The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 December (5.45 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the cinema was a somewhat disorientating experience. As someone who loved the Lord of the Rings films, I was only going to buy the best tickets for this one and so we took it in at the IMAX, with 3D and the film’s much vaunted ‘High Frame Rate’ on exhibition. The latter element, projecting the film at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24, produced the strange effect of the camera and characters appearing to move around at high, unnatural speeds. The aim was to make it more immersive, to show a more realistic image, and in fairness once my eyes adjusted to it I was able to forget it was there, but it made no difference in terms of anything positive. It was just queer. Cinemas were already offering audiences the choice in terms of FPS, and when I went to see the series’ subsequent entries I ignored HFR entirely. I think many people turned away from it also, despite the studio’s pig-headed determination to make it available.

Years later, with all this long in the past and the film judgeable on its own merits, how does it hold up? Without wanting to go into too much detail about it, I was seduced entirely by the LOTR films. If I remember rightly I caught each one twice in cinemas and followed with numerous further viewings on DVD, throwing in several reads of the book in order to get my fix. I was someone to whom the Hobbit movies was aimed directly, fans of Middle Earth who would want more, no matter the quality. By all accounts, the project was in pre-development hell for some time. Kingpin behind the Rings films, Peter Jackson, always had some connection with it but was mired in legal battles and for much of the time appeared to be taking on an Executive Producer’s role, with Guillermo Del Toro attached as both the writer and director. But then Del Toro quit, citing endless delays, and Jackson was on board again with his familiar production team. This made sense as the Hobbit films would take on a more continuous look and feel with the Rings entries, however though everything was in place for ‘more of the same’ there was a major question over the level of investment Jackson was willing to make. It’s well known, partly via the exhaustive appendices that come with the extended LOTR DVDs, that Jackson was as involved as he could be, that he led by example in terms of immersing himself entirely into the production. The result was a set of films that have ‘labour of love’ written right through them. Yes, they were big hitters at the box office, but the frankly insane levels of detail (down to real swords being forged for the actors, in an effort to make their performance feel that bit more ‘real’) emphasise productions that came with genuine seals of quality. Like the films or not, there’s little arguing with the sheer talent in overdrive that was behind them.

Controversies running behind the scenes suggested a tug of war between Jackson and studio interests. The main one was the decision to transform a project designed to cover two movies into three, thus stretching the contents of a children’s novel that runs for 368 pages (a shorter length than any of the three Lord of the Rings books). The logic was that this would give the production capacity to create a true set of prequels, adding plot elements that bridged the gap between both stories. And that’s there in the films, although it can equally be argued that things have been shoehorned in, such as the entire storyline that involves Thorin’s long-running feud with Azog the Defiler. Would the film be any poorer if it excised this altogether?

Of course, the main thrust is to return us to Middle Earth, beginning with an extended opening scene that spirits Martin Freeman’s Bilbo from his comfortable Hobbit Hole in Bag End and on the road to adventure. Freeman is a massive highlight in the film. According to Jackson, he was the only actor to ever be considered to the extent that the production didn’t start until he was available to commit to it. Freeman’s usual acting tropes – nervous, tending to peevishness, underlying resolve – all come to the fore here as he fully inhabits the little halfling whose creature comforts are invaded by the boorish dwarves. A lot of thought has gone into the majority of these characters also, from James Nesbitt as comic relief, Graham McTavish’s gruff warrior, to Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as the laddish younger dwarves and Ken Stott’s worldly wise Balin. They’re led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), instantly noble and highly capable, though also with a sense an air of impatience and prejudice, especially against the elves, who failed to come to his aid when his mountain home was taken over by Smaug. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, bringing all the characteristics we loved him for in the Rings films, indeed playing like a repeat performance, mixing action moments with pep talks to Bilbo along the way that are only reminiscent to words he’s had previously/later with Frodo.

It takes quite some time to move the action away from the Shire, and that’s fine to an extent because it introduces us to the major players, establishing the dwarves as capable of cheeky fun and enjoying a song. It also lacks any of the urgency of the Rings plotline, which had to condense weighty tomes into movies that were already longer than three hours and necessitating extended editions on home formats. Here, there’s a creeping sense of bloat, of stretching Tolkein’s slim text as far as it can go, and this stays throughout the films, as little episodes are expanded into major sequences as though everyone is trying to fill in as much time as possible.

And then there’s the issue of CGI. One of the real highlights of the Rings films was the perfect mixture of digital effects and location shooting, opting to film in parts of New Zealand that had been scouted exhaustively for their suitability. Here, there’s a larger degree of green screen, never more so than during the mountain scenes. The fight and flight the dwarves undergo whilst in the halls of the Goblin King are intended to be breathtaking, but as the stunts and action grows into impossible feats done at breakneck speed, it starts taking on the shape of a platform videogame. It’s a lot of fun, but it lacks any of the heft you got in, say, the battle against the Uruk-Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, which focused on the effort and toll of all the fighting. Whilst you can argue that it’s supposed to be a more family friendly adventure, there’s no real need to ramp up the action in the way it does, transforming dilemmas that fall within the credibility of the drama into comic book set pieces.

It again raises the question over who was pulling the strings. Jackson’s been guilty enough of overplaying his hand (King Kong, The Lovely Bones) beforehand and so it’s quite possible that he’s culpable for slapping CGI onto the screen rather than following the ‘less is more’ rule that made Rings such hits, but there’s a curious lack of care about the film that hints there was more at play. Often, too obviously often, those previous films are referenced, whether through Howard Shore’s musical cues or a gratuitous reappearance from Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel for no better excuse than because they could (she wasn’t the last of the Rings characters who wasn’t actually in the Hobbit novel to turn up in the films). Whether it’s because of a misplaced desire to please the fans or a basic lack of imagination isn’t entirely clear, but these moments look and feel like a tribute track, like there wasn’t sufficient trust in the story to play as its own entity. Either way, the bits taken directly from the book are about the best on screen. Gollum’s scene, a very famous chapter in the novel, is brilliantly done. He’s a great character and watching him here reminds us of that, but also his interplay with Bilbo – most of which is through simple dialogue and a sense of threat – works really well.

I wanted to like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey more than I did. Around the time of its release I was amongst its defenders, because like many others I’m happy enough to watch further Middle Earth adventures. I even bought the extended cut on DVD and saw that version again for this write-up, though I’d have to point out that whereas the added material in the Rings films actually enhanced the material and inserted missing story elements, here it does nothing more than flesh out the characters, and that unnecessarily. It’s nothing like a bad film, but the one thing I can go on more than any other is the fact I watched those LOTR flicks many times and I’ve barely bothered with this one. The quality just isn’t the same. Whilst I’m aware that sequels are nothing new within the movie industry, the craze for reboots, updates and (bizarrely) prequels is becoming more and more prevalent. Some of this year’s biggest box office hits were titles that either returned us to well trodden places (Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), gave us more of the same (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7) or rehashed familiar tales (Pan, Mad Max: Fury Road). I’m not trying to say all these films are terrible; that just isn’t true. But the lack of imagination is staggering, the attempts by certain titles, like Tomorrowland, to do something original have no hope due to the recycling and endless spin of marketing. I find myself believing that this film is as guilty of that as anything, a rather naked attempt to get our bums squarely back into cinema seats because, oh look, it’s another Middle Earth flick. And it isn’t the same. The heart that went into Lord of the Rings is absent and the result, several years down the line, is a product about which I care little.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: ***

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

When it’s on: Thursday, 1 January (4.25 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

As a child I was always more into Asterix than Tintin, the little bequiffed Belgian journalist as conceived by Hergé in 1929. The adventures of the Roman-smiting Gaul just wormed its way into my affections easier, perhaps I think in hindsight because of the creative names of his tribesmen – you’d trust a herbalist called Getafix, wouldn’t you? That said, all I wanted to do back then was draw my own cartoon strips, and the Tintin books were the ideal inspiration, with their clean lines, bright colours and panels that individually seemed to contain so many things happening at once. The dream ended as my painstaking efforts to produce some new comic book hero made me realise I could appreciate the form but not produce anything close to it, but my pleasure for the stories has lingered, and my wife is a massive Tintin fan. Several years ago, we sat through much of the animated series, enjoying the affection for the source material whilst missing Tintin in his natural book form. Conveying the character’s relentless sense of movement was difficult to do, but Hergé captured it magnificently.

French reviews of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 compared Indiana Jones’s fast moving antics to those of Tintin, and it was through reading these that Spielberg first came across Hergé’s books and acquired the adaptation rights in short order. Then he sat on the project for twenty years, convinced it was nigh on impossible to do the character and books any justice via a live action movie. The particular problem was Snowy, Tintin’s dog, virtually impossible to replicate with a trained animal but accessible more and more thanks to advances in animation. Ultimately, he went to Weta Workshop in New Zealand, famous for its work on the Lord of the Rings films, and from there to the series’ director and creative force, Peter Jackson. After showing Spielberg what was possible by sending him a film of Jackson dressed up as Captain Haddock, performing alongside a fully animated Snowy, the pair decided to collaborate and develop Tintin using motion capture technology. The planned movie was conceived as a number of features, with Spielberg and Jackson alternating directorial roles, and the first of these became The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

As a director of many years and hits at the box office, with critical acclaim to match, helming an animated film must have been something of an unusual ‘first’ for Spielberg. Fortunately, it mainly works. Not content to simply make a cartoon, Tintin features many scenes where the animated form creates images that would otherwise be almost impossible, such as Haddock’s memories of his past-life as Sir Francis transforming the Saharan sandscape into the rolling ocean, his ship the Unicorn bobbing up and down the dunes/waves. It also serves the action sequences very well, injecting an urgency to moments that might have been limited by the restrictions of what would be possible in a live action film. The rendering is smooth and realistic; the characters all look great, those ‘dead eyed’ cartoon people from the earlier likes of The Polar Express now brought vividly to life whilst retaining enough artistic commonality with their Hergé originals to become every inch the books exploding into life.

Added to that, it’s a lot of fun. From the moment Tintin happens to purchase a model boat, the plot shifts happily from one fast-paced caper to the next, very rarely letting up and allowing itself to be dictated by the action rather than lengthy exposition from characters in conversation. It seems clear Tintin was made as a labour of love. Jackson was a fan from childhood, Spielberg from the moment his interest was piqued by those Indiana Jones reviews, and the results are a love letter to Hergé, the spirit of the books retained. I had no idea that Daniel Craig was playing Sakharine/Red Rackham until the credits mentioned it, so buried is he within the performance, but Jamie Bell makes for a fine Tintin, whilst frequent Jackson collaborator Andy Serkis is in excellent form as a perpetually sozzled Haddock. The Thompson Twins are the comic relief, supplied by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. The film’s writers, Edgar Wright, Steven Moffat and Joe Cornish, ensure a heavyweight combination of talent loaded into the screenplay.

And yet, and yet in the end, it’s the animation that emerges as the film’s main weakness. One of the great charms of Raiders of the Lost Ark was that it all took place within a working world, a fully realised 1930s backdrop of Nazi villains and Indiana Jones suffering for his cause. That sweat on Harrison Ford’s face as he faced off with a king cobra – that was real sweat. The blood he let as a consequence of being pummelled during the fight to wrest the Ark from the Germans looked well earned. The grains of the desert dusted over everything – all real. In cinematic terms, if Tintin resembles anything then it’s those old Jones adventures, a combination of great acting, writing, direction and stuntcraft, with special effects dialled down and everything grounded in grimy authenticity. As much fun as it is, Tintin never quite captures this because it’s a cartoon. What you’re watching has been produced by a computer, actors doing everything they can to make it come to life but ultimately playing in front of green screens with the detail filled in by skilled engineers later.

There’s no escaping that reality, or lack thereof, and the result is a joyful confection from men who have obvious affection for the stories and give their all to it, but a confection all the same.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn: ***