THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY the Most Expected Film
by Gene Ching
It is the most anticipated prequel since THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999). Nearly a decade after his triumphant conclusion to the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Director Peter Jackson is summoning the magic of Middle Earth once more with THE HOBBIT. As fantasy film franchises go, this is the granddaddy of them all. Only The Chronicles of Narnia can claim equal seniority; Middle Earth author J.R.R. Tolkien and Narnia author C.S. Lewis were contemporaries and friends. But all the rest of those beloved-book-series-converted-into-epic-fantasy-film franchises, Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, arguably even The Avengers (not quite books but graphic novels), are all in the wake of THE HOBBIT.
And Jackson is going to milk it. He's expanding Tolkien's modest 1937 children's book The Hobbit into yet another trilogy of movies. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is only Part One. Part Two, THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG, will be released in 2013, and the finale, THERE AND BACK AGAIN, is scheduled for 2014.
And why not? Unlike those other fantasy film franchises, Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy was not just a box office smash, it garnered 17 Oscars and nearly 300 other major film awards. Harry's seven films only got five Oscar nominations and a big snub. The others might have a shot at a nomination or two at the upcoming Academy Awards, probably for technical effects or something similar, but surely not the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay triple-crown that Jackson earned with THE RETURN OF THE KING. So for the next three years he might as well indulge himself, and us, with this next trilogy. Then perhaps, a decade after THERE AND BACK AGAIN comes out, Jackson can move on to Tolkien's weighty "old testament," the prequel to the prequel, The Silmarillion. But one hairy, barefooted step at a time.
Tolkien was a verbose writer. A professor of English language and literature, he liberally doled out paragraph-long sentences of grand poetic sophistication, all the while remaining grammatically correct. His attention to details like the extensive cohesive Middle Earth legendarium (as Tolkien himself dubbed it) and syntactically-functioning languages for his various mythological races imbued his saga with such richness that the fictional worlds of other writers still pale by comparison. It was an obsessive-compulsive respect for the details of Tolkien's work, honoring the source material like a rabid fan-boy, that made Jackson's films succeed. Jackson managed the colossal task of translating the abundance of the Middle Earth legendarium to the silver screen, and even more so on DVD, for there, he expanded the movie trilogy by another two hours and added extensive making-of bonus features, a selling point that he is sure to repeat with THE HOBBIT.
Others tried to tackle Tolkien and failed. Rankin-Bass, in cooperation with the Japanese Topcraft (the precursor to today's renowned Studio Ghibli) produced THE HOBBIT (1977) and THE RETURN OF THE KING (1980). Both were charming children's musicals featuring original songs by American folk singer Glen Yarbrough. The hobbits were depicted with chipmunk-like faces and the monsters looked like Maurice Sendak's Wild Things. In between these made-for-TV productions, esteemed animation wizard Ralph Bakshi brought THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1978) to film and got as far as the beginning of The Two Towers. Bakshi made ample use of his cutting-edge version of the animation method rotoscope (basing animation on live-action), but the gorilla-masked Orcs are laughably dated today. Although Bakshi's version was ultimately a financial success, production was fraught with battles as Bakshi struggled to remain loyal to Tolkien while the studios demanded significant changes to make a more marketable movie, cuts such as deleting Gollum from the film, an omission which Bakshi successfully opposed. Both Bakshi's and Rankin-Bass's productions were cell animation, long before CGI surfaced (Pixar's game-changing CGI-short LUXO JR. didn't debut until 1986). Combined, these three films almost recounted Tolkien's tale as a piece-meal trilogy. They garnered both acclaim and criticism when released, but now Jackson's version hangs over his predecessors like the shadow of Mordor.
Tolkien's legendarium remains the ultimate sword and sorcery saga. The most pivotal scene in THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is when Bilbo secures the ultimate source of sorcery, the One Ring. But the film begins with a nod that martial artists will appreciate; Bilbo ruminates over the other significant magical item he acquired on his journey — his sword Sting. Here is another place where Tolkien's work excels beyond those aforementioned fantasy film franchises. While they include swords, bows and warhammers (perhaps not TWILIGHT as it only had stakes), the others maximize the magic over the martial. Tolkien, a veteran of both World Wars, had a keen sense of war. The siege scenes of Lord of the Rings are inspired by the pain of war and the woe of aftermath. Jackson was sensitive to those details as well and delivered magnificent battle sequences throughout the films.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS credited the late great fight choreographer Bob Anderson as swordmaster. Anderson, a fencing champion and Olympian, choreographed the iconic STAR WARS light saber duels, along with swordfights in PRINCESS BRIDE (1987), THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1993) and THE LEGEND OF ZORRO (2005). In fact, Anderson even served as an uncredited double for Darth Vader for the duel itself, but that wasn't known until Mark Hamill revealed it in an interview much later. Swordmasters are not often credited, but Jackson even credited his assistant sword masters: Alice Capper-Starr, a dancer and circus performer, for THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, and Kirk Maxwell, a black-belt in Taekwondo, and Shao Chi Chuan, who studied under Anderson, for the remaining two films. What's more, Jackson credited Tony Woolf as "Cultural Fighting Styles consultant." Woolf is a proponent of Bartitsu, an esoteric European martial art gaining exposure of late through Robert Downey's portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Although in real life Downey is an advocate of Wing Chun, Bartitsu is attributed as the style that Sherlock Holmes might have practiced were he not fictional.
THE HOBBIT credits Steven McMicheal as swordmaster. McMichael is a Marine veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm. He studied Taekwondo, Capoeira and Modern Wushu. McMicheal even trained under the renowned Beijing Wushu Team, the team that built Jet Li. Tim Wong, a black belt in Kung Fu and Taekwondo who served as Frodo's stunt double, is credited as Assistant Fight Choreographer. The fight scenes in THE HOBBIT are mostly against CGI Orcs and Wargs, which presents a unique challenge for a choreographer. Nevertheless, McMicheal and his team execute some thrilling battle scenes, both in some large-scale wars (told in flashback) and smaller swashbuckling skirmishes.
As for Sting, and for the illiterate this is a SPOILER, Bilbo acquires the blade from the troll horde and then dubs it "Sting" during the battle with the spiders of Mirkwood (which will presumably be in the next Hobbit installment) END SPOILER. Like the One Ring, Sting is a consistent thread in the tale, as Bilbo will pass both to Frodo to be carried on through the LORD OF THE RINGS. Symbolically, Sting is the masculine to the feminine One Ring. Tolkien derived the notion of the One Ring from Richard Wagner's epic opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Based on the 13th century poem, Völsungasaga., which Tolkien adapted for his posthumously published poem, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Wagner's magic sword Nothung was like King Arthur's Excalibur, which could only be drawn by its righteous heir. While Tolkien's legendarium is the granddaddy of the flock of today's fantasy film franchises, these ancient legends were the granddaddy of Tolkien. Tolkien echoed the notion of righteous sword wielders with Aragorn's sword Anduril in The Lord of the Rings, as well as Gandalf's Glamdring and Thorin's Orcrist which are acquired along with Sting in The Hobbit. While Sting didn't have as high a pedigree, it was still an elven magic sword that glowed blue when Orcs were near.
In the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Jackson credits Peter Lyon as Sword Smith. Lyon works for Weta Workshop, a New Zealand props company that built its reputation on THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Striving for authenticity, Sting and the other major swords are forged of heat-tempered spring steel, like genuine swords. Stunt swords made of plastic and aluminum were made for the action sequences, but the close-ups of the swords are the real ones. Those swords were made at full size; special effects trim the swords and their wielders down to Hobbit and Dwarf stature. Richard Armitage, who plays the Dwarf King Thorin in THE HOBBIT, is actually six foot two.
Again, that attention to detail for all the arms and armor in Jackson's films is impressive. If only Kung Fu movies paid such mind to their weapons. So magnificent are the Weta Workshop weapons that Houghton Mifflin published The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare by Chris Smith, which showcased the weaponry for the films, and the Royal Armouries in Leeds held a special exhibition in the summer of 2008, Arms and Armour from the Movies: The Wonderful World of Weta. In a smart marketing move, Weta Workshop also retains the rights and produces the movie replicas of their popular props.
However, the most impressive weapon in Jackson's arsenal for THE HOBBIT is HFR. That stands for "high frame rate" and refers to Jackson doubling the frames-per-second from the industry standard of 24 to 48. The result is super-high definition the likes of which have never been seen in a movie before. Every Dwarf pore, every Orc wart, every hair on Bilbo's feet, are shown is sharp crystal-clear 3D, putting THE HOBBIT in league with such other 3D innovators as AVATAR (2009), FLYING SWORDS AT DRAGON GATE (2011) and HUGO (2011). The effect of 3D at 48 fps is immersive and dazzling, so much so that some reports of audiences experiencing motion sickness have emerged from the initial screeners. The opening scenes of Dale are rich and complex, with an eye-popping depth of field. The Stone-Giants playing catch, which in The Hobbit is little more than a passing sentence, is played out like a vertiginous stomach-wrenching rollercoaster ride. The Orc caves and Dwarf caves, both twisted lattices of bridges strung across sprawling unfathomable caverns, have the audience teetering on the edge of falling into the pit with the slightest misstep. Only 450 theaters across the U.S. will show THE HOBBIT at 48 fps. It is definitely worth it, if just for the first taste of what might become the next movie standard.
Clocking in at 169 minutes, THE HOBBIT is nearly twice as long as most films (and at double the fps, it could be said it's quadrupled). Some of it is a little too overindulgent. Jackson takes some liberties with the original text, presumably to fill out the three films, but at such a running time, that's hard to argue. He expands some ideas from the books that were only mentioned in passing, as well as adding a few completely new ones, among which are SPOILER an extensive flashback detailing a failed attempt by the dwarves to recapture Moria, a whole sequence dedicated to Radagast the Brown, a meeting at Rivendell with Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel (which is worth it just to see Cate Blanchett don elven ears again) and a new story arc dedicated to the pale Orc END SPOILER. Connections between Jackon's THE HOBBIT and Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS are made blatant, much more so than within Tolkien's original work, but this gets a little longwinded as we know where this is going to go, if not from reading the books, then from watching the movies.
But just when the film starts to get tiresome, that pivotal scene between Gollum and Bilbo appears. Gollum, the ultimate metaphor for an addict, is as charmingly repulsive and comic as ever. And Martin Freeman's Bilbo provides the perfect foil. Freeman captures Bilbo as well as Elijah Wood (who also has a small cameo) captured Frodo. As a coincidental aside, Freeman most recently appears as Watson opposite Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock in the highly acclaimed PBS production SHERLOCK. Cumberbatch also plays the Necromancer in THE HOBBIT (although he's unrecognizable under all the effects), and in the next film will be the voice of Smaug. But back to Gollum, just like with the books and the movies, he steals the show. The only disappointment is the realization that, assuming Jackson continues to remain mostly loyal to the books, this will be Gollum's only appearance in this trilogy.
This leaves readers to wonder how THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG will fare, as it will certainly engage the dreariest portion of the novel, Mirkwood Forest. Will Jackson be able to sustain this through the second film? We'll find out next year. One hairy, barefooted step at a time.
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