We are not a culture of restraint. Over Christmas, I baked a one kilogramme croissant. Why? Because I could. Nobody could stop me. You’re not my real dad. Stop judging me.
What I didn’t have was several million dollars or a really awesome friendship with Sir Ian McKellen. Peter Jackson, on the other hand, has both. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is his one kilogramme croissant.
There. I said it.
The Hobbit is a film without restraint. It is one nerd going nerd-crazy in an epic nergasm with an audience. For nearly three hours, he has a captive audience. For nearly three hours, the audience has to admire how much he knows about Tolkien. For nearly three hours, the audience has to marvel at all the amazing things he can do with film.
In that sense, The Hobbit is not a film but a study in film technique. I’m almost certain that I saw it in regular 24 fps, which is a shame as I was rather looking forward to writing this blog post all about the wonderful future of higher frame rates. One thing I was looking forward to, for example, was seeing how the brightness would impact on storytelling. Over the past few years, films have verged on unwatchable in places due to dark settings. At 24fps, dark scenes become extremely difficult to distinguish action on the screen. This reached something of a low point with the final Harry Potter film where some scenes are so dark, you need to grab a copy of the novel to work out what’s going on.
Oh! How I’d tell you how 48fps had solved this problem. Higher frame rates, I would tell you, would mean greater definition in low-light settings. Further, the brights would be brighter. Instead of exploring the low-light end of the spectrum, films would have a reason to explore the candyfloss world of bright and exuberant. Fantasy worlds could become dazzling places again, instead of cynical underworlds of murkiness and gloom.
All of these things would have made me seem very clever and insightful. I am reading a lot of Zizek.
Fortunately, perhaps, I saw it in the lower frame rate because it allows me to look at something else which Jackson did spectacularly: the use of colour. No cave scene was filmed in darkness: it was filmed in blue. No night scene was filmed in darkness: it was filmed in blue. Blue is used so regularly to represent the darkness that the audience gets lulled into speaking the same language as the film. Now things are in blue light, this means there is not much light.
The result is a film which carefully manages the dramatic katabasis scenes while remaining perfectly visible. When the climax of the film pays off, we are treated to the visual delight of blue light representing the attacking orcs with the dazzling orange of the fire-associated Gandalf. It is absolutely a delight to watch; even more of a delight to analyse.
But the delight is limited to these technical elements of the film. The moment you shift from all the extremely clever technique to the substance of the film, the disappointment sets in.
Jackson has clearly read a lot of Tolkien, and those parts which Jackson hasn’t read, Jackson feels quite comfortable in inventing. Radagast — missing entirely from Lord of the Rings — leaps into a major supporting role, like only a former Doctor Who could. Sylvester McCoy is extremely fun in the role, yes, but it does make us all suspect that Jackson isn’t interested in filming The Hobbit so much as he is interested in adding another film to the Lord of the Rings universe. It’s not the story of how Bilbo transformed from the shy hobbit from his hole in the ground into the adventurer; it’s the story of the rise of Sauron.
Thus, it becomes difficult to describe the film. What is the plot of the first part of The Hobbit trilogy? It is the story of a young hobbit who comes to be accepted by the headstrong king of the dwarves. Which is a bit weird, because isn’t that the whole plot of The Hobbit? What are we going to cover for the next two films? Will they hard reset the characters, so Bilbo has to prove himself over and over again. If Bilbo is already an accepted member of the group, won’t it make his withholding of the Arkenstone in the final act a bit of a dick move? Yes, yes it will.
But Jackson doesn’t seem like he minds having his characters come off as complete jerks. He relies on the audience’s affection for Gandalf to pull off the ‘Gandalf throws a party in Bilbo’s house’ prank at the start of the film. Had we not known that Gandalf is kind of awesome, we would need to spend a lot of time questioning his motives.
But a lot of the film is not dedicated to Bilbo’s story arc. Instead, we have a lot of litter from the Expanded Universe polluting the story. Radagast is the obvious example, but we also have the association between the Necromancer of Dol Guldur and Sauron, but it is done inexpertly. Sauron, and all that he represents, is imported from Lord of the Rings instead of being crafted as an individual character. It’s all a bit weird.
Speaking of litter, there are also a ridiculous number of shout outs to the nerds in the audience. OMG — thought I — Gandalf is scratching the first letter of his name into Bilbo’s door. Isn’t that awesome? Yes, it is awesome. Please, somebody in the audience, won’t you agree that this is awesome?
Despite being awesome, too much time is wasted on this fluff. Again, it draws attention away from the plot of the film. After twenty minutes of trying to convince Bilbo to join the adventure, Bilbo determines that he is too much of a scaredy cat to join in… Fortunately, he ignores all of that character development and immediately — and with no reason — joins the adventure. Good for him.
Okay, maybe the problem isn’t just the Tolkien litter. Maybe the other problem is that — and I have suspected this for some time — Martin Freeman can’t act. Sure, we all enjoyed him in The Office where he played almost an identical character to the one he plays in The Hobbit. Sure, he was tolerable as Waston in Sherlock Holmes where he played an almost identical character to the one he plays in The Hobbit and The Office. Sure, nobody liked him in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where he played an annoying version of the same character he played in The Hobbit, The Office, and Sherlock Holmes.
In conclusion, Martin Freeman is the new Alan Rickman.
Which is a shame because there are some amazing performances in this movie. I’ve already praised McCoy who does quite a stunning job of Radagast. He really brought the character to life in such a dazzling, amazing way — even enlivening parts of the books which won’t be filmed (such as his interaction with Saruman; Saruman can’t stand him and, seeing the characters played by Christopher Lee and McCoy, you can start to understand why). The other person of note is James Nesbitt who plays a dwarf. Nesbitt is fantastic and absolutely captures the joy and fun of the novel.
On the other hand, there are other people for the shaming bin. Barry Humphries should not be allowed near the entertainment industry ever again. We need to pass a law or something to enforce this rule. He does not play well with others. Whoever played the main dwarf was abysmally boring, and I got absolutely nothing from him.
The biggest disappointment was Christopher Lee. For all ten minutes he’s on the screen, he totally phones it in. When Gandalf and Galadriel start having a psychic conversation while Saruman is talking to them, I rather sympathised. I, too, would be daydreaming during his droning. You don’t see Saruman the White as the greatest of the wizards. Instead, you see Saruman the Junkie who seems mostly confused about where he is and has lost the ability to vary the tone of his voice.
In conclusion, see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey for the craft; don’t see it for the film.