Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Giant Hobbit a Bad Idea

Goofy looking dwarves. And a hobbit.
Dwarves and a hobitt.© 2012 Warner Brothers Entertainment
Peter Jackson's latest film, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" takes us back to Middle Earth for an epic tale of adventure. At least that's what it's supposed to do. Unfortunately, this is too big a movie for too small a story. Like a hobbit in a size 48-long suit, there is just too much extraneous material and the interesting stuff is trapped inside all that excess.

The tale starts off as flashback to The Lord of the Rings, with the old Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) deciding to write his memoir of his adventures. Unfortunately, like The Lord of the Rings, there will be three films before we're finished The Hobbit. Given that there is only one not-very-long book as source material, everything plods. Jackson has even taken to making up entire sub-plots to fill the space.

The story starts with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a wizard, recruiting Bilbo to help a band of dwarves, led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), in their quest to reclaim their home, the vast underground city in the Lonely Mountain. This was lost when a dragon, Smaug, attracted by the riches of the mountain. invaded it, driving the dwarves out, turning them into a tribe of refugees.

It's a pretty straightforward story. Hobbit and band of companions must traipse across New Zealand (standing in for Middle Earth again) to reach a mountain to battle a powerful foe and reclaim the throne for the rightful heir. In this version, there is also a lot of foreshadowing of the events of The Lord of the Rings, a revenge sub-plot involving an albino orc wanting to kill Thorin (who had previously bested him in battle), a battle with a horde of goblins, and Bilbo's meeting with the nasty Gollum, from whom he steals the ring that everyone is wanting to be lord of in that other trilogy.

They don't get very close to The Lonely Mountain. Given that there are about another six hours of celluloid to go, they probably won't in the next instalment either.

Martin Freeman (the UK "The Office" and BBC's recent "Sherlock" series) gives a good performance as Bilbo. He really does come across as nicely reserved, unassuming, but up to a challenge when-push-comes-to-shove. Ian McKellen is a nicely puckish Gandalf, as he was in The Lord of the Rings. There are cameos from other LOTR cast, such as Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and Elijiah Wood. Armitage plays dwarf prince Thorin as something of a poor-man's Aragorn. He's brooding and tortured but he's no Viggo Mortensen.

The visual effects of the film are good, for the most part. The notable exception is the dwarf makeup. It generally looks silly. Armitage and a couple of pretty-boy dwarves aren't burdened by any facial prosthetics but the rest of the band aren't so lucky. There are big battles and chases, reminiscent of what we saw in The Lord of the Rings, all striving to be epic in what is essentially a small story. Therein lies the central problem.

There are two ways to make a story epic: You can make a huge saga, with the fate of the nation/world/ civilization in the balance, a story where the characters take part in epic events. Or, you can have a small story where the characters have their own epic moments. Where they rise above what they thought themselves capable of, achieving in the face of adversity. Jackson has chosen the former and therefore everything is bigger, longer, and louder than it should be. Having spent so much time around hobbits, you'd think he'd know that good things can come in small packages.

Rating: 3/5