Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

movie review: in the picture

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ***1/2

Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis
Directed by Peter Jackson
Tagline: From the smallest beginnings come the greatest legends.

Book to film adaptations can be a tricky business. When done right, they have the power to bring enchanting worlds and adored characters to life on the big screen. When messed up, they mangle beloved stories and leave the filmmakers facing the wrath of countless fans.

It was, therefore, a relief when The Lord of the Rings trilogy fell into the first category. Peter Jackson's adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's epic masterpiece was a complex and well crafted cinematic adventure that pleased viewers and critics alike, and in doing so, the movies set a very high bar, making it a daunting task to revisit this universe in another project.

So when the two part adaptation of The Hobbit was announced a few years ago, it was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation - there was comfort in knowing that with Peter Jackson, the material would be in safe hands, but seeing the length of the book, it wasn't entirely clear how they would manage to generate two riveting films (three hours or so a pieces) out of it.

Then came the news that the adaptation would actually be a trilogy, and the level of concern went up a notch. Why was a film based on a relatively short children's book being released in three parts, and how was this story (even with the appendage of material from Tolkien's other writings) going to yield so many hours of film? The answer, we now find out, is by stretching it thin and fluffing it up with padding. Lots and lots of padding.

With a familiar tune, we return to Middle-earth, as the project's first installment, An Unexpected Journey, reunites us with some familiar faces. The film begins as Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) decides to write down the full story of his adventure for his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood), just before the events of The Lord of the Rings commence. We go back six decades as a young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meets Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen), and is thereby, despite his many objections, selected for an adventure. The hobbit's cozy home is thereafter invaded by a group of dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), who, it turns out, are on a quest to march to Lonely Mountain and reclaim their homeland from Smaug the dragon. Bilbo reluctantly joins the mission as they set out on the journey, which, of course, is riddled with peril.

After a sluggish start, the adventure does, eventually, get going, as the group encounters trolls, orcs, goblins, and stone giants, testing their commitment and courage. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” the characters remark, as Peter Jackson tries his best to turn everything into a CGI drenched action sequence. “All good stories deserve embellishment,” says Gandalf at one point, and that is clearly the manifesto of the crew behind this adaption of Tolkien's novel. Passing mentions are expanded into sizeable roles and detailed storylines; extraneous material is added to meet the requisite battle quota; and a simply tale with a straightforward plot is bloated to amplify its epicness. Some of these embellishments pay off, others don't. Some are understandable, others feel superfluous and unnecessary. Either way, the extraneous material, extra characters, and added sub-plots slow down the process.

It is only after we meet Gollum (Andy Serkis) that we are rewarded for slogging through the first half of the proceedings. Easily the most fascinating character in the film (and perhaps the whole series), and played (motion capture and voice) to creepy perfection by Andy Serkis, it is Gollum whose encounter with Bilbo very emphatically steals the show. It is sharp, crisp, focused, riveting, displays an impressive use of the CGI, lacks the contrivances that burden other parts of the movie, and is gripping in the way that one would wish the whole film was. There is tension here that other parts of the film lack; we're captivated by both Gollum's inner conflict and his conflict with Bilbo - it's these struggles that are more rewarding than the physical conflicts of the repeated fight/flight sequences that Jackson wants to rely on.

The acting in the movie is one of its strengths. Martin Freeman is as effortlessly charming as always in the role of Bilbo; Ian McKellen returns in all his glory, reprising the part of the gentle but wise Gandalf; but eventually it's Andy Serkis' riddling Gollum that makes the movie truly worth watching and the actor deserves all the praise he gets for this role. And of course New Zealand's majestic landscapes are, once again, on display in all their splendor, and their familiarity is comforting.

In the end, however, we are nearly three hours into the story, and we have a year's wait ahead of us to resume the adventure and get to a more substantial stage with the second installment; that, somehow, seems a little unfair. Yes, it is a preamble to the adventure that lies ahead, and in the end things might tie up neatly, and no, we weren't expecting the pace and charm of LotR here, but was stretching The Hobbit so much really necessary?

Still, after years of delays, changes, and production woes, we finally have a film, and that in itself is something to rejoice about. Plus the film is quite entertaining despite its shortcoming, and even these shortcomings are mostly a matter of taste and preference. Those who can't get enough of this series and want to spend as much time as possible visiting Middle-earth will be thrilled by An Unexpected Journey and will be glad that there are two more installments (The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014)) that they can look forward to. For viewers with less patience, the movie will probably seem overlong and inflated; with a swifter pace, greater sense of urgency, and a less meandering narrative, the film could have been a lot more captivating.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 13th January, 2013

No comments: