Saturday, December 22, 2012

HOBBIT Movie Review (Part two)

(once again, spoilers)

Returning Characters

One of the joys of Jackson's THE HOBBIT is seeing familiar faces again as members of his LORD OF THE RINGS films reprise their roles. It wd have been a shame to have a different director, different special effects/costuming/prop house, different composer, et al between the LORD OF THE RINGS films and these HOBBIT films. And the sense of seeing another story set in the same world is v. much enhanced by seeing the same actors playing the same characters, most notably Gandalf. McKellan has said he much preferred playing the character of Gandalf the Grey to that of Gandalf the White, and one can see why; the latter was more remote, as befitted his enhanced status, while the earlier was more human, more quirky, and warmer.

And Gandalf is given a lot to do here: he's one of the three main leads, second only to Martin Freeman's Bilbo. In keeping with Tolkien's portrayal in THE HOBBIT on the limits of Gandalf's power, the Grey Wizard is generally shown as powerful compared to the hobbit or Thorin & Company, but no match for, say, a war-party of warg-riders. This comes out best in a Jackson-invented conversation in which Gandalf brings up the fact that there are five wizards in all, which prompts Bilbo to ask whether Radagast is powerful, like Saruman and the two unnamed Blue Wizards, or "like you, Gandalf". That might be put down to hobbit naivete, were it not followed up by a meeting of the White Council, in which it is made painfully clear that Gandalf is subservient not just to Saruman, the head of his order, but also to Galadriel and even Elrond. That said, it's all the more satisfying to see how much Gandalf can do with what power he does have, much of which comes in the form of good advice (which Thorin and others may or may not take); he's also not above a certain amount of manipulation, not to say duplicity.

So, McKellan was pretty much universally haled as a great Gandalf in the LORD OF THE RINGS moview, even by those purists who didn't much like the Jackson movies as a whole, and he's in fine form this time around too: seeing more of McKellan's Gandalf is reward enough for going to see this movie, even without all its other virtues.

The other standout returning character is Andy Serkis's GOLLUM. Here the film-makers use what they know about Smeagol/Gollum's split personality to inform the performance here without being explicit about it (and thus keeping true to the spirit of THE HOBBIT). We, as viewers who have seen THE TWO TOWERS, can see the two sides of Gollum's personality, and recognize through facial expressions which side is dominant or speaking at any given moment. This leads to a few hilarious moments, as when evil-Gollum asks a riddle, and a few seconds later less-evil Gollum guesses the answer -- which has the interesting effect of showing us that the two sides of Gollum's personality don't necessarily each know what the other knows. A really fascinating performance by Serkis. But what makes the scene a standout is Freeman's Bilbo interacting with Gollum. Bilbo knows nothing about Gollum's two sides, but he quickly picks up that this dangerous stranger has two moods, and that the right kind of questions can bring the less dangerous one to the fore; his proposing the Riddle Game (and it is Bilbo who proposes it in the movie, rather than Gollum as in the book) is a direct result of keeping the creature talking and engaged, rather than letting him revert back into feral mode.

We're told this is the first scene Jackson filmed when starting THE HOBBIT project, and that decision makes all kinds of sense. It's the best scene in Tolkien's book, and arguably the best piece of fiction he ever produced. If they can't get this right, they're in deep trouble. If they can pull this off, they're on the right track and much else can be forgiven. I think they pulled it off. The final moment, when Bilbo decides not to kill Gollum, was too slow and drawn out for my tastes (maybe I missed the internal monologue of Bilbo thinking it through, and his sudden searing moment of empathy as he suddenly sees the world as Gollum sees it), but that didn't negate the overall achievement. Serkis deserves some kind of Oscar for this scene, but I have no idea what the proper category shd be. And Martin was right there with him, each pulling out the best performance out of the other. Remarkable.

Seeing Kate Blanchett's Galadriel again was wonderful. She looked great, and was more focused on the business at hand (less spooky and more effective). It made an interesting contrast that while the three other figures in the scene (Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond) stayed more or less in place throughout the White Council scene, she was in motion, slowly circling the area. The aftermath follow-up scene was also interesting in that it included a rare moment of tenderness between Galadriel and Gandalf. I think this was intended to convey a touch of sadness on her part at signs of him growing old (which wd have seemed strange to an elf, neither the immortality of a fellow elf or the swift life of a mortal but something in-between: aging but not dying of age). There was one odd bit about this scene, in that it both established that Galadriel was physically there (she moved a lock of Gandalf's errant hair back into place) and not there (in her sudden vanishing at the end of the scene). Are Jackson's elf-lords capable of teleportation?

The Gandalf-Galadriel exchange did have one moment which seemed to me the equivalent of loading a blunderbuss and hanging in over the mantlepiece in Act I of a play: deliberate set-up for something to come later. After the Council meeting was over, Galadrield told Gandalf that if he needed her, and sent for her, she wd come. Now on the surface that doesn't sound like a HOBBIT scene at all (naturally enough, given that Tolkien didn't create the character of Galadriel until a decade or so after he wrote THE HOBBIT), but I think it suggests that Jackson will be blending two events later on the the HOBBIT film series. We know from THE HOBBIT itself that during the events of Bilbo's journey through Mirkwood, Gandalf was away, helping the White Council to drive the Necromancer from Dol Guldur. And we know from the Appendices to LotR that during the time of the War of the Rings, forces from Dol Guldur and Lorien clashed, ultimately ending with Lorien's victory and Galadriel's coming to the Tower of Sorcery and casting it down. I suspect that, just as Jackson has collapsed time between the darkening of Greenwood the Great into Mirkwood*, so too he may merge the two assaults on Dol Guldur into one. I guess we shall see.

Christopher Lee's Saruman was the sort of thing you either like or you don't: if you liked his portrayal of the mad wizard in FELLOWSHIP and TWO TOWERS, then you'll be pleased to see him recap the role in THE HOBBIT; if not, perhaps not. I for one thought he was great in FELLOWSHIP, in fact going so far as to call it the role of a lifetime (I suspect it played a large role in his subsequent knighthood), so I'm glad to see him re-appear. The film was careful not to give any indication whether Saruman's corruption had begun or not by the time of Bilbo's adventures; perhaps this may take place (or we may learn more about it) in the subsequent films. Or perhaps we'll have the fun of seeing Gandalf and Saruman (and Galadriel, and Radagast) all fighting together against the Necromancer's powers of darkness at Dol Guldur, which wd play against expectation and be interesting for that reason.

Have to say it was odd, though, that Jackson decided to add an undercurrent of humor to Saruman's speeches. In one he talks while most of his words are muted out by a telepathic conversation between Galadriel and Gandalf; a little speech which ends with Saruman's querulous complaint that he sometimes feels like he's talking just to himself.  The other was a speech in which Saruman belittles Radagast for eating too many mushrooms, saying something along the lines of 'they've addled his wits and turned his teeth yellow. The first point sounds like his similar critique of Gandalf's smoking in their first scene together in FELLOWSHIP, but I wondered if the second was an in-joke referencing his recent role in the Tim Burton remake of WILLIE WONKA, in which he played the dentist-doctor of the title character. In any case, bit of an odd note.

Rounding out the White Council is another important returning character, Hugo Weaving's Elrond. Have to say I thought he was much better in this film than in the LotR series. Elrond is supposed to be warm and welcoming ("as kind as Christmas, as Tolkien put it"), not stiff and haughty as shown in the LotR films. Here Weaving seems to be much more relaxed and comfortable in the role, and the Rivendell scenes are much better for it. Without losing the sense that Elrond is a deadly warrior (well established in the opening scenes of FELLOWSHIP), they now add on loremaster, a much more appealing side. They also, by the by, provided a plausible explanation of how Rivendell can be "hidden" when it's located in a river valley and its general location is well-known: the path into Rivendell was an interesting explanation for a curious feature from the original stories.

I've already mentioned Holm's Bilbo, but shd add one odd thing that occurred when I saw the film the second time. The first time, I was excited to see Holm as the original Bilbo in the opening scene, and accepted the quick seque back in time to the younger Bilbo played by Freeman. But the second time I saw the film a few hours later, it jarred a little to see someone other than Freeman playing the role. Still, glad to see Holm again; it was gracious of him to appear and set the stage for the next Bilbo.

And then of course there's Frodo's brief appearance in those same scenes, which again helps set the context and tie these new films back to the previous Jackson Tolkien series.

Overall: great use of returning actors in continuing roles. When you've got a resource like this and talent like this to draw on, and you're wise enough to use it to the full, that's a good sign.

--John R.

Next Up: The More Things Change . . . 

*I only just noticed it last night, but on the facsimile of the Lonely Mountain map, they've changed the wording to match this change in chronology: instead of "West lies Mirkwood the Great / there are spiders" the film's map reads "West lies Greenwood the Great". They also made a few other changes, so that the page is labelled "Thorin's Map" (not "Thror's Map") and the writing immediately beneath the Mountain reads "Here of old was Thror / King under the Mountain" instead of the book's "Here of old was Thrain / King under the Mountain", thus cutting through the whole Thror/Thrain/Thorin vs Thrain/Thror/Thorin business that Tolkien finally resolved, after much confusion, with the invention of Thrain the First.


David Bratman said...

I was amused by the way that Gandalf, Saruman, Galadriel, etc. all appeared about ten years older in a story set 60+ years earlier. That was so weird.

John D. Rateliff said...

Really? I thought Kate Blanchett looked great, and didn't notice any aging there, or with Christopher Lee's Saruman or Weaving's Elrond. Or McKellan's Gandalf, for that matter. The only actor I thought looked different was Elijah Wood, whose Frodo I thought a bit chunkier about the middle than a decade ago -- but that cd easily be the result of a different character design to simulate hobbit rotundity. I assume make-up magic is responsible for duplicating their look from then to now.

Perhaps I just don't notice such things; in any case, it didn't bother me. And if I had noticed it, I'd have thought it less disruptive than recasting the parts w. other actors wd have been. Though of course in a perfect world the books wd have been filmed in chronological order, with THE HOBBIT first. Still, I'm happier to have THE HOBBIT second than not to have THE HOBBIT at all, and sorry that this real-world element was a distraction for you.

--John R.

David Bratman said...

It was more amusing than distracting, especially as of course I knew the reason for it, and it was unavoidable in the circumstances. Not in a class with actual problems, which is why I made free to mention it here.

As for Elijah Wood, I actually had somebody ask me if his scene with Ian Holm had been filmed at the time of the LOTR movies and simply held over. So not everybody noticed the aging.