Friday, December 21, 2012

Love: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I wasn't particularly excited about The Hobbit. If we're being really honest, I'd been sort of down about the whole endeavor.  It was one thing when the film was just supposed to be one storybook sized film, quite another when Peter Jackson ballooned the novel out to a three film stretch.  J.R.R. Tolkien's book is, of course, one for children. Compared to its semi-sequel trilogy The Lord of the Rings, it's a relatively loose, frothy, fairy story adventure; one that does not need the nine or so hours of screen time it's about to get in a time-released delay between now and the end of 2014.  Yet, the decision has been made.  We have two films to go to complete this Unexpected Journey. Whether you read the split as a money grab or buy into it as a labor of love, my problem with the division has shifted in the last week.  Where before I'd been annoyed it would take as many films to round out the simplest book as it did the trilogy, now I'm just pissed off I have to wait until 2014 to finish the goddamn story.   
 I liked An Unexpected Journey significantly more than I'd expected I would, which ultimately shouldn't be that surprising.  When The Lord of the Rings ran its course I was certainly a fan, though nowhere near as bewitched by the films as many (including my dear cranky younger sibling, who carted around a lucky Frodo action figure for a good year or so) in my peer group.  Like many, I'd read Tolkien's books at a pretty young age (they were required reading in my house), I read compulsively, and took in a decent amount of fantasy fare. I longed to see the creatures and worlds described in these genre works manifest on the big screen, and, frustratingly, the fantasy films of my pre-adolescence couldn't cut it.  I loved them, but they were light, airy, puppet-filled trips.  Neverending Story and Labyrinth; those were about as good as it got, which is to say: nostalgic, but cheesy almost to a fault.  What Jackson accomplished in Fellowship of the Ring (and I should note, Harry Potter's 2001 arrival was a second half of this turning point), was nothing short of astounding.  LotR were big, healthy works of cinematic fantasy unlike any I'd ever seen.  They forged new worlds, beautifully, and converted just about everyone into a willing, frenzied, wizard-loving nerd.
Yeah, yeah, you're thinking. You're preaching to the choir, everyone remembers how those films hit, what does that have to do with why we're getting a three-movie Hobbit now?  Well, quite simply, the opening chapter to The Hobbit transported me back to that theater a decade ago, but in a way that settled firmly in a comfortable, worn nostalgia.  It's true that The Hobbit has become somewhat bloated on a hearty diet of small battles and monstrous run-ins, yes. It's also true that characters have been snuck in and the menace of what's to come hangs heavy over many a head between the odd songs and strange, juvenile jokes of our merry band of dwarves.  Yet, many critics have been too quick to ask questions that seem completely irrelevant: do we need this movie at all? Is Jackson just making this series in an effort to remake his last trip to Middle Earth? The answer, I think, is a caveated yes. Where LotR was a frenzied, often terribly serious war epic, The Hobbit's storybook nature allows for something I'd been conveniently overlooking: it's a soaring, visually stunning work of old school imagination. While the technical advances make it a modern marvel, the simplicity of the story, the repetitive nature of its encounters, the tonally 'silly' dialogue and visual jokes, and the Potter-style goofiness of some of the creatures (stenographer goblin, anyone?) take the film away from the stakes of the ring trilogy and make it a brilliant children's film.
While The Hobbit reads as slight for hardcore cinephiles and adult fans of LotR, if the opener is any indication, we're looking at a trilogy I would have killed for at eight or nine years old.  There's a comforting, spellbinding once upon a time tone to the film.  Ian Holm's elder Bilbo Baggins opens up the story in a charming flash forward.  He's writing his tale for posterity from the comfort of Bag End, looking fondly back at something without fear.  We know Bilbo will survive, we know he will be a hero, now we can just sit back and enjoy the ride. As young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) embarks nervously on his quest, the film succeeds in striking a balance between the more sophisticated Rings films and the friendly, gently enchanted worlds of the Narnia or early Potter films.  While it's undeniably designed for a younger audience, The Hobbit never plays down to those kids, and seems to strive for relative timelessness.  Jackson is trying to attract a new audience, to rope a younger generation into a world of imagination that inspired him at that age, and in entrusting them with material that reads as almost grown-up, I suspect he will succeed. While the occasional goblin head may roll and a sneaky shroom joke may pass by, there's surprisingly little 'excess baggage' here.  Instead, An Unexpected Journey is a simple, optimistic tale that never underestimates the capabilities of someone small.  

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