THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Missed ya, Middle Earth.

So The Hobbit is out now and it’s getting some controversial feedback. Everybody acknowledges that it’s a fun movie. I’d say it is mostly on par with The Lord of the Rings in that it’s a stupendously ambitious film and it mostly works. The rough spots and flaws, and they aren’t few, are the same types of things Peter Jackson seems to consistently have problems with. To understand how these things affect An Unexpected Journey, the first of three films based on a relatively short book, one needs a little bit of context.

Just a fair warning that this review will assume you know something of the books or at the very least The Lord of the Rings films.

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There’s some nostalgia being leveraged by the movie, but not as much as you’d think.

At first, The Hobbit was going to be split into two movies. Then, not so long ago, it was announced that there would be three. This change probably happened too late for some of the marketing and merchandizing to be scaled back, so we’ve seen a lot of Mirkwood stuff in promotions and toys and this would lead one to conclude that the first film ends sometime after Thorin’s Company gets to Mirkwood. This means that the movie seems to have more pacing problems than it actually does. There are a couple of points that feel like a climax before you realize “hey, the movie is going to end before Mirkwood”. This forces an adjustment to the “dragged” feeling you get when a movie is going on longer than it needs to, or doesn’t seem to know when to end. Fortunately, An Unexpected Journey ends fairly well, especially thematically, and it’s easy enough (for me at least) to recalibrate my sense of a film in retrospect.

The reason why this matters is that it’s only one way that the way The Hobbit as a full project is split creates problems. There are what I can only describe as stretch-marks all through An Unexpected Joruney but while this is worth pointing out, it doesn’t sink the movie. What works best about this is what worked the best in The Lord of the Rings: design, world-building, and semi-serious fantasy. What works less well are the Spielbergian stunt action, the whimsy, and the various forced changes the movie makes from the book. There will be an accounting of these things all in good time.

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Yes it’s all fun and games until the Dwarves start singing.

The film begins with an older Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holme reprising the role) beginning his work on the book we see in The Lord of the Rings. This feels a bit weird considering this is supposed to be the day of the party. In The Fellowship of the Ring‘s extended cut, there’s an expanded opening with Bilbo writing out the first chunk of Tolkien’s real-world book, a brief foreword called “Concerning Hobbits”. The device is a cute one: it’s actually Bilbo and Frodo who write these stories, but Jackson sort of fucks it up by having Bilbo begin his “There and Back Again” on the same day we also see him writing a chunk of The Lord of the Rings. Now this detail might not matter to most people, or even be noticeable to your general audience, but I’d say that it is an early sign of some degree of sloppiness that pops up in other places. More on that as it comes.

Bilbo offers up some backstory for the grand adventure we’re about to be part of. Not unlike the Last Alliance intro from Fellowship, we get to see a slice of Dwarven history. This stuff is great as the Dwarves are, top to bottom, amazingly realized and beautifully designed. It’s a lot of fun to spend some time with them in their own element after spending so much time with Elves. Soon, however, the dragon Smaug shows up and blows all the Dwarves out of Erebor (the Lonely Mountain, where they built their fastness).

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Dwalin, a beastly tattooed warrior-dwarf is my favorite of the bunch.

Smaug wants gold and the Dwarves have a lot of it. A human city called Dale is burned and the Dwarves flee into exile. Some hints about what becomes of them in the middle years are sprinkled throughout the movie, and it’s all a really nice touch that does a lot to evoke a sense of depth and worldliness to their backstory. Given how little is known about Dwarves in Middle Earth (if you’re going off The Lord of the Rings films) it is absorbing to have this movie fully commit to them. We even get to see female Dwarves and yes, they sort of have beards… more like mutton chops but it’s all beardademic anyway. It’s actually a shame I can’t find a decent screenshot of Erebor to show you guys. It’s pretty amazing, especially seeing the sheer number of Dwarves running around.

Where this gets sloppy is in how it shows that the Erebor Dwarves were allied with the Greenwood Elves up til Smaug showed up. Inexplicably, Thranduil (Lee Pace) shows up on a giant fucking elk with an army of Elves outside of Dale just as the last surviving Dwarves flee Erebor. Thorin sees him up there and shouts for help, but the Elves fuck off. It is supposed to explain why Thorin and the Dwarves don’t much like or trust Elves (this extends to The Lord of the Rings where the enmity is left a mystery). The problem is that it relies on the Elves seemingly teleporting on-scene within hours (at most) of the dragon showing up. How did they know? How did they muster so fast? Sloppy.

So some decades later, Thorin is the nominal leader of his exiled people. Most have settled into new lives throughout Middle Earth, but he is able to call up twelve loyalists when the omens indicate that the time is right to take Erebor back. To help him in this, Gandalf gives them a place to meet and the fourteenth member that the prophecy seems to require (the movie is remarkably unclear on this, actually).

The fourteenth is Bilbo who is descended from an adventurous clan of Hobbits (the Tooks, who you’ll remember as being Pippin’s family). Once an adventurous youth, Gandalf tries to rekindle that side of a little man who has grown entirely used to the comfortable life. The thread of the movie that is most narratively successful (though it won’t be fully paid off until the third film) is Bilbo’s latent competence, courage, and dependability. The first movie is all about him proving something to himself and to the Dwarves based on those traits.

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I think the way Radagast is portrayed has the feel of an apology to those who wanted Tom Bombadil in LotR.

Meanwhile, in a massive stretch of forest that was once called the Greenwood, a wizard we haven’t met before tends to the animals he prefers over other beings. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) is a gentle and somewhat addle-brained guy who discovers that something bad is going on in his forest. Radagast is in whom a lot of the camp and whimsy of the movie is instilled. It is so singular that everything about him feels slightly off. His sojourn into Dol Goldur, an abandoned Elven fortress deep in the haunted part of the Greenwood, is actually really nicely done and feels both creepy and epic (as it should). But then he’s off on his fucking rabbit sled surrounded by CG animals and I think I’m watching a Narnia movie.

I am not one of those people who thinks that The Hobbit needed to be as serious and grim as The Lord of the Rings. In fact, people who think that make no sense to me. From its color palette to its sense of humor and episodic structure An Unexpected Journey feels appropriately light and whimsical compared to the higher-stakes shit Frodo gets involved in. But Radagast is just a bit too much sometimes. Also a bit too much is the staged nature of the two scenes where the Dwarves sing. Song is a big part of Tolkien’s work and it’s nice that Jackson et al tried to reproduce some of that in all these movies. In all three The Lord of the Rings films, the singing was done exceptionally well. It felt like the characters were really singing. It didn’t feel like a musical. The one sequence that flirted with a staged quality was Pippin’s song in the hall of Denethor in The Return of the King. That was saved by both being a good song and by that it was genius-cut with Faramir’s charge at Osgiliath and Denethor’s gross eating. In An Unexpected Journey both the dishes song and the “Misty Mountains Cold” song feel like the movie is diverting into a musical. In the trailer, “Misty Mountains Cold” was very effective precisely because it was cut with all the cool shit being shown… it was a trailer after all. Here, it’s some Dwarves standing around and singing which would have been better if it didn’t seem so obviously lip-synched and recorded. Same with the dishes song, where the Dwarves’ superhuman hyperkinetics only make the scene look more like something out of Disney or Mary Poppins.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

Each Dwarf is lovingly designed. Some are a bit overdesigned, really, but taken as a whole the gambit works to help distinguish between them.

Speaking of the hyperkinetic Dwarves, there is a nice attention to detail that arises out of the dishes scene. The whole thing begins when the Dwarves start hurling fragile dishes around and using their amazing reflexes and timing to catch, bounce, and ricochet them perfectly to wherever they want them to go. I groaned as I thought this was just a brazen departure from the “realistic” sensibility of the Tolkien movieverse Jackson has spent all these years creating. But then they kept doing shit like that, throughout the movie. I realized that the Dwarves, for whatever reason, just have generally great reflexes and kinetics. Each one of them is agile, dextrous, and very quick with his hands. When I saw how they all fight, particularly in the Goblin Town sequence, it was clear that all their twirling and brandishing was just something about Dwarves. In The Lord of the Rings, Gimli would occasionally spin his axes all around his body in silly Star Wars Kid style patterns. In An Unexpected Journey, most of the Dwarves do similar shit and it’s clearly intended to be simply how they move and fight. This makes the running fight they have with the Goblins almost go off without a hitch for the audience, who maybe instinctively understands that the Dwarves are a bit “superhuman” when it comes to reflexes and economy of motion.

But then it gets downright silly, bringing the movie to a Spielbergian TinTin or Indiana Jones level of death-defying CG stunt-craft. Part of the reason this sort of stuff doesn’t tend to work so well in contemporary movies is that it’s almost all done with CG. The more of it that is practical, the less they can cheat and sacrifice plausibility for “coolness”. The particular bit I’m referring to is when the Dwarves collectively fall into a chasm clinging to a three-layer chunk of rickety wooden Goblin-bridge. Wouldn’t you know it but they are saved by a narrow shaft that catches the edges of the bridge and slows them down JUST ENOUGH that no one is harmed. It reminded me of the ridiculous stunts in Pirates of the Caribbean but in that movie it was a) mostly practical effects and b) tonally consistent with the slapstick physical comedy style running through that franchise.

It’s not that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t full of unlikely feats of acrobatic luck or semi-magical “cool stunts” but the higher index of CG in The Hobbit just erodes the level to which this shit is at all effective.

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Enter Azog the Defiler, an all CG “albino orc”.

We do get to see some more cool Dwarf war shit at Moria, where Thror unsuccessfully tries to set up shop with his people post-Smaug. Unfortunately, they chose to insert Azog into the Hobbit movies as a primary antagonist. Azog is all-CG and looks like a slightly uglier version of the Prometheus giant white god dudes. He looks faker than fake and his design walked right out of World of Warcraft leaving behind all pretensions of “fantastic plausibility” that seemed to be a core concern of Jackson’s approach to adapting Tolkien’s books. Similar to Radagast, Azog works some of the time but mostly not.

By the time the Dwarves get going, Thorin is shown both as a haunted veteran (a nice touch) and a potentially over-stern leader of men. That we get to see the battle at Moria and how he got his epigraph “Oaken-shield” is undoubtedly cool. He isn’t very well humored but the movie makes this more than just “oh grumpy dwarf”. In fact, a handful of the Dwarves get enough scenes to establish their personalities with more to come, obviously. I was a bit worried that they would over-rely on the occasionally distracting design (that Dwarf with starfish hair, wtf is that?) to evoke “personality” but I think there was a comfortable amount of mild characterization in the film. Balin (Ken Stott) gets the most after Thorin, being his chief advisor and all. Balin is an old warrior and the same Dwarf that goes into Moria years later and in whose tomb the Fellowship of the Ring battles the Moria orcs and their cave troll.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

The White Council discusses what to do about Radagast’s findings.

Eventually ending up in Rivendell, Gandalf presents the Morgul Blade that Radagast found to his fellow “great wise ones”. They dither about how to handle it with Gandalf certain that the Necromancer in Dol Goldur is a very dangerous foe. The others aren’t quite convinced but this is meant as a precursor to the eventual battle that occurs (off-screen in the book) during one of the periods where Gandalf leaves Thorin’s company.

Rivendell is also where the movie gets a bit weird, a little bit into fanfiction territory (that An Unexpected Journey feels like Tolkien fanfiction is a widespread criticism of this movie, actually) and thus uncomfortable. I’m referring to the weird sexual tension that is created between Gandalf and Galadriel (the luminescent Cate Blanchett). There’s this scene where they are talking privately about what’s going on, where she asks him about his recruiting Bilbo, and he gets a bit vulnerable. It’s nice to see Gandalf vulnerable; one of the great things about Jackson’s sensibilities is that he isn’t afraid to be sensitive, emotional, vulnerable, etc with these characters. That said, there’s a line that gets crossed here where it seems like the comfort Galadriel offers, and the reception it gets, are coming from the same place as clopping (google at own risk).

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The real question, which one is even cradle-robbing here?

So that uncomfortable shit aside, the movie runs across the halfway mark somewhere around here (structurally if not temporally) and the Company heads up into the mountains. This is where the movie starts to feel a bit more in its element. The best scene, probably, is the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence where Bilbo tries to avoid murder at the hands of Gollum (Andy Serkis, basically the MVP of all the Tolkien movies) by playing a riddling game. Showing an unusual restraint, Jackson doesn’t cut away during this part and lets it stand in as the centerpiece it is.

Since this goes down while the Dwarves are captured by Goblins and interrogated by the grotesque Goblin-King, there’s a lot to come back to. Goblin Town is one of the best parts of the movie and one of the only parts that feels like Guillermo Del Toro (from back when he was going to direct the movie). Jackson still hasn’t bothered to conjure up any kind of explanation or definition of orcs, goblins, and the distinctions between them, but it kind of feels like one is made implicitly here. Whatever the case, Goblin Town is where both the kinetic elements and design elements of the movie come together to work super well. That bridge stunt sort of ruins it a bit.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

I said gross? Really, fucking gross.

There are numerous brief action sequences in An Unexpected Journey. None reach the level of those in Fellowship (which is the standard, I think). Any fantasy fighting is nice, though, I just wish this stuff was a bit more memorable. The running battle in Goblin Town is fun, as I said, but more as a result of the staging than of the fight choreography. With 13+ combatants most of the time, it’s always a bit too frenetic to work as well as the smaller scale fights worked in Fellowship. Some would argue that The Hobbit is way less about fighting than Rings but I’d argue in turn that Jackson doesn’t seem to think so: any excuse for drawn swords is taken advantage of in this movie, including a rather jarring bait-and-switch in the Troll sequence earlier on.

One of the things that was distracting about it, if I’m honest, is another point where I think Jackson got a bit sloppy. Before the Dwarves get to Rivendell, there’s a pitched battle in some tundra that is unmistakably the same territory that stood in for Rohan in The Lord of the Rings. The problem is that this is way North of Rohan but anyone who’s seen the Rings movies would recognize the terrain just off the dark rock, the yellow grass, etc. So again, sloppy.

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In this shot, the trees give some illusion that it’s a different place, but when you see the movie you’ll know what I mean.

One of the controversial elements of this movie is that it’s shot in 48 frames per second. That’s double the speed of conventional film. Jackson told the public that it takes about 10 minutes for most people to adjust but after that, the inherent beauty and clarity of the images would emerge. He’s not wrong, really. The technique is not kind to the over-abundance of CG in the movie, but it works more often than not, especially during heavily practical, on location shots. Where I initially thought the criticisms would be true was when you see Dale, the human city near Erebor, very early in the film. It’s one of the first big exterior, mostly-CG bits and it looks very fake and cartoonish. This cartoon quality dogs the movie a bit throughout, but it really did fade after the opening scenes. By the time we’re seeing the inner workings Erebor and our eyes are (hopefully) devouring all the rich design/world-building detail present, it doesn’t hurt anything.

This is also one of the movies where 3D works. Similar to Avatar, this film wasn’t post-converted (from what I understand) but made with full intention for it to be 3D. While 3D remains a superfluous gimmick over-lauded by technical and visually oriented filmgeeks (which Jackson and Cameron both are), it’s better used in a project like this than as a tool to jack up ticket prices as a matter of course. The main takeaway here is that this movie’s 3D doesn’t darken the image or serve as a cheap effects gimmick (well, there are a couple gimmicky moments).

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Thorin Oakenshield literally has a shield made of an oak branch.

I can conclude with the confirmation that An Unexpected Journey hits all the necessary targets and reaches many highs without losing too much good-will to Jackson’s directorial excesses or overeager pen. It’s an eminently fun movie that feels more like a series of adventures than a grand campaign. There’s a lot of stuff for book purists to bitch about and some of it (fucking Azog, fucking random Elf invasion) is bad enough that it’s actually worth the bitching. Really though, An Unexpected Journey gets right all the things it needs to get right. Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf, tone, backstory, world-building, and even the sneaky “war movie” elements are all executed with aplomb. It’s really fun without being really stupid so I call it a win.

I’m not as impressed as I was with each successive The Lord of the Rings entry, but nor was I underwhelmed. Most of the problems I’ve described above are also problems for the Rings films. Jackson is not the best editor in the industry and he has problems reigning in his stylistic bloat when there’s nobody to tell him “cut that shit out”. I think that this movie shows he hasn’t been completely lost up his own ass, but it also has a bit too much Spielberg in it for me to forget King Kong and Tin Tin.

For what it’s worth, I also think that An Unexpected Journey will improve with subsequent viewings. I’ll take my daughter to see the 24fps version and I bet I’ll enjoy it just as much or even more than I enjoyed seeing it as Jackson intended. And what more could anyone ask from a movie anyway?

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