Friday, February 15, 2013

Movie and Book – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The first Hobbit film was the movie I was most looking forward to in 2012.  It did not come out until December, so that made for a long year, movie-wise.  When it did come out I found it to be entertaining, but a notch below the heights that the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) films had achieved.  This is entirely in keeping with the relation of the books to each other, though.  The Hobbit was written by J.R.R. Tolkien for his children, while LOTR was written for adults.  Gandalf, for instance, is a much more serious character in LOTR than he was in The Hobbit book.  People going into this film looking for another LOTR may come out a little disappointed.  However, if you go in looking for a lighter tale of adventure then I think you will be pleased by it.

I first read the Hobbit when I was about seven or eight.  My older sister had a copy lying around and I picked it up.  It was a magical adventure with all these fantastic creatures.  I laughed at some things.  I was scared by Gollum and Smaug.  I read it a couple more times while growing up, but I did not read LOTR until I was in high school.  When I did it opened my eyes to the much vaster world that Tolkien had created.

When they did the LOTR films they kept it one for one with the books, of course.  When I heard they were expanding The Hobbit into two films, by using some of the backstory from the appendices of the LOTR, I was a little hesitant.  It seemed the trend started by Harry Potter, and then continued by Twilight and others, to milk every last movie dollar out of people by splitting single books into two films had infected director Peter Jackson.  I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, though.  Then as 2012 went on all of a sudden it was announced that there would be three Hobbit films.  Now that I have seen the first I have to say that my concerns about diluting the book too much by adding in extraneous stuff have actually increased.

An example is a throwaway line in the book about distant thunder in the mountains being from rock trolls throwing boulders at each other becomes a 10-15 minute action scene where the characters are directly caught right in the middle of this battle.  Another example is that the wizard character of Radagast the Brown plays a major supporting role in the first film despite not even making an appearance in the book.  (He did appear in the first LOTR book warning Gandalf that the Nazgul were looking for the Shire.)  In keeping with the lighter tone of the book, Radagast also functions mostly as comic relief, from the obvious metaphors of him being a communing-with-nature hippy high on mushrooms and “weed”, to the silly bunny-drawn sled that he travels in.

In a way, he’s portrayed a bit like the Tom Bombadil character that Jackson left out of the LOTR.  Back then Jackson had to establish this first film (The Fellowship of the Ring) as a serious endeavor and having Bombadil singing and capering around madly would have struck the completely wrong note early on.  Throw in his hippy chick Goldberry and audiences would have laughed.  Fast forward to now and Jackson knows that he already did the heavy lifting of getting people to take these films seriously and he can now have more fun in them.  Just ask yourself, if he used Gimli the dwarf for comic relief in the LOTR films, what might he do in a series of films that have 13 dwarfs in them?

That takes us to the story.  For those who have never read the book, it takes place about 70 years prior to the LOTR.  Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a younger hobbit who is comfortable living in the Shire.  One day Gandalf (Ian McKellan) visits.  Bilbo vaguely remembers him, but they certainly are not friends.  Bilbo feels a little put out by Gandalf and is glad when he goes on his way.  The next day, though, 13 dwarfs show up at his door, along with Gandalf, and they proceed to eat him out of house and home.  They want Bilbo to join their group as a thief to steal back a jewel from the dragon Smaug who drove them out of their homes in the Lonely Mountain – a place far across the map from the Shire.

At first Bilbo rejects them outright, but then does agree to join them.  They have various adventures and run into danger along the way.  The book The Hobbit is self-contained and completes the story.  This first movie only takes us up through the first six chapters of the nineteen chapter book.  At 2 hours 49 minutes (slightly shorter than the theatrical versions of the LOTR films) there isn’t much of anything from the book left out, and as I mentioned, quite a few new scenes have been added in.  I have heard another 20 minutes is going to be added on for the Blu-ray release.

There are several familiar faces in this film.  Some of the races of Middle Earth are long-lived so even though they may not have been mentioned in the Hobbit book, their ages during the LOTR events would mean they were alive at the time of The Hobbit.  In this film we get Gandalf (McKellan), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee), and Gollum (Andy Serkis).  The film also opens with the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) and young Frodo (Elijah Wood) just before Bilbo is to leave the Shire at the beginning of the LOTR.  Bilbo is writing out his book that will eventually become The Hobbit (the one he tells Frodo he finished in the LOTR films.)  Everything we see after that is a flashback.

Much was made of Jackson’s decision to film this movie at 48 frames per second (fps), rather than the standard 24 fps that all other films have done.  He said that this was done to enhance the presentation of the 3D version of the film.  Some people felt it actually made the film feel like they were watching TV.  I saw the regular 2D 24 fps version, but I did notice some fallout from how the filming was done.  Something about the translation to the lower fps caused blurring when the camera was following motion on the screen.  It was very noticeable early on when Smaug was attacking the dwarfs and driving them from the Lonely Mountain.  (I asked on IMDB if others had seen this, or if it was just the theater I was in, and many people confirmed that they had had the same thing happen when they watched it in 2D 24 fps.)  I’m not sure what this will mean for the eventual DVD and Blu-ray releases – if they will be able to correct it or not.

There were two trends that were quite noticeable in this film.  The first is that Jackson caught “3D disease” where he had any number of objects being thrown at the screen, or gross creatures sticking their faces right into the camera.  The second is that he was obviously trying to re-create the heartthrob status of Aragorn and Legolas from the LOTR films.  In The Hobbit the leader of the dwarfs is Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and he shares many things in common with Aragorn.  One of the young dwarfs named Kili (Aidan Turner) is definitely this film’s Legolas.  He has no prosthetics on his face like the large noses or protruding brows of the other dwarfs.  Instead his face was left alone so his looks would be apparent.  They also made him the archer of the group.  Other than that, and despite some attempts by Jackson, the rest of the 13 dwarfs pretty much blend together.  Even in a film almost 3 hours long that’s not enough time to concentrate on all of them to give them their own distinct characters.

I mentioned at the top that I considered this film to be a notch below the LOTR films and it appears the Academy voters agree with me.  While the LOTR films received 13, 6, and 11 nominations respectively, including Best Picture nominations for all three, The Hobbit received only three nominations (Makeup, Production Design, Visual Effects) and no Best Picture nomination.

It’s not about how many nominations or awards the film gets, though, it’s about how entertaining it will be for fans of the books and films.  I think the people that have read all the books will be most pleased with this film because they will not have heightened expectations for it to be exactly like the LOTR films.  Even if you have not read the books, though, you can certainly understand everything that is going on.  Most people are going to see this movie anyway, but if you are on the fence I recommend that you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. My teen boys were hugely disappointed in The Hobbit. They know the book very well and were frustrated at all the additions and the lame, blatant attempt to cash in making it a trilogy.

    1. I don't blame them. Of the three LOTR films, the one I like the least is the second one and I don't think it's a coincidence that that is the one with the most non-Tolkien stuff added to the story in it.

  2. My biggest question is how they'll manage to pull of two more films out of what's left.

    I'm currently reading the book with my younger daughter. It's still a grand adventure, but a part of me feels like they're going to have to do a complete character arc for everyone to fill the time. And really, I have nothing invested in watching the story of Oin or Nori.

    1. They are adding a lot of stuff that was also going on in Middle Earth at the same time, but was not expressly written about in the book. Chief among that is the battle with Sauron in Mirkwood, which the early scene with Radagast in the movie, plus the meeting of Elrond, Galadriel, Gandalf, and Saruman set up.

  3. Yeah, I agree with your assessment. I'm a pretty hardcore LotR movies fan, and The Hobbit just isn't quite on the same level. It's entertaining, it's fun, but LotR had a bigger picture in mind. It wasn't just adventure for adventure's sake, it was adventure to SAVE THE FREAKIN' WORLD. There's not the same kind of peril in The Hobbit, but I will add that this is due to the source material, not the film itself.

    I am also rather skeptical of it being three films. Three films? Really, PJ?

    My favorite part was probably the opening sequence (this film's version of The Prologue) with the great dwarf city. That was downright spectacular.

    I will add this as a closer, though: I highly appreciate Peter Jackson introducing the massive hotness that is Richard RAWRmitage - oh, excuse me, Armitage - to a broader audience. I have been panting over him since seeing him in the BBC's North & South years ago. I think I enjoyed The Hobbit overall because I just enjoy looking at that man.

    1. It looks like I was right when I wrote about trying to recreate the heartthrob appeal with Armitage and Turner. (I'm a bad judge of a man's attractiveness to women, but sometimes even I can tell.)

      I agree on the opening. I had thoughts of writing a paragraph comparing it to the opening explanation in Fellowship of the Ring, but my review was already running long. Thanks for mentioning it.

  4. When I went to see The Hobbit I had read all these lackluster reviews saying that though visually spectucular it was a bit disappointing. With such lowered expectations The Hobbit surprised me in a positive way. I am not an avid objectionist to 3D technology, but agree that it has frequently caused a bad headache. This time however it was flawless and I had no trouble getting adjusted. The double rate was nice as well, although the film got a theater feel to it that made the props look like, well, props.

    I agree that he Radagast character is silly and I did not care for it and the Goblin king as well, but otherwise I think The Hobbit hit the right LotR tone. It certaintly felt as if I was watching a fourth LotR movie. I even cannot complain about the story being drawn ot into 3 3 hour films. It is just more of something good, especially if Jackson do fill in with relevant background stuff from the Tolkien universe instead of inventing his own lore (like the mountain trolls - stupid!).

    1. Expectations play a sizable part in how I receive a film. This was my most anticipated film of 2012, so that probably contributed to me being slightly disappointed by it.

      I agree on the Goblin King, too. I didn't get a sense of danger or menace at all. Jackson seemed more concerned with sticking the character's face right into the screen for the 3D effects.