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‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’: What Worked & What Didn’t

'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey': What Worked & What Didn't

For a long time, it seemed as though “The Hobbit” would never get made. Despite the multi-billion dollar success of Peter Jackson‘s “Lord of the Rings” films, the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s earlier novel were tangled up, and Jackson didn’t even seem to be sure he wanted to go back to Middle Earth. Even once the film got underway, MGM‘s bankruptcy delayed the film for years, losing original director Guillermo Del Toro in the process.

But with Jackson back at the helm himself, the new film finally hit screens this past Friday, and certainly seems like it’ll be at least as successful as the earlier films, breaking box office records around the world in the last few days, so it’s paying off financially. But creatively? Perhaps less so. The film’s had its share of good reviews (including our own), but in general it has had notices well below the three “Lord of the Rings” films, and fan reaction seems to be much more mixed (although the film did, in fairness, pick up an ‘A’ Cinemascore, for what little that’s worth.)

The rest of the Playlist team have been catching up on the film in recent weeks, and collectively found a few more issues than our reviewer, so we thought we’d delve into the movie in more depth, and pinpoint, with spoilers, what worked and what didn’t for most of us about the film. You can let us know your own views in the comments section below.

What Worked

Martin Freeman
One of the bigger gambles that Jackson makes with “The Hobbit” was in the casting of his lead, Bilbo Baggins. For one thing, the character had already been played, wonderfully, by Ian Holm in the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, so it was a difficult act to follow. As such, it might have been better to go with a relative unknown, but instead Jackson cast Martin Freeman, star of the U.K. “The Office,” as well as the more recent smash “Sherlock.” While he’s hardly an A-lister, Freeman brings plenty of star baggage to the film, which could have been problematic. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great choice; Freeman is basically the best thing about “An Unexpected Journey.” With no shades of Tim or Watson, Freeman slips like a glove into Middle-Earth, seamlessly incorporating some Ian Holm-ish elements into the performance, while also happy to let it stand alone and make it his own thing. He’s grumpy, funny, cunning, truly heroic (his charge to save Thorin is genuinely moving) and all in all a much more compelling protagonist than Frodo ever was in Jackson’s first three films. We have plenty of reservations about the six hours of ‘Hobbit’ to come, but one thing we really are looking forward to is seeing much more of Freeman as Bilbo.

Ian McKellen
Freeman’s not alone in giving a fine performance; there really are no weak leaks involved, from returning cast members like Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett to all the dwarves (it might be hard to tell them apart, but every one of them is giving their all). Best of all is Ian McKellen, a sight for sore eyes as Gandalf the Grey. One forgets that it’s eleven years since we’ve seen this incarnation of the character (when he returns as Gandalf the White in “The Two Towers,” the character is a bit more spritely and samurai-like, with less of a sense of humor), but McKellen doesn’t let it feel like a day has passed. One suspects that it’s the most screen time that Gandalf’s had in the films so far, and McKellen makes use of every playful, stern, powerful second of it, while still letting in a little of that weariness to foreshadow how he appeared in ‘Fellowship.’ McKellen’s always been open about enjoying playing Gandalf the Grey much more than the White, and he’s clearly having an absolute blast in the part that won him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination way back in 2002.

The Effects
Given the decade of progress that’s been made at WETA, and given Jackson’s effects company’s work on “Avatar” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” among others, it’s no surprise that the CGI work is pretty spectacular (although there were a couple of naysayers on staff who preferred the work in the original films). The melding of different sized-characters is just as seamless as ever, while Gollum, already a landmark creation, is even more impressive this time around — the improved facial performance capture techniques developed for “Avatar” and “ROTPOTA” come into play here, every tiny tic on Serkis’ face replicated on his creation. And the Goblin King (as played by Barry Humphries), while a brief role, is probably the second-most impressive performance capture creation that’s resulted from the Tolkien movies, a memorably grotesque, corpulent character, while the Cockney-voiced trolls are good fun too. We might take some issue with exactly how much CGI there is (did the one-armed albino orc guy really need to be a CGI, rather than practical, creation?), but you can’t argue that what is there is pretty much immaculate.  

The Del Toro-isms
Like Paul Greengrass‘ “Watchmen” or Lynne Ramsay‘s “The Lovely Bones,” the concept of Guillermo Del Toro‘s “The Hobbit” will end up as one of the great ‘what ifs’ in cinema history. The “Pan’s Labyrinth” director spent several years as the director of the films, only to bail after multiple delays. But he was deeply involved in the writing process (retaining a screenwriting credit), and while it’s tricky to tell exactly who contributed what, some of the film’s more inventive moments certainly feel like they have Del Toro’s stamp all of them. Again, that scrotum-chinned Goblin King, a truly repulsive villain, feels like a giant grown cousin to the skin-flap-covered Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” (though Barry Humphries‘ performance is also one of the relatively few moments that nod to Peter Jackson’s work — you can imagine the character having strolled out of “Bad Taste,” somehow). And the film’s most ingenious action sequence, as the dwarves & Bilbo find themselves caught in a battle between two giant rock monsters — a complete invention, found nowhere in the book — also feels like it’s a product of Del Toro’s mind, given his love for giant monsters (and indeed, ones made of rock — see “Hellboy II”). It’s pretty gratuitous to be sure, but as the dwarves jump between the giants’ knees, it’s one of the most inventive moments in the film, and we wish there was more like it. Maybe we’re being unfair to Jackson by putting the credit elsewhere (it could be that Del Toro had nothing to do with it), but it certainly makes you wonder if the film might have been more distinctive and satisfying in the hands of the first director who was going to make it.

Riddles In The Dark
During the frenzied second half of “The Hobbit” there is a brief, beautiful moment of reprieve – the so-called “Riddles in the Dark” scene, where Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meets, for the first time, Gollum (Andy Serkis). The scene is extraordinary for a number of reasons, first and foremost the performances of Serkis and Freeman. Freeman plays the scene delicately, like he knows that the sequence is a moment of “passing the torch” from one trilogy to the next, while Serkis throws himself back into the role wholeheartedly, with even more freedom and elasticity. (In the previous films, he performed on-set as reference and then recorded the motion capture in a blank stage called the volume, with the second performance then reintegrated back into the scene. For these new films, he was able to do the performance on stage in real time.) The sequence, too, has a wonderful sense of playful menace, with a subtly redesigned Gollum playing Bilbo in a deadly game of riddles. The scene takes its time – it breathes deeply, a much needed lull in the film’s frantic second half – but you are always on the edge of your seat. This sequence also has what is arguably the single most important moment in the entire prequel series, when Bilbo plucks a tiny gold band out of the dirt and places it in his waistcoat. With this ring, I thee dread.

What Didn’t Work

48 FPS
To sum it up, here’s the problem with 48 fps: in providing a super high-definition picture with more detail than you ever thought possible, it conversely makes any elements that are fantastical and imaginative, more artificial and ordinary as a result. The use of 48 fps had the curiously opposite effect to being immersive, by jarring viewers out of the experience. The first already dreadfully slow hour of the movie was further hampered by a visual effect that turned the entire proceedings at Bag End into dress-up on a drastically overlit episode of “Coronation Street.” To get a sense of how different the feel is, just throw any of the LOTR DVDs on your TV — you immediately feel like you’re in an entirely different, beautifully conjured world. In ‘The Hobbit,’ the faster frame rate only highlights the feeling that you are watching actors in costume, on a film set, and at times, the hyper-details make the green screen digital effects behind the actors stand out, instead of disappearing into the background. That said, 48 fps does the make the action sequences look gorgeous, particularly the extended goblin battle, with the frame rate lending itself well to the expressive, carefully planned setpiece. It’s been said that directors can switch between 24 and 48 fps in the same movie, so our advice for PJ? For the next two films, stick with the standard rate but flip to new format when it’s time for special effects.

Jackson’s been a strong advocate for 3D, having been side-by-side with James Cameron on the WETA-aided “Avatar,” and having produced “The Adventures of Tintin” for Steven Spielberg, as well as planning to direct that film’s sequel. So it’s a little puzzling that he doesn’t really seem to take advantage of the format in the way that we hoped he would. After all, recent years have seen people like Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee design movies from the ground-up to use the dimensionalization of their movies to its fullest. We’re not fans of 3D in general, but we’d certainly acknowledge that some of those guys are using it in a way that makes sense, but Jackson seems to be shooting in much the same way he always has, so the stereo effect never feels particularly justified, bar perhaps some of the impossible camera shots in the goblin caves.  If you’re someone who believes that 3D immediately makes everything more immersive, you probably had a good time with it, but we mostly found the effect to be token, and reminiscent more of a quick post-convert than being shot in native 3D. And it’s particularly egregious given that the HFR technology was forced on us principally because of its 3D benefits. We suspect that by the time the second part rolls around, we’ll be going out of our way to see the film in good old 2D 24FPS.

The Film Lacks A Core Central Relationship To Care About
The idea of taking J.R.R. Tolkien’s comparatively thin, much more lighthearted “The Hobbit” and turning it into the three movies was always going to challenge, but ‘An Unexpected Journey’ reveals why this approach is problematic. Where the LOTR series had a great central relationship at its core, with Frodo and Sam bonded and tested by their quest, and further rounded out by an expansive world with fascinating side characters and subplots that enriched the story, ‘The Hobbit’ flounders in that department. As good as he is, Freeman is pretty much only given one note to play, that of the reluctant hobbit drawn into this adventure against his will, only to wind up nearly three hours later kind of half-heartedly agreeing to help the dwarves reclaim their land. It’s not exactly the most compelling arc to latch onto, and it isn’t helped by head dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) spending most of the movie griping that Bilbo isn’t fit to travel with them, and generally being kind of a grumpy, stubborn dick to the point where, when Bilbo is ready to bail, we’re totally on his side.

Those Troublesome Eagles
“It’s in the books!” Yeah, yeah, we get it, but sometimes to make things work cinematically, elements need to be changed (we won’t even into how ridiculous that fiery pinecones sequence was). But with the giant eagles once again coming to the rescue (we kind of been there, done that in ‘Return Of The King’) and whisking everyone away from the danger, all we could think when they dropped them a random cliff in the middle of nowhere was: couldn’t they have just taken them to Erebor? They’re like the world’s most dickish cab drivers. With the Lonely Mountain rising up in the far, far distance, we weren’t so much anticipating the next journey as already thinking about the fact we have two more movies, and six more hours before this story is wrapped up, and Peter Jackson finishes knitting all the strings together between the two trilogies.

The Pacing Is Off
Even with the 48 fps, which makes everything look like someone’s sitting on the fast forward button on the DVD remote control, “The Hobbit” starts off slow. Like, agonizingly slow. After gobs of uninteresting exposition, we’re treated to a seemingly endless series of scenes where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) invites a bunch of fucking dwarves over to Bilbo’s house, where they wreck the place and engage in not one but two musical numbers, to the point where the first forty-five minutes or so resemble the Middle Earth version of “Les Miserables.” Then they’re off on an adventure, which seems to involve an awful lot of sitting around and talking about food, which isn’t particularly adventurous and is even less cinematic. What makes the pacing of the movie even weirder is that once the movie is about halfway done, it doesn’t slow down at all – there are giant mountainous men who throw boulders at each other, a protracted section of the movie set in some kind of underground goblin factory and a final showdown between some Orcs riding what appear to be werewolves from the “Twilight” movies. It’s jarring and awkward and just because the first half is so boring doesn’t mean the second half has to overcompensate with pacing that borders on the frenetic. Yes, there are some nice moments in the second half but by then we’d completely checked out emotionally. And might even have taken a little nap.
The Dwarves Are Poorly Defined
Any time that you need a flowchart to tell your main characters apart, you’re in trouble. To be fair, we don’t envy Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens the task of trying to differentiate 13 dwarves who look very similar in their adaptation, with only an ax in the head or a pastry-shaped beard to tell them apart . However, we’d have a bit more sympathy if they’d made an effort to characterize the dwarves beyond the mean one (Thorin, Richard Armitage), the old one (Balin, Ken Stott) and the hot ones (Fili & Kili, Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner) in a script that has so many diversions, we stopped counting. We imagine they’ll put the characters – and some of the UK’s most talented character actors including Stott and James Nesbitt – to better use in the latter films, but despite some good performances, they’re wasted here.

The Action’s Never As Inspired As In LOTR
In both its source material and the finished film, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a notably lighter trip than Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, whose strongest moments were epic fights like Helm’s Deep. So it’s surprising that some of the weakest scenes in the film were its battles, particularly the initial appearance of the pale orc Azog the Descrator and the final fight between the orcs and the dwarves. In the past, Jackson has struck a fine balance between expansive battles with thousands on each side, individual feats of bravery and moments worthy of his splatstick past, but he doesn’t achieve any of that here. The last battle between Azog’s orc and Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves is especially bad. When Thorin attempts to make a valiant last stand against his mortal enemy, we would have expected our hearts to soar with the crescendoing score as he charges. Instead, the moment just made us want to laugh harder than we had with the intentional moments of comedy.

The Script’s Overstuffed, Low Stakes & Episodic
Look, if things were reversed, and Jackson had made “The Hobbit” back in 2001, maybe we wouldn’t have said this. But compared to the incredibly high, fate-of-the-world stakes of “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” feels like a lark; an extended stag weekend to reclaim the dwarves’ home from a squatter (Jackson at least tries to give added weight, but it’s a bit half-hearted until Bilbo’s final moment). It does try to bring in hints of Sauron’s upcoming return, mainly through the Radagast the Brown-related scenes, but they feel so shoehorned in, and of relatively little effect (shortened version; something bad might be coming) that one can’t help but wish that Jackson had just trimmed it altogether for something closer to a two-hour run time. It doesn’t help that it’s much less propulsive than the earlier films; in part because you know it’s going to take nine hours to get to the bloody end, and in part because it’s so episodic, structurally speaking. The dwarves fight rock monsters, then goblins, then orcs, etc. Now, much of this is down to the source material, which is far thinner than “Lord of the Rings,” but Jackson has only himself to blame for taking that material and dragging it over this kind of running time. It’s the kind of indulgence that led to a 180-minute “King Kong,” and the result is the most expensive fan service movie ever made; Tolkien fans might care about appendices about necromancers, but there’s a reason they were in the appendix to begin with.

It’s Basically A Remake Of “Fellowship of the Ring”
Obviously “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was going to have a close connection to Jackson’s previous films, but we weren’t expecting the director to follow his own template quite so closely. Running at almost the exact same running time as the first LOTR picture, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” it sometimes feels as if Jackson and co-writers Del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philppa Boyens simply used a find and replace, using the structure of that first film to set a precedent for the opening of this new trilogy. Lengthy prologue to set up a villain we won’t meet for several movies? Check. 20 minutes in Hobbiton? Check. Early confrontation with some bad guys? Check. Appearance by a wrath-king? Check. An arrival at elf home Rivendell? Check (and at virtually the same point in the film as in ‘Fellowship’). Extended underground action sequence? Check. Final confrontation with a sub-villain? Check. Project the films side by side, and we’d wager you’d really spot how Jackson & co hit the same beats, at about the same time. We get the merits of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ and all, but we wish Jackson had departed from his own formula a little more.

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