December 24, 2012

Movie Mondays: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Title: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro (based on The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien)
Studio: New Line Cinema, MGM, WingNut Films
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, and Adam Brown
Release date: December 14, 2012

[Editor’s note: Hey gang! This is Kristin taking over the column today as a resident Tolkien fanatic. Your regular columnist (who I believe will be Aaron from now on) should return next week!]

Here is what you need to know about The Hobbit. Do you like fantasy movies? Do you like Tolkien? If you answered yes to one or both of those questions, then go see it, because you’re this film’s target audience. This film will not have as wide a range of appeal as the Lord of the Rings films. The scope of the story and its themes are very different. Rather than a series of events that affects the entirety of Middle Earth, from the smallest hobbit to the largest ent, the events of The Hobbit almost exclusively affect only those in the adventuring party. A handful of dwarfs, one hobbit, and a wizard. And a dragon. Maybe some goblins and a trio of trolls. Peter Jackson and his team do their best to expand the film’s vision and tie it into the three films that take place after these events, and it works, though Tolkien purists may take offense. However, if you’re that much of a purist, you probably didn’t enjoy the original three films anyway, and likely won’t have any interest in this one.

There are lots of lovely things in this film. Throw backs to the LotR films, nods to surrounding events that occur outside the main books (like things from the Appendices in the back of Return of the King), and lines pulled right out of the book and put into the mouths of favorite characters. Ian Holm makes a brief appearance as an older Bilbo, for a scene that really goes on a bit too long, particularly noticeable after the rather epic scene just before it detailing the history of Erebor (the dwarf hold that kicks off the entire quest). It plods along a bit, and Ian Holm appears to be reading his lines through molasses. However, the scene is not only meant as a bit of exposition and to set up the film you’re about to watch, but is also meant to tie into the Fellowship of the Ring film. Elijah Wood makes a brief appearance as Frodo, book in hand and about to meet Gandalf (Ian McKellen) as he arrives for Bilbo’s birthday party. Tolkien fans will appreciate Bilbo’s early draft of his memoirs, which begins with “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Or Gandalf and Thorin (Richard Armitage) quoting the chapter title “Out of the Frying-Pan Into the Fire.” Fans of the original films will note Gandalf hitting his head on that same chandelier in Bilbo’s home, and repeating a line from the song Pippin performed in the hall of Gondor during Return of the King. And fans of Tolkien’s poetry, that readers will know is scattered throughout the pages of The Hobbit, will enjoy some of them being brought to life in song. In particular, an absolutely stunning and beautiful rendition of the misty mountains song the dwarfs sing in Bilbo’s home.

By now everyone should be aware that there will be three of these films, so an obvious question would be: How much of the story is told in this one? The answer: Exactly six chapters. From “An Unexpected Party” to “Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire.” Or, from when Bilbo meets the dwarfs until the encounter with the goblin king and the rescue by the eagles. Which is, oh, almost about exactly one-third of the novel. So how does that turn into a nearly three hour long film? Surprisingly well, and with some extra padding. Like an entire sequence about Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy), who, if I remember correctly, has a very brief appearance in the book where he’s just sort of sitting on the side of the road and found by Gandalf. Jackson and his crew took this cameo and turned it into a full sequence, showcasing Radagast in his element of Mirkwood, in his job as protector of the forest. It’s actually a great sequence of the film. It isn’t often we’re shown Middle Earth’s protectors actively protecting Middle Earth. Particularly the wizards, the five Istari, who were sent there for that express purpose. Gandalf is obviously gallivanting around casting his one high level spell per year in the aide of the denizens of Middle Earth. But watching Radagast actively caring for the forest, its animals and its plants, is interesting to see, if a little heart breaking due to all of the adorable animals lying dead from corruption and disease. Why did they have to use all the cute animals? Oh dear, now I’m just geeking out, aren’t I?

Back to the movie. The effects are great. Better than they were before. Gollum’s facial detail has rocketed, and so much more of Andy Serkis’s incredible expressions are transferred to the face model; there have been clear improvements to the program used and it pays off wonderfully. I must admit some disappointment in the rather large amount of CGI used in the film, more than was probably necessary. For example, the pale orc, Azog (Manu Bennett, I think was entirely animated when he could have been a really awesome make up job. On the other hand, there is an incredible sequence in the mountains, the thunder-battle between stone-giants. The film took a 2-3 page event and turned it into a truly stunning visual feast. Which, honestly, is how the film pads itself out to three hours. Lots of visually stunning battles and things. The fight against the trolls was particularly delightful.

Anyone whose character appeared in the previous films and returns in this one is back to reprise their roles. From Cate Blanchett as Galadriel to Hugo Weaving as Elrond. Looking very good despite having aged about ten years (and for a time period set about sixty years prior to the events of Fellowship). The cast as a whole is fabulous. The individuals are fabulous. Everyone is fabulous; the cast is perfect. The visuals, as I keep mentioning, are stunning, and an obvious improvement. The score, once again written by Howard Shore, is great as expected, with themes that tie the film back to the earlier trilogy. Andy Serkis acts as the film’s second unit director, and veteran fans will know that Jackson frequently delegated in such a way due to the scope of the films, and everything fit together seamlessly, as it does again here. Weta Workshop is back with fantastic props, costumes, and effects, and there are familiar names among the staff, such as Richard Taylor. Alan Lee and John Howe are back as conceptual designers. The same team produces the same great results.

My complaints are few, but one of my major ones is a bit odd given the book’s expansion into three films, and the near three hour running time of this one. I did not feel that the dwarfs were appropriately individualized. Granted, there’s a bunch of them. Thirteen to be exact, but so few of them get time to shine in any significant way. Of course, that makes fifteen adventuring characters (when you toss in Bilbo and Gandalf) to Fellowship‘s nine, but there was plenty of characterization and development going on with them. The dwarfs are distinct, but mostly in appearance and basic mannerisms, not by action (with exceptions like Thorin and Kili, and Kili is only distinct for his use of bow and arrow). Hopefully they’ll have more time to get really fleshed out through the other two films. Also, while the film is certainly enjoyable and entertaining, it does not carry the same weight as its predecessors. Not for lack of trying, as Jackson and his crew put effort into making various connections and allusions to show the oncoming storm that dominates the main trilogy. It’s a good film, it’s worth watching, there’s just something missing somewhere. Maybe the novelty has worn off? We’ve already seen three films like this, and to be honest there’s a bit of repetition here. Still, I’m looking forward to the next two films and recommend taking the time to see An Unexpected Journey.


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One Comment

  1. In regard to this statement:
    “It’s a good film, it’s worth watching, there’s just something missing somewhere. Maybe the novelty has worn off? We’ve already seen three films like this, and to be honest there’s a bit of repetition here.”

    Yes. But it could have been much much worse and far more lackluster. Just think of the Star Wars prequels. … Exactly.

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