Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

"I have found it is the small things, the simple deeds of everyday folk, that keep the darkness at bay."

I have a sort of rule with this blog; no remakes before I've blogged the original, and no sequels or prequels before I've blogged the original. So technically I shouldn't be blogging this before blogging the excellent Lord of the Rings films but... ah well, just this once.

It's an odd beast, this trilogy. The Lord of the Rings were big, long and epic because the source material was big, long and epic. But here we have the first of three big, long and epic films based on, er, a children's book. And The Hobbit is very much a children's book on terms of both tone and content, with none of the political or religious content (strenuously denied, of course, by Tolkien) of The Lord of the Rings, although the tropes of Old English literature are present and correct, with a treasure-loving dragon straight out of Beowulf.

So we hit upon an important point; these films are only superficially an adaptation of The Hobbit. The story of Bilbo Baggins co-exists with extensive material dramatising and expanding the Middle Earth backstory as seen in the interminable appendices to The Return of the King to show us the tale of how Sauron slowly rebuilds his strength.

The Lord of the Rings films are superb, and justly are often present in lists of the best ever films. This trilogy will never be able to earn such praise, simply because it is more of the same. It is, nevertheless, good. Peter Jackson seems incapable of escape from the epic mode, so we were never likely to get the small, charming, intimate film that a straightforward 
adaptation of the novel might perhaps have given us. But I much enjoyed this first film. It's a massive exercise in fanwank which may perhaps alienate the children whom one might expect to be its audience, but I can't deny it's exciting to watch. I suspect the trilogy will end up being rather good, if not so Oscar-winningly acclaimed as the previous trilogy.

Right. That's the commentary out of the way. Let's spend the rest of the blog post on some (mainly) fanwanky bullet points.

* Martin Freeman is good in this, and The Office, and Sherlock, but his acting seems very dependent on some idiosyncratic mannerisms, doesn't it? Still, I suppose you can say the same of the likes of Robert Downey Jr.

* Two hours and forty-three minutes!!! This may be co-scripted by Guillermo Del Toro but at that length it's definitely a Peter Jackson film. Two more to go, too...

* Apparently this film has a huge rate of frame per second which is supposed to be really jarring. didn't notice.

* I saw this film while chomping on my wife's magnificent Italian meatballs, the best food in the word aside from her coq au vin. Just saying.

* The dwarves, obviously, come from wider Germanic myth but, in their exile from Erebor at the hands of Smaug, I wonder if there may be something of  the Wandering Jew to them. Probably reading too much into it, although I note the original novel was published in 1937, not a good time to be both German and Jewish.

* There's a long framing sequence; Ian Holm starts out narrating as the older Bilbo on the day of his eleventy-first birthday, and there's even a pointless cameo appearance by Elijah Wood as Frodo. All this sort of stuff elevates the bombast levels and tells us clearly that we're getting something Big and Epic and Not For Kids.

* Ian McKellen and the nonagenarian Christopher Lee are playing younger versions of their characters while being ten years older, and just about getting away with it. McKellen's performance, naturally, is extraordinary.

* Gandalf is an increasingly rare case in today's Hollywood of a character who smokes and isn't a baddie. 

* On the other hand, for a character who pretty much defined the modern fantasy wizard archetype as seen in D&D etc, Gandalf never does any bloody magic. 

* The best thing about the whole film is the song about "What Bilbo Baggins Hates". That is all.

* The Old English roots of all this are obvious, which should not surprise us as Tolkien was a great Old English scholar. The dwarves, with their feasting and drinking in halls, are Anglo-Saxons via a bit of Wagner. The riddles between Bilbo and Gollum are very Anglo-Saxon too. And I've already mentioned Smaug and Beowulf.

* Sylvester McCoy is fantastic and very Doctorish as Radagast, but then that's probably exactly how fanboy Peter Jackson wanted him to pitch his performance. Radagast is an interesting character; in D&D terms he'd be a druid and definitely not a wizard. I note, too, that Radagast is mentioned but never actually appears in any of Tolkien's works. Fanboy Peter Jackson is expanding the mythos.

* The film looks magnificent. New Zealand looks magnificent. The CGI looks extraordinary. This is a brilliantly made film.

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