Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review




The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: B+
*I saw The Hobbit on an IMAX – 3D screen at 24 frames per second. I hope to see it at 48FPS sometime next week and update this review

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a great fantasy film and when the dust of heightened expectations settles, will (to paraphrase Theoden from Return of the King) go to be with its fathers, in whose mighty company it shall not feel ashamed. It is not perfect; but it is a rousing, funny, and endearing tale that returns us to the characters and places that make-up our beloved Middle-Earth. New faces and locations are also introduced that are as interesting and promising (there are still two more films to fill out the seeds planted here) as many of those we found when we watched Fellowship of the Ring for the first time.. For those willing to put on their dwarven (sp?) mining caps, dig past the inevitable comparisons to the original trilogy and overlook some of the films big missteps, there is enough treasure to be found in The Hobbit to draw even Smaug himself.

Following up the success of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially The Return of the King with over 1 billion in box office and 11 Academy Awards, is impossible. Follow-ups are always expected to be bigger and better, but Tolkien never wrote anything more epic, or arguably anything better, than he did with The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson was rightly hesitant to adapt The Hobbit; the story was smaller with less at stake, the characters more childish and light-hearted, and at the center of the story were thirteen dwarves! I think it is fair to say that in taking up The Hobbit, the cards were stacked against Jackson.



It’s important for The Lord of the Rings fans to understand these difficulties in order to approach The Hobbit with the proper perspective. The particular magic of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy can never be duplicated, especially not from source material like The Hobbit. However, there is always the chance that something similar to the original magic, yet different in its own right can be produced. I think this is what Jackson is aiming for and given source the material he had to work with, over-performed.

That being said, I’m not arguing that a film should be given a pass because its source material was difficult to adapt; that’s a terrible way to judge a film. However, an even worse way to judge a film is to enter into expecting it to repeat a ‘once in a lifetime’ feeling. I will attempt to set aside my expectations and the desire to give it a pass because of its difficult source material and ask the essential question, how does it stand up as its own film? For that, I’m going to have to give you the spoiler alert.

-SPOILER ALERT-

Viewed on its own, the film is an overall success. The opening of the film returns us to the peaceful serenity of the Shire right before Bilbo’s big birthday party in Fellowship of the Ring. This framing device allows us to quickly connect with the original trilogy as well as center this story as Bilbo’s story. We are then brought into a prologue explaining the complicated background story (so much info. is needed that they had to put key moments into a later scene) of the dwarven kingdom of Erebor and are introduced to the dragon Smaug. Visually, this prologue, a sequence between rock giants, and the action in a goblin city remind us how epic and grand Peter Jackson’s eye is for fantasy. To my mind, The Hobbit confirms that he is simply unparalleled in the film-making world at creating grand and sweeping camera moves that lend gravitas, action and scope to his fantasy settings.


The narrative of the film essentially reproduces the two halves structure that was in Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo is drawn into an adventure that after some perilous moments winds its way into Rivendell. From Rivendell, the adventurous party encounters trouble forcing them into a mountain where they must battle goblins to escape. Once out, their party is threatened one last time in the film’s closing moments. The events leading up to Rivendell are roughly paced and give the film a ‘stop and go’ choppiness. I didn't mind the quieter moments and the lengthy amounts of time given to the dwarven party at Bag-End (I actually liked it a lot), but I’d be lying if I didn't admit to feeling ready to get to the ‘bigger’ moments. I think most of the film's faults are found here as good moments are either played too long or cut too short. This section will probably benefit most from multiple viewings.

Once out of Rivendell, the film really picks up and doesn't stop until the end. However, the poorly paced first half makes for an uneven experience. I think one should remember that every one of the original films had pacing issues, especially Fellowship of the Ring. Narrative aside, does the film provide the same emotional power of the original trilogy? It’s here that The Hobbit is most burdened by its light source material. There simply is nothing that Tolkien wrote in The Hobbit that can compare to the pathos of Gandalf’s death or Sam’s faithfulness in Fellowship of the Ring. The emotional weight of the Two Towers and Return of the King came in many ways from the grand arc of the movie’s before them, something The Hobbit doesn't have the benefit of. It's here that we most have to adjust our expectations and attempt to understand what the film tries to do, rather than what we desire based on previous experiences.


I think that Jackson wisely identifies the emotional heart of the film as being about “home” and how important homeland is to our identity. Bilbo’s love for the Shire is initially a barrier to join in the dwarve’s adventure because Bilbo is at “home”, comfortable and satisfied. Reluctantly, Bilbo joins with the dwarves to seek out adventure. It isn't until he comprehends that the dwarves are seeking their own “home” and he can play an essential role in them acquiring it that Bilbo’s adventure turns into a quest. It’s not as potent as the original films, but presented as it is, it’s a nice little gem worthy of the story. Kudos to Jackson for also perfectly nailing “the pity of Bilbo” sequence with Gollum, I couldn't help but hear Gandalf’s counsel to Frodo ringing in the back of my head, “The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many”. Many moments like these are present in this film, deepening moments in the original trilogy.

The more I think about this film, the more I feel that it is better than it had any right to be. On its own, the film succeeds as a grand and thrilling fantasy tale of adventure despite some significant flaws. In the light of its source material, the film overcomes major inherent obstacles to craft a compelling and coherent story. In the light of the original trilogy, the film stands alongside as a lesser (in scope and weight) but complimentary story that deepens and strengthens the originals. I don’t think this new Hobbit trilogy will ever rival the original in scope and power, but it doesn't have to and it isn't supposed to. I feel like after a few more viewings and adjusted expectations (even more so after the other two movies are released), we will be able to see it and appreciate it for what it truly is, a fun and thrilling fantasy adventure worthy of a place alongside the originals.



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