Sunday, December 23, 2012

Superfluous Middle-Earth

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Director: Peter Jackson

Reviewed: 23 December 2012

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

Breathe easy.  Peter Jackson has not ruined or marred his legacy like George Lucas did with the abominable prequels to the original "Star Wars" trilogy.  I compare Jackson's new film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" to Steven Spielberg's misfire "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." That film was a weak shade of the original beloved character, its special effects dwarfed its story, and it played more like a sad attempt to recycle instead of push forward.

And that is where Peter Jackson is right now.

Here's where we left off in 2004.  Peter Jackson was king of the world, holding a Best Director Academy Award in one hand and a Best Picture statue in the other.  "King Kong" loomed on the horizon, and "The Lord of the Rings" was cemented in pop culture status as an equal to "Indiana Jones" or "Star Wars."  It became a series that I looked forward to re-watching and revisiting every winter break.

And now, here we are in 2012.  Peter Jackson has crafted "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" which is part one of a trilogy constructed out of the 300 page "enchanting prelude to 'The Lord of the Rings'" according to my edition.  Which means that Jackson is stretching source material (and audience's patience) as far as it will go.  Which means I'm on the hook for another Middle-Earth story for the winters of 2013 and 2014.    

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the prelude to the trilogy, outlining how the ring was secured from Gollum and how a hobbit becomes a hero.  In short, Bilbo Baggins joins Gandalf The Grey on an adventure to the Lonely Mountain to help the dwarves recapture their homeland and a dungeon-full of gold from the unseen dragon Smaug.  There are Orcs and Goblins along the way, as well as mountains and waterfalls.  The usual.  Swooping camera work.  Chanting music.

As a teacher, the experience of watching this film feels like watching an honors student resubmit to you a slightly reworked paper from another class.  There's little originality, little freshness, little fun, and little newness in terms of ideas or format.  Jackson is capable of so much more, and here it feels more than ever like he is spinning his wheels, recycling his favorite moments from the original trilogy, and putting emotion on autopilot.  In structure it feels exactly like the first film: prologue, time in the Shire, traveling, then fights, a trip to the Elf-land, subterranean chases, cliffhanger ending rescue.  In terms of actors delivering emotion (or even just connecting with the audience), Jackson is not working with a strong cast of Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, or Viggo Mortenson.  "The Hobbit's" cast is mostly forgettable with a brooding Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and an okay Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (doing a mostly credible Ian Holm impersonation). The dwarves, meant to provide comic relief, do little to distinguish themselves or endear us to them despite many, many scenes meant to warm the audiences to them.  Instead, I longed for Pippin and Merri's easy bouncy chemistry and sense of fun.  Sir Ian McKellen seems older and more tired (both of which must be true), and his Gandalf is not close to the Oscar-nominated performance he gave in the original film in 2001.  He now speaks in clumsy aphorisms and disappears only to reappear to save the day.  Howard Shore's iconic score hits familiar notes but carries none of the grandeur or sweep of the original and adds nothing memorable.  When Jackson employs a helicopter tracking shot of the party walking over a New Zealand mountain, it's stunning and beautiful and it's impossible to forget that it's been done before.  Better.

Guillermo Del Toro's name is on this film in some capacity, and I sincerely wish that Jackson had been able to hand the reigns off to him or another hungry filmmaker with a fresh vision.  Del Toro's signature style in films like "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy" was a tactile quality, a use of costume, make-up, and sound that can exhilarate and terrify.  I really would have liked to have seen his Middle-Earth with its ghouls and trolls, its Necromancer and dragons.

And, I'm not holding Jackson's decision to make this film the first of three against him.  A good film is a good film, but it is difficult to know that this story, which can only seem slight compared to the trilogy, is being given more time and equal weight to the original.  Scenes with Gollum (Andy Serkis) are fine, but nowhere near the electric power of "The Two Towers."  Scenes with Gandalf seem clunky, move even more slowly.  Hobbiton is less charming; the woods and forest less grand.  There is a bizarre character with a sleigh pulled by jack-rabbits.  There are an inordinate number of trolls who are terrible at fighting and never seem to injure the dwarves.

Don't get me wrong.  It is nice to see Ian McKellen, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving, among others.  There are one or two potentially scary moments, one involving spiders (friends of Shelob?)  It's nice to return to Middle-Earth.  But if the return is not going to build upon the legacy of the original films or add a fresh wrinkle or take on it, then count me out.  I'd rather watch the originals and be enthralled with them instead of watching "The Hobbit" and be constantly, slightly disappointed.

So much money, effort, and time went into these films.  I wish that there were more energy, fire, passion, and daring in the filmmaking.  This is a film project that cost over $180,000,000.  If you're not willing to be daring and bold after winning the Oscar for Best Director and crafting one of the best trilogies of all-time, then when will you do it?  Perhaps it is time for Peter Jackson to depart Middle-Earth?

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