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Zettel Film Reviews » The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Peter Jackson Technical triumph Dismal Drama

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Peter Jackson Technical triumph Dismal Drama

 

Hey Ho - the gangs all here

 

Technical Quality

Dramatic Quality

 

 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Peter Jackson

This visual realisation of a fantasy world of endlessly warring kingdoms is a technical tour-de-force: graphically state of the art with special effects to match. Simon Bright’s Art Direction aided by Andy McLaren and Ben Milson, together with Dan Hennah’s Production design and Ra Vincent’s set decoration have combined to create a cinematic work of art; massive in scale and ambition, and endlessly impressive throughout the 169 minutes of Peter Jackson’s latest labour of love for Tolkien.

Ignore the nonsense reported about the ‘Super HD’ HFR 48 frames/second process – to me it simply gives the images a consistently pin-sharp look that the eye, characteristically, very soon takes for granted. Jackson is also one of an increasing number of Directors who are beginning to get the hang of using 3D to serve an aesthetic vision rather than dominate it: not being afraid to go in close and taking full benefit of the depth of field 3D offers and being very judicious in his use of the unnatural illusory space between screen and viewer.

A technical triumph then: but for me a dramatic disaster; endlessly tedious with every chase and battle preceded and followed by swathes of exposition that try the patience and constantly destroy any momentum and pace the technical whizzkids dazzle us with. As the imagination soars with stunning imagery, the turgid nerdy screenplay constantly slows us down and drags us back to Earth – Middle or otherwise.

I should confess that not only did I find Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings  unreadable; but I also failed The Hobbit: my hippie-loving, fantasy-chasing credentials lying in pieces at my winkle-picked, flare-trousered feet. It beggars my belief how in Gandalf’s name, Jackson is going to stretch this slight, fey little children’s story into 3 multi-million dollar epics – still less, Saruman save us – why.

I like Martin Freeman and I suppose he makes a lovable little Hobbitty, Bilbo Baggins – were not the wide-eyed, archly chirrupy little munchkin such an infuriating little twerp. While the hapless and mostly scriptless Freeman spends much of the movie staring into space and looking lovably bewildered, one sentiment I can wholly identify with, his mentor and agent provocateur Ian McKellen intones the most preposterous tosh about kings and wizards and wars and, well, stuff; with all the misplaced gravitas only a Shakespearian Knight of the Realm can muster. The clue’s in the name – Gandalf the Grey. Just so.

Apparently there’s a dragonny thingy called Smaug (all the names in Tolkien look like anagrams – (‘am Gus’ here perhaps) who’s nicked the land of Erebore (re-boree?) from the Dwarves – er Dwarfs, led by Hunky Thorin (Richard Armitage) after their King lost his head and thus his battle with a bunch of skin-headed Orcs with the kind of dogs our real-world skinheads would give someone else’s back teeth for. In revenge, and offering no decapitation allowance to the Orc leader Azog, Thorin renders him armless with a quick swish of his dwarvy sword. Thorin thinks the match ended Dwarf 1 – Orc 0: but he and we are soon thrillingly, I jest, to discover that this was only a half-time score.

Cheerful Charlie Bilbo is therefore dragged into the Quest to recover Erinmore, er Elsinore, sorry Erebor accompanied by 13 very hairy, very oddly dressed vertically challenged little guys. Who the hell is looking after Snow White while they’re all off enjoying themselves Director Jackson does not vouchsafe to tell us. Baggy is recruited as the team’s ‘Burglar’ a mystery of nomenclature that will perhaps not be explained for another 3-4 hours and a further couple of hundred million dollars.

Much running about, mostly up and down mountains ensues during which hundreds of exotic, fleshy little chaps are crushed, stabbed, thrown off bridges and mountains etc to their utterly unimportant, totally disposable deaths. While Gandalf drones, Bilbo moans and they all fetch up in the land of the Elves which I’m sure has an anagrammatic name – I just can’t remember it as I had just about lost the will to live at this point.

The deepest mystery of all in Jackson’s Tolkienian world is how the hell any of them got there – as the hundreds of thousands of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Goblins (Gin Slob) and Orcs can scrape up only one female between them. Now I’m sure the feisty Cate Blanchett is more than up to the reproductive challenge this represents but her Elvy Galadriel (Radial Leg) wafts about so ethereally that she looks about to disappear in a wisp of smoke at any moment. Aided by her Head Elf Elrond (Del Ron – Hugo Weaving) Celestial Cate, as if fully aware of her token woman role, wears a constantly beatific, if vapid smile probably generated by how much she is going to get paid for doing so little. Good on yer Cate.

Leaving Elvish Presently, the doughty dwarves head across the mountains. Then, after a bruising quasi-genocidal encounter with another race of fleshy foes Azog catches up with them and challenges them to play off the second half of their match. More stunning special effects conflict kicks off though it has to be said that by this stage I was beginning to get a bit of awed wonder-fatigue.

Before the second half confrontation, Billy-boy meets up with gobby goblin Gollum (L O Glum) who does a lot of hissing, I’m not sure why, possesses an odd wide-eyed evil demeanour and carelessly drops a magic gold ring that Billy Boy promptly snaffles – perhaps that’s why they called him the Burglar. Nice little gismo though – it makes the wearer invisible: what every happy Hobbit longs for – though I can’t see the attraction myself. Invisibility is no big magical deal anyway – in the real world you can achieve the same result just by reaching the age of 65.

All the ingredients safely in place for Hobbit 2 – The Journey Even Longer than Expected: we leave our chirpy chums perched precariously on the tip of a rock staring mystically and attractively into the distance – probably wondering where Professor Brian Cox disappeared to.

In accordance with my duty to you dear reader, I will return to the ring to battle manfully with the Big Bob Gains Baggy sequel. But I really don’t think I can get into the Hobbit.

WARNING

There are at least three versions of The Hobbit doing the rounds:

3D 48 frames/sec (HFR) – only in specially equipped cinemas
3D standard 28 frames/ sec
2D 28 frames/ sec

I’m not sure whether there is a 2D HFR.

If you can, the HFR version is well worth seeing but Cineworld staff didn’t really know much about it and their advertising does not make it clear what version is been shown. They talk of ‘super-hd’.


Coda – Cinema’s Cinderella

I was going to put this at the top of the piece but did not want to qualify my genuine admiration for The Hobbit’s technical excellence.

It is beyond reason, bewilderingly perverse, that after millions were spent on this movie to ensure the purest, highest quality of images, the sound balance between dialogue and musical score is absolutely abysmal for at least the first 30 minutes of the film: starting right up front with an at times occasionally inaudible voice-over.

Of course it could be that the cinema got this wrong but if the music comes through loud and clear it would suggest the fault lies within the film. The essence of the cinema experience is that it draws you in, almost as a silent witness to events. Here the sound level of dialogue especially is so low that it distances you from what is going on – it’s at about the frustrating level of having your favourite TV programme turned low because some fool has come round for a cup of tea. Or even, sorry ladies, trying to get into the atmosphere of the Manchester Derby with a low sound level competing for attention with the current progress of the Christmas shopping.

The Hobbit isn’t the first to display this deeply frustrating, culpably unacceptable fault – but given the technical brilliance, even excess of attention to graphics and visual imagery I do wonder whether anybody actual sat down to listen to the movie before finishing production. If so they weren’t listening properly.

It is not a matter of volume: it is a question of acuity, especially for the spoken word. This persistent weakness can be partially mitigated if you can get to a cinema with a Lucas THX sound system – infinitely better than the industry standard Dolby, especially at the higher, lighter end where the human voice plays.

Sadly this Cinderella of movies is neglected in different ways. Everything from the self-indulgent mumbling of say Joaquin Phoenix at the beginning of The Master; through lousy music/dialogue balance as here in The Hobbit; to erratic acuity in group dialogue that leaves key meanings unheard.

There seem to be two conceits at work here: the aforementioned UIOA (up its own arse) acting; and then the apparent indifference to words, dialogue, in contrast to the infinite pains taken with images. In fact it is at times as if Cinderella Sound has a twin sister, Cinderella Screenplay: both unjustly neglected in favour of the pushy ugly sisters – CGI and SFX.

Directors must know that sound is a critical part of the final experience so why they are so persistently deaf to its quality and effectiveness in their precious creations defies rational understanding.

One of the many reasons I love sub-titled films is that they completely eradicate this problem.

 

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