Saturday, 29 December 2012

NerdTech's Film of the Year 2012 - #3

3: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter Jackson

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, taken as a whole, constitute my favourite films of all time. Picking just one would be like choosing between my own adorable hairy-footed children. So it pains me to say that I found An Unexpected Journey not exactly disappointing, but certainly underwhelming.

Because this is the same director returning to the same world with the same team and even some of the same cast, this review will inevitably make comparisons to the original trilogy. I apologise for that because it is, perhaps, a little unfair. The Hobbit is not trying to do the same thing as that series and makes this clear from the beginning. Where Rings was an epic fantasy saga, The Hobbit is a fairytale romp. Like Tolkien's source-material, Hobbit is skewed much younger than Rings, and is filled to bursting with the Jackson humour that only appeared in the rare lighter moments of Rings. Set decades before Fellowship, this Middle-Earth is an airier, brighter place: Darkness has not yet arisen in Mordor and Greenwood has not yet become Mirkwood. And it works! Tolkien's locales, some familiar and some new, fit as perfectly with this breezy tone as they did the weight and grit of Rings. Jackson and writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens do instil the story with an undercurrent of darkness, linking the new trilogy to the old in both tone and story terms, but on the whole The Hobbit is its own beast and is more than confident in that role. Our party of thirteen dwarves, one wizard, and the titular halfling Bilbo essentially stumble from one mishap to the next. One standout scene involving three hungry trolls (who can talk in this one) is more a slapstick farce than the skirmish you might expect, and it's all the better for it.

The only downside to this gentler tone is a lack of propulsion. Where the Fellowship were pursued constantly by Ringwraiths and later by Uruks, forcing the story forwards towards the eventual goal, the dwarves have no such driving force. They are being pursued, but the threat feels less immediate and, frankly, like less of a threat. Again, this is more a fault of the meandering book than the film, and the threat in question, Azog the Defiler, is actually a fairly successful addition by the writers to address that lack of urgency.
In truth the leisurely pace is not really a problem anyway. Middle-Earth, whether it be New Zealand, a digital creation, or a Weta Workshop set, is beautiful - perhaps moreso than ever before - and it's wonderful just to spend time there. Jackson and his team have spent so long in this world now that they know exactly what they are doing, and build upon the already brilliant work in Lord of the Rings. Rivendell in particular is achingly gorgeous, but everything from the glimpses into dwarven culture (finally!) to the underground chasms of Goblin Town are perfectly realised, feeling natural and lived in. This is aided by incredible 3D work and digital effects. The height tricks, with wizard Gandalf towering over the rest of the party, are even more effective than they were in the first three films. The 3D depth of field really sells them being stood together. No forced-perspective here! The effects are just astounding, too. Gollum, always the most real of CGI characters, is more real than he's ever been, and the trolls mentioned above come pretty close to that. Again 3D helps sell the illusion of these characters sharing the same space, with the much debated HFR 48fps format making them look more real than we've ever seen before. When a digital character interacts with a real one, the seams are invisible. They are just two characters touching in the world of the film. It's amazing.

A quick word on 48fps: The format does take a bit of getting used to, but I found it worth it for the incredible realism it added to the digital characters alone. In general this first use of the new technique is a successful one, though there is one unfortunate character (sometimes real, sometimes not) who features in the only two sequences where the format falters. Poor Radagast. But on the whole, HFR shines.

On the strength of the points above, I really did want to put The Hobbit at number two on my list, but there is one thing holding it back. While there was no possible way this film could match the thematic and narrative weight of The Lord of the Rings, and I applaud them for embracing that fact, it could and should have had the same emotional weight. And while I adore Martin Freeman as Bilbo, and really felt for him, the same cannot be said for any other character. In Fellowship there are nine distinct characters, half of whom we don't meet until over an hour in, yet I felt emotionally attached to every single one. Even Legolas - the weakest actor and the least fleshed out. When (spoiler) Boromir takes those arrows it's upsetting and moving, even though he is essentially a villain for parts of that movie.
In The Hobbit, there are more characters, yes, but we meet them all right at the beginning and they benefit from an extended sequence (it's about half an hour long) where they are all introduced. I'm not expecting to know all of them, but I would hope to become attached to some of them during that time. But other than maybe Ken Stott's Balin, I don't really feel for any of these dwarves. Prince Thorin is the one with all the backstory, but he's too distant, too cold, and everything we know about him we are told by other characters (often Balin again) rather than shown through his own actions. I could watch any one of them take an arrow without any reaction beyond a shrug. Considering the amount of time we spend with them all, especially at the beginning, that feels inexcusable.

For that reason and for that reason alone, An Unexpected Journey is my number three rather than my number two. It's an exquisitely made film, beautiful in a great many ways, and it's a welcome return to a world I love. I just wish it had taken my heart back there too.