Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a review

Warning: Spoilers follow.

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 Jackson 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 Jackson 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 much.

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. Jackson 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.

Jackson’s 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.

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 Jackson 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 Jackson, 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 Jackson, 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 Jackson does with the final two acts but I hope they are an improvement on An Unexpected Journey.


Ted Cross said...

You nailed my exact points on this one. The action sequences are what jolted me out of the movie, especially the giants, the multiple long falls with no one getting hurt, and the scene before the eagles arrive, though I'd have mentioned how stupid it was that Thorin would just walk off the toppled tree and not help his comrades who seemed just seconds away from falling to their deaths. He seemed to have time right there to pull some of them up. My favorite parts were the flashbacks to dwarven history.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I'm in agreement with your observations, one more that I thought was a big one.

Granted the whole idea in the books of the trolls simply grabbing the dwarves and putting them into sacks is rather unheroic for the dwarves, but the very idea that Thorin would lay down his arms for the sake of Bilbo so that all of them could be devoured was ridiculous. Thorin doesn't even like or respect Bilbo yet, why would he essentially let them all die rather than see the hobbit torn limb from limb-there is NO WAY he would have agreed to that.

Martin said...

I wrote the following thoughts on The Blog That Time Forgot:

I’m not watching these movies because the whole approach turns me off. Fanfiction, fanservice, continuity porn, stretching, padding, retrofitting, call it whatever.

These films are not “The Hobbit” to me. More like “The Lord of the Rings: Origins” or “Adventures in Middle-earth Before LOTR Happened”. That’s not enough. I don’t want to give Jackson and co. my money or my time.

In fact these films might make me give up on the whole Tolkien fandom community and send my inner fan into dormancy (again).

I don’t want to support these movies and I don’t want to be in a fandom that includes supporters of these movies, whether they be casual moviegoers or hardcore readers. Nothing personal to those of you who’ve watched it but I must ostracize myself. It’s much the same for the LOTR movies, I haven’t touched those in years.

At least there is always other stuff of interest which doesn't quite have the same emotional baggage (damn you, high school self). Heck I'll take Arnold's return to Conan over these.

Taranaich said...

I'm with you on just about everything except it being "good, but not as good as The Lord of the Rings films": I think it's comparable in quality to them. Not as good as Fellowship, I don't think, but I'd place it above The Two Towers, at least. Ah well, such is the realm of Tolkien.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, all.

David/Ted, you touch on some interesting points regarding Thorin's character. I agree that its highly unlikely that book Thorin would have a) abandoned his fellows for the sake of mano-y-mano single combat (maybe for the Arkenstone), or b) laid down his arms for Bilbo's sake at that point of the story. At the end of the novel, yes, but Bilbo hadn't earned any of Thorin's respect and was barely above contempt at that point.

Martin: I appreciate your passion for Tolkien and I share the same (greatest author of the 20th century, IMO), but I still enjoy the LOTR films as a thing apart, an adaptation. The Hobbit a bit less so.

Taranich: It has the same feel as the LOTR films, and identical (if not superior) production values, unquestionably. I just thought it was the least of the four so far. I do agree that TTT was the least of the LOTR films.

Dan O. said...

Good review Brian. Way, way too long, but that was expected (and there are two more movies!). Not convinced on 48 fps, looks beautiful but gets very weird in action. I guess that’s just how I feel and accepted it as.

Anonymous said...

Best of the season Brian!


Brian Murphy said...

You too Jim! Hope you are doing well these days.

noisms said...

Somebody in the comments to my review of the film made the excellent point that Peter Jackson seems to have taken the focus away from Bilbo and onto Thorin, to the film's detriment.

My own feeling is that the story isn't nearly comic enough. The dwarves in the book are idiots who have to rely on Bilbo again and again to help them out of trouble...without ever once acknowledging it. The relationship between the meek Brandybuck discovering his adventurous Took side, and the obstinate, foolhardy dwarves, is the crux of the entire plot, and making it some sort of tragic epic about the descendants of Thrain is a huge mistake, I think.

Brian Murphy said...

My own feeling is that the story isn't nearly comic enough. The dwarves in the book are idiots who have to rely on Bilbo again and again to help them out of trouble...without ever once acknowledging it.

Yeah, the feel of Jackson's The Hobbit is very different than the book, and instead aims for the tone of The Lord of the Rings. Which, when combined with the comic events that Jackson does keep (the dwarves stumbling into Bag End, the singing, etc.) makes for an uneven viewing experience. The actual events of the first six chapters of the book really aren't the stuff of the epic.

Albanyish Dana said...

Finally saw it today (after Les Mis yesterday, for an epic ~6 hours of moviedom). All in all, I'd say 'not as bad as I'd feared'. In fact, it was pretty good. Liked the beginning all the way up until Jackson changed the scene where Bilbo leaves for no reason whatsoever, it would have been perfectly fine as written with Gandalf sending Bilbo off in a rush. But then that would have destroyed his made up storyline about Bilbo wanting the adventure after all yadda yadda yadda. Too many epic battles, dwarves too action hero-y, Bilbo, as you said, a hero much too soon. Troll scene lame, but understandable as pander to a certain audience. Honestly didn't notice the frame rate difference.

Find myself most wondering who will be voicing Smaug...has that been revealed?

Second wonder - Will he add in the driving out of the Necromancer to flesh out one of the films instead of it being merely a footnote as in the book? The heavy-handed storyline he's made up about it would seem to foreshadow more about the Necromancer to come. Personally, if done right I think that could be a worthy addition.

Falze said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Albanyish Dana said...

Ah, nevermind, should have checked first...someone I've never heard of playing Smaug. Small hope he'll best Richard Boone from the Rankin Bass flick.

noisms said...

I'm assuming the second film will be the second half of the Hobbit, ending with the Battle of Five Armies. Then the third film will focus on ousting the Necromancer. Seems the most sensible way of doing it.

Brian Murphy said...

Albanyish Dana: Glad you liked the film. I saw it a second time with my brother and enjoyed it a bit more this time around. Still a good notch or two below the LOTR films, but enjoyable enough.

As Noisms said, I have to think that the events of ousting the Necromancer will be the bulk of the third film. I suspect however that the next movie could conclude with the death of Smaug, and the Battle of Five Armies reserved for the final film. Based on how little of the book (six chapters) An Unexpected Journey covered, I think Jackson could make a second (well-padded) film out of Mirkwood, the spiders, prisoners of the elves/Barrels out of Bond, Laketown, and have the climax be Bard slaying Smaug. That would take us through chapter 14 of 19, and leave the final 5 plus the Necromancer for film 3. But who knows.

Scott said...


I haven't seen it yet, but your review sounds a lot like opinions my friends who've seen it have told me...I may wait for it to come to DVD...we'll see.

Andy R said...

I liked many of the drarves but i don't share your like of Thorin. In the book, I read him as being quite a bit older and having more severity and dignity. He was a harp player, like Kind David, not the chief of a band of ruffians. I also felt Jackson' Thorin was too much like Jackson's Aragorn for my liking. Jackson downplayed his beard and picked a similar-looking actor and I fear this is heading for an Aragornesque "return of yet another king" scenario rather than the re-establishment of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, which is a different thing entirely.

Anonymous said...

Great Review, and some interesting opinions. Having seen the hobbit twice my feelings can be summed up in the follwoing word: 'meh', but differ as a film fan and a huge fan of the books...AUJ is at the least an enjoyable mess.

As with the reviewer I loved the opening hour or so, exactly what I was hoping from the film (apart from the 'Hey look its me Elijah Wood' framing device-I personally would have preffered Balin or the 'narrartors voice' from the book telling Erebor's history-Frodo just felt like lazy fan service (the red book stuff wasn't really in the LOTR films anyway)). There were some great set peices, and I can't fault the film on direction or acting (mostly)-Freeman was perfect. But once the party left the shire it went downhill for me , there was too much slapstick humour (in contrast to the whimsical tone of the book), the CGI was hit and miss in some of the sequences, the stone gaints sequence was to me uneccsary (Again I liked the mysterious way in played in the book)and both the tone and pace were all over the place, it really felt like PJ was rewriting the book based on vague notes on the appendices, but wasn't really sure how to balance the tones, and compensated by going over the top trying to please everyone. Even after two viewings I'm not entirely sure whether three films was necessary, I found it all too obvious what was added on from the book...and in large parts of the film it felt less like the book than LOTR did!. I could have forgiven him if the film was as great as the LOTR was (yes the book is so much better, and elves at helms deep was stupid, but you try and make a more faifthful adaptation with only nine hours, and massive expectation at your disposal), but the simple truth is, it wasn't.

I was also surprised that the dwarves were largely forgeattable (as in the book) though Balin, whoever Jimmy Nesbitt played and Bombur were great-not Thorin I thought Armitage was too young for the role, too similar to aragorn and trying too hard (The whole young man grows into king thing was a bit cliched), I always liked the fact Thorin was a aged (the equivalent of 58), grumpy warrior on one last quest- I loved the fact that he had grown up for hundreds of years with the embers of revenge buring inside him, his age, and the 170 years since smaug's attack adding more emotional depth, longer odds and a mythic status to the quest.

As a huge fan of the books the Azog stuff (why not keep Bolg as the leader of the wargs?) felt annoying and bolted on to me-they spent half the film setting up a fight with Thorin, then he was defeated...again (I'm not liking the whole 'lets play the ringwraith music' in his fight with Thorin...), I hated the fact Dain Ironfoot's crucial role in the backstory was skipped over (was really looking forward to see Billy Connoly), radagast was kinda annoying (I can undersatnd why he was in it...but Mcoy was annoying and it felt nothing like Tolkien) and I thought it was frankly lazy they left the whole eagles 'plot hole' wide open again.

I found the White Council and riddles in the dark slighty dissapointing (I know I'm probabaly alone), though stunningily shot and acted (Christopher Lee owns that scene!) neither felt as important as they did in the books, and both seemed liked 'hey it's that guy! cool!' fan service, my friend who hasn't read the books was genuinely surprised that neither scene was meaNt to be funny.

Long rant aside, the simple truth for me is the film is very uneven and very average, and little like the book I remember reading. That's not too say I didn't enjoy as a film fan-I'm sure I will buy the extended cut and devour it hungrily, but TH.AUJ remains dissapoiting/ annoying for me on all levels.

If I'm brutally honest my fave thing about the film, is a it makes a film (i.e butchering) of The Silmarillion much less likely.

Paul Ashwell