-weary but loyal Balin; James Nesbitt, looking cooler (and more like Genghis Khan) than he ever has, as the lovable Bofour; and Fili and Kili played by Dean O’Gorman and the beautiful Aidan Turner.

Another popular criticism is that the scenes of the dwarves descending on Bag End go on for too long but, again, I didn’t feel that the film was dragging at this point. I thoroughly enjoyed the initial interactions between Bilbo and the joyful group of bearded men. The scenes where he frets over his crockery as the rabble show off the kind of skills that could easily see them given their own circus act were immensely enjoyable and I was a little disappointed that we got to the nitty-gritty quite so quickly. In an ideal world Fili and Kili would have continued to play keepy-uppy with Bilbo’s plates for at least an hour before anyone could even mention Smaug.

But move on the story does and the party quickly set off on their journey. A journey that places us deep into well-known and unfamiliar parts of Middle Earth so we can once again be treated to the stunning New Zealand landscapes. To be honest, this film was great simply because we were back in that world. Watching a small group of heroes make their way through rocks and caves and over mountains is undeniably compelling thanks to the skill of the people involved. Peter Jackson and his team certainly know how to use what they are given and create an enthrallingly beautiful film. I could have wept at the sight of Rivendell alone.

And we see a variety of familiar faces on our journey with Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman and Gollum all returning for another go. They all fit back into their characters with ease (especially Cate Blanchett who is always elegant and captivating when she is bathed in light as the Lady of Lorien) and it’s nice to see a happier Elrond and an only slightly suspect Saruman. Of course, the stand-out of our old chums is Gollum. Andy Serkis only gets better when it comes to motion-capture and his sadly short scene with Bilbo is undoubtedly the greatest sequence in the entire 170 minutes running time. The Riddles in the Dark encounter is a joy to watch as Serkis owns the role of the disgusting but desolate creature. He has become such a master of mo-cap that nowadays I can’t really take him seriously if I watch him in a film and can recognise his face. There is nothing better than to see him crawl and creep around the screen; it is a thrilling and joyous thing to behold and I wish he could have stayed longer.

This scene is followed by a moment of even greater intensity when an invisible Bilbo stands over Gollum with his sword (a new and shiny Sting) ready to strike. Jackson focuses on the face of each creature and it is here we realise this is not the Martin Freeman we are used to. This is Martin Freeman, showing us an even greater skill and a deep understanding of this key figure. I went into this film worrying that he wouldn't be able to carry the whole thing or pull of such a great character. Boy did he prove me wrong. Freeman is the perfect person to bring the younger Bilbo to life: he breezes through Middle Earth effortlessly on a wave of understated charm as if he were born for the role. Bilbo is one of this series' most interesting characters. He is an everyman (neither a hero nor a warrior) who finds an inner strength and quick-wittedness that he never knew he had. Freeman doesn’t make the mistake of making light of the situation and Bilbo takes to his adventure with utter conviction. In one of the most powerful scenes of the film he finally accepts his role after he realises the reason he must endure such hardships: the hobbit who dreams of returning to his home must first help these lost dwarves reclaim theirs. Anybody not close to tears at this concept is a heartless pig. Freeman’s hobbit is the heart of the film and I can’t imagine an audience not welcoming him into their own.

Now I’ve already discussed this film at great length and I could go on - talking about High Frame Rates, Orcs, slightly disappointing CGI (in relation to both Azog and the Great Goblin) and Radagast the Brown and his racing rabbits. I am also intensely aware that I shouldn’t so I won’t. I’ll just offer a vague summing up of events. I’m not foolish enough to suggest that The Hobbit is the greatest film of all time but it does not deserve the reception it has received. It is a triumph of casting, filmmaking and stunning visuals. There are nods to the LOTR that every die-hard fan will enjoy and enough links to Tolkien’s own style to keep it feeling true to his writing. The dramatic battle sequences may not quite live up to those seen in The Two Towers and Return of the King but there are some pretty good moments of exciting action to keep us entertained. Who will forget the daring escape from the goblin hoard and the showdown with the three trolls? Lest we forget, we are dealing with a different time. We aren’t yet in dark, depressing Middle Earth but the sunnier and happier days before the rise of Sauron the Deceiver. We do not have a fixed figure of evil hanging over the the action. There are foes along the way but, without a major dark force to go up against, there is little need for great armies facing off against each other.

Getting to the bare bones of the matter, this film is fun and full of energy and purpose. Despite being just short of three hours long I never found my mind wandering. In fact there was never a moment’s peace where I could collect my thoughts enough to let it wander. I think the criticism of the length of this film says a hell of a lot more about the shorter attention span of modern audiences than it does about Jackon's desperation to drag out the plot to make more money. (I'm not naive enough to think that wasn't a major factor though.) Yes the adaptation has grown beyond its original source but so what? It’s not as though it’s overly complicated and there is never the sense that anything has suffered in order to make room for the extra material. Jackson added what he thought would make for a more complete experience for his audience. And if you want any more proof that it doesn’t really matter, take another look at this significant quotation from our very own Gandalf the Grey: “All good stories deserve embellishment”.

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