Monday, 24 December 2012

The Hobbit: An unexpected journey

23 December 2012

Hobbit trailer. From youtube.

It wasn't broken, so it hasn't been fixed. And with only a few exceptions, repeating the same tricks doesn't yet bring weariness, which is a remarkable achievement.

I am probably the ideal audience for this film, given that I greatly enjoyed the same team's Lord of the Rings trilogy, in both cinema and extended DVD versions.

So I want more of the same, perhaps endlessly. That's what this film provides, and it seems we will get two more films, probably doing much the same thing.

I'm entranced by the mythic character of these films, taking place in a setting both recognisable and yet far removed from our direct experience. Perhaps fantasy worlds are uniquely suited to the immersive quality of cinema, although I accept that some aspects of myth cannot be treated easily on film.

Storywise, these trilogies are quests where the central character chooses to leave his life of prosperous rural bachelorhood in order to help others, and experiences various dangers before achieving the object of his quest, learning the value of friendship, and maybe self-sacrifice, though that is secondary.

To complain that the films lack sex, or sexual tension, is as meaningless as complaining about their bad grasp of economics.

The weakest aspects of these films so far have been the external villains. These have a brutish motiveless malignity, with a weak exception in Gollum's obsessive attachment to his one possession, which makes him convincingly wretched and disturbing.

Especially poor is the depiction of hordes of villainous orcs and goblins, where the occasional sympathetic trait doesn't prevent the heroes slaughtering them by the hundreds.

I don't imagine race-hate is considered a virtue by the filmmakers; probably they intend the villains to be just part of the challenges on the mythic quest. But there is something wrong in suggesting that peace and harmony can only be achieved with the extermination of whole races of speaking others. If that is found in all myths then that only confirms we need new myths.

The value of these films lies elsewhere than in the depiction of heroes and villains. Foremost, I think is the sense of spectacle, and particularly viewing new lands.

The films are tourist advertisements for the scenery of New Zealand, and landscape depiction remains awe-inspiring in this latest instalment. But the films also succeed in depicting other spectacles, whether large-scale battles, storms or detailed urban fantasies.

The design, whether physical or computer generated, is literally jaw-dropping. The designers create something with a convincing sense of history, to an extent seemingly impossible in other contexts, and this is the greatest debt the films owe to their original source, Tolkein's vast (mostly unpublished) writings on the history of his Middle Earth.

Director Peter Jackson (with editor Jabez Olssen) also has an unusual talent for thrills, combining the fluid camerawork of Sam Raimi's best films with the timing of Steven Spielberg's. Howard Shore's romantic motive-ridden music is so prominent that the films might almost be regarded as music drama.

Casting is inventive, given the challenge of differentiating all the dwarves, and Martin Freeman is particularly effective at grounding the film as the titular hobbit.

All the ingredients are present for many more hours of finely crafted escapism. I'm hooked again.

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