Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Trilogy

I have to admit, when I first heard The Hobbit was being stretched into two movies, then even more so following the eventual decision to make it a full Trilogy, I wondered how they could possibly follow up the sheer scale and epicness of The Lord of the Rings films using only a couple hundred page children’s book as the source.

The answer comes pretty quickly in the main narrative of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey from a quote by Gandalf discussing Bullroarer Took’s knocking the head of goblin leader Golfimbul off and down a rabbit hole, simultaneously winning the Battle of Greenfields and inventing golf.

“Every good story deserves a little embellishment.”

The embellishment is in full force well before the story starts, as the movie begins with both a flash-back and a flash-forward.

The reason for the popping about in time is very clear:

This is not a film adaptation of the stand-alone children’s book The Hobbit, which ended up being the first published story taking place in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as it was written.

This is a return to the already established in full detail, history and grandeur of Jackson’s cinematic Middle Earth, using the story from The Hobbit as a framework.

The opening dual timed prologue provides two important elements:

The Flash Forward presents Bilbo and Frodo to reintroduce to this version of Middle Earth, by using familiar characters and establishing when the story takes place with respect to the films that have come before.  It also serves as a reminder that before the events of those films, the Hobbits’ lives were more light and fun than subsequently shown.

The Flash Back presents how the history of the dwarves ties in with the history of this version of Middle Earth. More importantly, it also shows, while the novel is a much smaller scale when compared to the later volumes, these movies will be just as impressive and Massive (pun intended) as their predecessors.

The story however, is set in a different time of Middle Earth, and with a main character in a different point in his life.  This allows the film, while still being consistent with the world established in the previous trilogy, to remain more fun and fanciful.

Lord of the Rings is a war story set at the very end of the Third Age of Middle Earth. It leads into the Age of Men and is the end of magic in Arda.  The monsters are defeated, the dwarves remain underground, the Hobbits fade and blend in, and the mundane human world takes over.

The Hobbit takes place earlier in the age, when magic has only just started to fade.  There’s still a dragon left, there are more wizards about (and they are more active), the varied and fantastic races are in full swing, and the main force of evil is still in hiding.  In short, it’s a more fun and fanciful period.

The biggest difference may come from the Hobbits that each story focuses on.  The journeys of the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings were designed to reflect the effect going off to World War I had on British boys.  Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin all began as innocent youths at the start of Fellowship, and grew up to be inexorably changed by the hardships they endured:

Merry and Pippin, the most carefree and whimsical of the characters, matured to become men and soldiers of Rohan and Gondor respectively.

Frodo was so traumatized by his journey and burden he could not return to any kind of normal life and sailed into the West with the other magical individuals as the Third Age ends.

Sam returned, bursting with the courage and strength he found within himself, to become a husband, father and leader of the community.  As such, he’s the only one to truly build a place for himself to be comfortable back home in the Shire…because he was that awesome.

Bilbo starts his adventure as a middle aged, comfort seeking, stay at home.  His journey is more about rediscovering youthful enthusiasm, and internal strength and worth than a coming of age story. As such, it lends itself easily to lighter and more fun situations.   It probably helped that Martin Freeman has established himself twice (Hitchhikers, Sherlock) playing a British everyman who is far more capable and adventure loving than he first appears.

Lighter and more fun doesn’t take anything away from the experience, however.

Mainly because Peter Jackson and company know what they’re doing when it comes to Middle Earth.

The scenery, whether digitally augmented, constructed in miniature, or plucked from the amazingness of New Zealand; remains breathtaking.  Unfortunately, 3D makes my family nauseous sometimes, and definitely would have in this case. A shame really, as I suspect the 3D tracking shots in and around that scenery are amazing.  Still, I'd rather be able to share the movie with my family than see it in 3D, usually alone at midnight.  Family togetherness and sleep are two things one can never get enough of.

Howard Shore’s score remains epic, augmented, once again, by Tolkien’s own song lyrics. Setting these poems to music and weaving them into the narrative added power to key moments, in and around both new and familiar leitmotifs.

The effects, character design (which is often also effects), acting and combat choreography all remain up to the standards previously established. 

Speaking of effects and acting, I need to specifically point out Gollum’s “first appearance”. 
It amazed me even more this time around that he’s basically an advanced cartoon character, as his performance was mesmerizing.  In Lord of the Rings the dichotomy between Gollum and Sméagol is very clearly presented as an internal battle between the evil and good(ish…mostly) sides of his personality.  In this depiction of Bilbo’s encounter with the long time slave of the ring, it is very clear that the split emerges from hundreds of years of despair and loneliness.  The large amount of emotion and sympathy generated by what comes down to a creepy and decrepit looking digital puppet is mind blowing.

Not only does this crew know how to create Tolkien’s world based on his writing, they also have established, yet again, that they are quite adept at knowing when to make alterations to enhance the tale when importing it to the new medium.

Many of the events in the original novel center around Bilbo and the Dwarves being fairly easily captured, rescued by someone or something, and then making a run for it.  To create more self-reliant protagonists, the lead characters have been given heroic upgrades:

Being bagged by the Trolls in their sleep was replaced by a battle the Dwarves were clearly winning before Bilbo’s life was threatened. 

Similarly, the book has our heroes running like hell to escape, after Gandalf pops in to whack the Goblin King.  The impressive melee against the entire goblin city as the dwarves hack their way to freedom is much more cinematically satisfying. 

Bilbo becomes a valued member of the band, both mentally and physically much quicker in the film as well, adding to his likeability.

Other changes made to the story line come from creating it in full knowledge that it is a prequel to the three epic films that were made before. 

Much like the opening prologue (and other flash backs to that battle) built huge action packed scenes out of only a couple of lines in the book, returning actors allowed for something similar.  Gandalf’s trip to confer with the white council in the novel served to keep him out of the action for a bit, and allow the dwarves to get in more trouble.  Bringing back Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee to interact with Ian McKellan and Hugo Weaving and play out a meeting between Galadriel, Saruman, Gandalf, and Elrond provided an outstandingly compelling scene with actors at the top of their games showing the building of the characterizations seen in the Lord of the Rings.  Note the introduction of Galadriel into this scene provides a desperately needed female character to make my daughter happy.  Note too, that the woman is the only one with a firm grasp of everything that is going on…much like real life.

I expect we’ll be seeing more of the type of foreshadowing from that scene, which doesn’t exist in the original book, simply because the novel was completed years before Lord of the Rings was released.  (And hopefully more crazy awesome stuff based on quick literary mentions…Stone Giants, HOLY CRAP!)  The expanded role of the Necromancer and Witch King (again, amped up from mere mentions in the book) may well be used to define the coming of the Nazgul and rise of Sauron to his giant freaky eyeball form.  It’s not impossible that Sauron’s continued hold over a certain dwarfish ring may be used to explain Thorin’s eventual descent into destructive selfishness.

Legolas will definitely be seen in the realm of his father: Thranduil king of the wood elves.
(Who looked most majestically awesome riding his megaloceros if I do say so myself.)

Hopefully we’ll get some more returns and cameos. Aragorn, a Númenórean, was 87 in Lord of the Rings, and a young Strider “skulk by” wouldn’t be out of the question.  Arwen, another immortal Elf, could show up at any time since her father and grandmother were already in the "White Council" scene.  Gimli, while only in his sixties is too young (fora dwarf), to accompany his father on Thorin's quest.  He certainly could easily decide to meet up Gloin and his other relations after the Misty Mountain is retaken.  Even those not born yet could always be in more flash forwards to the Red Book of Westmarch.  Hopefully we’ll get to see the Right Honorable Mayor Samwise.

It’ll be interesting to see where they put the break between next two films as well. 

Will part two be all of Mirkwood, ending with the conflict against Smaug, leaving part three for the Necromancer’s rise and the Battle of Five Armies? 

Will Azog (dead before the Novel even begins) remain the big bad Orc all the way through the ending, continuing to tie together what are disparate encounters in the novel, and take his son Bolg’s place in the Battle of Five Armies?

Could I be more excited about the Battle of Five Armies?

Yes, because I’m also asking…

Will it end there, or will we see Balin’s triumphant retaking of Moria?

I don’t know, but I do know the movie features the poster child for proving that expanding minor roles and being more fun and fanciful doesn’t mean a drop in quality or power.

Radagast the Brown.
Sylvester McCoy’s portrayal of Radagast is, by any definition, completely goofy, loopy and unhinged.

However, he also:
Defeats a ghostly witch king single handedly and steals his sword.
Raises an ally from the dead (OK, it was a hedgehog, but still, RAISING THE DEAD!)
Turns away a horde of giant evil spiders.
Outraces and confuses a battalion of highly trained and lethal Orcs and wargs on a sledge pulled by BUNNIES.

Fun and fanciful maybe, but the dude FREAKIN’ ROCKS!

McCoy’s competence hidden behind silliness was very similar to his interpretation of a certain Time Lord, which brings up an important point:

His inclusion means we have a scene of Magneto, Agent Smith, Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko and Dracula discussing the importance of the quest of Arthur Dent/John Watson against Sherlock Holmes/John Harrison; based on evidence provided by the Seventh Doctor.

This is greatest Tolkien centered Geek Conjunction since Mr. Spock sang “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” amongst the Radagast like hippies of 1967.

Lightness aside, there are still classically heroic characters.  Thorin Oakenshield's inner strength and leadership more closely resemble Aragorn than Gimli, and the loyalty and comradeship earned through battle between he and the dwarves is palpable.  Gandalf also has several impressive moments demonstrating he is the same wizard who immortalized the line, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”  Likely Bard the Bowman and, of course, fellow archer Legolas will be of similar heroic bent.  Beorn could go either way, but I expect McCoy’s Scottish countryman Billy Connolly will be closer to “Magnificently Insane Bastard” as Dain Ironfoot, than a classic hero.

This movie packed in an incredible amount of both word for word material from the book and additional material pulled from offhand mentions and throw away lines.

I was convinced by its sheer density, that there was no way we could be getting an expanded edition release for home viewing.

The announcement stating, in the fourth quarter of next year, a version will be released on blu-ray with an additional fifteen to twenty minutes of character moments, epic battles and gorgeous set pieces had me quoting Thorin’s manly tear inducing line:

" I've never been so wrong in all my life."
"(Peter Jackson) Forgive me for doubting you."


longbow said...

What's a Hobbitt?
Does it have to do with that weird animated special they used to show where the dude got his finger off because of too much bling?

Jeff McGinley said...

Hey, Don't pick on those Rankin Bass animated specials. That was all the Tolkien adaptations available for years.

Unknown said...

I saw the it in 3d, you weren't missing anything. nice writeup. We both re-read the hobbit before watching this and it was almost useless, you're right it wasn't an adaptation. It was thoroughly entertaining though. can't wait for the next one.

Jeff McGinley said...

Thanx for compliments and comments. Pity about the 3d. I re-read it as well. I wouldn't go as far as almost useless. It did point out at how good they are at adapting what started as a small story into what has grown into a much larger Middle Earth. Much of it was taken word for word, when cinematically appropriate. The two dwarves songs fit the lightness of the start, but foreshadowed things to come, while the singing goblins were wisely left out.