Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Film Review: The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey

As I wrote in my film flash, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is The Phantom Menace of the Middle Earth series.

Let's take a look at the comparison:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
-the first new film in the series in over a decade
-the first new film in the series in over a decade
-the first to come out after the best of the series (Return of the Jedi)
-the first to come out after the best of the series (The Return of the King)
-the first in a new prequel trilogy
-the first in a new prequel trilogy
-heavy on exposition and set up
-heavy on exposition and set up
-lighter in theme and tone
-lighter in theme and tone
-much more comedic
-much more comedic
-heavy foreshadowing of second trilogy
-heavy foreshadowing of second trilogy
-more novel special effects (complete CG characters and environments)
-more novel special effects (complete CG characters and 48fps)


Something to keep in mind when entering this movie is this: it is a children's story.  In terms of tone, it is closer in tone to The Chronicles of Narnia than The Lord of the Rings.  Whereas the former was sometimes dark, but decidedly more enchanting world, the latter is a place full of hope struggling against dread.

This might be a disappointment to fans of the original trilogy, but that is the way it has to be.  It would be a mistake to make the two Tolkien Trilogies exactly the same.  As Frodo said to Bilbo in The Fellowship of the Ring, "My own adventure turned out to be quite different."

The film does need to balance familiarity with novelty.  Make it too different and you risk stepping away from what made the first trilogy great.  Make it too similar and you'll be accused of ripping off your old material.  The movie does begin with several familiar visual nods, including the title sequence and an opening scene with actors Ian Holm and Elijah Wood from the first trilogy as Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

The central story begins (after a prologue) on the day of Bilbo's 111th birthday: the same day that the main action of The Fellowship of the Ring began.  Bilbo then begins to write down his adventure, setting up the entire story as a flashback.

This introduces us to the younger Bilbo, played by the perfectly-cast Martin Freeman.  In fact, the casting is so perfect that I cannot imagine anyone else playing the part.  He is round of face with gentle features that make him very believable as a simple hobbit.  But as his work on shows like Sherlock have shown, he is not a simple doughy exterior.  When called upon he can behave as a man of action.  This is important because Bilbo must grow believably into his role of adventurer.  Freeman also cannily adopts several of Ian Holm's character quirks, but it doesn't not feel like a mere impression.

Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) arrives at young Bilbo's home and seems disappointed at the hobbit's complacent, insulated life.  Unbeknown to the halfling, Gandalf sets up a meeting at Bag End, where 13 dwarves crash Biblo's home and cause a ruckus.  Here they explain their purpose: to travel far to the east and reclaim their ancient home of Erabor from an evil dragon named Smaug.  Gandalf pushes Biblo on the company to be their burglar.

Here is where we have a necessary flaw in the movie.  The film completely slows down in the first 30 minutes.  But that cannot be avoided.  First of all, you have the introduction of 15 characters, most of whom you barely get to know.  Also, the plot must be explained clearly.  Finally, Bilbo needs that time to become motivated to join.  Frodo's acceptance of his quest made sense because of the dire need to destroy the ring.  But Bilbo needs a much more subtle, interior journey to move him out of his comfortable Hobbit hole.

After that, the movie keeps moving and does not stop.  Director Peter Jackson once again brings his trademark visual flair to life.  Those familiar with the book may feel that the story is padded with things not in the original narrative.  Yet most of what is added comes from Tolkien's official Appendicies and create a large context to this massive fantasy world.

But beneath the CG, he holds a deeply emotional story.  The dwarves are led by the rightful heir to the Erebor, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).  He is like a mirror-universe version of Aragorn; he is an exiled king desperately wants to take back his throne.  Jackson smartly makes the story not about looting Smaug's treasure.  It's about having a home.   At one point Bilbo says he wants to go home to one of dwarfs and explains, "You don't know what it's like, you're a dwarf: you don't have a home."  In this Middle-Earth, the dwarves are a wandering people who seek to reclaim their own land.  That makes the quest much more noble and easier to invest in.

There are plenty of other familiar characters who make cameos and move the story along, but I don't want to spoil the fun here.  And there is a lot of fun to be had.  The trolls and the goblins talk a lot more and are a bit more cartoonish, but that fits the story.  The production values are through the roof here, mixing practical and computer effects, all the while make New Zealand (the country where this was filmed) appear all the more beautiful.  The only exception is the completely CGI villain, Azog the Defiler.  Like Jar Jar, he never quite feels as real as the other characters.

The performances are a bit on the broad side, but it serves the story well.  McKellen appears to be having a lot more fun in this movie than in the more serious ones before.  Jackson wisely jettisoned the bulky dwarves face makeup used on John Rhys-Davies' Gimli in the last trilogy.  Now, we can very clearly see the dwarves' faces allowing for much more nuance and subtlety.  Of Thorin's company, 4 dwarves stand out:

Thorin himself: Armitage gives him an inner fire and tortured past.  You would believable follow him in battle, despite the chip on his shoulder.
Balin (Ken Scott): he acts as the wizened old statesman who you turn to for exposition.
Kili (Aidan Turner): he is the Legolas of this group, complete with bow.
Bofur (James Nesbitt): he is the jokester who is a bit more insightful than people realize.  Nesbitt, who was great in last year's The Way, shines in this role.

In the end, the movie does what it is supposed to do: set up the rest of the adventure.  And while it does this, it remains a fun ride at the movies.  I have to admit, I missed Middle-Earth, and I am very glad to go there and back again.

4 out of 5

1 comment:

  1. The chase scenes, particularly the escape from the underground lair of the goblins, were repetitious and could have been shortened significantly. On the other hand, I would not have cut out any of the actual events, and that includes some that were not in the book.

    The dialogue improved on the book in several places. For example, Gandalf's handing over of the key to the back passage in the mountain to Thorin was far more dramatic than in the book; and Elrond's being able to read the map was played up much more, with a subplot of Thorin not wanting to let him see it.

    The film stopped at a very good place, shortly after a very moving scene in which Thorin thanked Bilbo for saving his life. Neither that particular saving nor the thanks were in the original book.