Breaking the Hobbit

We were all so stoked to love this one too, weren’t we? And I went with three people who had never read the books or seen any of the movies. Two of them didn’t even speak English.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) is a bad movie, but The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a tough act to follow. There are a few improvements over Peter Jackson’s earlier Tolkien efforts, but there’s quite a bit that seems to be huge steps backward and I’d venture to say that most of what is wrong with The Hobbit is that it is one book as three movies—and three post-Frighteners Peter Jackson length movies at that.

hobbit and gandalf

Let’s take it easy. There are a few things that work really well for The Hobbit so far. One is its levity. Some might see it as a detriment, but that it’s tonally a much lighter tale makes much of the action feel a little fresher. Unfortunately too much buoyancy can make the movie feel somewhat flippant compared to the previous films. The fact of the matter is Tolkien’s first foray into Middle-Earth was written to be a children’s story, but movie audiences are getting a reverse ordered experience…and it doesn’t exactly work that way.

The Lord of the Rings seemed to be structured as a serious story with serious stakes and a few humorous touches and some whimsical comic relief characters—but who could still suffer through terrifying ordeals. There’s a lot of seriousness and foreboding. The Hobbit is much more lighthearted with maybe one sort-of heavy character, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). There’s a dumb vendetta an albino Captain Hook orc has against Thorin, but it never comes off as anything more than a tag-on. You can tell Thorin is supposed to be our Aragorn character, but it feels forced. Even Gandalf is a lot more light this time around (which I actually like a bit better than the overly serious Gandalf the White). I like an imperfect mischievous Gandalf.

What’s Better:

Anyway, let’s just be simple about this thing. What do I think is better about The Hobbit? Well, Gandalf’s a lot more fun but I’d say it’s a tie because his function is a little different in this series than in Lord of the Rings. Yeah, Ian McKellan still rocks, but maybe not harder.

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The effects to bring Gollum to life look better for sure and he is treated just as he should be in this film: he is not an all important cog in the wheel of destiny yet. He is a chance meeting. That is what makes him so interesting. We don’t know much about him when he is first introduced. The Gollum scene is such a treat for fans of the book and fans of special effects that it might be worth seeing the whole movie just for that. Once again Andy Serkis’s performance is solid through and through.

When it comes to Bilbo (Martin Freeman) you do have to take humor into account. Bilbo is a much more relateable character than Frodo was, I think. I like Elijah Wood but he was a little hard to relate to as Frodo. He was so dour, starry eyed, and spacey that a quirky, stammering unlikely hero such as Freeman’s Bilbo is a very welcome change of pace. He feels more like how hobbits are supposed to be. Hobbit’s are supposed be simple isolationist folks who like the familiar.

I think that about covers the improvements. Bilbo’s levity, Gollum’s deranged game of riddles, and Gandalf ties with himself. That means everything else falls short of The Lord of the Rings.

What’s worse:

Character dynamics are lacking.

hobbit 1

The dwarfs are okay, but they are essentially a small army of Merry and Pippins. Thorin is too heavy and stands out to almost comic effect. He’s like Oliver Reed sweatily bellowing lines at Muppets. The rest of the dwarfs are hard to keep straight. There’s so many and all their names rhyme and many are not given more than a syllable to utter onscreen that it’s hard to see them as anything but a band of bearded buffoons. Balin (Ken Stott) stands alone as the most interesting of the dwarfs. He’s old and has seen it all, but he wears his experiences gracefully. He reminded me a little of Takashi Shimura’s character in Seven Samurai.

Then there’s the lean, beardless ‘hot’ dwarf for the ladies. It comes off as a little goofy when the rest of his company is so silly, warped, and grotesque looking.

I miss John Rhys-Davies as Gimli.

The other minor characters aren’t bad, but I feel like we need either more or less of them. Radagast the Brown is a perfect example. Played by ex-Dr. Who, Sylvester McCoy, he’s a lovable, quirky fellow but he comes out of nowhere and just sort of disappears. He’s almost too quirky. I understand he will probably return in the other two movies, but something still feels underdone. Either explain more or give me less and let my imagination fill in the blanks.

radagast

Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, Frodo, and maybe a few others are tossed into the shuffle but the energy is not the same. It feels like fan service more than story, even if they did appear in the book.

The special effects are incredible, but there’s so much of them that many of the battles feel like cartoons, which sucks out a lot of the suspense and the sense of danger you need for this sort of thing.

The conflicts are more isolated and the action is episodic. Halfway through the film it just struck me that we will just be watching these characters run away from different monsters, take a false breath, and then run again. Run-away-from-the-special-effects scenes can work if they develop character, feed the plot, or are not the whole movie. It just gets tedious after awhile and the bottomless bag of Deus ex machinas becomes ridiculous, again sucking suspense out of the excitement.

I did not see the movie in 48 fps and I hesitate to attempt it. I haven’t heard a single positive report about it yet. If it’s anything like the display TVs at Best Buy where everything looks feathery and the motion blur is gone then I’d rather not. It just looks unnatural and distractingly unreal. They say it’s more real, but it just looks weird and fake to me.

The biggest problem with The Hobbit is the three movie stretch. This story does not have the same high stakes or the same rich emotional core or the same balance of drama and comedy that The Lord of the Rings had. I think this stuff wouldn’t bother me if this movie had been made first instead. In addition, Lord of the Rings is a solidly dense set of three books, while The Hobbit is just one. Each Rings film can end on a cliffhanger and still feel satisfying and complete its own story arc. As a film told in three parts, The Hobbit feels like 1/3 of a single story arc and thus is not so satisfying as it is frustrating.

As with Jackson’s King Kong remake he has once again managed to take a simple, efficient story and stretch it and bloat it to unnaturally long durations. But I wonder whether all the added time has brought us any closer to these characters.

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Ultimately:

What is the verdict? The Hobbit ain’t perfect, but it’s not bad. Lord of the Rings ain’t perfect neither, but it was a whole lot closer. I was honestly entertained the whole time. I admired the spectacles. You’d have to have an army of mad geniuses to pull off half the razzle-dazzle tricks this movie goes for. The trouble is sometimes mad geniuses are misguided. Because it’s broken up the way it is it just strikes me as incomplete…because it us. Shoulda been one movie. Maybe two. There just isn’t enough material here for three.

All that being said, I liked the monsters and seeing all the cool scenery. And Bilbo is good too. It’s still Middle-Earth, but it most certainly is not the same bold and rich story we might have hoped for. It’s entertaining (if a bit repetitive), just not as substantive.

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Size Matters Not…in the Philippines

Full disclosure: I have a mild obsession with this subject. See my article, “The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow.”

13Several great films have employed little people to play crucial roles. Unfortunately, little people have been largely reduced to playing mythical dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, Oompa Loompas, ewoks, jawas, and various other creatures. It’s not everyday they get to be Time Bandits (1981), take over a mental institution like in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), or act out a whole western a la The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). It is rare that a little actor gets to achieve singular notoriety like Verne Troyer (Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island, The Forbidden Zone), or Warwick Davis (Willow, Leprechaun, Harry Potter, Life’s Too Short), and even more elusive are the serious, juicy roles like Peter Dinklage gets (The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, Game of Thrones).

And how often do little actors get to use kung-fu, slide across the floor, umbrella-parachute out windows, or jet-pack to the rescue? The answer: not often enough.

Hi. Have we met?

Hi. Have we met?

Filipino actor, Weng Weng, got that rare opportunity to star in his own James Bond-style action movie. At 2′ 9″ Weng Weng enjoyed not only playing the shortest super-fly secret agent to ever don a leisure-suit, but he also got to be chased by several women and do a lot of pretty great stunts in the oddball cult classic For Y’ur Height Only (1980). Although most of his films are still unavailable in the United States, this particular little golden nugget can be found on DVD.

OK, so it’s still a bit of a circus role with most of the more interesting plot elements revolving around the fact that the main action star is less than 3 feet tall, but you still gotta respect the little guy.

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Everyone looks so uncomfortable. The transition from the 70s to the 80s was awkward for everyone.

The story for this B-grade critter is incredibly thin. Bad guys—who (at least in the English dubbed version) readily acknowledge their negative roles and openly declare that they are opposed to all that is good—are hiding bags of drugs in loaves of bread. The good guys (really just a guy in an office, but I guess it’s implied he works for some benevolent government agency) send not-so-secret* Agent 00 (Weng Weng) to stop the bad guys. It’s as simple and awkwardly handled as that and really it’s already more than it ever needed to be. Most of the plot is fairly incomprehensible and ludicrous, but if you are a true connoisseur of schlock cinema and/or bizarro entertainment then none of its quirks or foibles can deter you and you know it!

Sometimes I like my movies to look and feel like they were made by babies.

If you enjoy kung-fu movies and James Bond movies, you already know it’s not about the story. It’s about the action and mayhem and, I gotta say, For Y’ur Height Only delivers. Perhaps its the unfamiliar novelty of seeing a man knee-high to R2-D2 scaling walls and fighting guys and wooing chicks, but this film takes the throwaway rip-off concept that might have otherwise been forgettable and makes it something unique. Because Agent 00 is so small the action has to be choreographed with a bit of imagination…and some upper body strength on the part of the people attacking him (as Agent 00 frequently flips over them).

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Jet pack! Don’t look at the string.

Weng Weng uses his small stature to his advantage by sneaking between people’s legs, sliding on the floor whilst firing his gun, hiding in crevices, and, as I have aforementioned, umbrella-parachuting out windows.

One of my favorite things this movie does is incorporate the 007 Q gadget exchange, but instead of specific instructions, this Q gives the vaguest guidance and seems astoundingly oblivious. 00 gets an amulet thing for correspondence with the agency’s plant and a solid gold ring that can detect any poison. There’s also a pen that shoots poison darts or something, an Oddjob murder-hat (only remotely controlled), and, yes, a jet-pack. By far the greatest gift bestowed upon Agent 00 by ripoff Q are the giant sunglasses that allows the wearer to see people with their clothes off.

The action isn’t exactly at Bruce Lee status, but it is pretty great. Perhaps a bit gratuitous on the kicks to the groin, but it’s all in good fun. And the outfits are spectacular. You will never see more obnoxious combinations of plaid blazers, pastel neck scarves, pinky rings, and super big collars. No style of combat is out of place in this movie. Guns, swords, darts, martial arts, murder-hat, and even a scary one-on-one fistfight with a slightly larger dwarf are all featured.

Mr. Big

Mr. Big

The women, both established characters and random walk-ons enjoy copious amounts of smooching from the pint-sized hero. Weng Weng, although painted extra silly by way of the hilariously abysmal dubbing, demonstrates a playfully mischievous aura throughout the film. The absurd size juxtapositions and the twinkle in Weng Weng’s eye make this a lot more fun than your average Bond knockoff. One thing this movie really taught me was that putting drugs in bread is worse than killing scores upon scores of people. 00 absolutely destroys these guys. The bad guys kill maybe 2 or 3 people, while hero 00 straight up murders at least 100 dudes. The whole spectacle is about as odd and awful as lunch at Jollibee’s,** only way more aimless and much more fun.

Kamusta, baby?

Kamusta, baby?

The acting is not good, the dialogue is about as clever and articulate as a 3 year old telling a story, the dubbing is terrible (seriously, worse than any Godzilla movie), the logic and physics of bullet trajectories is psychotically ill-informed, and it’s all absolutely wonderful. And what if watching a dusky dwarf wearing a plastic sparkler-spewing jet-pack suspended over rocks by a clearly visible wire is my idea of entertainment? What then? I liked the silly action and how the nonsensical plotline sort of meandered about waiting for the feature-length mark. You really have to like your cinema to be out there to appreciate this thing. Revisiting this movie for the first time after several years was a truly special treat for me.

See the advantage? No crouching.

See the advantage? No crouching.

So maybe you might blast movies of this ilk for their cheap production quality and dismissive character development, but you know what else was filmed in the Philippines because it was cheaper there? Apocalypse Now. Boom. Chew on that. God help me, I love this movie. For Y’ur Height Only is a masterpiece of strange. Check it out and see the amazing Weng Weng in his natural habitat: in hand to hand combat and necking ladies.

Cheap foreign midgetsploitation James Bond knockoffs don’t come much better than this.

The DVD distributed by Mondo Macabro also features knockoff Bruce Lee star, Bruce Le, in the ludicrous kung-fu flick Challenge of the Tiger. Longest scene in the movie: Bruce Le fighting a bull with his hands.

Thumbs up!

Thumbs up!

*He tells everyone he’s a secret agent.

**Maybe it’s because I’m not Filipino, but I never found Jollibee’s eclectic menu particularly appetizing. It gleefully includes spaghetti and yam boba.

Top 10 Reason to See For Y’ur Height Only

1. What’s up with that title? For “y’ur”? “Your”?

2. Two words: jet-pack.

3. How many movies are Filipino James Bond knockoffs with little people?

4. Two more words: murder-hat.

5. In one scene Weng Weng is affectionately compared to (and I kid you not) a potato.

6. He pulls his body over a gun to flip-kick a guy in the face and then proceeds to pummel him with the butt of the gun.

7. Two more words: umbrella-parachute.

8. “There’s a lot of dough in this dough: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker…” actual line muttered by a bad guy in reference to the drugs hidden in the bread.

9. You’ll wanna dress your baby up in a leisure suit.

10. Two final words: Weng Weng

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 4, 2011