In a movie in a theater, there showed The Hobbit. Not a nasty, boring, poorly-acted movie, filled with uninteresting character and ugly visuals, nor yet a tight, well paced, finely scripted movie, with nothing unessential to weigh down the run time or distract: it was a Hobbit movie, and that means (nearly three hours of) geek comfort. This The Hobbit was a very well to-do movie, made by Peter Jackson. The Peter Jacksons had lived in the neighborhood of CGI in the region of FX-saturated films for time out of mind, and both critics and fans considered them to be very respectable, not only because their previous films had made them very rich, but also because they never had any studios making them shoot more movies or did anything with high frame rates: you could always tell their aerial landscape shots would be gorgeous without the bother of caring for the plot. But this is the tale of how a Peter Jackson movie came to (mostly) have an adventure.
The story begins in the idyllic North Island of New – er, the Shire, home of hobbits, who love good food, comfortable living, and, smoking pipeweed early in the morning. However, a voiceover takes us to the mountain kingdom of Erebor, a dwarf stronghold so rich that Benedict Cumberbatch decided he’d very much like to have it; and because he was also a dragon, there was nothing Richard Armitage or any of the dwarves who actually look like Gimli’s could do. Not, that is, until Gandalf the wizard shows up at Bilbo Baggins’ gate, with a proposition he isn’t going to refuse, though he doesn’t know it yet.
Whether you’re a casual fan, or already planning your 24 hour marathon of all 6 extended editions, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very definite entry into Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga. The scenery is as pretty, the world as detailed, the score as uplifting (hearing motifs LOTR like the Shire theme, subtly twisted into new variations by Howard Shore, is like coming home), the scope as epic. This is still the Middle-Earth we know and love. No ewoks.
Jackson does a fine job of balancing the fourteen (14) characters on the quest to reclaim Erebor, picking and choosing a few dwarves to have meaningful amounts of screentime, with the others distinguished by props or prosthetics. Each is distinct, yet the audience isn’t burdened with memorizing the differences between Dori, Ori, and Nori. Seriously, this is one film to win all the makeup awards. The singing pretty much works, too.
The film comes alive in the goblin kingdom the company find themselves trapped in. Alan Lee and John Howe, famous Tolkien illustrators and Jackson’s concept artists, deserve credit for the intricately detailed, fascinatingly Byzantine setting. Even if the dwarves’ escape recalls the Fellowship’s flight from Moria in a way that favors the latter, it’s still where the movie feels most energized. Bilbo’s confrontation with Gollum in the goblin caves, although it contains too many close-ups of the Ring, is also one of the most engaging sequences, suspenseful; you can see the shifts in power through the lights of the characters’ eyes. Martin Freeman is absolutely perfect as Bilbo, constantly fidgeting, looking perplexed, overwhelmed, or nonplussed as the situation requires it, but with the full heart and gentle courage of the everyman hero that Bilbo absolutely is. It’s just a shame the movie isn’t really about him.
Many people, myself included, were concerned and skeptical about the decision to turn The Hobbit into three movies. How can you make one film per 100 pages? Jackson found a solution, but unfortunately it’s one that dilutes the importance of Bilbo, who should be the audience’s emotional line through the fantasy. Thorin Oakenshield, a stubborn, valiant, greedy dwarf bent on reclaiming his gold, has been turned into an Aragorn-type, a noble vagabond, deserving of multiple voice-over battle sequences and a special albino orc nemesis.
We spend so much time with Thorin slashing orcs and Thorin looking dour and Thorin wearing an awesome fur coat that we don’t get enough organic character moments amidst all the grandeur. Most Thorin sequences also are too slow, both in shot speed and duration; they kill the film’s momentum without showing us anything cooler than we saw in LOTR. Pace and tone are real issues for this movie, and that has to do with building up Thorin’s epicness.
There are other digressions. The extended sequences with wizard Radagast, and the White Council of Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Gandalf both are meant to set up what I’m guessing is the third film’s villain, the Necromancer of Dol Guldor. But these cats spending entirely too much time staring meaningfully at each other and saying Elvish names that have absolutely no significance if you haven’t read the appendices. All this portent destroys the levity Jackson does sometimes bring to the material. The time we spend away from Bilbo and the dwarves is ultimately not as satisfying.
You know what else isn’t as satisfying? Both the complainers and the apologists for 48fps. The Hobbit may eventually be important as a first for that technology, but the 3D stands by itself, bright and artistically well integrated. The 48fps does have teething problems, losing clarity when there’s lots of motion in the frame or camera movement, and there’s often both. But when things are still, the picture is absolutely enveloping. You don’t need to see the film 48fps, but if you’re interested, it will not melt your eyeballs.
Not nearly as strong as the original trilogy, yet just as epic(ally long), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has enough charm to recommend it on the big screen. If it were a part of any other franchise, that probably wouldn’t be true.
Take a Drink: every time a voiceover provides the excuse for an action sequence.
Take a Drink: for every mention of “the Precious.” It won’t kill you in this one!
Take a Drink: whenever the dwarves are counted or named in succession.
Take a Drink: whenever something out of the appendices is ominously mentioned and/or something is named in Elvish and you have no idea what it means.
Do a Shot: when Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) mount is revealed.
Finish Your Drink And Then Take Another Drink: whenever it appears the film could have ended…and then keeps going.