The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) Review (PG-13)
Director Peter Jackson returns to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and for fans of fantasy films, it should be worth the wait. And while I might not be one of those people that (used to) dress up as Legolas or Gimlee or whoever for the next installment, I do have all three on my ‘Best of the 2000s‘ list, all placed in the Top 50. Jackson obviously LOVES this stuff even to the degree that I think he is unable to leave even the most banal moments of the story on the cutting room floor. One will get the idea that Jackson not only read everything that Tolkien ever wrote, but it’s possible he may have some secret shrine devoted to the deceased writer beyond his bedroom wall. Again, I kid, but the respect… the weight… that he has given to Tolkien’s works is something to behold. That may be as good place to start with as any.
The visuals in the film are nothing short of spectacular. I viewed the film in GLOURIOUS 3D IMAX (at 48 frames per second even!). What Jackson presents onscreen is the kind of idealized visual environment that these sorts of fairy tales need and deserve. There are no half-arsed designs when it comes to the characters, to the architecture… There are no shortcuts with Jackson’s filmmaking. And he’s not like other filmmakers who when given this sizable budget wield the power with an arrogance; a ‘let me show you how cool these FX are” kind of way. He’s not doing it to ‘wow’ the viewers, as much as he just seems to want to the audience to love the story as much as he does. The visuals aren’t excessive… well, mostly not… he’s just trying to bring the story to life as grand as Tolkien wrote it. Visually, the shots progress from one old hobbit’s small intensely detailed study to these sprawling panoramic views that seem to lurch off into infinity. Jackson saves one or two of the best of them for last and I have to say that I was astounded by them. And it’s not just the landscapes, as I said, it’s the attention to detail… the individuality of the characters (especially the less human creatures of Middle Earth). If only every director attacked their subject matter as Jackson has with Tolkien. If only.
The Unexpected Journey begins humbly if not quite modestly. We find an older Bilbo Baggins (played once again by Ian Holm), skittering like a waterbug around his home, simultaneously in preparation for his birthday party and putting to paper his recollection of his adventure as a younger hobbit for his nephew Frodo. He quickly recounts some epic events that occurred six decades before that big adventure for context, including a dwarf kingdom thrives largely because of its king’s extreme lust for gold until the destruction of that kingdom when a gold loving dragon named Smaug comes calling (and he’s not even taking names, he’s just doling out wanton dragon destruction). So the dwarves are scattered abroad without a real kingdom to call their own, anymore.
We also later learn that the Dwarf King is killed when the Dwarven army tries to retake a city now overrun by Orcs. The leader of the Orcs has to retreat after a terrible wound inflicted upon him by the King’s son Thorin (Richard Armitage). But, the victory is mostly a hollow one. Okay, can I stop right here? Here’s where I have to give an Official Side Note: here goes…
Official Side Note: There have been a lot of complaints from ‘critics’ about the film being too long and I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here. Frankly, I found the Lord Of The Rings films tediously long. As I have stated about Jackson in the past, he is one of the current directors that so loves what he is filming that he has an inability to properly edit the bloat out of his movies anymore. Self indulgent? Yeah, probably, but at least in The Hobbit’s case I didn’t mind it as much. The thing those films lacked was a good dose of humor. The story focused on how bad things were and at its center was the drama queen Frodo, who was constatntly whining about how heavy his burden carrying ‘The Ring’ was and that Samwise Gamgee guy crying all the time. All that melodrama can wear a person out (especially if you’re not into Dungeons and Dragons), and that’s not even taking into account the episodic nature of Tolkien’s stories. They have encounters with trolls and orcs and whatever that really don’t have any relevance to the main story being told. There was much that was repetitive. I remember reading LOTR and at times there were just these torturously long episodes that went on for seemingly hundreds of pages where there was a ‘battle being lost, but the heroes fought on’ (9 pages) and the cavalry was charging to the rescue but they were miles away (6 pages).. but the heroes fought on (7 more pages)… and the cavalry was still running (33 pages of pain)… and the heroes were desperately, valiantly trying to— well you get the idea. There is some of that here. Jackson features prominently in his movie, what another director with an actual conscience for thess matters would have trimmed right out.
Really, the opening of this film could have featured the wizard Gandalf the Grey showing up to request Bilbo going along on the adventure. Bilbo refuses initially, then cut right to Bilbo joining the Dwarves on hors—ponyback. And not Bilbo running through Hobbit town before he catches up. Just cut from him running out of his front door to him sitting on a pony. Done. Move on. Cut a half hour from the nearly 3 hour first act. He’s reluctant. He changes his mind. Instead, we get Dwarf introductions … ONE AT A FREAKING TIME… One dwarf eating alone. Dwarf songs. Dwarves in the pantry. More dwarves eating. Dwarf stories. Belching. Doing dishes (I’m not kidding). All the while Bilbo paces around, squirming with discomfort at the prospect of uninvited houseguests that won’t leave. I think we can get it pete with that first bit of uncertainty. He’s not someone comfortable doing this. I mean, really, The Hobbit wasn’t that long of a book, a third the size of the Lord Of The Rings (if that), so is it warranted that Jackson expands this into another three movie fanchise (the accepted number of films in a series it seems.. and yes I said ‘fan-chise with no ‘r’)? To be honest… As much as I struggled getting through the LOTR films to some degree, I had no problem with this one. Again, it might be the humor.
It might be the somewhat lighter tone that I find is more apropos to this kind of material. It might be that I just liked the portrayals of all of the main characters, but I didn’t mind the running time at all. In fact, it flew by. So I was fine with the walking and idle chatter and all that. I don’t mind it getting a little dark, but when you start to get all weepy… Well, that can drain the fun out of it. But, this was a fun movie. So waht I’m trying to say is if you like all of the sword and sorcery poppycock, then you’re going to be in Hobbit-heaven. If you’re not down with conversations about things like “Oakrist (spelling?) The Goblin Cleaver, the famous blade forged by the High Elves of the West…” (which would have saved another 2 minutes cutting out the all the sword naming, but I digress), then you are most certainly going to be languishing somewhere in the Nine Levels of Hobbit-Helle. (Yes, that ‘e’ is there ON PURPOSE.) You’ll have to decide of which camp you’re in… And there’s the end to this extremely long Official SIde Note. We now return to the review.
Where was I? So anyway, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) shows up in Hobbitville with the idea that this Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to whom he’s only met once before is going to accompany he and a party of Dwarves to this mountain with the idea that they’re going to take back the Dwarf king’s treasure from the mighty claws of the dragon Smaug. But Bilbo thinks like I do and figures it’s better to let sleeping dragons lie and wants no part of the expedition. Bilbo thinks that’s the end of it when the wizard leaves, but later begins receiving dwarf houseguest after uninvited dwarf houseguest (and all of that rubbish contained in the Official Side Note). Then the wizard shows up, too, but still, Bilbo will not relent. When he wakes to find them all gone, however, he realizes that he’s missing an opportunity to go beyond his books & maps and see the world and races to catch up.
Not long after their journey begins, there is evidence that all is not right in Middle Earth and various forces of darkness have crept further south than their usual territory. This is verified by another wizard, Radagast The Brown, who has seen several foul creatures in his neck of the woods. Unofficial Review Side Note: Apparently when previews were shown to hardcore Tolkien enthusiasts, they were appalled by the presentation of the character, especially by his sled pulled by a team of large jackrabbits. I have to say, out of all of the denizens of Middle Earth depicted in this film, the jackrabbits may have been my favorite. Those that disagree, because of the simple fact that they ARE jackrabbits should remember that this was written originally a s a children’s book and it contains trolls, elves, giant spiders and hobbits. if Jackson wants to throw in some jackrabbits, I’m fine with that. In fact, I applaud him. End of shorter Unofficial Review Side Note.
That’s the basic setup. One hobbit, one wizard and twelve(?) dwarves journeying to Lonely Mountain to take back stolen treasure from Smaug the dragon. Knowing that this was going to be a trilogy now, I assumed that I would only get to glimpse of … Well, don’t want to give it away, but Jackson is correctly saving the big entrance of a certain character for at least one more film. I was right in my expectatons, but the final shot of the film did get me properly revved up for the next installment. And no, I don’t mean Gollum. You Andy Serkis fanatics will get your fix, although that’s maybe one small part of the film that I was let down by.
Just going by the trailers, you can see that Gollum is played for laughs with that Andy Serkis head bob after he pronounces what the stakes of he and Bilbo’s game will be. He never projects that he’ll be any real danger for the hobbit. I remember seeing that old Rankin/Bass cartoon version of the Hobbit as a kid and found it to be very creepy stuff (loved it). Gollum in particular was something that probably gave me a few sleepless nights. The appearance of Gollum was like that of a disgusting humanoid frog. And the voice… Oooohhhhh, how they used to work to get the voices right, instead of doing what they do now for cartoons and just casting whatever celebrity they can get to help market the film better. Here’s a link:
You may disagree (no, you PROBABLY will disagree), but I actually liked how that single part of the story was done in the cartoon BETTER than how it goes down in this new Peter Jackson film (AND directing great John Huston played Gandalf… It’s like having Orson Welles in your movie). I guess I had to throw in that one last caveat about the movie. I like to nitpick. That’s a small one, though. There was really an abundance of things to like in this movie. Even the things that I say could have been edited out were fine by me. Jackson did use one of the better aspects of the cartoon: the dwarves singing. I was thoroughly entertained anytime they broke into song. I’m not one for musicals in general, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss he Dwarf singing. There is certainly at least an SNL skit revolving around the ‘serious’ crooning in Bilbo’s living room led by the Dwarf leader Thorin. An Unexpected Journey might feel more like some sort of uncut teleplay in terms of its pace and its tendency to dwell on things that really have no relevance to the story, but it is definitely a Big Screen Movie (with capital letters) in its overall presentation. Right now it’s in the running for my own idea of what’s the ‘Best Film Of 2012’. It’ll surely be somewhere near the top.