Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The expectations game can do funny things to a film's reception.  I remember very distinctly the stories that were written about The Phantom Menace when it hit theaters in 1999 after what was probably the biggest hype campaign in the history of cinema.  People liked it.  Or, rather, people found ways to like it in spite of its massive flaws, to say nice things about a film that they so badly wanted to love.  It was only after some time passed that the consensus view of the film began to curdle, and eventually rot, until it is remembered as the colossal failure that it is today.

I believe that something close to the exact opposite has happened to the first installment in the (eventual) three-part Hobbit adaptation.  The hype for this movie has been not quite as deafening (because we are used to over-hyped movies at this point, and have come to take them for granted) but has certainly been massive, and the reception to the film has been lukewarm, because the hype machine has told us to expect greatness, and the film possibly falls short.  But, in this reviewer's opinion, it does not fall all that short, and its flaws (which are real) do not begin to match its successes, which are extraordinary.

At the behest of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a company of dwarves led by the gruff and distant Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), on a quest to reclaim their lost kingdom, take the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) with them, to serve as the group's burglar.  Along the way the company has a series of adventures, including Bilbo's fateful meeting with Gollum (Andy Serkis), which includes Bilbo taking possession of the One Ring.

That's about it.  A start to a quest, and a series of adventures that flow one into another, to a stopping place that is less an ending than a big blinking "To Be Continued" sign.  The film is basically a series of vignettes of the company running into danger and making its way back out again, the spine of which is Bilbo's journey from, essentially, baggage into an indispensable member of the group.  It is a small journey that Bilbo takes but an effective one, helped along immensely by Armitage's nicely unlikable performance.  Thorin here serves as something of a mirror image of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy; where Aragorn was most comfortable doing small scale morale-building and being in among the men that he was charged to lead, Thorin is distant and decidedly uncomfortable with the everyday job of leadership.  It is not a small thing for Armitage to take such an unlikable character and turn him into someone whose approval we desperately want our hero to obtain.  But, in the end, the film ultimately belongs to Freeman, an actor who is able to fully realize Bilbo's warmth and courage, as well as his distinct discomfort with any day that doesn't end in a good meal and a warm bed.  Freeman's performance here is nothing short of remarkable, and it is to the film's detriment that he is not onscreen more, because he feels immediately like the most fully-realized hobbit we have seen in any of Jackson's Tolkien adaptations.

The flabbiest part of the movie, by far, is the first act, where the meeting between Bilbo and the dwarves spends altogether too much time attempting to build the dwarves into characters that never really coalesce (there are, quite simply, too many dwarves for us to really get to know anyone but Thorin; Ken Stott's Balin came the closest for me, an older dwarf who seemed to take a bit of a fatherly interest in Bilbo, but a couple of other ones also got a bit of time in the spotlight, including Graham McTavish's Balin and James Nesbitt's Bofur).  In addition, we spend way too much time with Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, who serves as the bridge between the fairly straightforward quest that the company is on and the larger events of Middle Earth swirling in the background which will eventually form the story on which the Lord of the Rings trilogy is based.  McCoy's performance, in particular, is mostly a mistake, turning Radagast into basically a weird, twitchy hoarder, and sucking any gravitas from the character completely.  The time spent with the character really drags, and could have been excised from the film entirely.

The Hobbit is a small, goofy little adventure as a novel, and film that we are presented with here is nothing of the sort, presenting a story that is just as grandly epic as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I can certainly understand the complaint that its tone does not square with the tone of the book whatsoever, but I believe that as Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, as opposed to J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, it is largely successful at what it sets out to do, and I, at least, am looking forward to spending more time in this universe with Jackson and Freeman.  A-

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