Less is sometimes better than more, right?
In this past week alone, I have seen at least half a dozen films that are more than two and a half hours long and only two of them —Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln— can justify their running time. Both are prime examples of classic Hollywood filmmaking where not a single scene is wasted: every shot, every sequence, every cut counts. Yet, there are others scheduled to be released in the next couple of weeks that could have benefited from a traditional editor with a red pen in hand or an additional pair of eyes in the editing suite.
Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is far more entertaining and technically groundbreaking than some of the other films I will be writing about for this blog and for CityVida, I wished Peter Jackson and his partners in crime Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens were not as excessively faithful to the Tolkien canon as they are here.
Once attached to direct what was at first announced as a two-part movie, one wonders how Guillermo del Toro would have handled this material: although del Toro sometimes lets his fanboyish imagination run wild on such projects as the Hellboy films and Blade II, he is also a master of restraint as seen in such highly personal films as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Although he gets a co-screenwriter credit in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I suspect that as a director he would have brought both sensibilities into play, that this first chapter would have been even more fable-like than what’s on screen right now.
Jackson has now turned this two-part saga into a trilogy, expanding what used to be a simple tale into another ambitious epic by drawing on those appendixes at the end of The Return of the King as well as additional written material left behind by J.R.R. Tolkien. The comparisons to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels are inevitable. But while Lucas created a whole new world (borrowing heavily from Akira Kurosawa’s films and the works of American mythologist Joseph Campbell), Jackson is weaving a huge tapestry from the strands left behind by Tolkien. And Jackson is a far more visually talented and imaginative a director than Lucas ever was. He is the superior showman. His success will, in the end, be measured by how all three Hobbit films work as a single unit. Based on the first one, there is still room for improvement.
The film opens in the house of the now elderly Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm reprising his role from The Lord of the Rings trilogy) where, quill in hand and the occasional interruption, he begins to lay down his tale for posterity: of how the dragon Smaug destroyed the dwarf kingdom of Erebor (a tale that is vividly brought to life) and of how one afternoon 60 years ago a magician by the name of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) approached him with a most peculiar offer. An offer the younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) initially refuses until 13 dwarves come knocking at his door later that evening. Gandalf introduces Bilbo to the unruly crew as a professional burglar who can help them reclaim their gold and the kingdom from Smaug’s claws and fiery breath. The dwarves are led by their king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who has doubts about Bilbo’s skills, especially after the hobbit faints upon reading a contract that describes all sorts of potential injuries.
And off they go, reluctant hobbit, rowdy dwarves and mysterious wizard, on a journey that will overall take a good eight hours of screen by the time the trilogy is over, and on which, in this first installment, they encounter trolls, orcs, rock giants and goblins with an obligatory, albeit forced, detour to the wondrous elf kingdom of Rivendell for a gathering of elders –that includes Lord of the Rings stalwarts Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) before he sold his soul to Sauron– to discuss the gathering dark clouds. All of this would add up to one exciting movie were it not for those long stretches in between: the debates among characters, the long aerial shots of New Zealand’s mountainous countryside that now feel like a commercial for the country’s tourism board, even the scenes featuring one of my favorite Doctor Whos, Sylvester McCoy as Radagast (and believe me, I did enjoy seeing him in the big screen once again and look forward to his appearance on the next two entries but his scenes felt out of place in this first installment).
Canny director that he is, Jackson leaves the best for last: Bilbo’s first encounter with Gollum (Andy Serkis delivering another sublime performance through motion capture). It’s a scene full of menace, where Bilbo uses his wits to overcome his enemy…and where, without realizing it, he sets in motion a chain of events for which his nephew Frodo will pay a dear price. It’s a scene that reminds us that Jackson is capable of directing smart, dialogue-driven sequences.
Jackson shot The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on 3D and filmed at 48 frames per second, twice the traditional speed and resolution moviegoers have been accustomed to for decades. Depending on the setting, the effect can be breathtaking or disconcerting. The picture quality is sharp, crystal clear, as close to HDTV as you are bound to see on the big screen for now. The outdoor scenes and the action sequences are a wonder to behold; but when it comes to such indoor scenes as those taking place in Bilbo’s abode, I felt like I was watching a 1980s BBC drama videotaped at the BBC Television Center. These scenes possess a different texture, literally pulling us out of the action instead of immersing us in it. Fortunately, the film is being shown in different formats: only about 450 theatres nationwide will show it in the 48fps format while the rest will screen it in the more conventional 24fps 2D and 3D formats, and IMAX.
There is so much to recommend and enjoy in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, though: Martin Freeman’s delightfully eccentric performance, Richard Armitage’s charismatic and brooding Tjoring; those magnificent set pieces (the battle inside the goblin’s lair, the dwarves climactic encounter with the orcs; even those cute Celtic singing numbers inside Bilbo’s home and Thorin’s more elegiac lament). Jackson just needs to cut more of the fat next time.