The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a deeply unnecessary film, but unlike some other unnecessary films  (cough, cough), I was perfectly willing to see it, and meet it on its own terms. Say what you will about the Lord of the Rings movies, but you can’t deny that they built one of the most rock-solid and epic worlds in modern cinema – and I didn’t mind the chance to see another story in that world.

And speaking of saying what you will about LOTR, I’d like to do just that. So permit me to blaspheme for a moment: I think that J.R.R. Tolkien was an amazing writer, but a horrible storyteller. I really don’t like how exhaustive and minutely detailed his writing style can get, and I much prefer the movies to the books because of how they remove the restrictive filter of the narration between the story and my perception of it.

The Hobbit’s main problem is that Peter Jackson and company try to make it another Lord of the Rings, but the original children’s book can’t really bear the weight of a sprawling, three-hour epic, much less three in a row. It’s fun to watch, but it’s a bit less brainy than the original trilogy – though that’s not saying much, and the wonderfully dedicated team behind the first trilogy really brings their A-game in every way they can.

But this review is going to be shorter than you might think – because quite a bit of the praise I have for this is just the praise I have for the LOTR trilogy, and I’m trying to focus on this as a new story in the same world, so I’ll try to avoid elements common to the series so far.

And before we start, I’d like to have a quick word about the 48 frames-per-second controversy: Irrelevant. There – four syllables, but pretty short all the same.

Instead of the grand and ponderous backstory given in Fellowship of The Ring, the film starts on a much smaller scale. The prologue, telling the story of how the greedy but hardworking dwarves were driven out of their prosperous homeland by Lizard Hitler – I mean, Smaug the Dragon – is presented as a story told shortly before the start of the first movie, from Sir Ian Holm to former protagonist Elijah Wood (who’s apparently been cryogenically preserved for the past decade, given both his appearance and lack of major acting roles since the original trilogy). Frodo gets bored of the story after the prologue ends, and goes off to have fun with his friends, meaning the narration is abandoned to make way for more conventional film storytelling – and I think this is a seriously good choice.

Since this is a smaller story overall, it doesn’t really start like an epic so much as a comedy. The young Bilbo who we’ll be following for the rest of the trilogy is played by Martin Freeman, whose Arthur Dent was – let’s be honest here – the best thing there was in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie that didn’t have Stephen Fry’s dulcet tones coming out of it at regular intervals. Freeman is a great casting choice, as he gives the role a mixture of Sean Astin’s affable buffoonery, Elijah Wood’s heroic uncertainty, and the actual cleverness and skill of both of them combined.

“This may be more than a one-pipe problem, Sherlock…”

This double-duty is necessary, as instead of the richly realized nine-person Fellowship, the Company effectively has only four characters: Bilbo, Ian McKellen’s old standby Gandalf the Grey, a low-rent Viggo Mortensen, and a dozen-odd completely interchangeable Dwarves. I realize that getting rid of a dozen characters in one fell swoop would be an unacceptable change to the book on the part of Peter Jackson, but none of them have any narrative reason to be different people besides comic relief – they feel more like the Time Bandits than the Fellowship.

(DISCLAIMER: Time Bandits is, no fooling, one of the greatest children’s movies ever made. This is in no way intended as a slight toward them – just making a point that it’s a very different sort of movie than An Unexpected Journey.)

Our real story starts when Gandalf shows up at Bilbo’s door one day and offers him an adventure, which he declines. Since this is even more Campbellian than Campbell, the refusal of the call is only met with insistence on Gandalf’s part, as he tricks the Company into bursting into his house, and engaging in antics of a wacky, zany and/or crazy nature. This sequence really shows off the prowess of Jackson’s direction, as even a comedy sequence set entirely inside a cramped house is filled with subtle details and artistic techniques that show how truly magic the movie is.

After that’s all done, Bilbo turns down their offer of the position of Spy, on this fourteen-man Team Fortress 2 team with 12 Demomen, but reconsiders the next morning after they leave, and runs after them on foot to join up.

Before this point, the cinematography and set design has all been pretty small-scale and traditional, to go along with the small-scale comedic (and a bit too heavy on the Blue and Orange, which didn’t bode well when I first saw the movie in the theater), but as he starts to run out of his peaceful Shire hometown we start getting all the hallmarks of the Tolkien franchise: Majestic and rolling fields, beautiful and wild forests, and a generally green and gray color pallete that really stands out among other comparable movies. And the plot gets down to business, too – we find out that the Viggo Mortensen stand-in has a score to settle with an Orc boss monster, whose territory lies right on the path to the dwarven treasure.
But next, we’re introduced to Gandalf’s best pal, Radagast the Brown. He’s a powerful wizard, but let’s just say that his Eru-Iluvatar doesn’t go all the way up.

He’s probably got on an old “Greenpeace” shirt from 1979 under there.

…Oh god, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. People let Stephen Colbert get away with this all the time, you should at least grant me one incredibly nerdy pun. Anyway, Radagast is played by Sylvester McCoy, who played  Doctor Who‘s Seventh Doctor as a crafty and immensely powerful schemer, who put up the facade of a daffy and harmless old man to catch people off-guard. He brings a similar sort of interpretation to Radagast – but with the twist that it isn’t a facade, he really is like that, combining both personalities to create, well, Doctor Wholittle. Even though he’s the mighty and magical protector of the animals of Middle-earth, we’re introduced to Radagast comforting a family of hedgehogs who live in his beard, before fighting off a giant spider and taking a sleigh pulled by magical jackrabbits (which helps the general “Crazy summertime Santa Claus” deal this mid-December movie is going for) and getting into a brief but exciting fight with an evil cloud, before going to find Gandalf and his Company.

The Company learn from Radagast that the evil cloud – which is the true form of Sauron’s utterly generic second-in-command from the first trilogy – is a brand-new subplot meant to foreshadow LOTR (Which I don’t really object to, as it’s a perfectly acceptable way to beef this story up to 7 hours). After that, they encounter a group of mountain trolls. They’re basically ten-foot Stooges, but somehow make formidable villains all the same. They capture and tie up Bilbo and the dwarves, but are defeated by a combination of Gandalf’s magic and Bilbo’s quick thinking – showing that Bilbo is learning how to be a hero. Story advancement, character development, juvenile humor – the script for the movie is definitely a strength. The problem is that it has to compensate for a pretty insubstantial story – The Hobbit wasn’t exactly a doorstop to start with, and this three-hour epic is just the first act of it.

And this insubstantial story creates a problem that the previous trilogy avoided – it feels its length. I’ve only just broken a thousand words on this review (which is not a whole lot, by the standards of this site, I’ll admit) but because I’m focusing on the technical and narrative parts of the movie you can’t really tell that we’re now more than an hour into the film. Because our heroes actually accomplish so little, the sheer amount of real-time that it takes up starts to assert itself to you.

However, this is less of a problem during the next scene, where Radagast assists Gandalf and the Company in a huge, open-air fight with a platoon of Orcs, who are working for Viggo Mortensen stand-in’s nemesis. There are some great action sequences, but the Orc force is too overwhelming, and so they escape into a cave – and thanks to gaming logic, since this is a big boss arena, the side areas are naturally filled to the brim with money and magic items.

“Ooh, this one is +2 to manna – I’ll have to check my inventory, though.”

The Company follow the caves to the eternal Disneyland that is the Elvish city of Rivendell. The Viggo Mortensen stand-in (who’s become distinct enough that I’m willing to promote him to “Chris Hemsworth stand-in”) doesn’t trust elves after they refused to help them after Smaug threw them out, but Gandalf insists.

When they enter Rivendell, they’re greeted by returning LOiTeRer Hugo Weaving as Elrond, who’s just returned from a battle with Morpheus and Neo for the city of Zion – I mean, a battle with Optimus Prime for the All-Spark – I mean, a battle with Captain America for the Cosmic Tesseract…man, the guy is typecast, isn’t he?

Here, though, he’s more of a devil’s advocate than anything else – he offers Bilbo a ride back to his home, and invites Gandalf to a council with Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee (who I do wish would have gotten more than these cameos), where everyone disapproves of his quest to kill Smaug. And though I don’t really like all the shallow dwarf humor, I do think it’s pretty funny to have the wise and mighty wizard being treated like a lone wolf cop who plays by his own rules.

“Dammit, The Grey! You’re a loose cannon! You can get off this case, or you can turn in your staff!”

The Middle-earth City Police Department agree with Officer Gandalf, though, when he tells them about Radagast’s two-trilogy-catalyzing encounter with the evil cloud, and send him on his way after he talks to them about how he feels Bilbo is integral to the quest.

That night, Elrond also appraises the dwarves’ stuff: Informing them on the properties of their newfound magic swords, and finding secret directions for a back door to Smaug the Dragon’s lair, in a very Well-of-Souls-esque scene – except with the moon instead of the sun. I suppose it’s pointless calling anything in a Tolkien adaptation “derivative”, so whatever.

After a short scene where Chris Hemsworth stand-in’s nemesis sends a group of goblins after the dwarves, we see that those dwarves left Rivendell ahead of Gandalf. They have a signature walking-through-the-mountains montage, which I like, because they take the opportunity to subvert your expectations a little – the montage is interrupted by a rainstorm and a breathtaking action sequence between mountain giants. Kudos are in order.

As the dwarves hunker down in a cave to escape the rain, they insult Bilbo behind his back. He’s prepared to take Elrond’s offer to leave, but Chris Hemsworth stand-in convinces him to stay, in a nice character moment for both of them. Unfortunately, the Orcs take this opportunity to ambush them, and take them down into their labyrinthine cave.

Speaking of Labyrinth, the cave is also presided over by a theatrical, musical and scantily-clad Goblin King. Unlike the teased-blonde, leotard-and-boa-clad David Bowie, though, this Goblin king is played by satirist, transvestite and not-quite-knight Barry Humphries. His CGI counterpart is a jaw-dropping marvel of anti-obesity screed, wearing nothing but a huge double chin and a loincloth.

I’m not sure he can physically stand – and considering how his lower back looks, I wish he couldn’t.

After his intro, we find that Bilbo was lost by the Goblins, and fell down into an even deeper cave…inhabited by Andy Serkis as fan-favorite Gollum. Gollum prepares to eat Bilbo, who survives by challenging him to a game of riddles.

This scene is probably the best and most memorable in the film: The portrayal of Gollum, thanks to both Serkis and Jackson’s Weta Workshop, somehow makes him both pitiful and menacing – and the technology that renders him has obviously advanced in the decade since the last film. It’s also a masterwork of atmosphere, keeping the tension up for the entirety of the fifteen-minute scene – which completely convinced me that Jackson and company can pull off this adaptation series.

Anyway, Bilbo wins the game, his prize being his life and Gollum’s golden Ring of Power – and thus, The Hobbit exits with his Lord of the Rings.

Meanwhile, Gandalf goes down into the goblin cave, and joins the dwarves in striking back at the Goblins. Meanwhile, Bilbo discovers the Ring’s invisibility properties, after a short and well-done chase scene with Gollum pursuing. Gandalf and the dwarves get into a more action-packed chase scene (complete with a Wilhelm Scream, which never goes amiss in an epic action sequence) as they escape the goblin cave.

“Be vewy vewy quiet – I’m hunting Hobbits! Ahahahahaha!”

The action here is the same as in the rest of the trilogy: It’s varied, clever, and keeps your attention, but it’s not the “smart action” I detailed in my Skyfall review, and so it’s just not really my sort of thing. It succeeds with flying colors at what it’s trying to do – even if those colors are blue and orange (That’s not a metaphor).

Eventually, Gandalf and the Dwarves make their way to safety, and assume that Bilbo deserted them. When he does catch up to them, he has a nice little speech about overcoming your own fear, before being accepted by the dwarves and resolving his arc. Just like last time, though, this is interrupted by an action sequence: In this case, The orcs attack, led by Chris Hemsworth’s stand-in’s nemesis. There’s some smarter action here than last time, and I like how the climax is achieved by a literal escalation, when the Company have to climb a tall tree to escape the Orcs. Eventually, the group is rescued by Gandalf, who borrows a page from Radagast’s book and persuades a passing flock of eagles to escort them to the sequel.

Though An Unexpected Journey feels emptier than any of these movies have before, it’s still an enjoyable experience It’s highly recommended for anyone who likes the series, and I’m willing to ignore some of its faults because of how well the new stuff succeeds.

TWO THUMBS UP: The riddle game scene, Martin Freeman, Sylvester McCoy
THUMBS UP: The new story content made for the film, the new effects
THUMBS DOWN: The disappointingly small roles of most of the returning cast
TWO THUMBS DOWN: The dwarves and their over-reliance on comedy

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