Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” – A bloated and beleaguered adventure

Poster for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Why does this film exist? As the line between art and commerce grows increasingly blurred with the unchallenged rise of franchise filmmaking, it’s certainly a fair question. Of course, on the heels of a billion-dollar franchise like Lord of the Rings, a second trip to the well was a virtual certainty. I ask this question not out of some naive sense of entitlement for artistry to emerge from the studio system, but rather as a self-contained quibble with the film itself. As I watched a nearly shot-for-shot remake of a sequence from 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, featuring hobbits Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) – looking 11 years older as actors, but inexplicably younger as characters – I found myself wondering what exactly was the point of this protracted exercise in nostalgia. The film is saddled in equal measure with sequences that simultaneously pad the runtime and remind the audience of the horrific fate that awaits Middle Earth in the trilogy we’ve already seen. And yet, it was only as I got to know the younger version of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) that my skepticism and apathy began to fade a bit. For it is Freeman’s light touch and sympathetic performance, as well as the film’s characterization of Bilbo, that allows it to pass as a standalone adventure story. Even as it frequently seeks to undermine itself by adhering to self-referential bits of fan-service.

To cultivate audience sympathy with a reluctant hero is a daunting task. In this very same weekend, I saw Rise of the Guardians, an unfortunate misstep from Dreamworks Animation that mingled brilliant visuals and a strong supporting cast with an utterly unsympathetic protagonist. The Hobbit was saddled with a similar burden – to allow Bilbo Baggins to initially be the most useless and reluctant member of a party of dwarven warriors who all ostensibly have personal reasons for being there. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who seems just a bit more capable now than in his twilight years, imposes upon Bilbo’s hospitality relentlessly (in a sequence that is nearly interminable), and insists upon the hobbit’s value to the endeavor. And yet, the wizard compels him to join by appealing simultaneously to his boredom and racial guilt, rather than any specific contribution he might make. And what is their noble quest? This band is setting off to reclaim their stolen homeland, yes, but also to recover the massive bounty of gold – mined through dubious labor practices under a monarchic regime – that is cached within. They are initially no better than a band of pirates at eliciting audience sympathy, and are just as minimally characterized. And yet gradually, Bilbo comes to truly believe in their quest, and when he finally explains his motivation for sticking with this diminutive baker’s dozen, I found that my own interest level had risen similarly.

Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is given a nice, meaty revenge tale to work with, and acquits himself well on-screen. But the other dwarves are given scarcely more characterization than Snow White could muster, with their attributes reduced to simple, one-word descriptions. Thinking back to how effectively Jackson’s previous trilogy managed to characterize a nine-member ensemble and myriad supporting characters, I can’t help but wonder whether nine was simply the breaking point. Apart from plump gourmand Bombur (Stephen Hunter) and ancient, genial Balin (Ken Stott), I could hardly tell you a single one of these dwarves’ unique strengths or contributions to the party. We hear that some of them are farmers, merchants, and miners, but I would task anyone to point out which is which, without the aid of Wikipedia or the IMDb. I’ll admit, my memory of the novel (which I read when I was 12) is faint, but if any such differentiation was present in the source material, it hardly makes an appearance in the film.

But speaking of appearances, I must address the film’s 48 frame-per-second 3D presentation, if only because I ended up quite unexpectedly enjoying it. Yes, every bit of rapid motion looks jerky and anomalous, but I found myself asking whether it really looked bad to my eyes, or whether it simply looked unfamiliar. After about 10 minutes of staring into what looked suspiciously like British TV, I found that my brain had adjusted completely to the illusion, and these events – and the gorgeous cinematography that captured them – were simply a window that I was gazing through. Apart from the occasional wandering audience member in the foreground, the illusion was never broken for me throughout the film, and I found that it worked hand-in-hand with the obvious advances that Jackson’s Weta Digital FX shop has made in rendering all-CGI characters in the past decade. Whether I was gazing upon an overlong cameo from Gollum (Andy Serkis) or a grotesquely blubberous Goblin King (Barry Humphries), I felt an overwhelming sense of being there, in the presence of these entirely real creations. While not all of The Hobbit‘s technical virtuosity serves to the story’s benefit (I still don’t quite understand the point of those brawling mountains), it is certainly one of its great strengths.

Bilbo asks Gandalf a simple question at the outset of the film. “Can you promise that I will come back?” The wizard answers no, and yet the audience is capable at all times of answering yes. The film is at its best when it allows Freeman to emphasize Bilbo’s personal stakes through his performance and characterization, rather than reminding us that a far greater threat – and a certain safe return – loom in the hobbit’s narrative future. Likewise, the dwarves (aided a bit by flashback) manage to eventually present their quest as a noble endeavor, worthy of story and song. And as long as they can carry it to a swift completion, they may manage to give this series of films a real raison d’être. But as it stands, the film just meanders from setpiece to meaningless setpiece with no room to breathe in-between. The quest never picks up any steam, and the party seems more like an ambling family R.V. that can’t make decent time because Dad insists on stopping off for a family photo in front of the Great Big Lawn Chair off Route 6. They may eventually reach their destination, but they might find the journey was scarcely worth it. And when Grandpa is a wizard capable of summoning air support with the slightest effort, you can’t help but wonder whether hiking across every mountaintop was really worth it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a strained metaphor looks like.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” – Sprawling, epic, and thoughtful

X-Men: First Class had a tall order to fill. We’ve already had two solid films examining the fantastic mutant powers, conflicting ideologies, and disillusioned friendship of Charles Xavier (“Professor X”) and Erik Lehnsherr (“Magneto”). To return to that friendship at its inception could have seemed little more than a cynical cash-grab – a storytelling dead-end whose fan-service ending was a foregone conclusion. Instead, Matthew Vaughn has delivered a film that proves he is as adept at delivering an earnest, character-driven superhero film as he was at superhero parody. This film may or may not be the best in the franchise, but it certainly belongs in the same conversation as X2, and perhaps even The Dark Knight, if not quite ascending to the standalone appeal of those films.

The highest praise I can give to James McAvoy’s take on Charles Xavier is that at no point did I doubt that this man grows up to Patrick Stewart’s version of the character. Tackling a role that has been so completely defined by another actor is a difficult undertaking, and the result is no mere imitation of Stewart’s Xavier, but neither is it a complete reimagining (à la Chris Pine in Star Trek). This Xavier is reserved and wise, but hardly unafraid to use his powers in the reckless milieu of a younger man. In fact, this Xavier is downright arrogant, using his powers to convincingly sweet-talk coeds and other mutants alike, all while playing fast and easy with the most intimate details of their minds and memories. This Xavier might make a fair psychologist, but his approach to friendship is downright invasive. His banter with Erik (Michael Fassbender) ends up striking a note somewhere between therapist and Yoda, trying simultaneously to make the other man come to terms with his most painful experiences and unlock the full potential of his mutant powers. It’s a fascinating interaction, to be sure, and it certainly drives the second half of this film despite being established through a rather hasty montage. I wasn’t sure how much I would buy this friendship, but it cascaded into a brilliant finale. More on this later.

First, I must touch on the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), which is certainly one of the reasons this film belongs in the same conversation as The Dark Knight. Not only is Shaw a thoroughly memorable and well-written nemesis, but he also represents an achievement that few films have managed to accomplish in recent years – an utterly terrifying villain (or set of villains, in this case). Shaw expresses his affinity for Nazi tactics early in the film, and the reason quickly becomes evident. Scene: A tornado spontaneously erupts outside a building, and a guard vanishes in a puff of crimson smoke. He reappears 100 feet in the air, instantly falling to his death. The attrition continues as buildings rip to shreds and it literally starts raining men (hallelujah!).

This is just a snippet of one of the many brilliant action set-pieces, but it demonstrates two of the great strengths of this film. First, it makes full and clever use of the array of mutant powers at its disposal (from heroes and villains alike). And second, Shaw and his associates carry out their malicious plans with such brutal and relentless efficiency that it’s simultaneously horrifying and captivating to behold.

Also terrifying is the man-who-would-be-villain, Magneto. After narrowly escaping the Holocaust (and the brutal experimentation of Shaw), Erik passes a brief stint as a Nazi hunter, ruthlessly pursuing the worst offenders who have fled to Argentina. This plays almost like a sequence from Fassbender’s other best known film, Inglourious Basterds – and the parallels seem fairly deliberate. Fassbender speaks several languages and visits unflinching brutality upon his malefactors. Given that Xavier’s central conflict with Erik is the extent to which they should wage war upon humanity, this makes for a compelling backdrop for their burgeoning friendship later in the film. Xavier’s other relationship – a childhood friendship with Raven, AKA “Mystique” (Jennifer Lawrence), is quite fascinating at the beginning of the film, but gets short shrift as soon as Magneto enters the picture. Given Raven’s character arc, this seems somewhat deliberate on the filmmakers’ part, but it is unfortunate, given that these early scenes are the best opportunity for Lawrence to show off her acting prowess. Her later interactions with Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are less interesting, even though Beast’s Jekyll-and-Hyde story turns out to be a compelling subplot (or at least a showcase for a brilliant bit of first-person camerawork).

Still from "X-Men: First Class"

There is a host of other characters in this film, which may leave prospective audience members questioning the extent to which this film is just for the fans – suffering from character and villain overload like so many other late entries to a superhero franchise. To that, I would simply say that this film is an achievement in both casting and storytelling. It brings a great many disparate characters together and manages to tell us a little something about each one without leaving the film feeling bloated. And in the end, the mutants – heroes and villains alike – do their dance as the humans look on in terrified awe. The American and Russian observers are then forced to act in a way that doesn’t feel entirely believable, but nonetheless forces Erik Lehnsherr to become the villain that he needs to be. In the blink of an eye, he is Magneto.

And indeed, this is the problem with origin stories. If you’re explaining the origins of something simple, like radioactive spider powers, your explanation can be equally rudimentary. To explain something as complex and multifaceted as Magneto’s decades-long disillusionment with mankind is a bit more difficult. But while such a protracted explanation may have been slightly more believable, I’ll grant that it’s not particularly cinematic. And all of these elements, along with McAvoy and Fassbender’s performances, brought together an action-packed and thematically pitch-perfect finale that felt almost completely earned.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10