[Review] - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
After the Star Wars prequels were released, Kevin Smith was often asked his opinion of their quality, and would often respond in positive, affirmative ways. This apparently bothered some people, mostly people with eyes who had seen the prequels, and assumed he was talking about some other film they obviously hadn't seen. His excuse for this sort of behaviour was an inherent love of the franchise so strong that despite the films (obvious) failings, we would love them all the same. So I feel that before I go on, I must too admit that my own thoughts must be run through a bias filter of some kind, as my own deep seeded love of the Hobbit will undoubtedly colour my opinion slightly. The Hobbit was the first proper book I ever read. I immediately fell in love with it, and continue to reread it on a regular basis. It is not my favourite book, nor the book that most changed the direction and philosophical foundations for my life, but I do like it quite a bit.

I'll also say that I saw the film in the standard formats: 24 fps, and in the regular number of "dimensions." One of the many reasons it has taken me so long to review the film was I was waiting for the opening of a brand new IMAX theatre near to where I live. However, the extra time gave me an opportunity to read the considerable amount that has been written on the HFR, the only format the IMAX version is playing in. And while the only way to truly know how I feel about the HFR is to experience it myself, I sat myself down and had a long conversation about what I expected from the experience of watching the film, and in the end it came down to this:

Content of the film is the reason I'm going to the film in the first place. I want to be impressed, to be amazed, to be surprised. I shouldn't have to think about the act of opening my eyes and viewing the movie. So, to introduce elements to that part of the experience which might, in a non-content way, deter me from enjoying the picture is something I do not appreciate. 3D, I gave a chance to, and deplore. Aside from everything else, it doesn't add anything to the experience, it subtracts. It's a distracting gimmick that directors are being forced into adopting by studios, and I purposefully avoid it. That right there is enough to deter me from the HFR, as those versions are all in 3D. So it came down to seeing the film in IMAX format or not, and suffering the 3D, and whatever other anomalies would come form the HFR. And despite my fondness for the IMAX experience (which adds the depth of field that 3D craves, without mudding the picture, and in fact enhances it), the choice became clear: in standard format, I know the experience won't be tainted, and I'll be able to put my full concentration on enjoying the film, rather then being distracted by the physical film itself.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers long ago driven from their homeland.

The Hobbit's biggest weakness is its own success. Or, rather, it predecessor's success. This is the Hobbit made like the Lord of the Rings. In structure, in design, and in execution. However, at times it tries to become something for itself. It strafes across the line and becomes a light hearted romp of a film, a road movie with slapstick. Then it veers back into the other somber lane, and follows the former for a time again. The back and forthing makes for a film with an uneven tone, not explicit, but just present enough to create discomfort.

Actually, scratch that. The biggest weakness is the length. At nearly three hours, this thing is the Bombur of the group. And it shows. My hope was, when they announced the film would be split into three, would be we'd receive three reasonably lengthened films, but Jackson opted to inflate the films to his usual size anyway. So what we get is a film that should have been reserved for the Extended Cut on DVD a year from now, and you can practically see the editing marks. I found myself often questioning the presence of a scene, and quite quickly too. The dwarves Disney-like "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates" musical number never should have made it into theatres. Nor should certain percentages of other seasons, like the first Warg attack, or the history of Thorin and Azog, both of which needed trimming. Or Frodo, who shouldn't have appeared outside the DVD, as those scenes were pure fan wank. Indeed, the whole prologue needed substantial editing down (and I'll admit to being surprised by the Coming of Smaug appearing in this film, rather then the next).

Worst of all, these inflations caused other scenes in the film, scenes that practically demanded extension, feel deeply abbreviated. Like the Rivendale scenes, which the trailers clearly show us contained a lot more then what we got. The White Council too felt rushed through, as if there were something better we had to get to. And that, more then the odd tonal shifts, was off putting to me. Despite the length of the film, so much of it seemed rushed. It was rare that the film settled, and when it did, it was spectacular. The troll scene in particular, I feel, was the best of the movie, but only slightly better then the Riddles in the Dark, with the return of an enhanced (and lastly used) Gollum model. These scenes felt planted, like they were happening, not being remembered vaguely. It gave the narrative feet. The LofR was so impressive because they transplanted the viewer into that world. The Hobbit, honestly, felt too mad-dash to ever be immersive. Too often I felt as though I were watching a film, rather then not (which is the most common complaint I've heard against the HFR versions, so maybe it's just the film and not the speed of things that causes that).

The most disappointing thing about the film was that it never felt like Bilbo's story. I never once felt like Bilbo was the focus of the film. Despite the title, it often times felt more like Gandalf's story then anyone else, he certainly led the narrative more often then not. Bilbo seemed ancillary at numerous points, like the film didn't need him. We don't invest in the events through Bilbo's experiences, we just watch it all happen. I'm not saying that Bilbo isn't important, or well played (Freeman is very good after an excruciating first scene taken directly from the books and is next to unwatchable: tonal shifts). But he isn't the focus, or the audience surrogate, and considering he is The Hobbit, that is a sign of poor writing.

The LotR was the first big movie to use CG in an immersive way. Edge of the new millennium, CG was still expensive and unusual. Those films changed all that, and suddenly using computers to augment action became common place. So the quality of certain of those effects, considering how new it all was, can be excused. Back then, not now. Not considering that Weta is easily one of the three top CG companies in the world. Not considering that this is the Hobbit, and especially considering that the Avengers, as done in part by Weta, had the best special effects of the year. So when I say that many of the effects were still at a LotR level, I'm not being complimentary. Many of the effects were good. The trolls, Gollum, the ring effects, all very well done. But some of the rest was just bad. Azog especially looked like he crawled out of one of the Blade films, as did most of the goblins. And every single height effects was noticeable and disruptive, in the opposite way they were ten years ago. And Jackson even went out of his way to include an embarrassing "look at them run" scene, in the goblins caves, to match the worst effect in Fellowship, of the group sprinting through Moria.

But it was still a good film. Weakest of the series so far, it pains me to say (literally, painful to admit. My heart hurts), but still better then most of the crap I've seen this year. The cast is perfect, once you escape the scene of Bilbo and Gandalf's first meeting, with none of the hamminess that occasionally cropped up in the LotR (especially from Americans putting on the accent, which this film lacks almost entirely). Though Richard Armitage could dial it down a notch as Thorin. The returning cast know what their doing, and the newbies fall in line pretty quickly. The standout for me is Ken Stott as Balin, who elevated the character beyond anything I'd read into it. The script does a good enough job giving the dwarves life, at least half of the 13 having personalities and being individuals, and the other half being nicely forgotten about until a melee sprouts up, which is a better ratio then Tolkien himself mustered. Despite so much promotional attention being put on Aiden Turner's sexy dwarf, it was the always reliable James Nesbit's irreverent but heartfelt portrayal as Bofur that stood out from the remainder.

The scenes I was most looking forward to were the scenes added from the appendixes and from the Quest for Erebor materials. The discoveries at Dol Guldor, and the White Council primarily, and they didn't disappoint, if were in this first film too brief. Former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy is unrecognisable and wonderful as Radagast, who takes a bit of Gandalf's story for himself as being the first to venture into the fort of the Necromancer. And the rest of the White Council was in fine form, even Christopher Lee who proves he's just as menacing sitting very still as not, and that even before his corruption, Saruman was a dick. The subtext in the Council scenes was a wonderful addition, and McKellen's body language acting was superb, from his crush on Cate Blanchett, to the submissive disappointment at the arrival of his superior. It's just a shame there wasn't more of it, as the trailers had suggested (much must have been reworked into part two).

The eagles, along with Gandalf himself, continue to be some of the worst deus ex machina every put to paper, but that is their role, and they play it ably. What didn't work as well was the addition of Azog as an antagonist. I recently wrote that elevating Saruman to the role of primary villain in the Fellowship and Towers films worked well, as Sauron was an empty threat, just a dislocated eyeball that posed a philosophical danger rather then a physical one. So too does Smaug, right down to the eyeball, and that the film needed a villain to threaten the company more directly. And which I expected to be filled by the Goblin King, as it is in the book (the goblins being the clearest sign that Guillermo del Toro once worked on the film, with the goblins looking like proper mythological monsters, and the Wargs looking like Zuul form Ghostbusters). Instead, the film makers added in Azog, who while being present, is treated as an afterthought, is introduced far too late and isn't used enough to establish himself as a credible threat. Clearly, his relationship with Thorin is being set up for a final confrontation in the third film. In the third film. How exactly they intend to pad this rivalry out over three films is beyond me, considering they've got superior villains in Smaug and the Necromancer in the next two outings. I feel Azog will be the greatest blemish on the narrative changes to the story, and probably should have been killed before this first set of credits rolled.

Now we wait for a year, for the meeting with Beorn, the entering of Mirkwood, the second White Council, and an explanation as to why exactly Smaug is blue.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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