I decided that, based on the timing, I would open this blog with a review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It is, after all, the biggest film of 2012 and an adaptation of one of my favorite novels. Therefore, in spite of having severe trepidation about the film, I felt I had to write about it and thought it would be a good way to start the blog off.
Note: This review will be longer than most of mine will be in the future. Normally, I like to write somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 words. This review will be considerably longer, because I have some things to say about the technology and changes from the source material that I would normally not say.
One may ask why I was initially uneasy about the film. Well, the first reason is that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations really went off the rails as they went along: The first isn’t a spectacular piece of filmmaking, but it’s certainly decent, and I loved it because of my love of the novels. However, the last two were pretty bad. The second reason is Peter Jackson’s decision to adapt a relatively simple story that should have taken 3-4 hours to tell as well and as fully as a film can tell it into not just one long film but three of them—it’s going to take as long to watch The Hobbit as it would to read it! That’s a sign that Jackson had no idea how to adapt it. The third reason is Jackson’s obsession with using technological gimmicks, like the high frame rate and 3D, to sell the film. Those things are useful to sell the film, but they don’t improve filmmaking and frankly I don’t think they even add to the film viewing experience. Jackson’s touting of those things at every opportunity suggested that he was using the technology as a crutch, the way George Lucas has long done with his Star Wars films, rather than as a method of storytelling. All of those things bode poorly for the film. Still, it was The Hobbit.
I did watch the film in its supposed best format: 3D High Frame Rate. Those technological gimmicks were not interesting, really. As is often the case with 3D films, Jackson went out of his way to do things like have chases that aim directly at the camera just to “pop” for 3D, which is a technique that does little. Even if you enjoy watching that (I don’t, but whatever floats your boat.), it is so predictable that by half an hour in you know every swoop that’s coming, which just results in tedium. The 3D, like always, added nothing. The high frame rate, meanwhile, did have some noticeable effects. The picture was extraordinarily sharp and all movements very fluid, sometimes too fluid. Some critics have likened the over-fast movement to watching Benny Hill, but the truth is that there are only a few moments where it feels unnaturally fast and most of them are small enough that they are not distracting. There are a few bad moments, mostly during the dwarves’ gathering of the plates in Bilbo’s home, but overall it’s not enough to worry about one way or the other. Also, a note for anyone who wonders: I am nearsighted and prone to motion sickness, but had no trouble from this. It’s nothing more than a single anecdote, so it pretty much doesn’t mean anything, but I thought I should share that fact anyway.
For fellow Tolkien fans, allow me to point out that the film is absolutely not a faithful adaptation of the book. The characters are often unrecognizable: unsurprisingly, Thorin has become much kinder and more subdued than the novel’s version and Gandalf’s egotism and temper have been replaced by a nondescript wise old man. There are characters and plot threads here that were in The Lord of the Rings or never present at all, including a rather large-seeming plot that involves Radagast the Brown, a wizard whom I believe is only mentioned briefly in one of the later books. (I should note that it seemed this story might in fact be meant to be a reference to the story that makes up the bulk of The Lord of the Rings, but I’m not entirely sure on that point.) It doesn’t matter when considering how good the film is, as it must stand or fall on its own merits, but I nonetheless note that there were many unwelcome changes. For example, one of my favorite elements in The Hobbit is the way Gandalf’s character develops in Bilbo’s eyes. Bilbo initially sees him as some weird old kook who sometimes visits the Shire and puts on fireworks displays, and then slowly discovers more about how important and powerful Gandalf is throughout the novel. It’s an excellent way of showing us how small Bilbo’s worldview was at the beginning and how he begins to grasp the larger world of Middle-Earth. However, here, Bilbo knows that Gandalf is a wizard, just not really what a wizard is. We also get (admittedly away from Bilbo) scenes that tell us just how powerful and important Gandalf is, most notably a meeting of the White Council at Rivendell that Elrond describes as a meeting among those who “guard over Middle-Earth.” I realize that the audience is going to know about Gandalf already from the earlier films, but it’s still a shame to lose such an effective dramatic device.
The basic story and point of the film is quite simple. It’s a film about needing a sense of belonging and home. To make that point, it concocts a story about a wandering, homeless band of dwarves who uproot a homey hobbit from his comforts in order to try to gain the sense of home and belonging that he already has by taking back control of the mountain they once ruled that is now under a dragon’s yoke.
Where the book takes an episodic approach, sending Bilbo and the dwarves through one encounter after another as they journey across Middle-Earth, this film provides an episodic adventure that is also filled with numerous flashbacks, simultaneous stories, and one overriding arc that comes to a head at the end of the film. The structure gives a clear impression that Middle-Earth is a full world, with things happening throughout with regularity. However, it is also rather confusing, bouncing around to different characters and situations repeatedly. It also takes some attention away from the overall story of Bilbo Baggins—whose story is, after all, the real story the novel is telling.
Jackson ends up telling a muddled story. While there is some logic to creating an ever-present following danger like the orcs following the dwarves along their path to up the stakes, it’s also unnecessary and does not advance the film’s larger point about home and belonging. Meanwhile, he does not emphasize Gollum’s loneliness, which would undoubtedly advance the central point even though it would add nothing to the plot. Gollum is a fascinating mixture of terrifying and pathetic, but he’s driven to that point not just by the Ring but also by his position as a completely solitary outcast—a point which fits in so well with the theme that this film spent a lot of time driving home that it could not have been lost on Jackson. It’s a shame that they didn’t emphasize this angle more, especially since the sequence between Bilbo and Gollum is the best part of the film already—a truly suspenseful and compelling sequence that by itself could make up for a lot of ills.
Visually, we know by now what Peter Jackson brings to the table, which is not too much. His shots are essentially by-the-book epic filmmaking, to the point that one can almost imagine David Lean standing by telling Jackson what the shots “should” be, filled with long shots of wide vistas that are meant to show us the splendor and sheer size of the spectacle involved. Unfortunately, where this technique once showed us the grandeur of the set design (an admittedly uninteresting proposition most of the time), it is now just showing us how well Jackson and his special effects team can computer generate. While the CGI here is considerably better than most films, it’s still noticeably present and it’s still CGI. The saving grace of The Fellowship of the Ring was Jackson’s use of real elements and photographic effects over CGI, but he seems to have changed his mind now. That unwelcome philosophical change is essentially the only change in Jackson’s visual approach, meaning that the film lacks anything interesting visually.
The acting throughout the film is decent but unspectacular. Martin Freeman stars, filling the extraordinarily large shoes of the great Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins. Freeman has made a career of being in successful, big budget work while still getting little attention himself (The Office, Sherlock, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [Garth Jennings, UK/USA 2005]), but this film may change that. While he doesn’t get to stretch his acting muscles much in a film that doesn’t much care about characters, he is fantastically charismatic, presenting a Bilbo every bit as instantly likable as Holm’s. Ian McKellan, meanwhile, may simply be too old or too ill (either of which is certainly an unfortunate development) for Gandalf at this point. He seems pained even when speaking normally and he moves uncomfortably. The strength of the powerful wizard Gandalf is undermined by these strains. The only other person to get noteworthy screen time is Richard Armitage as Thorin. He really has almost nothing to do, but he isn’t bad. Jackson gives Thorin a great hero’s entrance, to the point that Armitage does not have to provide his own strong presence, but he’s capable of providing it nonetheless.
Howard Shore’s score deserves mention. Where he often falls into overdramatic, overly-conventional scores, here he writes a strong score almost throughout. There are some melodramatic moments, but they are relatively few and they keep a unique style that Shore has often lacked. Incidentally, while the dwarves’ second song was relatively useless and really should have been cut, it is a beautiful and stirring song.
Overall, this was not a good film. It wasn’t awful. It certainly doesn’t even compete with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA 2012) and Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, USA 2012) for the worst film of the year, but it was pretty bad. It was also an extreme disappointment. Even for someone who is as big a fan of the novel as I am, it was really a waste of three hours.