Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hobbit: Film or Movie

The only question I had sitting down for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was not whether or not page 113 was faithfully adapted (I'm going to take a wild guess and say it wasn't), or whether or not three hours is a bit excessive for the first part of slim children's book (it is), or whether or not there's much point to the exercise at all (I think there is, more on that later). The real question in my mind was whether or not Peter Jackson would have settled for making a movie called "The Hobbit," or would he make a film called "The Hobbit."

First a few words on the difference between movies and films. A movie is entertainment, a film is art. A movie serves the purpose of filling seats to make money for a film studio, its success or failure can be determined by how well it convinces people to plunk down $10 to $15 for the chance to see the spectacle. Once the movie has been watched, it has been consumed, its meaning is no more significant than the pattern of smoke and sparks on the Fourth of July.  That's not necessarily a bad thing: I happily watched all of the Marvel Avenger Universe movies and I will happily watch whichever others come down the pike.

Question:

Answer: Why yes, yes I am.

But there's also something to be said for film. Film is difficult. Film doesn't come right up and give you the easy solution you were looking for, or any solution at all. Films are about something, even when, or especially if, they don't make rational sense (David Lynch, I am looking in your direction). Film finds a way to reveal something truthful about the human condition and provoke meaningful conversations afterwards. Films are memorable, even when they're bad.

So that's the question I was hoping to resolve after watching Peter Jackson's adaptation of the book. Would there be some memorable emotional core to the project, some aspect of ambition and challenge? Or would this like the last two thirds of King Kong?

Was I entertained? Absolutely. The special effects have certainly improved since the last time Hobbits trod the Middle Earth on hairy feet. With one or two missteps, it is nearly impossible to discern where exactly the boundary between analogue and digital meets. Intellectually I know that actors parading around in absurd beard styles and bulky armor are not going to be tossing back and forth dishes while pounding out standards from the Tolkien song book. Emotionally, I completely bought it.

The drama of the adventure is there and while it takes a while to understand precisely what a mild-mannered hobbit, Bilbo, is doing tromping from one misadventure to the next, the movie does offer a more cogent answer than I remember the novel delivering. Also helpful is Martin Freeman's performance which presents a Hobbit of quick wit and carefully concealed wanderlust, which is more or less how I've always remembered the character.

There are fights, silly accents, epic set pieces, cheesy dialogue, convenient plotting and just about everything else you would expect from a summer blockbuster movie. Everything except for the fact that this isn't a summer movie, obviously.

Jackson clearly sees no literary separation between Alice Sebold's Lovely Bones and deep-cuts from Tolkien's appendixes because he approaches both with the same voracious and omnivorous passion. The Hobbit is filled with orcs, goblins, trolls and giants but Jackson assumes the material carries with it some deeper importance.

In particular, the pivotal riddle confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum is where Jackson mines some deeper ore. It starts pretty much at the introduction of Gollum. The fallen creature finds a goblin, knocked senseless after a fight with Bilbo and savagely dispatches it with the most handy tool, a heavy rock. The back and forth between Bilbo and Andy Serkis' Gollum is somehow more playful than anything in the Lord of the Rings and more sinister. And yet, when Bilbo tricks his opponent into leading him out of a maze of caverns, we get a moment of real emotional truth. The creature's lonely haunted eyes fill the screen for a masterfully drawn out moment. And although Bilbo was being threatened with murder mere seconds before, his pity in the moment is understandable and inevitable. It also leads directly into a nice exchange between the Hobbit and the Thorin, the skeptical leader of the dwarves. "Why am I coming with you? To help you find your home." We buy that answer more than anything else between the two because we saw how it was earned.

Alas, that 15 minute span happens well into the movie and doesn't mark the end of the film like it really should. Instead we go back into movie-mode for another twenty minutes while CGI creatures battle it out in a forest fire. Fun, but not...necessary.

I knew 20 minutes into Fellowship of the Ring that I was watching film-making. The occasional epic battle aside, I knew something significant and sincere lie at the center of the film. I don't have quite the same confidence this time around, but I haven't exactly had my hopes dashed either. Let's hope the director's edition of The Unexpected Journey shaves 30 minutes instead of adding them.
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