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Film Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey (2012; Directed by Peter Jackson)

The Hobbit is here, and I’ve seen it. If you can’t stand to wade through the detailed thoughts to come, here’s the upshot: Either An Unexpected Journey, the first in a trilogy of films directed by Peter Jackson based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s brisk and lively classic children’s novel of a quest by a wizard, a gaggle of dwarves, and one special little hobbit, is better than we’ve been led to expect, or my self-vaunted critical faculties crumble when faced with the vivid richness of Peter Jackson’s still-wondrous vision of Middle Earth. I have my reasons for doubting the latter (few scales remain on my eyes after a decade of deep familiarity with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy), so elimination of that option leaves the former.

Why, I found myself asking, were so many critics so eager to equate this first Hobbit film with the franchise-souring wrong turn that was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace? If it does not share the iconic burnish, the narrative gravitas, or the general cinematic near-perfection of the LOTR trilogy kickstarter The Fellowship of the Ring (still the best picture of the series, when taken as a whole), then An Unexpected Journey is still fun, clever, exciting, impressively-made, and even, sometimes, surprising. Why the suggestions of boredom, flagging pace, and dreary blockbuster drudgery? Are its harsher critics feeling free at last to tilt at Jackson’s digital windmills after the Rings trilogy’s avalanche of success in the commercial and aesthetic departments smothered any hint of dissent? Is it a general malaise with endemic Hollywood franchise-ology coming to the surface, an expression of principled frustration with the industry drawing the wrong sort of lessons from Jackson’s game-changing earlier adaptations and privileging CG-enabled world-creation, staged fight scenes, and drawn-out serialization over the Old-Hollywood bravado and expert cinematic narrative-crafting of those films? Or did this vision of Middle Earth simply not impact upon or resonate with them as it did for me?

I can understand any of these critical impulses, though none so much as the last. My engagement with Jackson’s Rings films was profound in a manner that cannot be fully explained and that the films, for all of their laudable qualities, did not perhaps fully earn. I sunk my expanding perspective on art and culture into those movies until they became more than themselves. Perhaps that overwhelming feeling bleeds into The Hobbit, erasing its knottier elements (and there are, undeniably, a few to note) under that same smothering avalanche of glorious cinema that may have frustrated naysayers. Perhaps. Or perhaps the answer is simpler: An Unexpected Journey is a cracker of an entertainment, and I just enjoyed it.

There is much to enjoy, first and foremost of which is Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins. There has quite possibly never been a more inspired bit of casting in any such enormous blockbuster film undertaking (and this takes into account the decision to toss the intense and underappreciated Method actor Viggo Mortensen into the role of Aragorn in the original Rings trilogy). The most wonderful part of Freeman’s performance is that, essentially, he’s doing his trademarked shtick of the befuddled and frustrated everyman: opening his mouth to object, raising a finger, then thinking better of it, clamming up, and moving along. Where previously his perfectly-timed comic ticks demonstrated Tim Canterbury’s bafflement at the awkward excesses of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent on the original British The Office or John Watson’s exasperated amazement at the eccentric deductive genius of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes on Sherlock, now they are turned to the insistence of a pushy wizard or the poor manners of dwarves or the ravenous appetites of trolls or the inconvenient bother of fighting a swarming army of subterranean goblins. He becomes the ideal Bilbo by remaining entirely himself, even when the film asks un-Bilbo-like acts of physical courage of him.

There is only one month in the Dwarven calendar: Movember

Freeman is most amusing in the film’s Shire-set opening act, as a baker’s dozen of dwarves and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey (much missed and as michieviously authoritative as ever) invades his cozy hobbit hole, devours all of his food, and insists that he join them in their quest to slay a deadly dragon and regain their home kingdom of Erebor. All of the hoary history of this is laid out in an opening prologue that is meant to echo that of Fellowship but mostly substitutes visual sweep for dramatic context. Once Dale and the Lonely Mountain are laid to waste and the dwarf diaspora is achieved, things don’t exactly pick up, but the leisurely pace is welcome and grounded in the familiar, and I could not muster the objections to the amount of time it takes to get on the road that seemed to trouble so many other observers.

There is some important plot to be established in Bag End, as well as the sketched personalities of the company of dwarves to lay out. Richard Armitage’s Thorin Oakenshield, a king without a throne or even a realm, obviously predominates, and the Aragorning of the character is the clear project of the screenplay by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro (the latter was to direct the film before dropping out due to scheduling issues brought on by project delays related to the New Zealand labour situation, and these films will always be the fantasy epics that were nearly, tantalizingly his).

Armitage musters every scrap of nobility at his disposal to show a side of the dwarves that is more proud and heroic than the earthy hungers of John Rhys-Davies’ comic Gimli in Rings, and comes across as a bit of a humourless and stubborn twit as a result. But then, Thorin is stubborn and proud to the last (my partner memorably dubbed him “a Republican dwarf”), so this is accurate enough. Beyond the hero-dwarf, the measured old hand Balin (Ken Stott) stands out, as does the active young archer and warrior Kili (budding Irish hearthrob Aidan Turner), the towering, hammer-wielding Dwalin (Graham McTavish), and James Nesbitt’s forthright Bofur, who has a nice scene with Bilbo that emotionalizes his people’s exile status.

Once we have our company established, Jackson of course itches to throw them into physical peril. If his plethora of imaginative action sequences introduce a note of violence to the proceedings that is more muted or skimmed over in Tolkien’s book, then we can nonetheless appreciate them for the models of tension and active wit that they are. The wonderful, spatially clever escape from the realm of the goblins beneath the Misty Mountains is the true highlight, though earlier drag-outs with trolls and warg-riding orcs, as well as the climactic scene on a burning forest precipice, have their points of recommendation, too. There’s also a scene of the company stumbling into the gladiatorial exertions of rock-hurling stone giants on a mountain pass that takes Tolkien’s similes a mite too literally and feels like a moment from a lesser CGI punch-fest, but it’s also scrupulously epic in its scope.

There is one who could claim the throne of Gond… I mean, Erebor.

All of these action beats fall short of the suspense, intelligence, and surprising pathos of Bilbo’s fateful encounter and riddle contest with Gollum (more vivid than ever, thanks to the evolving talents of Weta Digital and motion-capture master Andy Serkis). Gollum’s well-established split personalities play off of Freeman’s Bilbo beautifully; in the midst of so much saturating cinema, this scenes feels almost like a theatre piece, a give-and-take between two (or three, really) well-crafted characters. And the key moment that ends their encounter, an instance of empathy and mercy whose consequences ripple down into the famous events of a greater conflict to come, is both underplayed and abundantly clear. In a movie much lighter on profound emotional appeals than the films it follows, this was a peak of pathos.

For everything that is done right, one must still register the notes that sound a touch off-key. Of great concern to all close observers of Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien was the various material briefly hinted at in The Hobbit text or in The Return of the King‘s appendixes that would be woven into the narrative of this film trilogy. I can report that while it’s hardly the leaden bore it’s been called in some quarters, the White Council involving Gandalf, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) discussing an evil that is creeping back into the world does not contribute much to the overarching narrative of this film. Nor, really, do the scenes with the ratty off-grid hippie wizard Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) which propel the party into Rivendell, necessitate the council of the wise, and hint at the dangers of Mirkwood to come in Film #2, though comparisons to Jar-Jar Binks are distinctly off-base (though how he crosses the mountains from Mirkwood to meet the company near Rivendell on his bunny sled is not exactly rationalized for us, and there’s a couple of forehead-slapping drugs jokes that we could have done without).

There are niggling notes of oddness, though, the sort of things that may have been scrubbed from the slate or tweaked further if not for Jackson’s legendary down-to-the-wire delivery schedule for his expensive tentpole releases. Deus ex machina irruptions are multitudinous, though Tolkien is more to blame for that than Jackson and his co-writers can be. Despite some funny culinary stuff and excellent Martin Freeman awkwardness in the encounter with the trolls (Bilbo sneaks towards them at one point, but turns seamlessly the other way when their attention is drawn his way, a hilariously elegant bit of physical comedy), Jackson cannot resist inserting some scatalogical humour, including a graphic snot gag. And even with a score by Howard Shore that generally deserves to be compared favourably with his amazing Rings music, there are some curious cues, including the strange use of the Ringwraith theme from Fellowship to accompany Thorin confronting his orcish Moby Dick, the imposing Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett).

Keep it secret, keep it cozy. I’m still hashing that out, give me a break.

I’ve written repeatedly in the lead-up to this film’s release about the nature of expectations, of the baggage and context that viewers are bound to bring to The Hobbit film trilogy. In fact, the awareness of these expectations seem to be acknowledged right there in the title itself, although for moviegoers, this journey is now a long-expected one. The thing is, I know what The Hobbit is, in its published literary form. I like it well enough, but let’s not kid ourselves: it ain’t much. There’s a reason readers flock to the more portentous and absorbing LOTR, and a reason those books were adapted for the screen first. The Hobbit cannot hope to match either its scope nor its world-crafting depth nor its sociopolitical applicability, the latter which has found purchase across several historical contexts. By the same token, The Hobbit films cannot hope to approach the axis-shifting achievement of Jackson’s Rings trilogy.

Perhaps even Jackson could not help but recognize this fact, which is why he sunk so much more innovative effort into his well-publicized high-frame-rate projection initiative (I did not see it in 48 frames-per-second or in 3D, so I can comment on the effect of neither as of yet) than he did into providing the synthesis of cutting-edge onscreen technology and old-school cinematic spectacle that made his earlier efforts the modern classics they have become. For all the subtle and unsubtle call-backs to the Rings films that are built into An Unexpected Journey, there is a restless desire at work behind the scenes of this movie for it to be something more than knowing nostalgia or corporate-driven re-capitalization of brand loyalty (although that Hobbit menu at Denny’s can’t really be understood any other way). Maybe it’s that thirst for the new and exciting, that refusal to just go through the same precise motions again, that saves Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie from the potential tedium that haunts its steps and that was felt by so many critics. It is not a transcendent achievement, but it is also far from a misguided attempt either. This first stage of the journey is enough of an adventure to sustain our interest and pique our anticipation of the next chapter.

Categories: Film, Reviews

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