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Knight at the Movies: The Hobbit; film notes
2012-12-12

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The thing that's been on everyone's mind when it comes to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, of course, is, "How does it look?" Ever since director Peter Jackson trumpeted the fact that he was shooting the three-part epic in a never-before-seen upgrade of the standard frame ratio (from 24 to 48 frames per second), the curiosity about the process has been intense. Jackson and his team have touted a film experience so visually elevated (in 3D, no less) that one expected nothing less than a visual epiphany—something akin, no doubt, to the wonders that greeted Ray Milland in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

So how does it look? Like a TV soap opera shot on video and broadcast on an HD TV—a combination of one of those BBC cheapo Masterpiece Theatre miniseries and Dr. Who with a zillion-dollar budget. The clarity, as it turns out, is too real for its own good, and the lack of diffusion and the ability to distance oneself or to get any relief from the super-sharp focus have a disconcerting effect (to say the least) that is a fiasco. The mood and mystery of Middle-earth is gone.

"What is this, CBC Playhouse 90?" a friend of mine whispered snidely at the sneak preview—not a bad assessment of the process. One has plenty of time to mentally grouse about it and think of even more comparisons as Jackson (along with his usual script collaborators, wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) takes a really, really long time to get things going. The story couldn't be simpler: Bilbo Baggins (the winning Martin Freeman), the hobbit of the title, is coerced into joining a band of dwarves and the wizard Gandalf the Grey (the openly gay actor Ian McKellan having a hammy good time) in an attempt to reclaim long lost treasure (and their homeland), slaying the dragon Smaug, who stole it from them, in the process. Bilbo, a contented bachelor, has lived quietly in the bucolic Shire countryside in his well-stocked hobbit hole, eagerly downing six meals a day and practicing fancy smoke rings on his elongated pipe—and he wants nothing to do with this adventure.

Nevertheless, in spite of himself, Bilbo is drawn into the adventure and soon, due to his wee size and his newly found courage, becomes an unintended ally for the band of merry men. As the journey progresses we get the backstory of how the dwarves lost their fortune and much else that hints at the events covered in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (The Hobbit takes place 60 years prior.) Bilbo recalls the journey as he writes about it for his beloved nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood, in a cameo) and, every once in a while, the tale transports you.

There are glorious wide shots of the Shire in full bloom; breathtaking shots of an underground kingdom presided over by a vicious gnome king (voiced by Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna); a treacherous, fun moment when mountainous rocky formations battle it out for dominance; and several thrilling chase sequences. Best is when the ragtag group reaches Rivendale, home of the graceful elves (Hugo Weaving returns as Elrond, their leader); and a private meeting between Gandalf, his mentor Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the ethereal elf queen (Cate Blanchett). There's also a reappearance of the tragic but oddly endearing Gollum (Andy Serkis) and his beloved "precious" ring.

Yet each time you are about to fall for the expertly detailed fantasy world, that damn high aspect ratio announces itself like an unwanted party guest and the mood is once again shattered. Really, I have never so palpably felt displeasure at a supposed technical advance. Instead of enhancing the experience of Middle-earth and a greatly anticipated return to it, Jackson's movie throws into question your desire to be there altogether. Did he not take a look at some test footage before continuing to shoot? Couldn't he see how poorly it translated to the big screen?

All my vitriol about Jackson's folly (that is surely what it is), though, is matched when the writer-director makes another tactical error—the gargantuan length of the picture. Jackson has skipped right over the theatrical version and gone right to the fan geek director's cut that includes all the extraneous stuff and the scenes that should've stayed in the edit bin. Even the most diehard Tolkien fans may have trouble with the movie's greatly padded three-hour running time.

By cutting down the film's lackadaisical opening section and reverting to a standard frame ratio, Jackson may yet achieve what Tolkien fans have eagerly awaited—a return to Middle-earth that lives up to the hype. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is that rare cinema case where less—much less—is definitely going to be more. Here's hoping Jackson's love affair with technology (something he shares with James Cameron) shifts back to his real strength—good old-fashioned storytelling—and that he has the courage to edit down the film.

It's a director's cut worth anticipating.

Film notes:

—Tennessee-born artist Wayne White, who created much of the look and oddball, child-like characters for Pee Wee's Playhouse (he also voiced several of them), has had a decidedly eclectic artistic career. From helming videos for Peter Gabriel and Smashing Pumpkins to a raft of humorous performance-art pieces—with some banjo-plucking tossed in for good measure —White has dipped his creative hand in many areas. He's profiled in Neil Berkeley's documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, which is having its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., on Friday, Dec. 14, at 6 p.m. The artist, who resides in Los Angeles, will be present via Skype for a post-screening discussion hosted by Ain't It Cool News' Steve Prokopy (aka "Capone"). The film plays through Thursday, Dec. 20. www.siskelfilmcenter.com

—The Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., has added a new holiday double-feature to its schedule that tickles the funny bone: On Tuesday, Dec. 18, it will present what it's appropriately titling A Bob Clark Christmas, featuring the late director's two holiday set films: 1983's hilarious classic A Christmas Story (at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.) and the infamous, 1974 slasher pic Black Christmas (at 9:30 p.m.). The former, based on the charming, insightful stories of humorist Jean Shepard is filled with one gloriously delightful sequence after another while the latter—in which a demented killer stalks a group of comely sorority co-eds during the holidays—is a much better film than its description would suggest. (For one thing, it is much less violent.) The historic theater's 29th annual double presentation of It's a Wonderful Life and White Christmas, with live holiday sing-a-long with Dennis Scott at the organ, screens Dec. 14-24. www.musicboxtheatre.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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