Cinefantastique’s Black Hole Ultra-Lounge Podcast returns from the grave, offering a colorful cornucopia of horror, fantasy, and science fiction news and reviews. Correspondents Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski size up the new GODZILLA teaser trailer, examine the Oscar Academy’s finalists for Best Special Effects, and bid farewell to actor Peter O’Toole (most known for his great dramatic roles, though he did a handful of genre movies, too).
Next, Steve reviews THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR on DVD. Larry recounts the extended cut of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Dan enthuses over the animated television show WANDER OVER YONDER. And we wrap up with a trip to the Borderland: reviewing the non-genre SAVING MR. BANKS, because it recounts the behind-the-scenes story of the making of PETER PAN, the animated fantasy classic from Walt Disney Pictures.
Hopefully, the above headline needs no explanation, but in case you have any doubts, we’re talking about cinefantastique the genre, not Cinefantastique, the online magazine of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema. Although there have been a few exceptions in recent decades (e.g., a Best Picture win for THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences traditionally under-represents imagi-movies at each year’s Oscars, and the 2013 ceremony was no exception – and no surprise, since few horror, fantasy, and science fiction films were even nominated.
It is not as if there were not some worthy contenders from 2012: CLOUD ATLAS, RISE OF THE GUARDIANS, ROBOT AND FRANK (especially Frank Langella’s performance), THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY, and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – to name a few. However, even in categories that traditionally offer a glimmer of hope (technical areas such as special effects), the genre went ignored.
The only solace, such as it was, took the form of two borderline titles that won in several categories: ARGO and LIFE OF PI. The former is a fact-based political thriller, but its plot is based around using a phony science fiction film as cover to spirit hostages out of Iran, and the film actually uses the concept of sci-fi fantasy heroism in pop culture as a yardstick by which to measure real-life accomplishment. The latter uses effects-heavy imagery to recount one person’s lonely trek aboard a lifeboat in a way that questions the reality of the events, which may be just a personal fantasy. ARGO took home the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Film Editing (William Goldenberg), and Adapted Screenplay (Chris Terrio). I cannot exactly argue with ARGO’s Best Picture win – it is a great movie – but I would have preferred to see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (obviously impossible) or at least LES MISERABLES.
LIFE OF PI won for Cinematography (Claudio Miranda), Directing (Ang Lee), Music (Mychael Danna), and Visual Effects (Bill Westernhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer, Donald R. Elliott).
The win for Visual Effects is not a big surprise, but it is something of a disappointment since this is one of the few categories in which outright science fiction films have a shot at the gold statuette. This year’s nominees included THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, THE AVENGERS, PROMETHEUS, and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. Presumably, THE HOBBIT and PROMETHEUS lost because voters felt they had seen the effects before in LORD OF THE RINGS and ALIEN, respectively. THE AVENGERS looked too much like TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. And SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN lost because it was simply a bad movie, and the Academy seldom singles out isolated pockets of quality in otherwise undeserving films.
In the Animated Feature category, voters apparently could not decide on a good film, so they gave the award to BRAVE for being a Pixar Production. Personally, I think nominee FRANKENWEENIE is seriously flawed in the story department, but even so, it far surpasses Pixar’s latest step into mediocrity. Easily the best animated film of the year – THE SECRET WORLD OF ARIETTY – was not even nominated, nor was the worthy RISE OF THE GUARDIANS.
At least PAPERMAN took home the gold in the Animated Short category – the film was the only good thing about having to sit through WRECK IT RALPH, which incredibly was nominated in the Feature Animated category, along with the equally unworthy PARANORMAN. (I have not seen the other nominee THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS, so I will reserve comment.)
SKYFALL, the latest James Bond adventure, is less science fiction-oriented than many of its predecessors, but it still straddles the borderline of the genre. The film earned several nominations, including Cinematography, Original Score, and Sound Editing, and won for Sound Editing (Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers) and Best Song (Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth). Adele (who goes simply by her first name) performed the song during the ceremony – the first winner for a franchise noted for its memorable theme songs. (Shirley Bassey was also on hand to perform the title tune from 1963’s GOLDFINGER, which really set the standard for 007 songs.)
The Best Song win for “Skyfall” is one of the few decisions I can truly applaud for the 85 Annual Academy Awards. The song is the best thing about the film – and one of the best James Bond them song in over nearly two decades. THE HOBBIT, Peter Jackson’s disappointing prequel to his LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, failed to impress Oscar voters. Nominated in three categories – Makeup, Production Design, and Visual Effects – the film went zero for three on Oscar night.
The terrible SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN was had to chances to win – for Costumes and Visual Effects – but lost out in both categories. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (another borderline effort, which includes some fantasy creatures) was nominated in categories for Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Directing but came away empty handed.
So there you have it. It took AMPAS only 76 years to finally award a Best Picture win to a fantasy film (the aforementioned LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING). Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another seven decades for history to repeat itself.
The journey will be long, the challenges daunting, the popcorn very likely stale. But that doesn’t matter now — the grand epic that is the three-part, film adaptation of THE HOBBIT is upon us with the release of the first installment: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Having braved the onslaught of orcs, goblins, and restless eight-year-0lds, beabetterbooktalker.com‘s Andrea Lipinski joins Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons to discuss whether director Peter Jackson has taken what started as a compact, nimble fantasy tale and managed to elaborate on it in a way that will make audiences eager to sign on for all three films. They also delve into the film’s introduction of High Frame Rate (HFR) projection technology, and explore what effect the process has on the viewing experience.
Also: What’s coming to theaters next week.
If you are a fan of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, good fortune has smiled upon you this weekend, because THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY contains more of what you enjoyed before – much, much more. In fact, there is so much LORD OF THE RINGS that there is barely any room for THE HOBBIT. Unfortunately, instead of simply adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, Jackson has opted to use the story as a jumping off point for a convoluted prequel that threatens to do for Middle Earth what George Lucas’s STAR WARS prequels did for a galaxy far, far away. The strategy yields a schizoid mess that buries Tolkien’s simple tale beneath an avalanche of expository dialogue and CGI action – the former intended to tie the events into the previous films, the latter intended to pad the story into an action-adventure epic. The problem is that, unlike before, this story is not big enough to support the epic length. Whereas THE LORD OF THE RINGS felt dense, even with each film clocking in at over three hours, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels thin – a good first act (of what should have been a two-hour movie) stretched to interminable length in order to fill a feature-length running time over two and a half hours.
The result is strangely disengaging – a virtual remake, hitting all the beats of its predecessor but missing the emotional resonance. The similarity is certainly inherent in the source material (when Tolkien wrote his sequel to The Lord of the Rings, he reused many story elements from The Hobbit), but Jackson has deliberately emphasized the echoes in an effort to recreate his winning formula of expanding the author’s literary prose into stunning cinematic visuals.
For example, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY begins with a massive battle in which monster-thingy smites a king whose heir must set things right, and it ends with our heroes standing on a hill looking into the distance at a forbidding mountain to which they will travel in the next installment. The images look just as spectacular as before, but this time they feel like empty spectacle.
Which wouldn’t be so bad if the spectacle were a little more…well – spectacular – but Jackson seems to have lost sight of how to build thrilling action scenes in which characters are caught in dangerous situations but manage to find a way out through ingenuity or perseverance. There is a surfeit of CGI long-shots of animated characters running around toppling bridges but less of the eye-level live-action camera work that drew the audience into the action to build suspense. The aesthetic here is less LORD OF THE RINGS than it is the silly T-Rex trapeze sequence in Jackson’s KING KONG 2004 remake. In a weird way, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY even recalls Toho’s giant monster films of the 1960s, when less and less live-action was filmed, reducing the city destruction to a series of crumbling miniatures bereft of any human scale.
Every once in a while, a scene comes alive in a way that makes a viewer yearn for what might have been. Gollum’s riddles in the dark with Bilbo are creepy and funny – the scene works as a stand-alone moment in in this film, and it foreshadows events that will happen later in LORD OF THE RINGS – without any heavy-handed cinematic threading to tie the incidents together. Ian McKellen is wonderful as ever as Gandalf: when he delivers his message in favor of mercy to Bilbo, he really does seem to be channeling a higher wisdom worth remembering. And Bilbo’s explanation of why he decides to help the dwarves is genuinely moving (Bilbo yearns for home – something the dwarves do not have).
Too bad THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY could not have focused on these considerable strengths instead of drowning them in a sea of CGI set-pieces and ill-conceived ret-conning. Tolkien’s taleis a fairly straight-forward children’s fantasy about Bilbo Baggins joining the wizard Gandalf and a dozen dwarves on a quest to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug. His Lord of the Rings sequel trilogy is much deeper and darker, and Tolkien himself had to do a little revamping to stitch the two together (rewriting substantial portions of Gollum’s appearance in Chapter 5 of The Hobbit). However, when Tolkien later sat down to do a complete rewrite of The Hobbit, to bring it more in line with Lord of the Rings, he abandoned the task after three chapters, when someone told him “It’s not The Hobbit anymore.” Sadly, Peter Jackson did not heed the lesson of this anecdote. The humorous antics of the original (e.g., the three trolls arguing over how to kill and cook Bilbo and his companions) remain, but the tone of these sequences jars with the grizzly, quasi-horror material that has been added.
In the appendix to Lord of the Rings and in various post-humously published stories, Tolkien laid out the connections (particularly in “Quest for Erebor,” in which Gandalf explains that, while the dwarves may have been concerned only with reclaiming their homeland from Smaug, Gandalf was eager to prevent the dragon from becoming an ally of the dark lord Sauron). Apparently, Jackson’s goal is to incorporate these ulterior motives and behind-the-scenes machinations into his prequel trilogy. Consequently, non-essential bits of business (e.g., the Necromancer – originally conceived as a plot device to get Gandalf off-stage for a while and later re-imagined as an incarnation of Sauron) end up being over-emphasized. Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Eldrond (Hugo Weaving) also show up, so that Gandalf can voice to them his concern about the evil brewing in the east. As interesting and admirable as it is to use the cinematic format to synthesize these elements together in a way the novel never could, the unfortunate side effect is that poor Bilbo, the little hobbit who could, gets pushed too often to the sidelines, obscuring what should be the main narrative.* And for all its attempt to satisfy the geeks audience by maintaining continuity between the films, Bilbo’s acquisition of the Ring plays out quite differently here than in the prologue from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is not a complete disaster. There is still a good little movie in there, wishing it could escape from the epic aspirations forced upon it; the production values and special effects are excellent. The cast give it their all: Andy Serkis is as fun as ever as Gollum; and as Bilbo, Martin Freeman is a serviceable replacement for LORD OF THE RINGS Ian Holm (here seen only in a prologue to set up the flashback to earlier times). However, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY continues the downward slide that has afflicted all of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. It bodes ill for the future films – an omen neither from Mordor nor the Lonely Mountain but from the accounting office in Hollywood that demanded another tent-pole franchise from source material ill-suited to support one.
[rating=2] THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Warner Brothers, December 14, 2012). Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, based on Tolkien’s novel. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Lee Pace, Barry Humphries. 169 minutes. PG-13. FOOTNOTE:
In a similar way, the 1994 INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE film adaptation marred its narrative by incorporating scenes and ideas that appeared not in the original text but in its literary sequels.
Warner Brothers Pictures releases this adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel, hoping to recreate the success of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. In this prequel, we see the adventure of Bilbo Baggins, who joins Gandalf and a band of dwarfs on a quest that leads to a confrontation with Smaug the dragon. Along the way, Bilbo makes the acquaintance of Gollum and happens to find a certain ring, the importance of which will become clear later.
Peter Jackson directed from a screenplay written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro, and Jackson himself. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Billy Connolly, Andy Serkis, Lee Pace, Ian Holm, Sylvester McCoy. U.S. Release Date: December 14, 2012