Sunday, December 16, 2012
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a review
Warning: Spoilers follow.
overindulgence is also apparent in the scene with the stone giants. These
creatures looked cool, and the scene was working until Jackson ham-handedly turned it into the
company surviving the equivalent of an artillery barrage with flying shrapnel.
Given the volume of flying and falling rocks it is utterly inconceivable that
someone would not have been killed or suffered multiple crippling
injuries, but we’re asked to swallow this.
As I left an IMAX 3D showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey early Saturday evening, I struggled at first to determine why I experienced such ambivalence about the film. Then I hit on it: Director Peter Jackson has taken what is a tightly-plotted, 300-page novel and turned it into the equivalent of a multi-volume fantasy epic, with all the good and the bad that change entails.
My short review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey deserves the mixed ratings it has received (65% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing). It was a qualified success, with some high points and some low points. It’s good, but not as good as The Lord of the Rings films, in my opinion. And in places it’s downright annoying.
First the good. I had the opposite reaction of many reviewers, it seems, in that I very much enjoyed the opening 45 minutes or so. I was spellbound by the flashbacks of Erebor and its splendor, the coming of Smaug, and the Battle of Azanulbizar. I wish
spent more time on the dwarves and their banter with Bilbo.
I loved Martin Freeman as Bilbo. He absolutely nailed the part. Balin was excellent, and I loved Thorin, too. Frankly, all the dwarves were good. “Riddles in the Dark” deserves the praise it’s getting; it’s a wonderful scene.
So that said, what irked me about the film? It’s apparent (if it wasn’t already) that
has zero subtlety as a director. The chapter “Out of the Frying Pan and Into
the Fire” features the Dwarves, Bilbo, and Gandalf fleeing from wolves into the
trees; Gandalf rains down a few flaming pinecones on their pursuers before the
eagles fly to their rescue. It’s memorable, believable, and it works in the
book. In Jackson’s
hands this scene features swordplay, an epic slow-motion showdown of Thorin vs.
Azog (with dwarves predictably mouthing “NOOO!”), trees falling like dominos
until one final tree is about to fall over a cliff, and so on. It’s way too
The scene in goblin town was similarly overblown. Remember the collapsing bridge in Khazad-Dum (which I also found annoying) from The Fellowship of the Ring? Take that scene and multiply it by a factor of two or three. The Dwarves survive a fall seemingly of 100 feet or more amid twisted wooden wreckage onto a stone floor and end up completely unscathed. It’s utterly laughable.
doesn’t think it’s enough to hew to the book, in which the Dwarves aided by
Gandalf cut their way free in the dark, then race down corridors, turning with
Orcrist and Glamdring to slow the pursuit by slaying their pursuers at a corner.
That’s great, and works just fine; in Jackson’s
hands the escape is an adrenaline-charged theme park ride with collapsing
bridges, dwarves knocking goblins off perilous spans like tenpins, dwarves
blocking arrows with swords, and so on. Too video-gamey for my tastes.
I know what some of you might be saying: It’s just fantasy. If you can accept the presence of hobbits and dwarves, and dragons and magic, why not death-defying escapes? The difference is that these sequences violate the laws of physics, destroying our suspension of disbelief and robbing the real battles to come of any danger. When dwarves survive
great falls from bridges
and trees without a scratch, and morph into goblin and orc-killing ninjas in
every fight scene, it’s hard to feel any real suspense.
The film’s biggest misstep is turning Bilbo into a hero far too early. In the book the turning point is “Flies and Spiders,” in which Bilbo, all alone in the dark, kills a spider with Sting, which is the turning point of his career; in “An Unexpected Journey” he’s already stabbing wargs and engaging in swordplay with goblins. Again, this diminishes the terror of the goblins; if they can’t dispatch a hobbit with no skill with a blade, how are they a credible threat to the dwarves? Since Bilbo has already impaled a charging warg with his blade, I have to believe his moment in the sun with the spiders is going to feel rather anti-climactic (though I’m sure the spiders will look great).
I also found Radagast the Brown rather unnecessary and distracting. Not awful, but certainly padding worthy of being trimmed. As was the additional battle sequence with the dwarves fleeing the wargs before being saved by Elven archers at the secret gate to Rivendell—this could have been safely cut.
My overall take? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is worth watching. It has some lovely highs. I laughed out loud at Martin’s reaction to the “fine print” of the dwarves’ contract (“Funeral expenses?”). I experienced a delicious chill at “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold,” which sounds like a mournful dirge. It’s my favorite scene, in fact. I give
a lot of credit for imbuing 13 dwarves with distinct looks and personalities,
no mean feat. I also liked the ending, with Thorin’s heartfelt embrace of Bilbo,
even if it was a bit telegraphed.
But as I said above, it has some ugly lows, too. I keep wondering whether part of my lukewarm reaction to it is simply the fact that it’s too much
too soon; the images are too familiar. For example, Gollum was great, looking
even better here than in LOTR. But we’ve seen him before; the wow factor is
gone. Same with Hobbiton and Bag-End, which are again perfectly rendered, but are
nothing we haven’t seen before.
Some have already said The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is much more faithful to Tolkien than
Jackson’s Ring films. I
would say that it both is, and is not. An
Unexpected Journey retains a good deal of material from The Hobbit but also contains much more Jackson,
which is necessary due to the length and scope of the films. And Jackson, it bears
repeating, is no Tolkien. There’s too much connective tissue in here (either
extrapolated from the appendices of LOTR, or created from whole cloth) and it
shows. The LOTR films are better because they follow roughly the same storyline
of the book (altered or expanded upon, but recognizably the book); they’re at
their weakest when they are 100% Jackson
(such as Aragorn over the cliff). An
Unexpected Journey features much more Jackson,
with predicable results. It’s hard to believe that after 2 hours and 45 minutes
we’re only through six chapters. I’m already anticipating a purist cut that will
surpass the original.
To be fair to
I have always believed that The Hobbit
is more difficult to turn into a feature film than The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit (book) lacks the gravitas and
literary depth of The Lord of the Rings, and is essentially an episodic series of
adventures and escapes in the wild, until the final 1/3 when it morphs into a
more adult story focusing on Bilbo’s growth and emotional development. An
Unexpected Journey covers only the first six chapters and so it naturally is just a
series of escapes, interspersed with some downtime at Rivendell. Jackson simply overdoes the
material he’s given, turning these chapters from brisk adventures into epic,
overblown set-pieces. These escapes pass quickly in the book; in Jackson’s hands they
become overextended and repetitive. The
Hobbit should have been two movies of 2 hours, maybe 2 ½ hours, but not
three films of near three hours’ length.
Of course I’m going to watch the other two films. Some of my favorite sequences are still to come, including the meeting with Beorn, Barrels out of Bond, the events at Laketown, Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug, and of course The Battle of Five Armies. I have no doubt that I will thrill to the cinematic rendition of these scenes. But I hope that Jackson and co. take some of the criticism to heart and spend the next year tightening up these films and cutting out the unnecessary nonsense. Time will tell what
does with the final two acts but I hope they are an improvement on An Unexpected Journey.