On DVD – THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012)

by Matt Friend. 0 Comments

DIRECTED BY: Peter Jackson

WRITTEN BY: Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Guillermo Del Toro

STARRING: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis

Yes, I know this isn’t exactly a “new” movie. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time last weekend to check out any of the new releases. From what I understand, though, none of them were particularly good, so I don’t really feel as though I missed out on anything. With that said, I did get a chance to re-watch this over the weekend, and I figured this was as good a chance as any to air my feelings on it.

The film, for those who don’t know, is based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, acting as a prequel to the well known Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the mystical land of Middle Earth, a young Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins is drawn out of his comfortable life in the Shire to go on a dangerous adventure with a company of dwarves. Their purpose: to recover their ancestral homeland (and treasure) from the great dragon Smaug. They are joined on their quest by the wizard Gandalf (who here has a tendency of jumping in and out of the story whenever it’s convenient). There’s also this big subplot about evil returning to the world and the necromancer, but that pretty much never goes anywhere.

I make no secret of the fact that I am a MASSIVE fan of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I’d even go so far to say they’re the movies that sparked my interest in film-making in general. Going to see The Hobbit, I realized it was never going to meet the admittedly lofty expectations I had for it. And while it certainly wasn’t a "bad" movie by any stretch of the word, I could never quite shake the feeling that it was a bit…disappointing. “But Matt” someone might tell me, “What did you expect, it’s not as if it’s based on an epic book like The Lord of the Rings. Just appreciate it for what it is”. At which I would reply “Ah, my dear Strawman, then why was it trying so hard to BE The Lord of the Rings?”

The film tries so hard to make connections between it and the original trilogy that it never really felt like its own story. Why does Frodo show up in the prologue? Well because he was in The Lord of the Rings, that’s why! Why do the orcs meet on the hill that Frodo got stabbed in in Fellowship? Because it was in The Lord of the Rings! Why do Saruman and Galadriel show up midway to deliver exposition? Same reason!I understand that they’ve got to make these connections, but not so much that it overwhelms to central story! None of these elements are integrated into the story in an organic way, and just feel shoehorned in just to please fans. Even the musical score, beyond a recurrence of the dwarves and Radagast theme, is largely just remixes of the themes from the Lord of the Rings. This reliance on connecting itself to the past makes it hard to invest myself in the actual story.

There’s really also no real sense of arc going on in this story. Sure they walked a bit closer to their destination, but I don’t feel much has changed beyond that. “But Matt”, Mr. Strawman would then say, “It’s just the first part of the trilogy; surely these plots will be resolved in the later parts”. “Not so fast!” I’d say. Again, I’d have to draw comparisons with The Lord of the Rings. With Fellowship, it had its own generally self-contained arcs that resolved themselves by the end of the film. We have Boromir’s corruption, Frodo’s decision to travel on his own, as well as the beginnings and separation of the titular Fellowship. It was able to act as its own self-contained story, as well as the first part of a larger narrative. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is all set-ups and no payoff. We’re introduced to a number of characters, plotlines, and relationships and none of them amount to anything by the end of the 2 hour 45 minute runtime. The characters rarely talk beyond comedic quips and exposition, I have little to no emotional connection with these characters beyond their base character traits.

I should probably mention that I first saw this movie in IMAX 3D on opening night, and…I admit I really don’t like 3D. Not really on principle, but mostly because I have yet to see a movie where 3D has been anything other than a determent to my enjoyment. I have actual reasons for this beyond simple prejudice that I’ll save for another blog post, but suffice to say I enjoyed watching this movie much more in 2D the I did in 3D. Even when I watch it in 2D, though, some of the consequences of the 3D still remain. A lot of the camerawork seems to be catered to the 3D, which is fine but it feels more like many of the shots are more like dioramas. Action scenes are shot in a way that relies more on wider coverage shots, which removes a sense of intimacy and immediacy. It lacks a lot of the more dynamic camera work that made the action in The Lord of the Rings so good. Not to sound like a luddite, but the film’s reliance on CG verges on the excessive. I understand why all the orcs needed to be CG, or why so much of the action needed to be entirely animated. While, again, it’s not as noticeable in the 2D version, a lot of the action still feels kind of cartoony and weightless. It’s more obvious that the actors aren’t fighting actual people, or that they’re not on an actual set. It saps the action of a lot of tension and sense of danger. The characters fall from heights of 50 feet without a single injury,!

This brings me to my next problem: tone. This movie can’t decide on what it exactly wants to be! One moment we have a troll blowing snot out his nose onto Bilbo, and the next we have vicious orcs decapitating people and tossing their heads down a hillside! The movie has the opposite problem of a lot of book adaptations, as it includes nearly every detail down to the lines from the book. The thing of it is, despite the name, the story isn’t entirely just the Hobbit. The film draws extensively on the appendices from The Lord of the Rings, which detail the connections between The Hobbit and its sequel. These two pieces of work have wildly differing tones, with the Hobbit being a children’s adventure story, and the appendices being dark and foreboding. It’s maddening! Either tone could have worked on its own, they just needed to stick with one!

Probably the biggest problem, at least in my eyes, is the films abysmal pacing. As I’m watching it, I can pick out whole scenes that could have been cut with little or no consequence to the final film. Until very late in post-production, The Hobbit was going to be 2 films instead of 3. I don’t know why Peter Jackson felt it was necessary to split these movies further, maybe money, maybe he genuinely felt the films were better for it, I don’t know. I feel, though, that a lot of the films payoff has been pushed back to the second film, as the foreshadowing of the spiders and grave of the Witch King are confirmed for the first half of movie two. At this point, I can only speculate until movie two comes out

After all of this, you might be thinking I hate the film, and that it fails to be anything other than a jumbled mess…and you’d be wrong. At the end of the day, I do actually “like” this movie. While it is disjointed and lacking in coherency, the individual scenes in themselves can be interesting and occasionally thrilling in their own right. The musical score, while lacking of many good iconic themes, can still be beautiful and is miles above most movie scores. The cinematography, costumes, and sound design are all top notch. You see a lot of Del Toro’s designs in places like the Goblin Town and Radagast’s home. The acting is generally good all around, with Martin Freeman being the best person they probably could have ever gotten for Bilbo Baggins. The scene with the riddle game between he and Gollum stands with some of the best in the series. It’s just that the problems with the films are so blatant! It’s honestly more frustrating than anything else.

I’m sorry if this is a bit too…impassioned, but I have very strong feelings about this movie. I’ve been following it since long before it went into production, and as I've said I’m a big fan of the original trilogy and the books. Despite all of my misgivings, I can’t help but hope that things may improve in the next two films. As it stands now, though, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed.

RATING: * * ½ (out of four)

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