Monday, 7 January 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is finally here! Epic-ness overload!!!
Like really, way too much.

The Hobbit is one of my favourite books from childhood. I tried to get into Lord Of The Rings, but found it too dense. The Hobbit was a shorter story, on a smaller scale. A straightforward adventure with a tight band of characters. The book indicated links to a larger world and a broader story, but it was really an intimate tale of humble beginnings that built to an epic - but still relatively small - climax.

I feel like the films have gotten this mixed up.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is Peter Jackson's adaptation of that fantastic book to the big screen. No doubt this is a film that was bound to happen, what with all the success of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy; a series that might be considered far more challenging to effectively adapt. The book just screams film material too, with a simple narrative strand, far more appropriable than its bloated, artsy cousin trilogy.

The problem is that while this story is certainly film-worthy, it doesn't justify three films. With the copious amounts of padding crammed into this picture, it feels like Peter Jackson is going the way of George Lucas, with an unnecessary prequel trilogy. So in love is he with the world he's created, and the power he wields to construct it, that he's gone overboard expanding the story, inserting extraneous characters and sequences, using dazzling special effects to turn the small encounters from the book into drawn out sequences of grand scale, high stakes and nail-biting tension.

The book I read did not feature 14 characters suspended on one burning pine tree, leaning over a cliff. The book I read was far less cartoonish.

I suppose I can't beat up on it too much though. Sure, there were sequences of utter silliness (like the chase through the goblin mine) that play like an indulgence of Jackson's taste for the inflated and feel like an insult to the humble story he's working with. But not all the additions are bad; Radagast the Brown is a curious insertion, but has some good scenes. The necromancer plot, which was told in footnotes in the book, is fleshed out a bit here and seems set to play a larger role in the forthcoming films. This could play out well.

I'm not sure how I feel about Azog the Defiler. Just ambivalent I guess. I'll mention CGI in a second, but his narrative purpose in this film seems to be just to give it a tangible villain. This seems unnecessary, but he's alright as a bad guy, and through him the film accomplishes for me what the book didn't: Thorin stands out as a hero figure.

Lots of this film is actually excellent. There are times when it matches my conception of the book perfectly - like the dwarves invading Bilbos house, particularly when they sing about their lost gold (sadly, they cut the song short). The riddles in the dark sequence is excellent, and the absolute highlight of the film.

Now, to the CG, and this requires a little technical information. I watched the film in 3D, at 48 frames per second - that is, twice as many frames as a standard film. The film is taking a bold step into unexplored new technology, and I'm not sure how this affects the viewing experience. The film has a strange look and feel about it, but I don't know whether to put that down to it's style, it's graphics, or the the technology used to shoot and project it. I'd be curious to know how the regular frame rate (and 2D) version stacks up.

Marketing has dubbed it 'High Frame Rate' filmmaking, claiming it makes it look extremely realistic. I'm not sure if that's the case. The word I would use is hyperreal; an enhanced reality. I think what I'm seeing is a clearer distinction between what has actually been filmed, and what is computer generated. The CG imagery looked more obvious than ever; Gollum looks more obviously fake than The Two Towers.

But the line between the two is blurred. Whether a result of the framerate, or a mighty effort from the folks at Weta, I couldn't for the life of me pick where the real footage ended and the CGI began. I knew it when I saw it, but I just couldn't pick where it began.

Unfortunately, scenes with little or no human elements look more or less like something Pixar would have come up with on a bad day; the final shots of the film, for instance, feature a bird flying across a forest, up to the mountainside. The camera then tracks through the mountain, down into it's depths, across mountains of gold, to where the dragon sleeps... but during the whole sequence it's painfully obvious that nothing we're seeing is real.

Part of the job of fantasy is to incorporate elements of the real in order to draw us in, and to make a statement about real life. This comes through in Tolkien's story of someone who's life has stagnated stepping out on an adventure, or of the underdog rising to the challenge. This also comes through in Jackson's previous films in Middle Earth, when vast hordes of orcs were made up of people in heavy make-up and costume; the attention to detail in those films is exquisite, and pays off in their gritty realism.

On the other hand, part of the job of fantasy is to transport us into a fantastic world. Jackson dreams big, with his elaborate set pieces, dramatic landscapes, and creative creature design. The storm giants are wondrous to behold; the goblin king is utterly repulsive, and sweeping shots of digitally enhanced New Zealand are still impressive.

To me, this Hobbit movie is overblown. The technical advancements are flawed, the additional plot points muddy the beauty of the book, and worst of all is Jackson's obsession with blowing out every small confrontation into a battle on the scale of Armageddon. The Lord Of The Rings was an epic. The Hobbit is it's smaller prequel. The moments when The Hobbit tries to out-epic the epic are the moments it falls the hardest.

There's still plenty of hope for future instalments. I'm not sure if the problems with High Frame Rate will go away any time soon, but the plotting problems might. The additional material looks like its building into an interesting larger story. I still look forward to Bilbo's adventures from Mirkwood to the Lonely mountain being reincarnated on screen. All in all, this trilogy may yet achieve its potential, despite a rocky start.