Friday, 28 December 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey/Life Of Pi

Si's Sights And Sounds measures up two "great adventures" against one another

Come on Bilbo, we're getting bored...
It used to be that grand, epic adventures, with their brave new worlds and iconic characters, really were everything in cinema. The joy and charm of these films lay in their deceptive simplicity, how their extremely effective technique truly made the big screen big. Think Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders Of The Lost Ark - literally dubbed "The Return Of The Great Adventure" on release - or the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Films like these can be a nice alternative to Batman-and-Bond-esque "serious spectacle", but neither The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (hereafter The Hobbit I) nor Life Of Pi are the answer. Unnecessary 3-D? Check. Overly long? Check. Pretentious? Check. Seen-it-all-before feel? Check...

The only thing unexpected about The Hobbit I is just how much of a self-satisfied bore it is. As if stretching a three-hundred page book out to three films and over nine hours wasn't a barmy enough idea, Peter Jackson has taken everything we disliked about his career-defining saga and amplified it to unwelcome proportions. The story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his "thrilling" quest to help some dwarves retrieve gold stolen from them by a dragon is told in a shockingly laborious, pointless and empty manner. It's a desperate work by a desperate man trying to relight his directorial fire after his not-so-Lovely Bones misfired with the critics three years ago. Excepting Andy Serkis, who is as lively as ever as the schizophrenic Gollum, the entire cast is off their game. Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving look tired, Richard Armitage is no Viggo Mortensen, James Nesbitt feels out-of-place, and Martin Freeman never looks like he is playing a major fantasy character. It's rather sad to contrast Freeman's Bilbo with the wide-eyed vulnerability and soulfulness of Elijah Wood's Frodo and realise how far the Lord Of The Rings saga has fallen.

With its 48 frames-per-second 3-D, The Hobbit I looks like a video game where the viewer wishes he or she could have control of the participants, but doesn't. Some scenes, especially those featuring Gollum, are quite entertaining, but have been done better before. And there's no sense of progression, no feel that the journey will amount to anything – just one repetitive battle scene and fake looking creature (or vista) after another. The very bad slapstick humour (it feels offensive to watch McKellen and Nesbitt laugh and belch at Bilbo’s table near the beginning and realise that they are getting paid a lot for simply going through the motions), pompous dialogue and deus ex machina eagles (naturally) exacerbate things.

Anyone who argues that the original Lord Of The Rings trilogy was any better only because we were "younger" and "more naive" is missing the point. Peter Jackson's transition from cult filmmaker to Oscar-winning director has drained all the heart, energy and ingenuity out of his work, the same things that made his previous journey to Middle Earth, like Star Wars, a true bonding experience. To this day, I will never forget the joy of watching The Two Towers in a packed field at the Oxegen music festival; the same joy that The Hobbit I has tried so desperately, but failed, to reproduce. It's as obvious a cash grab as anything in cinemas these days. Why bother with this bloated pantomime when you can hear Leonard Nimoy tell the whole story in less than three minutes?

What now, Richard?
Less of an unexpected journey and more of an expected one can be found in Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's Life Of Pi, a simple story of a boy, a boat and his tiger lost at sea following a storm. Piscine, or Pi (his preferred nickname, since his actual name sounds like another word for urinating when spoken) is the prototypical Spielbergian dreamer or idealist, someone who can't fully grasp responsibility until his eyes are open to the outside world. His titular life, told in flashbacks, is a conventional voyage of both survival and self-discovery, and quite an entertaining one at that. It's a shame, then, that the two-hour running length, religious references and detailed imagery – which does not need 3-D to be beautiful – lead us to believe that there will be much more to the film than this. Because there really isn't. For all Lee's skill with sight and sound, the film fails to be truly fulfilling. I personally expected something heavier than an enjoyable riff on Cast Away In A Boat with a tiger standing in for Wilson.

Still, Life Of Pi retains a certain appeal. Most, if not all, viewers will relate to Pi getting bullied at school and finding (then losing) his first true love. One also feels for him when his father smirks after a calculated exercise in showing Pi that tigers aren't quite as nice as he thought they were, and when he is later forced to form an understanding with a tiger – who he nicknames "Richard Parker" – at sea. The "bond" between Pi and Richard is an effective centrepiece for the film, a human alternative to all the images Lee flings in our face; some of which carry more weight than others. Ultimately, though, it's too much of a visual showcase and not enough of a visual story. Too much style, and not enough substance.