Arts and Culture

'The Hobbit'

Baggins, dragons and Smeagol, oh my! But has HBO-grade fantasy ruined it all?

By Steve Burgess 14 Dec 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee. Read his previous reviews here.

The early buzz on The Hobbit has been: Too much. Too much film -- too many frames per second, too many seconds of film. Brace for more widely ranging opinions on the start of Peter Jackson's second Tolkein movie trilogy. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey contains plenty for both fans and detractors, with some left over for insomniacs too.

The big technical issue first: how about that new 48 frames per second 3D look? Jackson's film uses twice as many frames per second as other films to create a hyper-real look. To my surprise (I'd been reading a lot of pans), I come down firmly in the pro-48 camp. I think it looks great. The main complaint has been that the clarity serves to highlight sets and make-up, making them look phony. I have frequent problems with CGI at the best of times, but I didn't find The Hobbit suffered by comparison to other special effects films. There was one scene, a long shot of the Elf city of Rivendell, that looked very much like a painting. But that happens in a lot of films.

And as to the other frame issue, the sheer avalanche of them -- 48 per second, 2880 per minute, 172,800 per hour, 486,720 over its 169-minute running time including credits -- well, it's a lot. I confess I closed my eyes and nodded a couple of times. Jackson's increasing devotion to the Tolkien tale means that we are now getting three films to tell one book -- a book that was smaller and slighter than any of the three Lord of the Rings tomes that Jackson adapted into one film each.

Dwarves and gold diggin' dragons

The Hobbit begins with the tale of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, which is rich -- rich I tell you! -- with gold. This is good. Except that there's a giant dragon in the 'hood and dragons love gold. This is bad. Neither Jackson, nor Tolkien if I recall, provide much explanation as to why a dragon might love gold. It seems an odd adaptation, although it didn't stop the spread of humans. Or heroin dealers.

Finally we are introduced to Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, although Ian Holm appears first as the older Bilbo, reprising his role from the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Bilbo, considered the Frodo Baggins of his day, gets a visit from Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen back in the tall hat). The wizard marks a sign on unsuspecting Bilbo's door, and suddenly the poor hobbit is entertaining a hobbit-hole full of rowdy dwarves. Last to arrive is their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who looks the least dwarf-like of any of them. His ascension to a leadership role suggests a distressing streak of self-hatred among dwarfkind. Eventually I pray they'll accept themselves and elect a stumpy, bulb-nosed type. Maybe even one of the guys at the dinner table who look like they could have been in Spinal Tap.

The dwarves are gathering to take back their old home from the fearsome gold-munching dragon, Smaug (pixels, in a brief but winning performance). Bilbo has been press-ganged by Gandalf and after some reluctance joins in. Why not? The dwarves ate all his food anyway.

That dwarf meal might be exhibit A for those who feel Jackson is desperately in need of editing. It goes on like the wedding scene in The Deer Hunter. But even if Jackson takes his sweet time getting to it, there's action enough to depict on the road to Lonely Mountain. Whether it's worth the time and effort is another matter. The Hobbit suffers from the perception of lower stakes. We know that Frodo's later quest will really be for all the marbles, which makes this journey seem like a minor-league practice run. A long run at that.

The Hobbit features more goofy humour than the earlier films, including some regrettable snot routines from a gang of trolls who appear to have come the English Midlands. The Goblin King (Barry Humphries) is a fun creation. As for the goblins themselves, well, as is so often the case with henchmen, once you see their fighting prowess you'll wonder how they ever built an evil empire to begin with.

I may have nodded at times but one aspect of The Hobbit definitely made me snap to attention. Our old friend Smeagol/Gollum is back, played once more by the digitally-cloaked Andy Serkis. And here the advances in technology show very well. Gollum is better than ever -- and more menacing too, less the servile toady seen in the earlier films.

I last read The Hobbit during the Nixon administration. But the riddle scene, where we first meet Gollum, stayed with me, so much so that I still know a couple of those rhyming puzzles word for word. That scene is the best thing in The Hobbit movie too, and went some way toward rescuing the movie for me.

The HBO factor

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is likely to satisfy those who have been longing to return to Peter Jackson's vision of Middle Earth. But aside from the problem of lower stakes, I wonder if The Hobbit will suffer from another comparison problem -- to a certain HBO series that has changed the fantasy landscape.

When George Lucas unveiled the hugely-anticipated The Phantom Menace -- like this movie, a prequel to an epic fantasy trilogy -- it had a couple of issues. First and foremost, it sucked massively and featured Jar-Jar Binks. But there was also the sense at the time that Star Wars' cultural moment might have passed, that science fiction had moved on to a darker place (although that perception had a lot to do with The Matrix, which soon developed its own problems).

In the past couple of years, Game of Thrones has redefined the fantasy sword-and-sorcery genre, moving it towards something much grittier, even as The Hobbit moves Jackson's film series a little further toward the goofy and cute. Game of Thrones and The Hobbit both have dragons. But where one fantasy universe is all about heroic quests, swords with names, and ethereal Elf queens, the other is about mud, blood, politics, and characters who seem driven by the same contradictory impulses we recognize from our own. Which is more compelling? Even at the speed of 48 frames per second, audiences may feel The Hobbit has been left behind.  [Tyee]

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