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Non-Review Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

I always feel a little embarrassed to admit that I prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. Don’t worry, I know that by any objective measure of craft The Lord of the Rings is a far more impressive literary accomplishment, but I never really connected with the characters at the heart of that sprawling epic in the way that I empathised with Bilbo Baggins. As such, it’s a massive relief to me that Peter Jackson turns in an endearing and enjoyable, if padded and indulgent, first instalment in his Hobbit trilogy. The technical advances and the somewhat cynical structuring of the film tend to garner a great deal of discussion and debate, but the heart of Tolkien’s introduction to Middle Earth is still here. The only problem is that absolutely everything else is as well.

And that's just the script to Part I...

And that’s just the script to Part I…

“Show, don’t tell,” goes the old movie-making axiom. By that logic, Peter Jackson has produced a masterpiece. It seems like there’s nary a nook or a cranny on Middle Earth that isn’t probed, charted and discussed at length. The problem is that quite a bit of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey spends its time trying to foreshadow the events of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – after all, Tolkien himself retroactively heavily revised the text of The Hobbit to help it more smoothly line-up with his fantasy epic.

When Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was but an idea gestating in his head, but the version of The Hobbit in print today has been revised and edited to tie it in neatly with its more epic follow-up. Indeed, tying into The Lord of the Rings has become something of a cottage industry, with Christopher Tolkien even polishing some of his late father’s work for publication dedicated to further fleshing out the context and back story of the saga that was so magnificently brought to the screen all those years ago with The Silmarillion.

Down the garden path?

Down the garden path?

This poses a problem for an overly faithful screen adaptation. Those elements work well in print because quite a few readers are likely to read The Hobbit first. Even if they do read The Lord of the Rings and follow it back, pacing a book is a lot different than pacing a major motion picture. It feels like a large portion of An Unexpected Journey exists to foreshadow a conflict we have all already seen play out. There is some element of geeky thrill in watching the politics of Middle Earth play out, and to discover that Gandalf’s scheme in The Hobbit is much greater than an attempt to return a dispossessed people to their ancestral home, but it costs the movie a lot of momentum.

I’m not a fan of gratuitous exposition, and I am quite fond of Sylvester McCoy. That said, there’s a significant section in the middle of the film – featuring the wizard Radagast the Brown – that could easily have been trimmed for time. It is, after all, followed with a scene where Radagast shows up and tells our heroes pretty much exactly what we just saw for ten minutes, and it unfortunately kills the pacing of the mission that takes the eponymous creature and his dwarvish companions on their journey to Smaug.

No elf-restraint...

No elf-restraint…

I might sound like I’m being too harsh here. I really enjoyed significant portions of An Unexpected Journey, and that comes down to how skilfully Jackson captures the spirit of the book. The reason I have always preferred The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings is quite simple. I find Bilbo Baggins to be a much more engaging protagonist than the multiple character who share focus in the larger epic. That’s not to dismiss Frodo or Aragorn, both of whom are well drawn characters, but Bilbo is one of those very rare protagonists that it is hard to dislike.

Martin Freeman does an excellent job with Bilbo, presenting us with a character who is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for adventure. Bilbo is introduced as a character without any real weight or substance to him. When dwarves invade his house, he can’t make himself heard. He can’t even keep them out. Hobbits, being shy folk, don’t tend to go on adventures. And yet, despite that, a wizard shows up and offers him a chance to see the world – to slay a dragon, find a treasure and lead a lost people home. It’s a fantasy, of course, but it’s an appealing one. While we might dream of being a prince like Aragorn, we’re more likely to be creatures of comfort, like Bilbo.

A small-scale epic...

A small-scale epic…

“Can you promise I will come back?” Bilbo asks Gandalf. The wizard replies, honestly, “No… and if you do, you will not be the same.” Frodo underwent a similar arc in The Lord of the Rings, but Bilbo’s story feels a bit stronger because there’s more space devoted to it. His narrative is shorter (not in these films! zing!), but he doesn’t share it. More than that, though, the somewhat (relatively) lower stakes of The Hobbit allow Bilbo to shine. He uses his wits to outthink some silly trolls. He carries a blade, but he is reluctant to use it. He’s not a romantic action hero, he’s just a guy dealing with some crazy fantasy stuff.

The most tense scene in the film sees Bilbo confronting an old friend familiar to the audience. What is interesting about the sequence is that Bilbo very clearly has the upper hand, at least tactically. He carries a sword, and he holds a weapon of unimaginable power. (Even if he doesn’t quite realise it.) In contrast, his opponent is starved and insane. It would be easy for Bilbo to simply kill his opponent and continue on his way. a more pragmatic character would do it without a second thought.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it...

Put that in your pipe and smoke it…

And yet, despite the fact he has every advantage, the scene is tremendously suspenseful, because we know that Bilbo won’t kill his host. Instead, the pair engage in a battle of wits. It’s a scene you couldn’t do in The Lord of the Rings, and one that could easily be dismissed by a more cynical audience, but it works here because we believe in Bilbo. We invest in the character as brough to life by Freeman and Jackson, and we desperately want him to find a way to complete his journey while retaining his innocence.While Frodo would never return from his quest entirely innocent, the more modest scale of The Hobbit allows us to hold out hope for Bilbo.

To be fair to Jackson, the film works remarkably well when focusing on the quest. Those familiar with the book will enjoy seeing classic sequences play themselves out. Barry Humphries is pretty great as the Goblin King and the three trolls sound very familiar. (Even if I can’t seem to find their voice actors on-line.) Again, these are foes that would seem ridiculous in The Lord of the Rings, and An Unexpected Journey works best when it embraces the unique voice of the source material.

Brave old world...

Brave old world…

The film suffers from trying too hard to emulate its predecessor. It seems like the film is populated with cameos from faces we should recognise. Some of them are logical (Gandalf and the character in the cave are pretty essential to the narrative), while others feel a tad indulgent (like the framing sequence to remind us this is definitely the same fictional universe). Even structurally, the film seems a little bit too similar to the Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, with An Unexpected Journey constructed so that it ends following a massive underground chase sequence after a brief stay with the elves, just like the opener to the original trilogy.

And yet, despite my cynicism about the rather heavy-handed continuity going on, the sequences featuring Gandalf contemplating the inevitable rise of “the Enemy” do a nice job of contextualising the adventure. The Hobbit isn’t quite an epic. For all the dragon-slaying and treasure-hunting, there’s a sense that the people involved are only “little people” in the grand scheme of things, as symbolised by their stature. Both Bilbo and the dwarves are embarking on a quest that is – to them – incredibly epic, but it means relatively little in the grand scheme of things.

I hear he has a short fuse...

I hear he has a short fuse…

Their end goal is just one move on a much larger chessboard, and Gandalf’s scheming does an excellent job putting that in perspective. (As does a scene featuring the gang caught in a clash between giants who barely acknowledge their very existence.) I don’t think the scenes needed to be as long, and the links as indulgent, but I do appreciate that they contextualise the events of The Hobbit. It seems like a big deal, but there are bigger things happening around it.

Normally, the notion that we’re watching a fairly unimportant event in the grand scheme things might be somewhat frustrating, but here it is strangely moving. In this epic battle between good and evil, it turns out that everybody has a part to play – even the most gentle and unassuming of creatures assisting in what appears to be a relatively minor quest. An Unexpected Journey does an excellent job making Bilbo seem genuinely heroic and making his journey seem impressive, while still relatively small-scale.

Grey areas...

Grey areas…

My inner cynic, however, would counter that producing a trilogy around The Hobbit sort of negates that interesting premise. After all, factoring in runtimes, it is quite possible that the adaptation of The Hobbit will run even longer than that of The Lord of the Rings. I am not quite ready to be that cynical about the films, and maybe that’s a ringing endorsement of what Jackson has done here. I was probably a bit more guarded going into the film than I was coming out, but Jackson still has a lot to prove. However, An Unexpected Journey has earned him enough goodwill that I am still with him.

I saw the film in IMAX, in 3D at 48fps. The technical aspects of the film are inevitably going to generate a huge amount of discussion. I am, as I am with a lot of An Unexpected Journey, more intrigued than I am entirely satisfied. That’s not a bad thing – especially given that this is the first major release shot in this format. I am going to be a bit careful here, because I don’t really have a frame of reference. I trust Jackson’s technical competence enough to be fairly sure that everything was working perfectly, and that any effects I experienced were little more than optical illusions. I wonder how much of the somewhat strange effect was down to the fact that I am simply not used to processing film in this manner.

Let sleeping dwarves lie...

Let sleeping dwarves lie…

The 48fps reminds me of the high-definition footage shot for high-end BBC documentaries – especially nature documentaries. In many ways, An Unexpected Journey could be read as a travelogue of Middle-Earth. It is shot in New Zealand, but it is easy enough to spot familiar fictional landmarks. A campsite used in The Lord of the Rings is home to an Orc pack, and we discover how little has changed in the world of Elves in the decades before The Lord of the Rings. The special effects look absolutely stunning, and the 3D is not bad either. The couple next to me were jumping out of their seats at times.

However, there’s a catch. The surroundings, scenery and CGI all look superb, befitting a follow-up to The Lord of the Rings. However, the human actors seem a bit… odd. They are almost out of sync with the surroundings. I suspect it is my eye processing the images faster than I’m used to, but many characters seem to move a little too fast, as if “sped up.” This works to great effect in the battle scenes that are superbly kinetic, but it can seem strange when watching characters cross familiar landscapes and running and hiding. The actors occasionally seem to wander into the uncanny valley more than the computer-generated characters.

What's old is new again...

What’s old is new again…

Howard Shore provides the music for the film, and it sounds absolutely wonderful, as you might have come to expect. As discussed above, the somewhat expansive runtime affords the movie a chance to delve into the culture of Middle-Earth. In particular, we hear a lot of singing. The Lord of the Rings was far too serious to support a musical number like the dwarves cleaning up Bilbo’s kitchen, but it works here – almost like a Disney movie come to life. Again, it works very well.

An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable film. It captures a lot of what makes The Hobbit work. The problem is that it includes a bit too much other stuff to the point where it dilutes the truly great stuff here. I enjoyed it, and I am anxious to see the next instalment, but I can’t help but feel that it might be an excellent film if it were half-an-hour shorter.

8 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Oscar's Blog and commented:
    I can’t wait for this!!!

  2. Peter Jackson has been known to be indulgent, as with his version of “King Kong.” However, I enjoy his indulgences. Perhaps too much of a good thing can spoil it, but I’d rather have too much than not enough. Far too often movies feel like they haven’t been fleshed out and things happen too quickly (some installments of the Harry Potter series come to mind). As long as it’s engaging, then I’m happy. I’m looking forward to seeing “The Hobbit” when it opens in the states this Friday.

    • I hope you enjoy it. I saw it again in 24fps. People look better, but action seems less clear than it did in 48fps. Let me know what you make of it.

      • I saw it in 24fps 3D and really enjoyed it. Your review hit upon its flaws but also what worked, and I had to laugh at how much the structure followed “Fellowship of the Ring.” I probably won’t see it a second time in the theater, but it’ll be added to my Blu-Ray collection.

      • Yep, I can agree with that. I really liked the stuff from the book. The Hobbit is a lot lighter than Lord of the Rings, which still means it can be pretty damn serious but not “the world is going to end” levels of threat, and I think the film works best when it acknowledges that.

  3. Good review Darren. I would sum up the Hobbit by hi-jacking that pun of yours. A ‘ringing endorsement of what Jackson has done’ in LOTR. For me The Hobbit was an unexpected disappointment. Back again but not quite there.

    • I think it would really benefit from a trim. I didn’t hate it, though I don’t want to see it again for a while. and I dread the extended cut.

      I actually liked the “lighter and softer” stuff that wouldn’t have worked in LOTR though – the singing and the Disney kitchen clean-up routine.

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