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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

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

The Hob­bit

Martin Free­man car­ries the show as the young Bilbo Bag­gins in

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