Monday, February 4, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I can't say that I was super-excited for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  Part of it had to do with my work schedule at the time I saw it --- a 12:01AM opening day showing during a time where I worked long and early hours every day --- and part of it had to do with the fact that I grew up with The Lord of the Rings books before I ever got around to The Hobbit.  While The Hobbit is charming and fun, it's not epic awesomeness.   Still, An Unexpected Journey was being made by the same people who made the excellent LotR trilogy, so there should be little to worry about, aside from a hilarious dose of homosexual undertones, right?  I was a little uneasy, though.  The Hobbit is not a particularly long book, and yet An Unexpected Journey is only the first part of a Hobbit trilogy, while the significantly larger The Lord of the Rings books were barely squeezed into one (very long) film each.  Doesn't it feel like Peter Jackson is milking this one a little too much?

In this prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we follow the young Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman here and Ian Holm in LotR) as he is enticed by a wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), to embark on a dangerous adventure.  The goal is to help a clan of dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), reclaim the home of their ancestors.  Why does it need reclaiming?  Well, dwarves like to mine riches from the earth.  Dragons apparently like riches, too.  When the wealth of Thorin's granddaddy became well-known, a dragon decided to move in and fricassee anyone who interrupted his enjoyment of his ill-gotten riches.
Artist interpretation
Of course, they're not going to take on a dragon all alone.  To go along with Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin are a lot of other dwarves.  In case the preview didn't illustrate that point to you, here's an alternate movie poster:
Which one of them is the hobbit?
Bilbo isn't really built for adventuring; he's a hobbit, which means he is small and inexperienced with weapons and the dangers that fill Middle-Earth.  He's not ready to face trolls, orcs, or goblins, much less a dragon that could frighten battle-happy dwarves --- and he may never be ready.  This is the tale of Bilbo's struggles to find his place in the group and in the world outside of his home in Hobbiton.  Of course, something else important happens in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Bilbo finds that ring that everyone made such a fuss about in those other three hobbit-ish films.

The acting in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is good, but this isn't really a movie built around individual performances.  Martin Freeman plays a wonderful everyman, so casting him as the very suburban Bilbo was a good choice that paid off well.  As the audience's POV character, he did a good job being confused and frightened for the audience, and I thought he conveyed his character's emotional journey rather well.  Ian McKellen was good as Gandalf the Grey; he's obviously familiar with the part, but I liked that he was a little more temperamental and less wise in this film.  Of the dwarves, Richard Armitage was by far the most impressive; it helps that he got to play a bad-ass and didn't have to wear goofy facial prosthetics, but Armitage was awfully good at brooding, too.
Ken Stott was the next most interesting dwarf, as the white-bearded right hand to Thorin.  He didn't really do anything terribly cool, but he turned in one of the better acting performances in this series simply through his dialogue. 
Stott was so good that I almost never laughed at the Cousin It under his nose
Oddly enough, those two cover most of the acting amongst the thirteen dwarf characters.  You can argue that James Nesbitt had a few solid moments, or that Aidan Turner stuck out (if only because he looked like the heartthrob of the group), but they didn't really have much to do.  The rest of the dwarves made little to no impression at all.  A lot of actors from LotR came back for small parts, and they were all fine.  Elijah Wood, Ian Holm, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee showed up, said a few lines, and were gone again.  Andy Serkis reprised his role as Gollum and he was excellent.  Serkis really does a great job every time he puts on a motion capture suit, and I hope he one day gets some recognition for the pioneering work he's doing (fun fact: Serkis also served as a second unit director on these movies).  He doesn't steal the film, like he did in The Two Towers, but that's mainly due to screen time.  Note to Peter Jackson: there's always more room in the script for Gollum.
He's like Jell-O in that way
The only other actor worth mentioning is former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy, who got to play Radagast, the batty wizard that was apparently named by a twelve year-old in 1992.  McCoy did a solid job with a goofy character, almost to the point where I forgot about the fake bird poop on his face.

The special effects were as stellar as you would expect from this series of films and these filmmakers.  It kind of sucks that this movie revisits so many things that we've seen before in Middle-Earth, because it gives a bit of a "been there, seen that" feel to the film.  Even with that in mind, the sets --- particularly the ancestral dwarf home --- are all awesome.  The CGI was excellent, even in the large battle scenes that clearly didn't have the actual actors fighting in them.  I wasn't a big fan of the makeup on the dwarves, though.  Too many just looked silly, even if they are faithful to how Tolkien wrote them.  It's not a big deal, in the big scheme of things, but it irritated me that there were bad guys who looked dirty and creepy...
...and then there would be good guys who looked like complete cartoon characters.
This is actually one of the better-looking dwarves

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about Peter Jackson's work on The Hobbit.  As far as his co-writing credit goes (the script was basically done by him and his partner, Fran Walsh), I was impressed that An Unexpected Journey felt like a complete story.  Bilbo and Thorin had decently crafted character arcs, there was a natural ending point, and there was no cliffhanger ending.  That's tough to do with source material that originally had only 310 pages --- and keep in mind that two more movies are on their way from that same material.  I have no idea what the next two films will contain, but I'm alright with the contents of this one.  If you're wondering where the hell Jackson and co. found the rest of the material to pad this story enough to get three movies out of it, that was touched on a bit in this interview Peter Jackson had on The Colbert Report:

As a director, I was a little less pleased with Peter Jackson.  The tale was definitely told competently.  The movie looked absolutely gorgeous, and the pacing was brisk; while my mind keeps telling me that this story was stretched out, it didn't feel that way when I was watching it.  I wasn't a huge fan of the action sequences; without someone awesome to focus on (like Legolas in LotR), I was faced with a bunch of characters I didn't really care much about in situations that didn't seem all that dire.  Admittedly, part of that impression is due to the fact that this movie looks so much like the Lord of the Rings movies that it suffers when you compare them by scale --- having fifteen good guys fighting a handful of orcs pales in comparison to the odds faced in LotR.  But the problems are not just by comparison.  Less than a third of this cast was fleshed out at all, so their survival meant little to me. 
I only cared about the guy who isn't attending a rap-metal show at the Renaissance fair
That's on Jackson.  There is no excuse to have all these characters left undeveloped, especially when there are three movies to fill.  Another option would be to imply how unimportant some of them are, but each one has enough quirkiness to make the viewer wonder about them.  This movie also suffered a bit from a lack of truly stellar bad guys.  The goblin king was kind of gross, but he struck me as more of a bloated tumor than a credible threat.
He has a tumor the size of a grapefruit an obese cave dweller
The albino orc looked fairly cool, but he didn't get the chance to actually do anything cool.  He just posed and growled.  He was so underwhelming that the top Google image hits for him are either blurry or behind-the-scenes shots.
This was the best pic I could find of Azog, the Defiler.  I mean "best" in every way possible.
Sure, Gollum was awesome (again), but he A) wasn't the primary threat B) only threatened Bilbo and C) obviously survived, along with Bilbo, because they are both in The Lord of the Rings

My biggest complaint with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, though, is with its tone.  This story is not as epic as LotR, but it is being presented in the same way.  As Stephen Colbert pointed out, Tolkien tried to go back and write an epic version of The Hobbit, but was later convinced that it was a bad idea.  It seems odd that the filmmakers would make the same mistake.  There's enough grandiosity in Middle-Earth to make this an epic tale, I suppose, but it just doesn't seem like the right fit.
It troubles Gandalf, too

I guess the easiest way to sum this movie up is to say that An Unexpected Journey is missing a lot of the charm that I expected to find, going into the movie.  That doesn't mean that it is a bad movie, by any means.  It's just not what I expected or, really, wanted in a film adaptation of The Hobbit.  It is still a good movie and totally worth seeing.  There is a lot to like here.  In fact, there is just under three hours of movie to like here (and we have six more hours on the way!).  It's just not as overwhelmingly, jaw-droppingly fantastic as the Lord of the Rings movies were.  I think that is because this feels like a continuation of those films, instead of a new trilogy with its own identity.  Hopefully, the sequels will course-correct that a little.

A quick aside on the format of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey:  I have now seen this film in the standard 24 frames per second and in 3D 48 frames per second.  The former was a much better experience for me.  The 3D was fine when I saw it on opening night, but the action scenes looked terrible.  However, my experience doesn't match up with any of the other complaints I've read online regarding the 48 fps presentation.  Instead of looking like a video game, or looking "too real," or looking like the ClearMotion option on a Samsung TV, all the action looked like it was sped up.  It felt like I was watching something out of the silent movie era, or at least an action scene from an early James Bond movie.  My assumption is that someone played the 48 fps version of the movie at 24 fps (because that's how fast-motion scenes are conveyed in those other examples).  If you have a better theory, I'd love to hear it. 


  1. I loathed this flick. But, to be fair, I only watched the first hour, as I left to find something more amusing after that. I have two major problems, both of which you touched on. First and foremost, The Hobbit is hardly material for 9-ish hours of film. It is light material and should feel as such. The choice to make a serious epic out of this material leads me to think it was all about money and had nothing to do with artist integrity (shocking, I know). Second, I could really give a shit about any of these shitty, goofy dwarves. Much of this has to do with their underdevelopment (They are silly, get it?!), as you pointed out, but most of it had to do with them not really having any real redeeming qualities. They were two-dimensional cartoons (even in 3D). I am very much looking forward to not watching the other two installments. And this is from someone who loved the LotR Trilogy.

    1. Well, I will be seeing the other two installments in this series regardless, if only because the Mrs. is such a huge Tolkien fan. So, I'll let you know how they are. I wouldn't have seen it a second time in theaters if it wasn't for her, but I was glad to know that my eyes weren't playing tricks on me at the 48 fps showing.

      If you aren't familiar with the source texts, the tone isn't much of a problem. At least it's based on stuff that Tolkien wrote, right? I'm a little more flexible with the tone, since this is presented without a definitive title. If it was just The Hobbit, part I, it would seem as if it was more loyal to the source text. Somehow, I feel that the subtitle gives Peter Jackson some wiggle room, in terms of what's included. I would have preferred a lighter tone (I think), but am curious as to where the filmmakers are going next.

      I think the success of this trilogy will rest on how cool Smaug is. If they just had too much Smaug awesomeness for one movie, I will forgive them the 9-hour run-time.