Friday, 21 December 2012

Hobbit movie review

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The Hobbit: an unexpected journey - 2012

Rating: three stars (from a possible five).^

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Although Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies would rank as among the best I have ever seen, and although filming The Hobbit is - in principle - a perfectly straightforward matter by comparison with LotR - I never had much hope for the Jackson Hobbit project.

Almost everything I heard about it rang alarm bells. Sadly my fears have turned out to be correct.

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In sum: The Hobbit movie reminds me, here and there, of a book by JRR Tolkien I have read scores of times. But it feels nothing like the book - except in a handful of scenes.

That is because the movie contains a very low proportion of the book - and a very high proportion of made-up stuff.

The Baggins-centred plot of the book has been partly-framed and partly-replaced by a new, overarching plot about The Wise defeating the emergent Sauron/ Necromancer. What is left of The Hobbit has been seriously mutilated and distorted by the operation; the result made even more disfiguring by a great deal of additionl plastic surgery on the fine detail of the remaining scenes and especially the character motivations.

All this to the extent that the Hobbit movie is mostly made-up stuff, and its very essence is made-up stuff. It is not really an adaptation at all; but more one of those mainstream Hollywood 'from the book by' movies, where similarity is just a matter of the title and a few character names.

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Naturally, I tried to approach the movie as a movie - and let myself take the movie on its own terms.

But what was surprising is what an inept example of narrative movie-making the Hobbit turned out to be: they have actually managed to make The Hobbit drag, I mean, the movie is actually rather tedious in several points and feels distinctly padded-out.

There are many set-piece scenes (of various types: peril, battle, discussion) which go on for about twice, or three times, as long as they ought to.

This serves to emphasize the unbelievable level of improbability of the escapes and victories as depicted: almost every such change evoked incredulity (the escape from the underground goblin kingdom was ridiculously improbable).

In principle, in a magical movie for kids, strict probability ought not to apply - but that only works if you establish a magical atmosphere - whereas the hyper-realism of the movie Hobbit inevitably enforces a realistic mode of evaluation - which is thwarted.

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The reason is easy enough to understand - they have messed-up the book's structure, big time, by dispensing with Bilbo as the central protagonist whose presence and reactions unite the disparate adventures of his quest.

So, the main bad thing about the Hobbit movie, considered strictly as a movie, is that it does not hang together; and because it does not hang together it is not fully engaging, and because it is not engaging, then its structural flaws becomes very obvious.

In sum, it is not a good piece of movie making.

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Naturally, however, there are plenty of good things on show.

Like the LotR movies, this is visually gorgeous - a living depiction of Alan Lee's landscape illustration style. The look of Bag End and the Shire (seen from various angles in panoramic shots, and in many close-ups) is simply superb.

The opening shots of the dwarf kingdom under the Lonely Mountain, and indeed the dwarf civilization, were a revelation - making convincingly apparent what I have always had difficulty picturing.

The central scene with Gollum, the riddles and the discovery of the ring is pretty much perfection.

McKellen's Gandalf is extremely good (except when he is forced by the script to say and to do unGandalf-like things). Martin Freeman's Bilbo is fine, and better than fine in some places. Hugo Weaving as Elrond is a lot better than he was in LotR - although there was the annoyingly uncanonical statement that not Elrond but Galadriel was in charge of the forces for good in Middle Earth.

Christopher Lee as Saruman looked ill, behaved like a tetchy and semi-senile old man; and surely the actor should have been encouraged to lie down and rest, to make way for an understudy.

The inserted plot to feature Radagast seemed unintegrated stylistically (in terms of appearance, acting and incident); as well as being a part of the only semi-coherent new plotline.

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The dwarves are not really one thing or another; at some times cartoon comic characters (which is how the appear in most of the book; gradually elevating in seriousness throughout the last part), at others they are almost like superheroes; at first sight they behave like yobbish teenagers who have wandered-into Bag End from Beavis and Butthead - later they are depected as noble Norse warriors, at other times they are merely inept; some dwarves look like normal handsome men, others like living caricatures.

What was presumably intended to create a set of distinct characters, ends-up as just a mess of genres.

(I cannot forbear to mention that the very first dwarf we encounter has his head covered in tattoos: surely, in so many of the current mainstream movies [TV programs, comics etc] that are explicitly aimed at children, this gratuitous insinuation of tattoos, especially in relation to 'cool' characters, represents a strategically evil theme - a deliberately subversive intent on the part of movie, TV and comic creators?).

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As for the interaction of characters... suffice it to say that the least enjoyable aspect of Jackson's LotR movies, I mean the recurrent, compulsive, insertion of multiple micro-conflicts and fake dissent between the major good characters and races, is here unleashed to the extreme. Apart from Bilbo, Gollum and Gandalf these are not Tolkien's characters at all - but different people with the same name; different people whose major trait is a tendency to bicker and harbour petty grudges.

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The way for a serious Tolkien fan to watch the new Hobbit movie is to focus on the look of it, switch attention on and off as required, and just try to ignore the intrusive film school tropes and ludicrously over-blown and silly CG special effect set-pieces - especially the compulsive insertion of so much pork pie peril+.

So, the Hobbit movie is revealed as what I always feared it would turn-out to be - a misconceived exercise from the bottom-up; with its flaws baked-in from the start of the project.

What was needed was simply an adaptation of the book, suitably adapted for the screen, and as a stand-alone movie; taking advantage of modern CGI and the studios proven ability to realize an Alan Lee inspired mise en scene.

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However, Jackson never aimed to do this, and hasn't done it; and has instead created a mash-up of The Hobbit book (with different minor characters) inserted-into a poorly realized framework expanded from a few sentences by Tolkien - and then has sprawled this out over three movies...

Thus the New Hobbit has ended-up as something like the film equivalent of a 1970s, progressive rock, triple LP concept album in a gatefold cover with art by Roger Dean - and in the process Peter Jackson has become the Rick Wakeman of movie-making.

And as such there is much stuff here to enjoy, (for all of Wakeman's cape-wearing absurdity, he had talent; which we know for sure Jackson had in spades) as a whole this movie is over-blown, show-offish, striving for effect, and - because it spreads not enough material too far - it is rather boring.

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Jackson's whole approach to putting The Hobbit on screen was arrogantly disrespectful to Tolkien in the manner of a know-it-all petulant adolescent; and this is what comes through in the result.

The movie left behind an unpleasant taste.   

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^Note: My star system goes something like this: Five = excellent, must see (assuming you are similar to me); Four = very good, worth seeing; Three = some good elements may make it worth seeing, but you would not miss much by skipping it; Two = bad, waste of time, not worth seeing; One = actively harmful.

+Note: for the definition of 'pork pie peril' see -  http://charltonteaching.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/pork-pie-peril-in-movies.html 

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14 comments:

CorkyAgain said...

"The way for a serious Tolkien fan to watch the new Hobbit movie is to focus on the look of it, switch attention on and off as required, and just try to ignore the intrusive film school tropes and ludicrously over-blown and silly CG special effect set-pieces - especially the compulsive insertion of so much pork pie peril."

If the reviews I've seen are accurate, ignoring the film school tropes, CG effects, etc. means, in effect, ignoring the movie altogether.

Which I have resolved to do.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Corky - I haven't read any reviews - the above is my naive impression.

I figured that I could not trust movie reviewers (because they are evaluating from an alien and non-Tolkienian perspective) so I need not read any of them.

Correction: The only movie reviewer that I find worth reading is Orson Scott Card.

But this movie is conveniently ignorable by Tolkien fans - the only *important* things they will miss that is worth seeing, as I mentioned, are the lovely large scale moving pictures based on Alan Lee's illustrations; and the Gollum scene.

Anonymous said...

I would give it 4.5 out of 5.

Problems:
- Far too violent for its intended audience. It ought to have been a borderline case for 15/18 rating, rather than 12a.
- I didn't like Erebor at all - vey gaudy and mechanical (giant hammers etc. I would prefer not to know how dwarves go about their business deep under the mountain, leave it as something beyond our imagination, with a hint of magic.) It didn't give the sense that Erebor was a shadow of the splendor of Moria. Too much gold.
- Minor quibbles - the wolves were very slow and couldn't smell, they looked about 50 yards away during parts of the chase to Rivendell. Lightweight Bilbo saved Thorin at the end by bowling over a 250 lb mesomorph orc lieutenant.
- Stone giants in the mountains - I was hoping they would ignore these outcasts from Tolkein's chain of being as I try to. They don't fit!
- It was a shame that Christopher Lee did seem tired. His Saruman was the outstanding portrayal of a character in LotR.

The film was very like a videogame. This didn't bother me as I've grown up playing them, but I can see how anyone who hasn't could find it grating. I thought this did allow them to keep an atmosphere of whimsy alongside adventure e.g. messing around with the crockery, getting knocked around and spitted by trolls.

Good:
- I never expected the film to be particularly faithful to the book, just couldn't be done after the LotR films imo. I can enjoy the Hobbit best in the context of LotR/the Quest for Erebor (in Unfinished Tales) anyway (read LotR first) so I got what I was expecting/hoping for. E.g. In the Hobbit King Thorin, his kinsmen and retainers don't carry weapons (preferring musical instruments), this had to be corrected. Your point about 'fake dissent' is explained here I think; in Quest for Erebor we see Gandalf is very frustrated with Thorin.
- I thought they kept the right elements and added suitable ones. They preserved Bilbo's competing drives of home and adventure, pity and mercy for gollum and the camaraderie and compulsion of the dwarves. They got across that the suspicion and resentment toward the elves was out of keeping with their character, but found encouragement in the more subtle antagonism of the elves. The dwarves were correctly portrayed as admirable people, but difficult for outsiders to get along with.
- Thorin. If, as apparent, these films simply must have a warrior/man of action as co-protagonist then Thorin is the best one can hope for. Strengths and flaws combined in an integrated way. Contrast with Aragorn, for whom they had to imagine flaws, which didn't fit with the rest of his character.
- I found the film exciting and well paced. I hadn't know how long it would be beforehand, and was surprised to check my watch and find it had taken 3 hours. In fact it was almost too exciting; I felt rather dazed for a while afterwards (saw in 3d 48fps, haven't been to the cinema in years, I will see again so my opinion may change if my unhabituated senses were simply overwhelmed).

Anthony

CorkyAgain said...

I agree, most reviewers are coming to the movie with a non-Tolkienian perspective.

That's why your review, coming from someone who has demonstrated his knowledge of (and sympathy for) what the books were about, was the one that clinched it for me.

But I've seen other reviews which have described the movie as too much like a video game or the typical Hollywood action flick, and they've discussed elements of the plot which suggest that this movie enlarges on all the things I disliked about the LotR movies while downplaying or ignoring the things that redeemed them.

Here's a lecture by Notre Dame's David O'Connor, who describes some of the ways Peter Jackson has "flattened" Tolkien's vision: http://ocw.nd.edu/philosophy/ancient-wisdom-and-modern-love/videos/lecture-19-video

This first Hobbit movie appears to be yet more of what O'Connor is talking about. The Hobbit starts out as a childish sort of book, but at the end it begins to rise up to the moral plane of The Lord of the Rings. I don't see any reason to expect that Peter Jackson's films will achieve anything like that kind of elevation. If anything, I expect the sinking to continue toward ever more disappointing mediocrity.

dearieme said...

"pork pie peril": 'tis but a trifle.

Daybreaker said...

The 2-disc CD soundtrack is good and will probably hold up better than the movies.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - I have the three discs of Howard Shore's music for LotR - and like them very much. The Hobbit music seems like more of the same kind of thing, so I'll probably buy it when the price comes down.

Q said...

I haven't read the books but I found the last two installments of LOTR quite boring and tedious due to all the action scenes. "Peter Jackson has buried Tolkien's mythic tragedy under an avalanche of tricks" in the words of David P. Goldman(aka Spengler).

He also wrote this about The Hobbit:

"Peter Jackson’s first of three Hobbit films took a thrashing from the critics, who disliked the effect produced the new 48-frames-per-second projection system. This makes everything a bit too clear, a bit too smooth, such that sets and costumes seemed artificial to some. It is off-putting at first. Halfway through the film, though, I suddenly thought, “This is the way I saw the world when I was a child!” There are many wonderful things about Jackson’s film, of which the choice of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins stands at the top of my list; unlike the listless Elijah Wood, a boy playing the role of the middle-aged Frodo in the “Ring” trilogy, Freeman is a grown-up. He is a master of English understatement but also an actor of great range, and he carries the film brilliantly. As in the Rings trilogy the sets and settings are marvelous. Especially gratifying was the inclusion of many of Tolkien’s poems with affecting settings by Howard Shore.

(...)

Jackson had a difficult task at hand: The Hobbit is a children’s tale that nonetheless sets up the events leading to the later novels. Jackson and his colleagues effectively integrated background from Tolkien’s Middle Earth histories to establish context and continuity, and in some cases added inventions of their own. Some of these, for example the appearance of the wizard Radagast, work quite well (and are consistent with Tolkien’s story). And the Three Stooges routine performed by the three trolls was a permissible aside, much in the spirit of the book. Others, notably the entirely invented character of an Orc leader with a grudge against the dwarves, are generic Hollywood claptrap. Those are not minor flaws in a work that for the most part is brilliantly conceived and executed. Nonetheless the film should help keep Tolkien’s wonderful story in the mind of the public. Considering all the other stories we have to hear, that is a comfort."

And according to David P. Goldman Tolkien well may have written his epic as an "anti-Ring" to repair the damage that Wagner had inflicted upon Western culture. His article is a most interesting read(which links to earlier articles he wrote about this subject):

http://pjmedia.com/spengler/2012/12/16/a-worthy-hobbit/

I placed a link to your review under his article and David P. Goldman had this to say:

"Prof. Charlton sees the same glass, and declares it half-poisoned. His objections are the same as mine, but I have a different overall response. Popular culture has been poisoned by Richard Wagner for the past century and a half. Luke Skywalker is a cheap comic-book knockoff of Siegfried (down to and including the confrontation with his father, Darth Vader/Wotan). Harry Potter is more of a melange but is a closer kin to Siegfried. The cultural import of Tolkien’s Hobbits comes through in the film for all its flaws. Tolkien is all we have to set against the septic tide, and Peter Jackson et. al. have kept him at the forefront of popular culture. That is a good, and enormously important thing."

http://pjmedia.com/spengler/2012/12/16/a-worthy-hobbit/#comment-104695

Bruce Charlton said...

@Q - I do read 'Spengler' every few months - and he usually has interesting things to say: but he does not see things from the same perspective as I do - as the comments on CS Lewis and Harry Potter make clear. That perhaps explains some of our difference in evaluation - although I also felt that the movie was fairly badly put-together, badly paced and edited.

Imnobody said...

I enjoyed the movie, mainly because the plot seemed boring and tedious to me (and I'm a Tolkien fan for decades and loved the LOTR movies). I couldn't give a damn about the characters.

So, early in the movie, I stopped paying attention to the story and dedicated to admire the beautiful landscapes in 3D and 48fps. Beauty is always rewarding.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Imnob - I watched it in 2D - it still looked beautiful. That would certainly be the best way to enjoy it. I browsed a couple of the movie tie-in photo books, and rather liked them for the same reason.

Jo Flemings said...

I disagree and I think this review and comment thread is kind of snobby. Look, to translate the book into a movie is a Herculean task and this product is Jacksonesque, not Tolkienesque. But it also gives us a bit more by way of Walsh and Boyens that adds to the experience for the modern lover of the story, and that is good. Sure, too much campy violence,but it is going somewhere. Why not go there before we decide it's not worth the attempt? Why not have the broader characterization of dwarves as a vehicle for communicating something more- something consistent with what we get from LOTR etc.? The Hobbit has its own set of problems that expand in the sequels- ALOT. The professor did not intend alot of things that come out of The Hobbit into what he did intend in LOTR and ff. So bagging on the movies really should not be a part of a discussion about the books-- they are distinctly different modes of story-telling. But I really think the story has not lost anything in Jackson et al's retelling and embellishing of it, I think it has gained some depth in some ways that it did not otherwise have, and that has merit, inspite of overdoing it with special effects in chase and flee scenes.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JF - My review is mixed, not wholly hostile - but overall I am negative about the movie.

Why?

Two essential reasons. Just considered as a movie (regarded as free standing from the book) it is only partially successful - it is not consistently well written, or structured or edited. Nothing like as good as - say - Rise of the Guardians (another recent movie), nor Jackson's first and third LotR movies - more like the Two Towers.

The second reason is that the Hobbit movie does NOT capture the essence of the book. A movie that claims to be an adaptation of a book need not (and never does) contain literally the same elements and nothing more - but if it fails to capture the 'spirit' then it is not truly an adaptation - rather the movie has *used* the book as *raw material*.

By contrast the pretty-terrible, crudely animated and vulgar old Rankin-Bass cartoon of The Hobbit was a sincere - but only very partially successful - attempt to capture the spirit of the Hobbit.

In sum, Jackson has used The Hobbit as raw material, and he has made a middlish quality movie. If the spirit of the book had been pursued, or if the movie had been better made as a whole, then I would probably have been happy - but as it is I feel negative about it while regarding many specific aspects (eg the Gollum scene, the depiction of the Shire) as superb.

George Goerlich said...

I finally saw this and I couldn't believe how terribly poorly he did it. I had to fast forward through large time portions, especially the wacky rabbit-rider wizard getting high nonsense. Very disappointed in Jackson's story re-writing.