Tale grows in the telling
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is just the top-earning title among a clutch of holiday cinema blockbusters coming this way, writes Stephen Fitzpatrick
The Hobbit: An Unexpected
Journey (M) National release on Boxing Day
Wreck-It Ralph (PG) National release on Boxing Day
PETER Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03), based on the three novels by JRR Tolkien, is a landmark in fantasy cinema; the films were creative and commercial milestones and, in proving this sort of epic didn’t have to be made in Hollywood, were profoundly influential. The films Jackson made subsequently, a remake of King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009), while not completely successful, kept alive the hope that his long-cherished project to film Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, would be another triumph. At one stage, Jackson was going to produce the film for visionary Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, but in the end he has handled the direction himself.
The decision that The Hobbit, too, would be made into three films, released across three years, cast some doubt on the project. After all, the 1937 book told its story in only 310 pages and while it made sense to film the three The Lord of the Rings books as separate films, it seems less wise to give the same treatment to the more modest prequel.
And, sure enough, the thing that strikes you about the first film of the trilogy is it seems over-inflated. The early scenes move at a snail’s pace, and throughout there are digressions and characters not found in the book. No doubt Jackson and his screenwriters (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and del Toro) can argue these additions add to the scope of the saga, but cynics may suggest the real reason is to make a great deal more money out of three films than could be made from two.
The film begins with elderly hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) writing his memoir for the benefit of Frodo (Elijah Wood). In his comfortable home with its view across the valley of Bag End, Bilbo is the epitome of the conservative old man with a tale to tell — and it’s quite a story. It starts 60 years earlier, with a depiction of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, located inside the Lonely Mountain, and a place of great wealth thanks to the gold and diamonds there, including the Arkenstone that is situated above the throne of King Thrain (Mike Mizrahi). Without warning this peaceful place is invaded by Smaug, a fierce, firebreathing dragon, and his army, and during the ensuing battle Thrain is beheaded; Thorin (Richard Armitage), his grandson, is one of the few survivors and is bitter the neighbouring elves watched the carnage from a distance but refused to come to the aid of the dwarfs.
The story really begins when young Bilbo (Martin Freeman) receives an unexpected visit from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who arranges for Thorin and a loyal band of dwarfs to arrive unannounced at Bilbo’s house. Here they plot a return to Erebor and attempt to persuade a reluctant Bilbo to join them as a ‘‘ burglar’’. The ensuing adventures involve rampaging orcs, evil trolls, who capture and almost consume the dwarfs, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), a forest wizard who is concerned something is causing deadly damage to the flora and fauna of the woodland, and, most impressive of all, an army of goblins, led by the gross Goblin King (voiced with good humour by Barry Humphries). The battle with the goblins, on a mountain causeway, is a spectacular sequence. There are also scenes in which characters from The Lord of the Rings, played by the original actors, return. When Gandalf and the dwarfs visit the elf city of Rivendell there are meaningful encounters with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (an imposing Christopher Lee), while, in the mountains, Bilbo swaps riddles with the volatile Gollum (Andy Serkis), from whom he acquires the magical ring that makes him invisible. All these actors, including Freeman — who carries the film — appear to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Australian Andrew Lesnie is back as cinematographer, this time working in 3-D. As a further experiment, Jackson and Lesnie shot the film at 48 frames a second, twice the speed that is the norm in cinema. This supposedly gives a great clarity, and certainly the film looks magnificent; there have also been those who complained of motion sickness but, as a viewer frequently brought to the brink of nausea by the inept use of hand-held cameras, I had no problem with The Hobbit at all.
Instead, the problem lies in the concept; a relatively small, intimate story has been blown up out of all proportion and, while much of the film is vastly enjoyable, there are scenes in which the action drags. Let’s hope the second and third entries in this trilogy show fewer signs of inflation. PIXAR’S Toy Story trilogy is a landmark in animation; the notion that children’s toys have lives of their own was hardly new, but John Lasseter and his team brought the idea to life with insight and charm. Wreck-It Ralph continues the idea, but with video games rather than toys, and though it’s not a Pixar production, Lasseter was executive producer for Walt Disney Animation Studios. The end result may not quite be up to the standard of the Toy Story films, but it’s pretty good.
The conceit of the film is that Wreck-It Ralph, voiced by John C. Reilly, the villain of the game ‘‘ Fix-It Felix’’, is fed up with being the bad guy. We first meet him at a gathering of Bad Anon, where other vid-game villains congregate to bemoan their lot. Ralph is sick of being beaten by Felix (Jack McBrayer) all the time and of being relegated to the garbage tip while the ‘‘ positive’’ characters in the game live in well-appointed apartments. Inspired by the idea that if he can win a medal he can be a good guy, Ralph leaves his game and ventures into ‘‘ Sugar Rush Speedway’’, a sickly sweet world of brightly coloured candy. Here he meets a ‘‘ glitch’’, a malfunctioning character who rejoices in the name of Vanellope von Schweetz and who is voiced by the talented Sarah Silverman. Also outside the comfort zone of her own game, ‘‘ Hero’s Duty’’, is the aggressive Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) who leads her men against Cy-Bugs.
This inventive and entertaining adventure is directed by Rich Moore, a veteran of The Simpsons, and he keeps the action and comedy bubbling along; 3-D is a bonus.
IF you haven’t yet noticed the fuss over the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, it can be only because, like its cheery protagonist, you live ‘‘ in a hole in the ground . . . a hobbit hole, and that means comfort’’. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure smashed box-office records at its holiday season general opening last weekend, earning $US84.4 million ($80m) in North American theatres. The previous December weekend record was Will Smith’s I Am Legend ($US77.2m in 2007); James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar took slightly less than that, at $US77m, the weekend it opened in December 2009. Whether The Hobbit can knock Avatar off its total boxoffice record perch of almost $US3 billion remains to be seen.
Worldwide, The Hobbit has already taken upward of $US223m and with JRR Tolkien’s tale of elves and orcs and dwarfs and dragons and goblins — and, yes, a plucky little hobbit — opening in cinemas here on Boxing Day, the Australian contribution to the Kiwi director’s personal fortune is expected to be sizeable.
Perhaps surprisingly, the almost 300-minute saga missed out entirely on nominations for the prestigious Golden Globes awards a little more than a week ago, with winners in that annual contest set to be announced on January 13. However, the film still can expect to pick up some of the statuary on offer in a range of technical categories at the Oscars, whose contenders will be announced on January 10 and the winners awarded on February 24. (And although the issue has divided opinion, Jack- son’s decision to shoot in the hyperreal 48 frames a second, rather than the 24 frameindustry standard, has created a game-changing moment in film. His now sometimes fellow Kiwi resident, Avatar and Titanic director Cameron, admits he has been watching Jackson’s pioneering work in the technology for tips on how to apply it to his own movie-making.)
That The Hobbit was overlooked for Golden Globes contention is testament only to the strong crop of offerings this awards season, which means a particularly enticing selection of films hitting Australian screens during the summer season. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Kathryn Bigalow’s Zero Dark Thirty, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, Ben Affleck’s Argo, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Ben Lewin’s The Sessions are among the best of them; most are likely to do well out of both the Golden Globes and the Academy awards. A couple may pose challenges for family viewing ( Zero Dark Thirty for its violent treatment of the hunt for Osama bin Laden; The Sessions for its frank and honest approach to sexuality), but all are important films.
First, however, to Jackson’s assured treatment of Tolkien’s minor masterpiece, a relatively slim volume containing one of the simplest and yet most recognisable openings in English literature: ‘‘ In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’’ The University of Oxford English professor was writing a tale for his children which, on its publication in 1937, succeeded so spectacularly that he immediately began work on what was to become a sequel and which emerged, almost two decades later, as the threevolume The Lord of the Rings.
Self-confessed film nerd Jackson made his name turning that series into one of the great film projects of all time, the epic trilogy of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. These three works closely mirrored the much darker tone Tolkien had developed for the complex world he had constructed in the years since writing The Hobbit; the story of The Lord of the Rings is no less than the end of the world, and the author’s experience as a young officer at the World War I battle of the Somme had a profound influence on how that vision was expressed. Many of his closest student friends from Oxford were killed at the Somme. Tolkien later wrote that his key character, Sam Gamgee, was ‘‘ indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself’’.
For the film of The Hobbit, however, Jackson’s challenge was somehow to recapture the lightness of tone of the earlier book while allowing it still to be a credible prequel to the violence and nihilism of the Rings cycle, which is set 60 years later. At its world premiere last month in his home town of Wellington, Jackson described how casting actors who could play dramatic roles with a comedic touch was crucial. Shoe-horning the in-demand British comic Martin Freeman — Tim in The Office, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — into the central character of Bilbo Baggins was the only way the film could have worked, he said.
‘‘ The comedy in The Hobbit was a joy; it was one of the things that made it appealing,’’ he explained, describing the difference in its mood from the ‘‘ apocalyptic feel’’ of the later books. ‘‘ The Hobbit, due to the fact that it’s written nearly 20 years earlier, and the fact that Tolkien wrote the book for his children, really — the book is structured like a series of chapters that are the perfect length to read to your kids at night, before you turn out the light, and the next chapter the following day — the lightness of that tone, and the comedy . . . obviously influenced the casting.
‘‘ We’ve got a terrific group of actors that are very, very skilled at comedy — everyone’s playing drama, but not all dramatic actors are good at comedy, and so we needed people skilled at both.’’
In the end, his creation is much more
Martin Freeman carries the show as the young Bilbo Baggins in