Saturday, December 15, 2012

Film Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

First off, I must confess to having never read J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  I admit to having tried, on several different occasions throughout my forty some years, but I just could never get past the first few chapters, mainly due to utter boredom over the whole thing.  I suppose if that is your thing, then alright, but I just could never dig it.  Now I have read and seen and enjoyed lots of other fantasy-like stuff, I have been a comic book aficionado from way back, and I can proudly boast about having seen every episode of Star Trek, in all of its incarnations (well, not the ill-fated Enterprise series, but anyway), so it's not like I do not embrace nerd culture, or whatever one calls it these days - and the so-called nerd culture that revolves around Tolkien is powerful enough to make even the most die hard Trekker or Trekkie, look sane by comparison.  The simple fact is, is that I just don't dig on Tolkien - and I have tried, and tried, and tried again.  But this does not mean I still can't enjoy, on a basic gut level, the adventure of it all.  But still, my knowledge in such things is probably not what it should be.

This, of course, means that going into Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - the first part of a trilogy, based on a book that was never a trilogy to begin with - any and all of my not-so-vast knowledge of the source material is based on a relative handful of now long forgotten pages, seeing the followup trilogy (this time adapted from an actual trilogy) on the big screen, watching a certain Rankin/Bass cartoon in my childhood, gazing in wonderment at a round-eared Leonard Nimoy, and a bunch of creepy pointy-eared children, frolicking about on the rocks, singing the praises of a certain famous denizen of the Shire, and spending way too many hours of a misbegotten youth playing Dungeons & Dragons.  In other words, to all you Tolkienheads, or whatever you may call yourselves collectively, out there, please take it easy on this Middle Earth novice, while he tries to muddle through a critique of your precious (yeah, I said it) little golden book.

Now there is one thing I do know about, and actually consider myself a relative authority on, and that is cinema.  Which means, that even though I am no expert on how well Mr. Jackson follows the rather convoluted tale of Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End, I can tell you exactly what I think of the movie itself.  Actually, it ain't half bad.  Granted, it is far from the be all and end of of cinema that so many Tolkien fans claim it to be, even before ever seeing the film, but it certainly has more than its share of moments.  The story tends to wander off into a myriad of asides in its first half - which I am assuming the book does as well - and I suppose if I were more familiar with all the goings-on, much in the same way my knowledge of the world of comics gives me a deeper insight than non comicbook readers, into recent films like The Avengers of The Amazing Spider-Man, these would lend more enchantment for me than they do.  Then again, they are not distracting in any way - which I have heard some fellow critics state.  And anyway, I always welcome a good aside, so who am I to complain.  The more the merrier if you ask me.  Though perhaps nearly just as far from great as from terrible, and overall, if you are not expecting the second coming of the rebirth of cinema (and some might be), Jackson's film is enjoyable on most levels, and plays out nicely as a fantastical adventure story that is able to get your blood rushing around at times. 

Which brings us to the technical aspects of the film, if indeed, we can even call it a film in this brave new digital world old habits do die rather hard around these parts.   Filmed, er I mean, made using the most advanced cinematic technology out there today, Jackson's film, er I mean, movie, is most certainly what one could call, state of the freakin' art.  Shot at the high rate of 48 frames per second (for those laymen among you, the industry standard is 24 frames per second, and has been since the latter days of the silent era), The Hobbit comes out, where one can almost taste the pores on the actor's faces, looking much slicker than your average bear.  I was lucky enough to see it projected in this, the proper manner desired by the director.  The majority of cinemas around the world do not have the capability of properly showing the film in 48 fps, but since I am a stickler for seeing the director's one true vision, this time also including that darned 3D projection that I am usually wary of, I lucked out by having one of these very cinemas right down the street from my house.  With a critical bend to my elbow, I must say that it makes for an enjoyable watch, but in the end, it most certainly is not near as mind-blowing as many would make it out to be.

Much of the time, this high frame rate, or HFR as it is short-handedly called, and Jackson's use of 3D, lends itself to the picture, with a deeper resonance and more superficially realistic feel - and some really scary-ass Orcs - but a bit too often it just muddles things and distracts from the actual filmmaking and film watching process.  But since the former outweighs the latter, I suppose we can call this a win.  Contrary to popular belief - being the old school, classic-heralding film lover that I am - I do not begrudge the existence and the use of any of the new tech that has come into vogue in this digital age, and would fully embrace it if it stood side-by-side with the old, and now sadly outdated style of filmmaking that anyone over the age of eleven has grown up with, instead of usurping that old technology and making it as obsolete as the nickelodeon.  But, as they say, change is constant - and there is not a damn thing any of us can do about it anyway - so one must turn one's critical head toward the new and see what comes of the whole shebang.  Here, for the most part, that technology works.  Perhaps not in any particularly spectacular manner, but it does seem to work.  The film itself, also in no particularly spectacular way,  works on most levels as well.

Now for the surprise twist in our little story, or at least the twist in of this little critical doodad.  Every word of this review, up until this point, was written prior to actually seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  In an attempt to prove that the formulaic, franchise filmmaking that constitutes much of the big box product spewing forth from Hollywood these days, is so predictable, so unsurprising, so not unexpected, that one need not even see the film to know exactly what one will ultimately think about it, I have pre-written this review with all the verve and vigor I normally put into the writing of films I have actually seen.  The idea being, that if need be, I could go back and edit out what was not appropriate and put in whatever was.  But, in the end, the film was indeed so predictable, so unsurprising, so not unexpected, that nary a word need be changed.  I did indeed enjoy the film about as much as I expected.  I did indeed find the film enjoyable on most levels, though not in any particularly spectacular way.  I did indeed find the 48 fps look to work more often than not.  I did indeed experience everything just about the exact way in which I envisioned.  What does this say?  Hell if I know.  It was just a silly little critical experiment.  But again, none of this presupposition means that the film is not an enjoyably fun romp.  Because it actually is just that.

Granted, if, after leaving the IMAX theater in which I saw the film, I found myself either completely enamored with or completely disgusted with the film, I would have had to go on back to the ole drawing board and rewrite this entire review.  My not-so-noble experiment would have been a dismal failure.  I would have been laughed out of the critical community.  Luckily - or not so luckily, take your pick - my experiment was a rousing success.  The idea of mediocrity being the cornerstone of this new age of moviemaking has been proven.  Yes, I know, there has always been mediocrity in cinema.  There has always been formulaic filmmaking, born of the assembly line studio days of that oh so coveted golden age I so often speak oh so gloriously of.  But still, the point has been, at least a little bit proven, that a film such as this - the story of an intrepid little Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, last seen in every BBC series of the last ten years or so, and the mighty wizard, Gandolf the Grey, reprised here by Sir Ian McKellan of Trilogy fame, not to mention a rather spry looking Gollum, again done in mo-cap by Andy Serkis, today's technologically-bound Lon Chaney - need not even be seen to be reviewed.  Of course I would never have printed said review if the experiment did not work, and therefore no one would have ever known anything about all these silly antics anyway.

Anyway, all this gobbledegook aside, the film, in both its technical aspect and its narrative, is, for the most part, enjoyable.  I am not about to praise the thing just to prove I am simpatico with a certain sub-culture ethic, nor am I about to trounce it just to prove I am not one of those people.  Actually I am one of those people, but a different kind of those people.  I am that nerd of a different colour you've heard tell about.  But I digress.  As I was saying, the film ain't half bad.  There is one particular scene, where mountains battle it out like gigantic Rock 'em Sock 'em robots, that is quite spectacular indeed.  Jackson even makes us feel legitimate sympathy for a character like Gollum.  Sure, it isn't what the purists will all say it is, but it surely ain't half bad.  Do I think I wasted my thirteen dollars on admission?  No.  Would I see it a second time?  Other than to re-acclimate myself upon release of part two, probably not.  But still, as I said, it wasn't half bad.  But I am sure this statement, even if I were to remove the more passive-aggressive sections, will not please everyone.  A certain group of folks, a group who think of Tolkien as a deity, and who have already praised the picture as great and incredible and fantastical, without even seeing the damn thing (yes, I know, the angry hand of irony comes down upon me like Maxwell's Silver Hammer), will still look down upon this review - even though, for all intents and purposes, it is ultimately a thumbs up, as a pair of critics of yore would say.

No sirree, not only does this film not need to be reviewed, it truly cannot be reviewed, even if we wanted to.  One of what the powers-that-be would call a critic-proof movie, The Hobbit, along with most franchise pics of late, will do that oh so important box office biz, and it will make that all-powerful quadrillion and a half dollars, and there is not one damn thing we critics can do about any of it.  No longer do we live in a day where someone like Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris can make a little known film a hit and turn a bad Hollywood product into fine minced meat.  Granted, this film should really give no one reason to want to mince its meat, but still, even if one did, there is no longer a place to do such a thing in this day and age, and with a movie like this one.  Too many a Tolkien advocate (or shall I say acolyte) will stand their ground in praising anything their master (or Mr. Jackson for that matter) puts forth - and that is that.  Even though my review is of the relatively good caliber (two and a half stars out of four if numbers are your thing), and I must admit that the final half hour or so, which incidentally is what one would call non-stop action, is a splendid roller coaster ride of eye-popping eye candy, it is far from the total rave we must all strive for, and therefore, I am minced meat in the eyes of the all-seeing Tolkienites.  But then, who am I to start cow-towing nowadays?  I just calls 'em like I sees 'em - even if I don't necessarily need to sees 'em to calls 'em.

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