Saturday, 29 December 2012

His Hobbitual Eccentricities

"If we fight like animals, we'll die like animals!"
Wait, no.  That was someone else...
Well, this was a bit of an odd fish.

Anyone who's read both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, or even read the former and seen Jackson's adaptations of the latter, will already know the central problem this film series faces: it's real-world predecessor and in-universe sequel was a story about the mightiest warriors of the age fighting a supreme evil that threatened the world itself.  The Hobbit is about thirteen dwarves of questionable competence getting into scrapes.

(Minor spoilers below, but really, read the fucking book.)

Both films centre on the seemingly entirely unsuitable questors that hobbits make, and how their personal choices spin out into major consequences, admittedly, but there's still no getting around the fact that The Fellowship of the Ring featured a life or death battle with a monstrous, vicious cave troll, and The Hobbit features three comedy mountain trolls sneezing into their stew.  The Hobbit simply does not have, and was never intended to have, the huge scope and ambition of its follow-up, which is why the first nine chapters of The Lord of the Rings feel like they belong in a completely different book (it's telling that almost everything that happens between chapters 3 and 8 of The Fellowship of the Ring is pretty much skipped over by Jackson's film, even in the extended version).

The Hobbit suffers deeply from this fundamental truth.  It's possible someone who began with this film and moved on to the first trilogy afterwards won't see this as a problem (we won't be able to gather much data on that hypothesis for some time, I wouldn't think), but here the epic myth of the previous adaptations rubs uncomfortably against the homespun charms of Tolkien's earlier book.  This is only exacerbated by two major choices.  First, the adaptation of the book to a trilogy.  Put simply, I thought this was fucking nuts when I first heard about it, and this film has done absolutely nothing to change that.  This, like King Kong before it, is long for the sake of length.  It's badly, horribly in need of an edit.  Some of the scenery porn can go for a start, and the bloody singing (always Tolkien's most aggravating fault as a writer, though the songs here are very much less annoying than those in his later trilogy).  Much of the extra material Jackson inserts from the Lord of the Rings appendices or elsewhere from Tolkien's writing just feel like filler, and although I know enough of the lore to get the odd chuckle out of nods to continuity ("There there are the two blue wizards... Do you know, I've quite forgotten their names"), there's no way to get around the fact that the first half of the film - i.e. ninety minutes - feels horribly bloated and horribly uneven.

That said, that only holds if we assume we are watching a film.  Which, well, obviously we are, but consider this.  Jackson's second major choice was to film this using 48 FPS rather than the standard 24.  The result leads to sharper and more clear visuals, but also makes a lot of scenes looks stagy and over-lit.  Or, to put it in less technical terms, like we're watching a BBC miniseries.

Once you start thinking of it that way, things oddly start to work more.  The wild shifts in tone from epic world-building and ancient evils to broad slapstick becomes more forgivable, if only because this is something we're much more used to seeing on British television.  Being Human could be said to belong to this school, for instance, or even at a stretch middle-period Red Dwarf.  But obviously neither of those are the ur-text for 21st century BBC shows in this vein.  Everyone by now must know where I'm going with this, so I'll just come out and say it: I hadn't pinned down exactly how this film was working until Radagast the Brown shuffled into view.

I had no idea who was playing the "bird-tamer" when I went in, having forgotten to check the cast list.  This did lead to more than a few surprises (James Nesbitt, the reappearance of Saruman, and almost indescribably miscast Barry Humphries), but it also meant that for exactly ten seconds of Radagast's time on screen I was crafting a description of him as "The Seventh Doctor gone feral", and was very pleased with myself.

Then I worked out who was under the fake nose.

McCoy has always been a better actor than his detractors give him credit for.  It is true that he's not uniformly good - his anger, as many have said, tends to come across as excitement - but a film that seeks to make such jarring jumps in tone couldn't have picked a better actor to pull that off.  I read The Hobbit several times before the age of ten, but this was the first time the film felt like a journey back to childhood.

In short, what we have here is maybe two episodes of some kind of fantastical Doctor Who variant, with better effects.  Hell, McKellen was in the Christmas Special just four days ago, so even having him striding around doesn't ruin the conceit.  The comedy and tragedy doesn't flow as seamlessly as it does in the best Who, but if this had been a Chris Chibnall effort, I don't think one would label it his worse.

I'm not suggesting this was Jackson's model, merely that such is how things turned out, at least until the film gets to the Misty Mountains, and it becomes much more familiar as a Jackson adaptation.  The goblins are nicely unpleasant, the sets/CGI landscapes are excellent.  And best of all, Gollum's back.

Gollum's segment is both very strong and very interesting.  Indeed, it's interesting precisely because it is so strong.  "Riddles in the Dark" was never going to be an easy chapter to port to the cinema screen; so much talking, so little movement, so much difference between the Gollum of The Hobbit and the Smeagol of Lord of the Rings.  And yet Jackson nails it perfectly.  The sinister nature of Gollum and the fundamental ludicrous comedy of the riddle contest work in total harmony, rather than jostling for space.  A lot of that can be credited to Andy Serkis, who if anything is better still here than he was in the earlier films.

Indeed, if you cut out Barry Humphries, who as I note above is just gob-smackingly poorly cast as the Goblin King (no reflection on Humphries himself, who is wonderful, it was just an utterly ridiculous choice to make the Goblin King a well-spoken joker), the second half of the film runs along the familiar lines set up by the earlier trilogy: running, stabbing, special effect, running, sad music.  I'd be sympathetic to an argument that  this is therefore rather derivative, but to be honest I was just happy to see the film settle into a single aesthetic for a while (BigHead, who I saw this with, commented that he could appreciate much of it, but he couldn't get into it because it was too determined to throw curve balls at every opportunity), even if there's truth to the accusation that we basically just got Moria again sans Balrog.  That's not Jackson's fault, of course, and again suggests the films may work better when viewed in the order of the events portrayed.

So, to sum up; what you have here is two episodes of a BBC adaptation of Lord of the Rings, which was then suddenly cancelled, only to have a big-budget feature film commissioned with the same cast to finish off the story.

The British fantasy Firefly, in other words.  Which is a strange place to get to in a film review, but there it is, and there you have it.  Like I said, an odd fish.

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