Friday, December 28, 2012

Peter Jackson digs himself a hole with The Hobbit

Artist and subject seem as one, but are actually often at odds.

The famous subtitle of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is There and Back Again.  And a major problem with Peter Jackson's outsized film version of Tolkien's modest tale is that even though its subtitle has been adjusted (to An Unexpected Journey), we do indeed feel we've already been there and back again.

What I mean by "there," however, is not actually the mythical realm of Middle-earth, which first found form in The Hobbit, but rather the narrative events that occur there - the very stuff of Tolkien's story.  Gruff wizards, lonely mountains, magic rings, rescues by eagles - we've seen everything in The Hobbit before, in The Lord of the Rings - which of course was Tolkien's vast, later extrapolation of the earlier book's budding motifs.

The trouble for Jackson is that we saw the grander version of these tropes first - which makes The Hobbit not just a prequel but also a sequel; and in the logic of the postmodern film market, a sequel has to be an even bigger extravaganza than its inspiration.  So the possible strategy of positioning The Hobbit as a sly young slip of a thing, a sweet, palate-cleansing cinematic dessert (that was perhaps originally an appetizer!) was always a long shot.

Hence our lack of surprise at the announcement that The Hobbit would be expanded into a trilogy, just like LOTR (even though its source is only about a third of the length of that epic), using elements from the appendices of The Return of the King, along with bits of Tolkien's vast back-story to the whole shebang, The Silmarillion.  And the first installment of this rather overstuffed portmanteau-movie has now arrived, clocking in at 2 hours and 49 minutes - which means that if the remaining two are of an equal length, and form a continuous narrative with LOTR (which seems to be Jackson's aim), the entire opus may stretch to a full 18 hours or more, surely making it the longest epic Hollywood has ever produced.

I guess that's some sort of claim on immortality for Jackson, who is no doubt aware that his talents have only reached full flower in his treatments of Tolkien.  (Indeed, to be fair, LOTR counted as some kind of miracle - perhaps the only film phenomenon of the past two decades that could really hold up its head among the highest pop achievements of the past.)  And for the record, I actually believe Jackson's protestations that profit was not the driving force in his inflation of this cinematic balloon - or at least I can see that breaking up his script into three separate movies isn't what really went wrong with The Hobbit.

For it's true that the book (which isn't really as short as people seem to remember it being) does fall pretty neatly into thirds, and An Unexpected Journey, give or take an added climax of two, does wrap at an appropriate juncture (I predict that the next installment, The Desolation of Smaug, will close with, or just before, that titular dragon's demise - with the climax of the film being the "attack on Dol Guldur,"  interpolated from Tolkien's appendices - leaving the book's "Battle of the Five Armies" as the finale of the third).

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) tries to flee the bloat of The Hobbit.
So even if the almighty dollar did determine the structure of The Hobbit, Jackson could have chosen to work up a trio of tight, gripping movies for the desired triple play at the box office. No, the bloat that almost wrecks An Unexpected Journey is essentially artistic, and basically all the director's fault.  Rather than produce a thrilling two-hour-twenty-minute epic, he has chosen instead to indulge his every fanboy impulse, larding the action with an extra half hour of battle after battle and chase after chase. Jackson imagines, like so many directors before him, that his audience has endless patience with video-gamish, can-I-top-this-yes-I-can conflagrations and cascades of pseudo-cliffhangers in which nothing is really at stake.  And apparently there was no one watching Jackson who could say, "Hold; enough!"; indeed, sitting through The Hobbit feels like watching the current assumptions of pop culture attack its actual pleasures like a pack of wargs and orcs.

Yes, I know, I know, Jackson has only acted like a kid in a candy store - but I'm not a kid anymore, and too much candy can make you a little sick to your stomach.  I will say that what may be most intriguing (or perhaps most telling) about The Hobbit is the degree to which Jackson's script collaborators have narratively supported his compulsions.  Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens (with some input from Guillermo del Toro, who for a while was slated to helm the film) have doggedly drummed up daddy issues for Thorin Oakenshield (why do all Hollywood movies now devolve into The Parent Trap?) to support a few added showdowns, and have generally whipped up standard-issue script-committee justifications for the rest of Jackson's embroidery. But this only leaves the impression of two attentive mothers picking up after their wayward son; their work is all scaffolding and no actual story.

What makes these gaps so poignant is that there is still much magic in The Hobbit, despite everything.  A friend once described Peter Jackson to me as 'the love child of Ray Harryhausen and David Lean,' and when Lean takes over - intermittently - An Unexpected Journey suddenly glows with the kind of imaginative fire that Spielberg and his ilk lost long ago.  There's a marvelous sequence here, for instance, in which we get a glimpse of a wraith-like Sauron (in the digitally altered form of Benedict Cumberbatch, whose actual name is pure Tolkienese); and the scenes with Radagast the Brown (conjured from a few narrative scraps in the book) are witty and weird (due in no small part to Sylvester McCoy's eccentric performance).  Needless to say, Andy Serkis is as brilliant as ever as Gollum (at left) - his iconic riddle-game with Bilbo is everything it should be; and the rest of the cast is fine (although I don't think Elijah Wood or Ian Holm needs to worry about Martin Freeman).

What's more, the depth of the film's design and its intense craftsmanship are if anything at even at a higher level than was apparent in LOTR. Jackson and his creative team pile on detail after detail; Middle-earth is perhaps even more richly imagined here than most of us could imagine.  And despite its many debts to the digital, the film is also rich in a sense of actual landscape, and it's studded with such poetic marvels as the play of moonlight through a waterfall. I also had little problem with the controversial 48 fps frame rate; some shots look almost hyper-real, I suppose, but in general I found the results seductive. To be honest, these many moments are almost enough to draw me back to the cinema for another look - almost.  Perhaps I should just view much of the movie as opportunities for popcorn breaks.  Or perhaps An Unexpected Journey will find its most congenial home on my computer (rather than my local cinema), when I can digitally alter its run time, if not its frame rate, and skip to just those parts where Jackson's  magical mojo is kindled.

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