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December 24, 2012

Review: The Hobbit

Very disappointing. Not recommended. I suggest you wait for the DVD.

Fanboy Bias: I should have mentioned this -- I'm a big fan of the book, The Hobbit. I like it more than LotR. And I tend to dislike movies based on properties I like. I have too strong an idea of what the thing should be to enjoy the movies.

The RedLetterMedia guy (the other one) summed it up well by calling this a "conflicted" movie. On one hand, the source material itself is a very fun, very light adventure story written for children. I think we'd mostly agree that, while pleasing to children, it actually works pretty wonderfully for adults, too. I just began rereading it; it's actually pretty funny, in that droll British way.

So that's one aspect of the movie's tone. The other aspect, however, is that the movie is made to be very similar in tone to the Lord of the Rings films. But the tone and feel of The Hobbit book was a bit different than the tone and feel of the Lord of the Rings books. The latter is self-consciously epic; the Hobbit -- the book I mean -- had the feel of a lark. The Lord of the Rings was about the fate of the planet, and whether it would fall into "Shadow;" the Hobbit was actually sort of a heist book. The dwarves intended to steal (well, steal back) a mint, largely for their own pecuniary benefit. Sure, they also want their homes back and vengeance against Smaug, but the roguish, picaresque nature of the plot is summed up by the contract they offer Bilbo for his services as a burglar -- "not exceeding one-fourteenth share of the proceeds," etc.

The Godfather films were operatic and grand; the fun heist picture The Italian Job was not. They're both solid movies, but they're completely different. The tone would be out of place in the other.

And so it is with The Hobbit. We have what should be (and which was, in literary form) a heist story, almost a sword & sorcery romp, but the filmmakers have laid over this an attempt to embiggify the story, to puff it up really, into something like the Lord of the Rings.

It doesn't work. The stakes just aren't the same.

A whole bunch of choices made in this movie seem unwise. And many of these choices seem designed to make the first Hobbit movie almost a beat-for-beat match with the first Lord of the Rings movie. For example, they've inserted a completely made-up character, an orc named Azog the Defiler, to play the same role as the Black Riders from LotR, a scary pursuer who shows up whenever the stopwatch indicates it's time for an action sequence. (Yes, I know Azog is mentioned in The Hobbit as the orc who killed Thorin's grandfather at Moria, but he isn't pursuing Thorin throughout the book.)

Azog is especially objectionable because he's an all-CGI creation, for reasons I don't understand-- the orcs in the LotR films were just people wearing fright-masks. Why they had to make a distractingly-fake CGI character, I don't know. I should also note that the orcs in this movie look nothing at all like the orcs in the LotR, and are much larger, much more muscular, and much more ferocious and bestial... rather almost exactly like the Uruk-Hai, except pale white. And also, fake-looking.

Then, at Rivendell, they make the stop there very similar to the stop featured in Fellowship of the Ring by adding in a meeting of some sort of Grand Council consisting of Elrond, Galadriel (who wasn't in the Hobbit at all), Gandalf, and Saruman (who wasn't in the Hobbit at all). This counsel talks about The Enemy and The Shadow, ideas that were only peripheral and hinted at in The Hobbit. Thus the stay at Rivendell in The Hobbit, which was quite different from the stay in Rivendell in the LotR, comes off as a copycat in the film version.

Oh: They actually add in an Artifact of Evil here, too! Radagast, you see, has discovered the Black Sword of the Witch-King of Angmar, and this means... something or other. They just substituted the Sword of Power for the Ring of Power from the last one. What the hell? The "Moghul Sword" (no idea if that's the right spelling)? What's this doing in The Hobbit?


In another painfully close swipe from Fellowship of the Ring, the film ends with Bilbo and Company looking off into the distance to see the Lonely Mountain standing alone on the horizon... precisely as Frodo and Samwise looked into the distance to see Mount Doom standing alone on the horizon in Fellowship.

Haven't I seen this all before, only better?

Other annoyances abound. I wondered if they'd include Galdalf's ventriloquism trick with the trolls. As a kid, I hadn't liked that part, as I found it all a little silly and "for kids," being, as it was, largely a comedic solution to what had been sold as a seriously dramatic threat.

Well, they take that out. But strangely, they replace Gandalf's silly comedic solution with an even sillier, more comedic solution involving Bilbo. If they were going to keep the silly comedic solution, they should have kept it as Gandalf's ventriloquism -- at least that was magic (or perhaps magically assisted), and so therefore explains a little bit how such a solution could have worked. In the movie version, it's just Bilbo doing some strained playing for time.

Peter Jackson also allows his CGI to run even more wild than he did in the LotR. The goblin sequence is ruined simply by virtue of it being so cartoonish, in both conception and actual execution (it's all CGI, all of it).

People falling 60 feet is scary, because we sense the reality of it and fear for their safety. People falling 300 feet, and surviving, is not scary. It's just silly. Peter Jackson just doesn't seem to grasp this, that more is frequently not better. Go too far and the physics fall apart and it all just seems absurd. Just because you can do it on a computer doesn't mean it will play on the screen.

The stone giant sequence -- which was pretty neat in the book -- is just ridiculous here. The book had the dwarves hiding from stone giants lobbing rocks at each other, possibly as some kind of game. Here, they're... actually clinging to rock ledges which turn out to be creases in the knees of truly immense stone giants, and it's just absurd that they could possibly hang on as the giant is jumping and running and getting knocked back on his feet.

We'll make it biggerer. That will make it even more awesomer!

Well, no.

One place they definitely don't go biggerer is on sets and outdoor locations. For a big budget movie, they seem to be on small indoor sets (with CGI background) an awful lot. They're only actually outside, in the real world, in a few shots of the Shire and some "Trek" shots (as they walk along the spine of a high hill ridge, something we've seen in LotR a lot, too).

Finally, for a movie called The Hobbit, the actual Hobbit of the title is curiously a secondary player. The book was entirely from the point of view of Bilbo, which made you identify strongly with him, as you saw the world from his eyes. This movie is constantly cutting away to Gandalf's story (Bilbo absent), to Azog, to Radagast the Brown. In the book, things happened to Bilbo (and Bilbo happened to other things, as Gollum could tell you); in the movie, things merely happen nearby him.

I just did not like this movie, at all. The action was unconvincing, everything was turned up to 11 (or, more accurately, turned up to 19), and all the charm and liveliness and fun and spirit of the book was drained out and replaced with CGI roller-coaster hijinks. Ninety minutes in and I was just waiting for it to be over. And I had an hour and a half to go.

One and half stars.

Good Things: Here are some good things: the opening stuff with Bilbo and the dwarves was pretty funny. Most of the humor ends when they leave the Shire, unfortunately, though there is some moderately funny stuff later on.

I sort of liked Radagast the Brown. Everyone else seems to not like him. I thought he had a Tom Bombadil sort of quality I liked, a powerful, and somewhat addled, nature spirit.

What I don't like about him is that he wasn't actually in The Hobbit, and it's quite strange he was jammed into this movie, which has so many other introductions, rather than the next movie, if they were determined to have him at all. Radagast's Big Thing here is simply to tell Bilbo and Company that the Greenwood has become The Mirkwood (almost overnight-- I had the sense in the books this process took years and maybe decades).

Since the Mirkwood will be in the next movie, wouldn't it have made more sense to introduce him there, when he could recall the Shadow falling over his forest soon before they enter it?

As it stands, in this movie, Radagast warns us about how dreadful Mirkwood is now... and then of course we don't make it to Mirkwood, or even hear of it again.

It's another example of making this not The Hobbit's story but the story of a whole gang of people, with The Hobbit from time to time showing up.



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posted by Ace at 05:50 PM

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