Friday, December 14, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If you’re under the age of say, 17-18, I wonder if you get how big a deal the Lord of the Rings movies were (says he, at the ancient age of 22). But seriously, they were. Fantasy movies had been in the shitter for a while, and most fantasy movies weren’t that good (sorry Krull). What’s more, the two biggest geek movie franchises, Batman and Star Wars, had just lived through Batman and Robin and The Phantom Menace. Then along comes this obscure New Zealand director, best known for offbeat horror films, and turns the most important work of modern fantasy into three of the biggest films ever made. And his financial, critical and eventual Oscar success with his adaptations of books previously thought unfilmable, changed EVERYTHING. It’s easy to say that without them, the geek dominated modern film landscape would not look like it does. Love it or hate it, they changed everything.

The thing is, The Hobbit is quite a different animal from Lord of the Rings. While LotR is a chronicle of Middle Earth’s massive apocalyptic war, Hobbit is a fanciful bedtime story. It would require careful adaptation to get across The Hobbit’s more humorous kid friendly story and tone, while still feeling like it existed in the same universe as the other movies. And look at me dancing around the obvious questions.

Alright, quickly: Is it good? Yes. Is it great? Yes. Is it the best movie of the year? No. Is it as good as Lord of the Rings. But as I said, it’s not really trying to be LotR, and all the better for it, but it also can’t have quite the same impact. Its less the massive game changer LotR was and more a really well played game. In a year with massive geek movies either already here or just around the corner, it feels only right that the king return to remind us why it changed everything.

As for the plot (for those of you who have been under particularly big and sturdy rocks for the last 50 years), Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit living an idyllic life in the Shire, when one day the Wizard Gandalf the Grey comes along and talks him into joining a company of 12 Dwarves on their quest to return to their home, which has been taken over by a particularly nasty dragon.

In order to work three movies out of the material, the movie works all this through and adds in subplots about Bilbo trying to prove himself to the Dwarves (mostly to give him a character arc for the first third of the story), Thorin, the leader and the king of the Mountain they are returning to, disliking Elves despite needing their help multiple times, and most notably, Gandalf and the other members of the White Council (Galadriel, Elrond, Saruman and Radagast the Brown) investigating a possible return of Sauron to Mirkwood. Oh and action scenes. Lots and lots of action scenes.

This is one the things that I find interesting about the adaptation, that it takes literally every opportunity to have an action scene. Escapes, rescues, last stands, even flashbacks, everything leads to action sequences of varying sizes. Some of them are quite elaborate setpieces (including an elaborate chase scene towards the end that will stand as one of the most impressive action sequences of the year, and that’s saying something) but most, albeit not all of them, are embracing The Hobbit’s more kid friendly origins, allowing the scenes to be bigger and less bound by physics.

The story is well put together and paced and the cutoff point is probably the best one we could hope for. The Dwarves are all visually distinct enough that you can generally tell them apart, and it must be said Thorin is fucking BADASS (wait till you see the movie’s reason to call him Oakenshield). All of the actors inhabit their roles well, in particular Martin Freeman, doing a spin on his earlier Arthur Dent character that works perfectly in the role, and reminds more than of Ian Holm’s Bilbo.

As for the technical details, well what do you want me to say? This is the same team that made Lord of the Rings, the movie where they put details inside Theoden’s armor, despite the fact that no one would ever see it. They’re an incredibly talented and dedicated team, in everything from visual design, to CGI to good old weapon and armor making, and it all looks great, as does the cinematography and the incredibly beautiful soundtrack.

There are some nitpicks here and there. The pre-story bit with Ian Holm and Elijah Wood goes a hair too long. The lengths the movie goes to keep us from seeing Smaug the dragon in the flashback to his attack on Erebor gets a tiny bit silly at times (as he’s clearly their big CGI creation for the next movie). And while the design on the Orc who will clearly be serving as the trilogies Big Bad is unique and wicked cool, the design on the Goblin King leaves something to be desired.

But none of that really matters (I had to work to think of those nitpicks dammit). On the way back home from the theater, I was grinning like an idiot the entire way, and I almost never grin. Hearing the Shire theme floating over the title font felt a little bit like coming home, and holy shit is nice to be back. Go see this movie.

Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s a little pissed we didn’t get to see Beorn yet.

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