Prequel's Mastery of Special Effects Compromises Storytelling
Published: Sunday, December 23, 2012
Updated: Monday, January 7, 2013 00:01
With far fewer hobbits and far more dwarves, the first of three prequels to the voyage throughout Middle-Earth is brought to the big screen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Based on J.R.R. Tolkein’s 1937 novel, The Hobbit lacks much of what made the Lord of the Rings trilogy wonderful; that is, the special effects steal most of what should be the fantasy narrative’s thunder.
Director Peter Jackson took a risk in filming in both a 3-D format and an unprecedented projection speed of 48 frames per second as opposed to the 85-year-old standard of 24. The result of the rapid frame rate is a sometimes seemingly skittish movement of the camera that’s not necessarily pleasing.
The quest begins when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) interrupts the quaint existence of a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), offering him an adventure that will either change or end his life. A horde of belligerent, belching dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) soon invades Bilbo’s home, but while hobbits and dwarves share an equal fondness for food, Bilbo does not approve of the group’s conduct in his home of Bag End. Nonetheless, he agrees to join them on a journey to reclaim the dwarves’ treasure, which was seized and is now being guarded by the dragon Smaug.
As Gandalf relays to Bilbo shortly before the everlasting journey, “True courage is about knowing not when to take a life but when to spare one.” This snippet of advice — something that the awe-inspiring wizard has no shortage of — turns out to be of great importance during Bilbo’s travels in the company of Gandalf and the dwarves, most of whom blur together in a shapeless, quarreling mass.
The first few scenes also explain the origin of the rift created between the dwarves and the elves that lingers in the Lord of the Rings series. Even if one were to ignore the fact that one group was less than helpful during times of hardship for the other, it comes as no surprise that dwarves, who snore so loudly that flies go in and out of their noses every time they inhale and exhale, and the contrastingly elegant elves are on such unfriendly terms. As if the elves and the dwarves didn’t have enough to bicker about already, it doesn’t help that the layover in the elven community of Rivendell brings to the light that its inhabitants are the vegetarian hippies of Middle-Earth. This doesn’t go over too well when the elves play host to the meat-and-potato-loving dwarves.
Jackson incorporates a lot of material that is either an intensified version of its role in Tolkein’s novel or only originally incorporated in the author’s incomplete appendices. Azog, for instance, is the pale orc king who strives to exact revenge upon Thorin by beheading him. Thus the massive, nasty creature, along with his cronies, serves as the major obstacle to Bilbo and Co.’s journey, despite Azog's only existing in the novels as a footnote. In contrast, Smaug, the overarching villain of the Hobbit films, is barely in this movie. Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) also makes a brief, ethereal appearance, and although her character is not in the book, the film benefits from a woman’s presence.
The Hobbit features a few other redeeming qualities, most notably the pivotal scene in which Bilbo and the homely, lurking Gollum (with body movements and voice once again provided by Andy Serkis) exchange riddles upon their first encounter with one another. This portion of the movie in particular stands out because it is embodied by conflict characterized by actual drama and dialogue rather than flashy spectacle.
Prior to seeing The Hobbit, I had no doubt that the film would score at least half a dozen Oscar nominations; now, I’m not so sure that Jackson’s prequel to his masterpiece of a trilogy will be able to garner one for best picture or best director, mostly because the special effects outshine the storytelling that’s such an essential part of Tolkein’s books. Of course, it would be both a crime and a misdemeanor if the Academy failed to recognize the truly impressive aspects of the film, including the compelling visuals, meticulous makeup, and the exquisite detail that went into every costume, accessory, and weapon.
The Hobbit is nothing if not the epitome of a blockbuster, but this classification comes at the cost of the movie’s potential for depicting the artistic beauty of Jackson’s previous films.