Sunday, January 20, 2013

Coming Back to "The Hobbit": Revised Review

In an early scene of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf rumbles good-naturedly that “All good stories deserve embellishing.” Director Peter Jackson takes this insight too much to heart with his latest venture into J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth. 

The 166 minute prequel follows the basic formula of its predecessors: A reluctant hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), leaves his hole in the ground to join a band of misfits on an adventure. This time, it’s a group of Seussian-named dwarves led by dwarf-prince Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) seeking to reclaim their kingdom from a gold-hoarding dragon named Smaug. 

The dwarves are amusing, but they’re indistinguishable and individually don’t garner audience affection. Put another way: If one gets shot with an arrow, you still have twelve left. And while the story gets off to a delightful start with their invasion of Bilbo’s home, it grows tiresome as it relentlessly cycles through different monsters for our journeyers to battle or elude. 

Yet the greatest disservice to the film is Bilbo’s relegation to the sidelines for much of the second act. Playing Bilbo as an English gentleman with childish curiosity and wonder, Freeman’s performance is wonderfully charming. His and the franchise’s quasi-mascot Gollum’s game of riddles is the most devilishly fun sequence in the film as Gollum vacillates between Jekyll and Hyde personas; it’s also the most technically masterful.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Andy Serkis (Gollum) are the
highlights of "The Hobbit"
The light dancing in Gollum’s eyes alone demonstrates the immense advancement made in motion-capture technology since his last appearance on-screen. Andy Serkis, who portrays Gollum, is as emotive and nuanced as any actor sans CGI-makeover and easily steals the show from his live action counterparts.   
Jackson cleverly frames the story to allow for memorable characters to return in his new trilogy and desperately wants to create a film with as much emotional resonance as Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, his source material just doesn’t offer the same level of complexity. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s fable, prompting Jackson to supplement his more mature film using the appendices of Return of the King.  

And perhaps this is the film’s central weakness: the nostalgia it evokes for the films that came before The Hobbit or rather the stories that come after. What Bilbo describes as “butter scraped over too much bread,” is Jackson’s attempt to stretch a fairy tale into an epic that leaves audiences longing for a little something more. 

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