The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


There may be exceptions, but I'm probably one of the few people my age that read The Hobbit before tackling The Lord of the Rings.  There was a 17-year gap between what today would be considered a young adult novel and the sprawling epic tale that got the attention of everyone from academics to beatniks.  Though they occur in the same worlds, and feature some of the same characters, the tone of the two works couldn't be more different.

The reason I was reading a book like The Hobbit in the first place, which I had always dismissed as a children's book, was simple.  During our first year together, the woman who would soon be my wife bought me a set of all four of the books.  I love science fiction, but I am usually a fan of hard sci-fi, and largely consider fantasy to be dragons, guys in loincloths with oversized swords (and oversized ideas of how to use them, both in the literal and metaphorical sense) and, one of the things that always annoyed me from J. R. R. Tolkien's contemporary C. S. Lewis, talking animals.  She, however, got me into Tolkien much the same way I got into George R. R. Martin: my interest, and love, of medieval literature like The Faerie Queen and Le morte d'Arthur.  For the later trilogy, Tolkien interpolating his World War I experiences in a way that didn't stereotypically glorify the battle scenes also helped, but there was quite a bit for me to enjoy.

Back to The Hobbit, I found it an entertaining prologue, and was glad I finally read it rather than just being influenced by the cartoon version broadcast on American television in the 1970s.  I remembered being bored by it as a child, with the only memorable part being Bilbo's encounter with Gollum.  It was a cartoon so, like most parents who needed a bit of peace, they sat me in front of it, but unfortunately it is probably quite a bit of the reason I had a bias against typical fantasy, although I loved the same elements in Greek mythology.  I think it was because I was so much happier if they sat me in front of the set when The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad was on.

The problem with bringing The Hobbit to the screen again, especially after the success of Peter Jackson's movie versions of the three parts of The Lord of the Rings, is that it is a self-contained story.  It is simple, with Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves moving from one adventure to another until they reach their destination.  Yes, the ending is kind of unexpected, which I quite liked, and there are many elements that elevate it beyond pulp fantasy of the 1930s.  In truth, I think it should be read before The Lord of the Rings simply because it is a wonderful introduction to the world, even if the future events are merely hinted at.  However, by the time Peter Jackson decided to produce a version (meant to be directed by Guillermo del Toro), the larger story had already been told.  To make things worse, other franchises were starting to do what Jackson did and divide longer films up into parts to milk as much money from it as possible. 

Therefore, when it finally came out that del Toro was out after development of the movie went through a gamut of legal hurdles and labor disputes, and that they were somehow going to stretch a book that maybe had enough material for two decently sized films into a trilogy, there was some concern.  Also, unlike the book when it originally came out, the movie versions would be saddled with existing next two what, by that time, were considered three of the best movies made in any genre.  The problems were compounded by the fact that at this point Peter Jackson didn't seem too keen to revisit Middle Earth, having achieved one of his greatest goals in life by remaking his favorite film (King Kong) before returning to smaller budget movie making with The Lovely Bones

Where The Lord of the Rings was a labor of love by Jackson and all those involved, The Hobbit trilogy was the result of a studio seeing dollar signs.  Combine that with the fact that a backlash against Peter Jackson, inevitable from a critical community that largely hates and is jealous of too much success, was more than overdue.  King Kong was a vanity picture, The Lovely Bones too under the radar, but now they had a target.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey begins with Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) writing his memoirs on the day of his 111th birthday, shortly before the events that begin The Fellowship of the Ring.  In the new story, a younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has his day interrupted by a visit from the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and his night interrupted by a visit from 13 dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage).  At Gandalf's behest that want Bilbo to join them in the role of a burglar as they trek to their lost home city of Erebor, under the Lonely Mountain.  Gandalf has discovered a possible backway in, and the dwarves decide that signs are right for their return.  Unfortunately, the dragon Smaug, who took up residence in Erebor, may still be inhabiting the mountain. 

After some reluctance Bilbo decides to join the party on their journey.  Bilbo, not used to being on the road, finds it hard to adapt to the dangers of the road, which include such creatures as orcs and trolls.  In fact, a specific orc, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), is out for revenge against Thorin, to whom he lost an arm in battle 60 years prior.  In addition Bilbo, after escaping capture in Goblin Town, helps put events in motion when he encounters the creature Gollum (Andy Serkis) under the Goblins' mountain and retrieves a certain gold ring after Gollum loses it. 

With the help of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the party finds a way into the mountain, and their attempts to flee Azog brings them within reach of it.  Still, other threats are rising, as another wizard, Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) brings news of a necromancer stirring things up at the ancient fortress of Dol Guldur. 

One of the things viewers noticed quickly was how much the new movie relied on CGI.  While the original trilogy did have quite a bit, it was mixed with practical effects, and even the CGI itself was highly detailed.  Peter Jackson never had any intention of making this film himself; in fact, he wished to try to bring a lesser-known work, Mortal Engines, to the big screen.  Guillermo del Toro, as can be expected, planned on making The Hobbit a mixture of both, like most of his movies, using his usual actors.  Azog was certainly not meant to look like a cartoon.  It didn't help that Jackson experiment with using a faster frame rate at a time when playback equipment in most theaters was not prepared.  I have noticed that Azog looks much better on Blu-Ray than he did on the big screen, but it is still too obvious of an animation for me.  It's a shame, because the trolls are done wonderfully, as is Gollum and the Goblin King. 

The other problem with Azog is that he doesn't belong.  Azog exists is Tolkien's world, as the orc that killed Thror (Jeffrey Thomas), and he does the same here.  However, Azog is merely history by the time of the events in The Hobbit, having been slain by dwarf named Dáin during the Battle of Azanulbizar, which is the melee before the gates of Moria shown in flashback early in the film.  The book version of The Hobbit does not have a central villain, as one is not needed, and in truth one was not needed in the movie, either.  Jackson isn't as much to blame here, as this was a change made by del Toro, but it was never one that needed to be made; it is the adventure itself that builds and shapes Bilbo, and adding growling villain didn't bring any new tension or depth to the proceedings; it was simply filler, to add a story line that could be thinly stretched through the trilogy.

On the other hand, expanding Radagast's role does work.  The rabbit sled is purely a new invention, but introducing another wizard helps expand the world just a bit more.  Unfortunately, the path that it will lead Gandalf on is, again, filler, taking mere mentions of events in the book and expanding them to make up for the lack of material.  It doesn't help that some of what is shown had, in fact, been happening for hundreds of years prior to the events portrayed here.  Not to mention the Eagles, which serve as a deus ex machina this time around, ignoring the reasons they were used in The Two Towers.  Largely I agree with many of the changes that Peter Jackson made in the original trilogy, as it streamlined the story, but unfortunately he starts making the cardinal sin of significantly changing the story this time around. 

Still, despite many flaws, An Unexpected Journey still maintains a good portion of the charm the first movies had.  Much of this is found in the first meeting of the dwarves at Bilbo's house, as we get to know each one of them while Bilbo frets and fusses.  The encounter with Gollum is highly memorable, and I was happy to see the encounter with the three trolls, even if some of it was altered.  One scene that I was surprised, and most delighted, to see was the fighting between the stone giants as the party made its way through the mountain pass.  It is those random moments that make Middle Earth come to life, and to his credit Peter Jackson doesn't provide any more rhyme or reason to why these giant creatures are warring than Tolkien does.  It just happens, and it is a shocking and beautiful scene. 

Those who are upset at this trilogy have justification.  The computer graphics were often used in place of costuming or sets as a shortcut, rather than an enhancement.  There are characters that do not need to be there, and this just gets worse as we get into the latter two films.  Still, The Hobbit had a feeling of whimsy within its pages that The Lord of the Rings did not, and at least this first film captures a bit of that, with even the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries) having his own song (which he is happy to sing for everyone) and some of the songs created by Tolkien being integrated within the film.  Part of the problem as this trilogy went on was an attempt to be more like the other trilogy, but at least, even with all the difficulties of getting a finished problem on screen, still tried to capture the unique feel of the book.  Too bad the film studios' own gold sickness managed to largely sink the story as it went along.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Time: 182 minutes
Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Andy Serkis, Manu Bennett
Director: Peter Jackson

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