[Review] – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

20 Dec

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey

Title: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Year: 2012
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, Lee Pace
MPAA Rating: PG-13, extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Runtime: 169 min
IMDb Rating: 8.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 65%
Metacritic: 58

Considering the magnitude of this movie it’s fair to say this review will run longer than usual. After all, this is the start to a brand new trilogy that follows (but acts as a prequel series) one of the most successful (both commercially and critically) franchises in history. Back in 2000 Peter Jackson (then known mostly for Heavenly Creatures, a very good, low budget New Zealand film) embarked on what remains to this day one of the most ambitious film projects ever undertaken, the adaptation of the three The Lord of the Rings novels by J.R.R. Tolkien getting a whopping budget of $281 million to make the trilogy of films back-to-back-to-back during a period of 438 days.

The rest, as they say, is history. The three films grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide and the last one, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, won all 11 of its Oscar nominations, including the Best Picture trophy, and tied Titanic and Ben-Hur as the most celebrated film in Academy Awards history. And I’m not even going to go into what the film did for the visual effects industry, the massive work done by the awesome Weta Workshop and the pioneering of the motion-capture performance done by Andy Serkis in the role of Gollum.

The place of that trilogy in the history of film is deeply embedded and won’t ever be erased, but now there’s a new trilogy in place. The Hobbit was written about 20 years before The Lord of the Rings books were ever put into ink and takes place 60 years before the epic adventures we’ve already seen on screen. It doesn’t take much to see the parallels between this and Star Wars, another hugely beloved and geeked-over fantasy franchise that had prequels made (to divisive reception from its most hardcore fans), but the difference lies in the fact that these prequels were not made from scratch, they were made from a source material that not only came before the trilogy of novels that we’ve already seen on-screen, but one that’s also just as beloved.

Of course, the one notable thing is that The Lord of the Rings movies were three because there were three books, while this is a trilogy that adapts just a single literary work. Mr. Jackson had originally wanted to take The Hobbit first and make a trilogy based on this one plus The Lord of the Rings books, making three movies out of four books, but couldn’t because The Hobbit‘s film rights were tied up with another studio and had to settle to make his first trip to Middle Earth with The Lord of the Rings.

Anyways, The Hobbit was now (finally) happening, with Peter Jackson and his partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens returning to pen the script alongside Guillermo del Toro, who had been tapped for the directing gig back in 2008. Now, as regular readers may know, I’m a huge Guillermo del Toro fan so seeing his vision of Middle Earth, especially one that was backed up by the trio of minds that made our first trip to those lands so special, was something of a dream scenario. One that didn’t come to fruition, though, as Mr. Del Toro had to leave production given the halting of production caused at least partially by the financial woes MGM was going though.

So, Mr. Jackson came in to save the day, returning once again for a shoot of over a year in New Zealand, retreading the locations he’d already used a decade ago and adding some new ones. Weta was still involved, old faces came in to reprise their roles with the new guys, the visual effects stuff has evolved tremendously in the 10 years since the first trilogy and Andy Serkis is now the master of the craft he started experiencing with back in the original films. It went through some ups and downs and some stops and changes, but The Hobbit is finally upon us, and, through all of its faults, it’s still pretty much a geek dream come true.

Starting this December we’ll embark on another trip to Middle Earth, now with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, then with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug which comes next December and ending with The Hobbit: There And Back Again which will come out in July, 2014. It’s still a daunting thing to see a single book made into three movies, though. Indeed, originally it was intended for The Hobbit to be made into only two movies but back in August we got word that it’ll be split into three because they had so much footage and Mr. Jackson wanted to draw a lot from the appendices that were written to expand the story of Middle Earth (and published in the back of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) making this a wholly immersive experience for fans of the book.

I know I haven’t spoken a single word about the actual film so far, but, like I said, this is going to be a long review because of the film we’re talking about here, one of the real “movie events” of the year that just claimed the box office record for best December opening ever. So, how does this one fare? Well, there I have a couple of things to talk over before delivering a final verdict.

I mean, yes, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a very, very good film. Visually it’s just an astonishing feat to behold; much like The Lord of the Rings did a decade ago this one just pushes the boundaries of the special effects, and how much the technology has evolved in that decade will leave you drooling. That being said, no matter how good this one is, I thought it only achieved in parts the “wow” factor the original trilogy achieved so consistently. That, by the way, I think may be a result of the decision to split this whole book into three parts.

Yes, it’s true that this is a very detailed telling of the book, a film that’s thorough and immersive and much more complete than The Lord of the Rings movies were but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Because this has that kind of pace that takes its time with things I think it ultimately robs this film its “wow” factor, it takes a bit away from the epic feel. Now, don’t think I’m dumb enough to believe that films shouldn’t be detailed tellings of the books they’re based on, but I think this should have gone the route of The Lord of the Rings: have the movies be as long as they need to be while still retaining that fast and epic pace and then deliver the rest of the scenes in those infinitely awesome special extended edition blu-rays. As great as this film is, it felt a bit dragged down at times.

For those unaware (which is probably no one by now) this film tells the story of Bilbo and the epic quest he embarks on to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor that’s been conquered by the dragon Smaug. Our good friend Gandalf enlists him to join a party of 13 dwarves, led by Thorin, to go on the epic journey that eventually has him meet another one of our old friends, Gollum. We see Bilbo’s first interaction with Gollum, we see how he comes to possess The Ring that we know, even though Bilbo doesn’t, will forever change the fate of Middle Earth.

It’s obviously awesome and easy to get lost in even if I do believe it’s at least 15 or 20 minutes too long, and fans will no doubt love this one, but I just can’t even entertain the notion of putting this one in the same breath as the first three films. Maybe it’s a problem that will only befall this film, though, because it’s the first one and the one that’s here to set things up. The first 45 minutes or so when we’re at Bilbo’s home and we meet the dwarves drags on and feels like overkill but once we’re up and running things go by much smoother, so maybe the next two installments will fare better because of that.

The one thing that I actually can’t make any excuses for is the appearance of the faces we know and love. Yes, Cate Blanchett and Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond are welcome sights to us geeks who love the original trilogy, but seeing them here is exactly that, just a nod to the past films and not something that adds to the story at hand so it consequentially ends up drawing us a bit out of the story we should be caring about here.

The familiar faces that do have a vital part to play in this story, however, are just spectacular to have back. Ian McKellen as Gandalf is as genius as always, mostly because you just know Mr. McKellen dearly loves this role and just has a ball with it. Then you have Andy Serkis who by now fully owns the role of Gollum, the stuff he does with his performance and how insanely good he is at the whole motion-capture thing is just stunning to behold. As for the new faces, Richard Armitage as the leader of the dwarves, Thorin, is very good and Martin Freeman as Bilbo is just tremendous, a genius bit of casting right there by Mr. Jackson.

Still, for some reason I can’t get beyond the fact that this doesn’t have to be this long. The 1977 animated version of the book tells the whole story in nearly half the time this one takes to tell a third of it, and as fun as this one it’s still hard not to see that move as anything more than a good ol’ cash grab. Some of the extra material here feels repetitive and drags it down and disables this one to feel as epic as The Lord of the Rings, though perhaps that was a lost battle from the very get-go considering this was a shorter and simpler tale to begin with.

That feel of the movie not being as good comes from the fact that at times Mr. Jackson seemed to be going for it and at others it seemed like he was going for something totally different. At times you have it feel super lightweight and funny, due to the fact that the book is more a children’s story than anything else, but then at others you have it feel super important and big like our first trip to Middle Earth and those two tones just don’t add up here.

It may feel like I’m being dismissive of a very good movie (and it genuinely is a very good movie) but that’s just because my expectations, provided by the fact that I’m a fan of the material as well as the last three films from these guys, were so high. Visually it’s amazing, the scope and the detail is spectacular to behold, the design, the score, the performances, all of that works wonderfully. But it just doesn’t touch the supremely high bar set by its predecessors because it’s too long, because it tries to do too much. It’s the type of enterprise that’s hurt by good intentions.

I’ve said (more than) enough by now. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a really good movie that should have been (at the very least) 15 minutes shorter than it is, but I’ll still be first in line to check out the next two installments because I’m a sucker for Middle Earth and because, like I already said, I have hopes that those won’t feel as bogged down. Oh, and I’m saying nothing about the visual format discussion; I saw this one in 24fps and in 2D, and I’m fine with that.

Grade: A-

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