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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Back and there again

(Note: Some people may consider this discussion to contain spoilers. If you are one them, well, then you know who you are.)

As I alluded in my review of the first Hobbit movie, there was a fair amount of anxiety that it would turn out to be The Phantom Menace. Fortunately, in my opinion anyway, it turned out more like Godfather II.

Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up to his massive hit The Godfather was both a sequel and a prequel, in that it told parallel stories about the children of Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando in the first movie) on one hand and about Don Corleone’s early days (in which he was played by Robert De Niro) on the other.

Similarly, the main story in The Hobbit is treated in the new movie as an extended flashback. The film begins with a prolog that illuminates the relevant Middle-earth history and sets the stage for the central tale. This echoes Jackson’s beginning in The Fellowship of the Ring. Then we find ourselves at the moment when preparations are underway for old Bilbo’s famous farewell party, again echoing the first movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, we linger so long at this moment (complete with an appearance by young Frodo) that we might start to wonder if the projectionist has somehow slipped in a reel from The Fellowship of the Ring—if a movie like this still was projected from reels.

Finally, we get to the flashback, which is to say, the movie proper, which begins with an extended sequence that introduces Thorin Oakenshield and his company of Dwarves. By the time we get less than halfway through this part, it is clear that Jackson is in no particular rush to get the story out. And I suspect Tolkien fans will feel, as I do, that he can take all the time he wants and more power to him. On the other hand, I was distracted by a couple of younger people in the row in front of me fiddling with their mobile phones, so that may say something about whether the film holds the attention of more casual viewers.

If Jackson had used the same pacing with the Lord of the Rings movies, not only would Tom Bombadil have made it in, but he wouldn’t have shown up until the fourth movie.

There is an inherent problem in following up a hugely successful adaptation of a literary masterpiece with an adaptation of a slimmer literary prequel. The universe demands, in general, that movie follow-ups be bigger and grander than what came before. Jackson and company deal with this by giving The Hobbit the grandest of treatments. In essence, he is following the rule that sequels and prequels are essentially remakes. (Tolkien himself followed this rule, since The Lord of the Rings could be seen as a more elaborate reworking of The Hobbit.)

Does it work? It does so far, for me. One risk in lavishing this much time on a book that is so well known and well loved is a lack of suspense. There was the usual source of suspense in these situations, which amounts to wondering how things will be portrayed as compared with the source material. But I found a couple more sources of suspense. One was wondering what unexpected character would show up next. Characters and sequences have been added which serve the purpose of binding this movie closely to the Lord of the Rings movies. These include an appearance by Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, which was not in the book. Ditto a very frail Christopher Lee’s cameo as Saruman. A character mentioned in but not portrayed in the book is Gandalf’s fellow wizard Radagast the Brown, who livens things up considerably, as played by Sylvester McCoy, best known to many of us as the one-time title character of Doctor Who.

More intriguingly, we get a glimpse of the Necromancer, another character mentioned in but not seen in The Hobbit. Some readers have speculated that the Necromancer was Sauron, but this movie seems to indicate that they are separate entities. The name Sauron does come up here, although it was never mentioned in the pages of The Hobbit. Interestingly, the Necromancer is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays another malevont force in the upcoming Star Trek sequel. His participation in The Hobbit, which stars Martin Freeman as Bilbo, amounts to a sort-of Sherlock reunion, since in that series Cumberbatch plays Holmes to Freeman’s Watson.

Perhaps the greatest source of suspense for me was wondering where exactly the movie would stop. Given that two more movies are to follow, I expected it to stop a few times before it actually did. Indeed, I wondered whether we would make it as far as Gollum’s appearance at all.

Given the leisurely sequences during the first part of the movie, it was a bit of a shock how quickly and breathlessly it roared along in the latter stretch. Our company of Dwarves (plus a wizard and a Hobbit) barely escape from one cataclysm before they are thrust into another. The action sequences leave one breathless, like a well-designed rollercoaster.

I saw the film in high-frame-rate 3D. This is one of those rare occasions where a new technology really does change the movie-watching experience. For one thing, the faster frame rate adds some welcome brightening to the 3D process, which can really make a movie like this that has a lot of dark scenes more watchable. The higher definition definitely makes things look more real. The experience is like watching “live” television, i.e. it looks more videotape than film. That makes the digital creations all the more striking because they look so real.

Some critics have said that HFR highlights the artificiality of the sets and the character makeup. This may be true, but I did not find this particularly distracting. I was more distracted by the array of accents among the Dwarves. As the Missus says, nothing takes you out of a fantasy faster (at least in the British Isles) than hearing a Dwarf start talking like a bloke from Northern Ireland.

But back to the HFR. For me, the main distraction provided by the technology was in some of the fast-paced action scenes. There was something about them that did remind me that computers were involved in making it all happen. But every movie exposes the seams of its fabrication in one way or another. The true test of success is how well the storytelling distracts us from the mechanics behind it all. This movie distracted me just fine. For my money, there are few cinematic storytellers who can stand up to Peter Jackson.

The HFR 3D was so striking that it has me curious as to what the movie would look like in the normal frame rate in 2D. (I can only wonder what the Imax version is like.) It’s enough to make me want to go out and see the whole thing again. If only I could find the time.

-S.L., 17 December 2012

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