Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit review

I was incredibly worried about The Hobbit. Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is one of the most important works of film in my life. I know, if I were a "real" fan I'd care more about J.R.R. Tolkien's original books. And I do. But being the age that I am, Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy came out smack dab in the middle of my formative years.

When The Fellowship of the Ring was released in December 2001, I had just turned 12. I remember seeing the very first trailer for the movie earlier that year; I spent the next few months rapidly reading The Hobbit and LotR in time for the film's release. While older fans took issue with the numerous changes Peter Jackson made to Tolkien's classics, I've essentially been experiencing the movies just as long as I've been experiencing the books, so to me Jackson's version is no less legitimate than Tolkien's version.

With The Hobbit, however, my time between reading the book and seeing the movie was much more significant. I had eleven years of reading the novel before Jackson's first Hobbit film came out yesterday. So I was afraid I would be far less receptive to the movie's changes than I had been to the changes in the LotR trilogy.

I was wrong.

It didn't start so well. I've long been a skeptic of 3D cinema being the wave of the future, as Yahtzee Croshaw illustrates more eloquently than I ever could. But Peter Jackson is insistent that 3D is the way to go with The Hobbit. So I trusted him. And what I got was... exactly what I thought. Upon the film starting, it looked like the cheesy cardboard-cutout 3D I expected. I thought I was bound to hate it for the duration of the film. Fortunately, by the end of the movie I stopped being bothered by the 3D effect, which I suppose shows its success. There were even a few nice 3D touches, particularly little things like smoke and a few close-up shots of characters' faces. But I still want to see the movie again in 2D.

And now commence all the story spoilers. You've been warned.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins with a prologue, telling us the story of Thorin's company being banished from their home under the Lonely Mountain. It seemed fraught with unnecessary exposition of obscure characters that don't matter--fantasy lore for fantasy lore's sake. But I had to remind myself that Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring begins the exact same way. So in retrospect, perhaps this scene will grow on me.

Despite hating the prologue, I loved all the character designs, perhaps inspired by Guillermo del Toro's influence on the film. The Elvenking Thranduil and the giant moose he rides were particularly cool, and I can't wait to see more of them in the upcoming sequels. The whole movie features much more computer-generated content than The Lord of the Rings did, which had me worried, but it's so well-executed and the characters designs are so original that I became a believer.

The first scenes in Hobbiton involve Old Bilbo, played again by Ian Holm, and Frodo, reprised by Elijah Wood. Interestingly, this part takes place in the hours leading up to Bilbo's big birthday party at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. The last decade has not been kind to Ian Holm, whose acting in this scene is subpar. Elijah Wood, on the other hand, is pretty good! I guess when people think of whiny Frodo in LotR, they're really thinking of him after he gets the Ring. When he's still a fun-loving hobbit in the Shire, he's fairly charismatic.

At this point in the movie, I was really hating it. This was everything I feared.

Then we get to the real story. Martin Freeman does a great job as young Bilbo, and Ian McKellen is brilliant in his reprisal of the Gandalf role. I was nervous Freeman's existing fame from The Office and Sherlock would break the illusion of his character in The Hobbit, but I shouldn't have worried. Interesting that Freeman was 40 years old during filming, while Elijah Wood was only 20 when The Lord of the Rings was in production. If anything, Freeman fits the hobbit look even better than Wood did a decade ago.

The movie started getting a little better from here. The extensive scene in Bag End with Bilbo meeting all the dwarves is well-done, if a bit slowly paced. But it matches the book perfectly, and we get a fitting introduction to the dwarves. Peter Jackson & Co. did a superb job of differentiating all the dwarves from one another, something hard to do with thirteen of them. When reading the book, I always imagined most of the dwarves basically looking identical to one another, but here, we get a handful of dwarves who are well-developed as characters. Balin in particular is a nice mediator between the dwarves and Bilbo; in the book, I wouldn't have been able to point out Balin in the crowd.

Thorin Oakenshield, though, is a bit of a melodramatic prick. He seems far too self-serious. But then again... he's the exact same way in the novel. So I'll let this one slide. But as far as a "wandering warrior who must reclaim his throne" character, I'll take Aragorn over Thorin any day.

The scene with the trolls is hilarious. The film as a whole has a much more lighthearted and comical tone than Lord of the Rings, which fits the book. The trolls' working-class English mannerisms and banter are in stark contrast to the cave troll from The Fellowship of the Ring, who was more of a basic monster. The Hobbit features way more creatures who speak than LotR, and while they were at risk of coming off as cheesy in the film adaptation, they're incredibly well-done here. The goblins in the cave scene are just as talkative (especially the Goblin King) and just as hilarious. This gives me hope for the most prominent "speaking creature" in the next film: Smaug.

Unfortunately, this doesn't carry over to the darker, less comical Orcs. In a strange choice, they speak their own language in the film, which would be fine, but it's in contrast to all the English-speaking bad guys in Lord of the Rings. Heck, even the Ringwraiths spoke English in LotR. But Yazneg, the leader of the Orcs and the Lurtz of this movie, is a superb villain.

By this point in the film, I was in love. I should have never doubted Peter Jackson.

Despite being most worried about where the movie diverges from the book, the new scenes in the film ended up being some of my absolute favorites. The eccentric wizard Radagast is great. His treehouse abode and rabbit-pulled sleigh were great additions to the story. And the scenes involving the Necromancer were surprisingly epic--I was worried their dark tone would clash with the rest of the plot.

As far as expanded roles in the story go, the most unexpected delight was the FUCKING STONE GIANTS. They were only briefly mentioned in the book and only appear in one scene in the movie, but these colossal golems steal the show for about a minute of screen time. In a way, they reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus.

The scenes in Rivendell are a throwback to Lord of the Rings. Hugo Weaving gives a "Fuck Yeah, I'm Elrond" performance as Elrond; it's nice to see him slightly less solemn and more fleshed out in this movie than in LotR. You can tell Weaving enjoyed himself in his return to Peter Jackson's set. Then there's the "LotR All-Stars" scene, the only one in the film entirely comprised of actors from the previous trilogy: Gandalf, Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and in an unexpected cameo, Christopher Lee as Saruman. Unfortunately, Lee's acting in this scene is a little awkward, but it's still fun to see him in "slightly less evil, sort of a good guy" mode. Also of note in the Rivendell scenes is the reappearance of Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords. He's got more lines this time! Yay!

I don't need to write much about the famous "Riddles in the Dark" scene with Gollum. Enough has been written elsewhere. It's absolutely flawless. If Andy Serkis doesn't win a million awards for his performance in this scene, I have no hope for humanity.

The film ends smartly on a cliffhanger, with a shot in the Lonely Mountain of Smaug's eye opening. An Unexpected Journey is three hours long, but it certainly didn't feel like it. I can't wait for the next movie.


  1. I can't wait to see it now, Jake. I too am anxious. Can it be as wonderful as I need it to be? I will not bother with 3D.

  2. Test message. Last time I tried to comment on your blog, I was unable to do so.

  3. Although I am not a big fan of LOTR books, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit movie (although maybe some of the fighting could have been edited for my taste). I loved, loved Martin Freeman in Bilbo role! Gandalf was great as always, and the dwarves amazingly came across as individuals.

    Is there Jesus-disciples-cruxifiction-rising from the dead analogy going on with Thorin & his band of believers? Remember when he fights the Orc leader solo--he died for his gang of dwarves & then came back to life.

    You're right, Jake. The stone giants were awesome and added greatly to the journey.

    Now I really want to travel to New Zealand, although I don't know how much of the settings were computer-generated.

    One question, Jake. Gandalf seems to be able to swoop in and save the dwarves again and again. If he's this powerful, why doesn't he just have those damn angel birds pick them up in the beginning and take them back to the mountain?

  4. P.S. The prologue was extremely helpful to me, and wasn't boring. Also glad I didn't see it in 3D, because I felt motion sickness at times in just normal D.

  5. 'The Hobbit' is another ambitious, gorgeous and faithful trip into JRR's writing and because of this, it won't win any new fans if you had no patience ten years ago. For those who do, you'll definitely want to go there and back