A Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson (2012)
by REBECCA, January 7, 2012
My dad first read me Lord of the Rings when I was in kindergarten because I was constantly begging to be read to and he figured he might as well kill two birds with one stone: read me something really long so I’d stop asking for new books, and get to revisit a series he wanted to re-read. My theory: he kind of thought I’d think it was boring and let him off the hook. Either way, I loved it, and he loved re-reading it. And, later, of course, I read The Hobbit. I didn’t love it as much as Lord of the Rings—it didn’t have the same depth, the same epic quality that had so captivated me. Instead, it was a small story, a story about one person taking a chance and exceeding his expectations, about a gang with one seemingly modest goal: take back what was once stolen from them. Still, if Aragorn was my first literary crush, Thorin Oakenshield was my second (imagine my confusion when I saw the animated version in the late 1980s and they had animated Thorin to look like my grandfather; awkward).
When I learned that Peter Jackson and the team were back in NZ on the Lord of the Rings’ old stamping ground to film The Hobbit I had mixed feelings. On one hand, why mess with a world that you’ve executed so beautifully ten years before? On the other, I’m a sucker for seeing geekdom come to life, so I took the path less traveled: excitement. But then I learned that Jackson was making another trilogy instead of one film and my heart sunk again. Why would you set a film version of a small story to the same scale as the film versions of an epic trilogy? (I wouldn’t.) But then I began to read articles explaining that Jackson was including material from The Silmarillion and some of Lord of the Rings’ Appendices and I got excited again—how great for some of that oft-lost stuff to see the light of a studio set! That’s all to say that when the lights dimmed the other day and I finally got to see The Hobbit, I was conflicted, and more than ready to know one way or the other.
And, predictably I suppose, it was a pretty mixed bag. I saw The Hobbit with my parents and my sister and their consensus was that the movie was definitely “entertaining” and “enjoyable.” I agree. But I mostly agree as someone thinking of The Hobbit as merely one more piece of what I’m increasingly beginning to think of as “The Jackson-Tolkien Complex”; that is, Tolkien’s novels and paratextual materials, the art of people like Alan Lee and John Howe, whose visions thrilled me as a kid and went on to greatly inform Jackson’s films, the Lord of the Rings movies, and, now, The Hobbit films.
That is to say: while entertaining and enjoyable, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not a great film in its own right; removed from the Jackson-Tolkien Complex it doesn’t really stand on its own for what I think are pretty predictable reasons.
The Hobbit is a quest story, which means that it doesn’t break down into any kind of neat tripartite system that would lend itself to a trilogy. As my dad said, “I didn’t expect it to end where it did. I kind of forgot it was being made in three movies, so when it ended, I was still waiting to see what was going to happen with the dragon.” Without major restructuring of the plot, there would be no way to really signal what the three phases of the story are. Jackson ends the first film with the lyrical image of the thrush knocking a snail on the rock of the lonely mountain to forecast what will happen later, but there was no dramatic structure to the film.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with a movie that takes its time: I will watch Braveheart, Gladiator, or Last of the Mohicans any day of the week. But The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ended . . . well, unexpectedly. And, while Jackson has, indeed, added bits and bobs from The Silmarillion to flesh out the backstory, The Hobbit speeds through some scenes while lingering overlong on others. While the dinner scene that introduces the dwarves functions just like the scene in the book—to exaggerate the dwarves’ bufoonishness and Bilbo’s contrasting prudish domesticity—it is unnecessarily long and rather cartoonish. It does, however, create a nice contrast for the entrance of Thorin Oakenshield in all his long-maned glory (a perfectly proud Richard Armitage).
Jackson has shot The Hobbit using high-frame-rate projection (48 frames per second rather than the typical 24, for the first time ever). While this looks beautiful in many of the middle-ground and closeup scenes, for the sweeping and swooping extreme long-shots of Middle Earth that take up the first 20 minutes or so of The Hobbit, it results in the vertiginous effect of the foreground looking distractingly blurry (I didn’t see the film in 3-D because it makes me sick, so I can’t comment on what effect the higher speed had on that technology). The other problem, which I’m not sure whether to ascribe to projection speed or CGI effects, is that the new settings Jackson et al have developed for the film, while beautiful, take on the appearance of mere backdrops because we see so little of them. When the dwarves are captured by goblins, we see their home, a huge tent city in the hollow of a mountain, lined with tiers of lean-tos. While this setting is detailed and full of action, because we spend so little time there and see so little of it close up, it has the feeling of a video game background populated with a slew of CGIed goblins rather than, say, the fully brought-to-life Shire.
The acting was typical of Peter Jackson’s casting in Middle Earth, I think. When played straight, everyone is pretty good; when going for laughs, they aren’t nearly as subtle as they should be, as if Jackson wants people to know that just because he’s making epic movies about battles of good and evil it doesn’t mean he’s lost his sense of humor (even if that humor is of the banal the-fat-dwarf-breaks-his-chair-hardy-har-har variety). Andy Serkis’ Gollum is even better than it was in Lord of the Rings, its briefness merely highlighting his marvelous range. And while he’s playing essentially the same role as Dr. Watson on Sherlock, Martin Freeman is absolutely pitch perfect as Bilbo and every time one of the dwarves made a stupid joke or there was yet another cut to the “pale orc” standing and looking evil I wished we could just go back to watching Bilbo be delightful. The award for the best (and most unexpected) character appearance goes to Sylvester McCoy’s wizard, Radagast the Brown, who speaks to animals, knows hedgehogs by name, and has a line of bird shit running down the side of his face from the birds he keeps in a hair-nest under his hat (huzzah!).
So, all in all, a mixed bag. A treat, I think, for those of us who know The Hobbit well and simply enjoy watching a beloved world come to life; but perhaps a miss for the uninitiated, the impatient, or the narratively-conscious. Final result: made me want to go back and watch all the special features from the Lord of the Rings dvds. See you in twenty-six hours!
What about you? What are your thoughts about The Hobbit or the Jackson-Tolkien Complex?