There and back to Middle-earth

DEC 18 -

It was nine years ago that the last of Peter Jackson’s three-part screen adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, had come out, capping off one of the most commercially and critically successful film franchises Hollywood has ever seen. The Rings were an exhilarating and consistently surprising combination of engrossing drama, inventive CGI and unbelievably beautiful landscapes (New Zealand’s tourism industry owes a large debt to Mr Jackson), and the films had singlehandedly given the high fantasy genre a boost in cinema, inspiring many other ventures into the same in following years. Visual flair and never-before-seen special effects were certainly part of the reason why The Rings were so beloved, but it was mostly owing to a feat of storytelling; the films had incredibly complex and engaging cores that captured the deeper emotional nuances of what could’ve otherwise been a generic battle between good and evil. So when news emerged that The Hobbit, prequel to The Rings, was finally in production, the buzz was high. Published long before The Rings, The Hobbit in text is more lighthearted, more of a children’s fairytale, and one assumed that the film would reflect that playful tone. But the script has gone a step beyond playful into frivolous, resulting in a confusing and overly-stretched mishmash of slapstick comedy and arbitrary action. Though Jackson’s gift for visual spectacle is still present, there is a disappointing lack of engagement and overall innovation here, a film that is neither able to live up to the majesty of the trilogy, nor stand on its own.

The Hobbit rises from the pages of old Bilbo Baggins’ (Ian Helm) journal, as he recounts the ‘unexpected journey’ that changed his life 60 years before the events of The Rings. Bilbo (played as a young hobbit by Martin Freeman), so far leading a comfortable life in the Shire, is suddenly jolted out of complacency when he is visited by Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), who has hand-picked him to be part of a great adventure. The hobbit is naturally reluctant at first, but when an entire company of scruffy and dangerously-armed dwarves soon descend on his home and his larder, he can’t help but be swept up in their quest, which involves reclaiming Erebor, their once-glorious and prosperous mountain kingdom that had long ago been taken by the dragon Smaug. Since then, the dwarves had roamed Middle-earth, belonging nowhere, waiting for the right moment to return and take back what was rightfully theirs. But much of the populace has lost faith, leaving only the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage)—who lost both his grandfather and father in a battle with a fearsome Orc chieftain called Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett)—and his small group of loyalists, left to undo Smaug. But the path to that end is strewn with danger—the forests are teeming with hungry trolls, bands of Orcs trawl the plains, and Storm Giants and maniacal goblin packs appear out of nowhere, among other unseen foes.

What has always been most remarkable about Tolkien’s source material is his ability to create entire worlds, layered, painstakingly detailed landscapes and characters so convincing that you forget these are hairy-footed halflings or talking trees that you’re becoming invested in. And Jackson has proved exceedingly competent in translating that microcosm onto the screen, something that extends to The Hobbit as well. There is beauty aplenty to be found here, in the sweeping views of lone figures trudging across mountains, the glittering cavernous palaces of the dwarves and, of course, the breathtaking elven city of Rivendell, all of which we’ve seen in The Rings.

However, unlike those films, Jackson has purportedly employed revolutionary new shooting techniques in The Hobbit, for ‘enhanced clarity’, and that certainly comes through, but not in a good way. Frames are often so realistic-looking that they actually take away from the film’s requisite dreamy effect; I found myself staring too long at prosthetic noses and facial hair throughout, so distracted by details that it was difficult to delve fully into the fantasy. Perhaps the effect would’ve been worked better in another genre where uber-clarity was covetable,

but in a film about imagined lands and creatures, it only makes the artifice more visible.

Additionally irksome is the glacial pace at which The Hobbit moves—it takes close to an hour for the company to even head out on their journey and battle sequences are drawn out to tedious extremes. While there are some scenes that are protracted to pleasant effect like the riddle game between Bilbo and the slimy Gollum (portrayed by Andy Serkis, still one of the franchise’s most intriguing creations), most of the stretching becomes an obvious attempt at setting up the next two sequels. After all, for a book that was shorter than any of the installments of The Rings, a three-film extension makes little sense, even if Jackson has brought in elements from Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales, The Silmarillion and other notes to pad the story with.

Also, with The Rings, one was very aware of the scale and significance of the central quest; were Frodo to fail in destroying the ring, all of Middle-earth would lie in ruins. That sort of high-stakes pursuit is not part of The Hobbit; all Bilbo is doing is helping the dwarves reclaim their riches, a rather trivial matter in comparison. This, of course, goes back to Tolkien’s book, but in his defense, he had envisioned all this occurring before The Rings; watching it after just feels like going back a few hundred steps. And Jackson only makes it worse by not just playing up the comic bits, bringing in some goofy elements that feel very out of place (case in point: a tangent on Radagast the Brown that is as silly as it gets), but trying to forcefully marry that with the kind of darker menaces that was part of the earlier trilogy, resulting in utter confusion.

For die-hards, this version of The Hobbit will probably be acceptable, if only as a vehicle to return to the magical place that is Middle-earth. But I’m certain even they will be able to detect the mercenary ambitions of turning such a succinct little tale into a three-part series. This first installment is serviceable but ultimately disappointing given what’s preceded it, and one can only hope that in the next two, Jackson leaves off indulging himself for a little while and decides to give us a bit more credit.

Posted on: 2012-12-18 08:43