Friday, December 14, 2012
I have loved Peter Jackson ever since "Bad Taste," "Meet the Feebles," and of course "Dead Alive." I was pleased to see him win Oscars for bringing J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" to the screen. So I was looking forward to "The Hobbit" (opening December 14 throughout San Diego).
First off, let me just confess that I am a film geek. Not a film nerd that would require more knowledge and formal education. Geekdom only requires passion and obsession for something. Since my friends and I are film geeks we decided we wanted to watch the movie in a luxury theater -- either Cinepolis (most comfortable seats and best food) or Arclight (best screening experience) -- and to prepare we wanted to watch all three extended cuts of "The Lord of the Rings Trilogy" and serve all 7 Hobbit meals (first breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and supper plus of course dessert). The last time we did this insanity it resulted in food comas for all. But we have forgotten the pain of eating every 2 hours (you gain much respect for Hobbits by trying to imitate their lifestyle) and the grueling cooking schedule and decided to do it once again. I am including all the recipes so you can try it yourself if you feel so inspired.
Hobbit Meal Recipes
Fortunately, there's an online Middle Earth Cookbook to pull recipes from. Plus, Jim Crute -- the head brewer/owner of Lightning Brewery -- offered ale selections to go along with the meal. Lightning Thunderweizen Ale for second breakfast and Lightning Amber Ale to go with Cottage Pie at supper time (I understand that Lightning is popular among beer nerds and with this suggestion maybe it is trying to branch out to film geeks). So the plan is to hold a marathon screening of all three extended cuts of the films (roughly 12 hours of films) and then eat all the meals as we watch and then go to see "The Hobbit" during the week when hopefully it will be less crowded. This is the way geeks prepare for a film.
But of course as a film critic, I needed to see the film in advance to provide a review so I went to the press screening of "The Hobbit" (at a less than ideal theater) with high hopes and just a little trepidation. Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" was easy to imagine as a trilogy since it was based on a trio of books. "The Hobbit," on the other hand, was a single and much slighter tale yet Jackson recently announced his plans to turn the classic book into 3 films providing a prequel trilogy to his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. So while I trusted Jackson I also had flashes of George Lucas' prequel trilogy misfire to his (now Disney's) "Star Wars" saga.
Originally Jackson was only going to produce the film and Guillermo Del Toro was set to direct one "Hobbit" film and one film set in the Hobbit universe but with a story of his own design. This was intriguing. But along the way plans changed, Del Toro left for another project and Jackson took over what was to be 1 film, then 2 films, then a trilogy. And after seeing the first of the trilogy, I wish Jackson had opted for a leaner adaptation.
The film serves up the tale of how Bilbo Baggins (a perfectly cast Martin Freeman) came upon the "precious" one ring and went out on an adventure with the wizard Gandalf (once again Sir Ian McKellan) and a company of dwarves to find gold and contend with a dragon (which we get a teeny tiny glimpse of at the end). Overall I felt a bit disappointed by the film and by the new 48p (a high frame rate of 48 frames per second that is double what the current standard is) format. There is still quite a lot to enjoy -- most notably Freeman's splendid performance and some breathtaking effects -- but what's lacking here is a story well told.
Perhaps Jackson felt that he had already defined the Middle Earth universe in the previous 3 films and had given us our introduction to the older Bilbo so he could skip all that in "The Hobbit." So what we get is a slow start up followed by a constant sense of pursuit that leaves little time to get to know the characters as we did in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Plus the tone seems lighter and jokier. The creatures -- from orcs to trolls -- don't seem as menacing as in the LOTR films. They still provide a threat but we never really fear for the characters as we did in the previous trilogy. The film also redefines the laws of physics to such a degree that again we do not feel any real sense of danger since Bilbo and the dwarves manage to escape each predicament with an outlandish defiance of things like gravity. I know this is a fantasy realm but still there has to be some rooting in the real world so that we can experience tension and suspense when our heroes are attacked by an assortments of beasts and creatures.
The film clocks in at just under 3 hours and it feels padded and drawn out, and leaves you wondering how can this go on for 2 more movies. The chases and fights boast some spectacular effects work but all of them could be improved by some judicious editing.
As for the new fangled 48p technology (HFR 3D)... well it's a mixed lot. The 3D looks crisper and brighter, which is good, and the darker scenes with effects often look stunning in the new format. But the daytime, brightly light scenes look too clean and sharp suggesting video rather than film. The problem I think is that the technology is still new and no one really knows how to use it or exploit it. It took filmmakers awhile to figure out how to put color film to best use and how to make video look richer and how to make CGI animation look good and not merely distracting. So as with those early CGI animations like "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" and "Beowolf," there's a bit of the "uncanny valley" effect. The uncanny valley refers to a theory about 3D computer animation (and robots), which suggests that when things (be it robots or animated human characters in a film) look and act almost but not exactly like real humans, it causes distraction and sometimes proves a turn off. The HFR 3D is using real actors (mixed with some CGI and make up effects) but it has a little of that odd hyper realism that distracts you from the story at times because it just looks different. So this HFR 3D may not be entirely successful in "The Hobbit" but it shows promise. I would be curious to see the film again in 2D and standard 24fps just for comparison. Plus seeing it again maybe I can see it without the high expectations coloring my judgment.
As a "completist" as well as Jackson fan I had to see "The Hobbit" and will have to see the following 2 films in the trilogy. "The Hobbit" was definitely enjoyable but Jackson is to blame for setting the bar pretty high with his LOTR films.
"The Hobbit" (rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images) is a film that reveals Jackson's love for his material but it lacks discipline and a discerning eye that would allow the filmmaker to step back and say, "I'm getting a bit carried away, let's trim back and tighten up and not merely fall in love with the images we create." But there are so few directors who can convincingly create a fantasy world -- Del Toro and Terry Gilliam both have a gift for that as well -- that I applaud Jackson for continuing to make Middle Earth a travel destination we still love to visit -- even if the journey is becoming less direct.
Companion viewing: Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Ring Trilogy," Ralph Bakshi's animated "Lord of the Rings," "Dead Alive"