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Thomas Monteath critiques An Unexpected Journey

December 27, 2012 at 6:09 am by thomasmonteath  - 

Pages: 1 2 3

A problematic structure…

All that being said, Jackson doesn’t do himself many favours, due to a number of problems with the story structure, particularly the invented or ‘appendices’ material, and special effects.

First, with regard to the story structure, there is evidence throughout of poor judgement and lazy writing. The most obvious is the Radagast sub-plot, which feels last minute, half-hearted, and ill-conceived, being underdeveloped, somewhat incongruous and ultimately redundant. Those who know their Tolkien geography will scratch their heads at how Radagast evidently travelled from Mirkwood to the Trollshaws in seemingly no time. Even those unfamiliar with Tolkien will raise their eyebrows at how he simply chanced across Gandalf and the Company as he does. Furthermore, given this interaction was wholly invented by the filmmakers, it seems like a distinctly tortuous way of getting the Morgul-blade from Dol Guldur into Gandalf’s hands, and an unnecessary one, as there were clearly two alternatives that didn’t involve Radagast.

One is immediately obvious. Given that Tolkien writes that Gandalf received the map and the key to Erebor from Thrain, Thorin’s father, in the pits of Dol Guldur, the filmmakers could well have shown this scene in flashback at Bag End — and then at the White Council in Rivendell, shown an extension of that flashback that Gandalf hadn’t revealed to the Dwarves, explaining how, during the same trip to Dol Guldur, Gandalf discovered the Morgul-blade, or at least a hint of a resident evil.

The other alternative is one I’d noted in previous features here on — one that would have seen the Company detour through the Barrow-downs on the journey from Hobbiton to the Trollshaws, and then discover the Morgul-blade there.

Combined with having perhaps noted some evil presence at Dol Guldur, this would constitute sufficient evidence to call the White Council to Rivendell. It would have avoided the geographically implausible and dead-weight of the Radagast sub-plot. It would also avoid the inconsistency with the original trilogy that the Radagast sub-plot required: to get the Morgul-blade, Radagast is attacked by a Ringwraith, who is inexplicably visible to him. In The Lord of the Rings, Ringwraiths are only visible to the ring-bearer. The entire Radagast sub-plot was stunningly poorly conceived, especially given the obvious, more plausible, and more dramatic alternatives.

There were other poorly-judged bits of the story. Azog was a rather bland stock villain, and his final ‘showdown’ with Thorin was anti-climactic, as they did not in fact have a show-down. Thorin was savaged by Azog’s warg, and then another orc attempted to behead him. What would have worked better would have been for Thorin to have killed the White Warg, leading Azog to dismount, and fight Thorin hand to hand. Azog could then have cast Thorin from the rock outcrop, as the Dwarves watched helplessly from beyond the fire. But Thorin could then have been caught by an Eagle as he fell, thereby allowing him to escape Azog. In short, this ‘climax’ was poorly choreographed, and Azog, in failing to dismount and attack Thorin, came across as divorced from the action, and thus less fearsome.

The Stone Giants sequence was quite overblown, and lacking in the Whimsy of the book, where they are viewed at a distance; the changes in the Great Goblin’s death were unnecessary. Furthermore, some of the dialogue was also poorly conceived: Ori’s ‘jacksy’ comment was odd rather than funny. It would have been funnier if he had instead got as far as ‘we’ll stick ‘im right up his…’ only to be cut off by Dori. The burping scene, again involving Ori, was also unnecessary, particularly given the Dwarves were mostly 150 year olds, not teenagers. The Great Goblin’s one liner was far too close to jumping the shark.

Great and not-so-great FX

Second, while the special effects were on the whole a wonder to behold, and among them some of the most convincing ever put on film, there were moments where some of the effects looked distinctly unfinished.

The rendering of CGI fur remains a real weak point, although it is certainly the case that it looked much better in 48fps than 24fps. But in light of this, it was an odd decision to introduce CGI rabbits and hedgehogs, not to mention expanding the role of the wargs, which looked little better rendered than those in The Two Towers.

In keeping with Radagast being the weakest link in the film — perhaps the weakest in all four movies so far — the CGI scenes of his sled being pursued by wargs on the open moorland were so badly-done one wonders if they were ‘pre-vis’ animation. The sled was weightless when cornering, appearing to be moving without reference to the terrain, and as if it were in fast-forward. Laughable. Awful.

There were some effects that were clearly missing. In 48fps, one could clearly make out that, when they are surrounded by horses in Rivendell, the Dwarves were the scale doubles. It’s surprising no face-replacement CGI was done here. But the worst omission was worthy of Michael Bay. On Gandalf’s appearance in Goblin Town, the Great Goblin cries out something like ‘He has the Goblin-Cleaver, as bright as day!’ Yet when the camera cuts to Gandalf, his sword is not glowing. Similarly, when the Company are attacked by the Wargs and Orcs in the pine forest at the film’s climax, Bilbo’s sword is also not glowing. This is a clear oversight, and perhaps speaks of how rushed the film’s final edit was. I don’t remember Thorin’s elvish sword glowing at any point in the film, either.

Some other minor effects gripes: the Necromancer was poorly designed, with a face like a black version of the Scary Movie mask. Indeed his appearance was arguably unnecessary (again, this was part of the Radagast sub-plot), and at any rate, giving him a visualisation takes away much of the suspense and mystery. Finally, in 48fps, the rain in some scenes looked decidedly fake, as it was clearly not falling on the Company’s faces, particularly when they were travelling through the forest prior to the Trollshaws.

The large set-piece action scenes occasionally felt derivative and rather lazily conceived, particularly at 24 fps. Jackson, and Weta-digital, could do with reining in their tendency to indulge in what I like to term ‘ham-CGI’ — computer-generated scenes involving overblown scale to the point where all emotional resonance is lost. Such scenes often involve unrealistic physics, and coincide with showing things that would probably be better left as mere suggestion. Such overblown scenes of course exist in the original Rings trilogy: think of The Watcher in the Water being given a body and face, rather than being simply tentacles, as in the book; the orcs down-climbing the columns in Moria without any handholds; or the ‘washing-up liquid’ army of the dead surging up the tiers of Minas Tirith. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, such scenes include the entire sequence with the Stone Giants, the long ‘theme park’-style slide into Goblin Town from the cave, and the collapse of the platform following the death of the Great Goblin. Such scenes add nothing to the films, and are actually quite alienating. Just as Hollywood has embraced ‘realistic’ acting in the last few decades, following the hammy over-acting of the pre-Brando era, CGI is still awaiting its revolution from overstatement to understatement. The Hobbit shows it is possible, with Gollum, but Jackson still has one foot firmly in ham-CGI, where pigs still fly.

Posted in Characters, Hobbit Book, Hobbit Movie, Peter Jackson, The Hobbit on December 27, 2012 by