Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Now Playing in Your Living Room: The Hobbit

Heavens to Bilbo, Peter Jackson does go on, doesn’t he? Ever since his masterful Heavenly Creatures (1994), he seems to resist the idea that brevity might be the soul of excitement. Take, for now, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (now available on DVD)

I like parts of many of Jackson’s movies more than their wholes: for example, the giant spider sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was, to me, the best horror movie of 2003, all by itself; the initial arrival at Skull Island in his lumbering King Kong remake--after an unnecessarily long set up--was so atmospheric and exciting, I grumbled when we were strenuously force-marched into the jungle after Kong.

I went to see the full-frontal, IMAXxed, 3-D’d version The Hobbit on New Year’s Day with muffled expectations. Word of mouth had been gray and crumbly. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the brittle, mirthful heart of The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane was melted by The Hobbit, I would have insisted on an afternoon in front of the TV with Charles Starrett as The Durango Kid (cheap, short, and unpretentiously bad).

I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit many years ago while in college and recall liking it very much, though not enough to venture into The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

My wife was enchanted through the film’s 169 minutes. I, however, a troll, a goblin, a vicious naysayer who seeks only to cynically crush the hearts of wide-eyed fanboys everywhere under my spiked and bladed heel, felt less enchanted.

But I’m grateful to say I didn’t dislike it.

More than once, though, my butt fidgeted at me to get up and loosen my circulation; more than once I pawed at my pockets for my cell to check the time, only to remember I’d shut it off like a good patron. Before long, the caffeine in the cola started to wear off.

The Hobbit is often ponderous like a 1950s biblical epic, not a good path to follow for an adventure film. For all the rightful admiration Jackson and other fantasy filmmakers have expressed for the Ray Harryhausen, the Great and Legendary, not one of them have ever caught on to an essential quality of his films—they move fast, with great energy and dash, and never overstay their welcome.

(I also still mysteriously prefer Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects to today’s gleaming unblemished CG, but that’s a ramble down another path.)

The dialogue is often pointed and excellent, especially the scenes between Gandalf and Thorin, but the scenes themselves seemed stretched beyond the bounds of wisdom. Every scene seems to be given equal dramatic weight. The final action sequence is interminable, every possible bit of suspense squeezed out of it, until it becomes like over-chewed gum.

I also wondered how many viewers got the allusion to the Three Stooges. No one under 40, probably. Maybe it doesn’t matter. I load my own work with allusions no one will ever get and it’s fine with me that they don’t. I suspect writers and filmmakers slip them in mostly to keep themselves interested and make the work worth a second or third look. The only crime is when the allusions become the work itself, a post-modern grab bag of allusions to other and better films, with nothing underneath, not even a heart. Call it Geek Pretentiousness.

I really did love Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, as much as I do his Dr. Watson on the Sherlock! series. (Though, I sadly confess, Benedict Cummerbatch’s performance-capture cameo slyly slipped right by me, as he would, the impish devil. Previews indicate he will be front and center in the upcoming Star Trek sequel, enough reason to go.) And of course, the appearance of Sir Christopher Lee (as Saruman) has brightened movies great and terrible for over fifty years and does so again here.

The Hobbit was filmed at a high frame rate of 48 frames per second. Some critics complained that this led to too much clarity—that making every bristle of Hobbit hair visible was distracting and cheapening. I even watched for this, but didn’t find it troublesome. The film is a visual feast throughout.

Diehard fans of the novel may find the lengthening of the story objectionable, but that seems to be Jackson’s way—to pile on as much as he can draw from his fertile imagination, even more than the material calls for. I simply sometimes wish he would clear away the dross to allow the bone, muscle and heart to show.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

No comments: