Unexpected Changes to an Unexpected Journey are Unexpectedly Awesome!!
I have seen The Hobbit!! My review assumes a familiarity with the story, but I have tried to avoid any major film-specific spoilers.
The acting is very well done. Sylvester McCoy does an excellent job as Radagast, and while I disliked the decision to make Thorin young looking, Richard Armitage does the character so well I don’t care anymore. Gandalf the Grey makes a welcome return, though lacks a little something from before, can’t quite place my finger on it. Just as Ian McKellan’s Gandalf is Gandalf*, for me Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is Bilbo. He does a wonderful job showing the character’s Tookish side as it overcomes his homebody dislike for adventures, and the filmmakers give him ample room to do so: they make changes to many scenes to give Bilbo a larger role in the story, all of which work splendidly. All of the dwarves are well cast, though only a few get to do much talking. Andy Serkis reprises Gollum, and is just as amazing as before. Special kudos must be given to Christopher Lee and Martin Freeman: Lee for making the trek out to New Zealand despite his age, and Freeman for being Martin Freeman, thus letting me convince my lady to come to the movie with me.
I never though I’d say this in a movie review, much less a Tolkien movie review, but here it is: the scriptwriters made several changes to the story, and all of them work very well. King Thrain claims the Arkenstone gives him the divine right to rule, and demands tribute from the wood elves, setting up the later conflict, and explaining the elf-dwarf enmity in The Hobbit for those who have not read The Silmarillion. The wargs, here led by a still living Azog, show up much sooner in the story to chase the company to Rivendell, establishing them as the first film’s villains so that their later return does not seem like a sudden occurrence meant to make the movie longer. Furthermore, by leaving Azog alive, and with a bitter hatred of Thorin, the writers are able to extend the pine trees scene, and transform it from a perilous situation in the middle of a book to a delightful ending to a movie. I wanted to cheer. As I mentioned before, several scenes are written to give Bilbo a more central role in the events of the story, all of which serve to develop his character and/or his relationship with the dwarves. In one excellent scene, following the equally excellent riddles game, Bilbo’s choice to spare Gollum is made more explicit than in the book, and is nicely foreshadowed in an earlier part of the film.
The introduction of other Tolkien material into the film is well handled, and doesn’t overpower the main narrative, nor clash with the tone of it. While there is a lightheartedness in The Hobbit not found in The Lord of the Rings, the darkness and violence found in LotR is present here as well, which does not bother me, but may disappoint parents hoping to bring their younger Tolkien readers.
Also, to balance out the pet peeves I’ll be nitpicking on below, let me list some of the minor details that I really enjoyed. First, the filmmakers remember small things, like Bilbo forgetting his pocket handkerchief, Bullroarer’s invention of golf, the “out of the frying pan, into the fire” comment, and the goblin names for Orcrist and Glamdring. Second, the stone trolls design is consistent with the other trolls from LotR, but characterful enough and stupid looking enough that you could believe they’re called Tom, Burt, and William; speak in an English accent, and argue over how to best cook dwarves. Third, the brief glimpse we get of the wood elves is really cool looking. Fourth, the stone giants scene features a nice bit of wordless character building in what would otherwise have been a scene of pure spectacle. Finally, Balin and Dwalin’s greeting, plus Bilbo’s reaction, just cracks me up.
*John Huston’s Gandalf from the Rankin/Bass films is amazing too. The only adaptation of Gandalf I have seen that isn’t Gandalf come to life is the Bakshi one.
There is quite a bit of expository dialogue that feels rather unnecessary during both the prologue and during a flashback to the battle wherein Thorin Oakenshield earns his title. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t trust that their visual storytelling is good enough to communicate what happened to the audience. A comment at the beginning and end of these sequences would have sufficed to ensure the point was made.
Speaking of these scenes, one of my biggest problems with the movie was the lack of practical effects. Part of what made Middle Earth come to life in The Lord of the Rings was the abundance of real sets (or scale models), real props, and the use of latex and makeup to bring orcs, goblins, and more to life. Even CG creatures such as the cave troll were first sculpted as a scale model before being scanned into a computer. Contrariwise, The Hobbit chiefly uses computer generated warriors and creatures where LotR would have had actors in suits. Sometimes these effects are brilliantly pulled off, such as with Gollum, the stone trolls, the vastly improved wargs, and the Misty Mountain goblins. Other time though, such as in the prologue and flashback, I feel like I’m watching a cutscene in a video game. A very impressive cutscene mind you, but a cutscene nonetheless (also, why were the goblins fighting outside of Moria in broad daylight?). Everything seems too shiny and smooth, which unfortunately means Azog is not that frightening (my sister said his skin reminded her of a candy coated almond. Also, he needs a far more impressive prosthetic; it looks like he just shoved a hand shaped twig through the stump of his arm), the Witch-king is not terrifying, and Rhosgobel looks like it belongs in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, not Middle Earth (which is a shame, because the design itself is very Tolkieny). It also means that all the CG animals, with the exception of Radagast’s rabbits (which did not annoy me like I thought they would) look a bit fake, including, sadly, the Great Eagles. Many reviewers have suggested that this is a result of projecting at 48 FPS, and so I reserve final judgement on the poor CGI work until I have seen the film at 24 FPS. Apart from the effect the 48 FPS may have had on the film’s special effects, it did not bother me at all.
My second big problem with the movie was Goblin Town. I will forgive the filmmakers for not having the goblins sing, since it would be very hard to improve on Glenn Yarbrough’s renditions of “Down, down to Goblin Town” and “Fifteen Birds in Five Fir Trees”, and I like the design of the Great Goblin. However, the whole sequence, from the capture of the dwarves to the slaying of the Great Goblin and subsequent escape does not fit Tolkien, or any half-serious fantasy movie for that matter, at all. It felt like something out of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Mummy sequel, or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with goblins being comically knocked off of walkways, and much swinging about on rickety scaffolding. None of the intensity of the excellent Moria fight from Fellowship was here at all; you never felt like the characters were in any kind of danger, and Gandalf’s slaying of the Great Goblin was quite anti-climactic. Furthermore, the escape from Goblin Town is effected by a ludicrous sequence in which Thorin & company ride a fallen bridge down a three story drop. I’ll take a dozen skateboarding Legolases any day.
Also, a few pet peeves I had with the film. First, a ’60 years earlier’ tag that appears at the transition from the prologue to the story seems unnecessary and distracting, as Tolkien fans know how much time is between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and non-fans probably don’t care the exact count of years. Plus, since the filmmaker’s were going all out with the expository dialogue during the prologue, why not just have Bilbo say “it began 60 years ago.”? Second, the decision to have the orcs speak subtitled black speech while the goblins still speak English. The subtitles are distracting, and it was far scarier when the uruk-hai, Witch-king, etc. issued their threats and commands in English in LotR. Third, Jackson & co.’s literal minded approach to the stone giants. It bothered me in LotR when they made the Ents literal walking trees instead of the tree-ish tree shepherds that they are. Here they have made the giants in a lumbering, stone, rock-em-sock-em robots. Cool looking to be sure, but not very Tolkien-ish. Fourth, Elrond still has his grumpy characterization from LotR. Finally, while Thranduil’s battle elk is very cool looking, and I like costume design for the wood elves, I wish they’d stop making the male elves so androgynous looking; elf men can be fair but still masculine looking. I heard they considered David Tennant for the role. They should have gone with him.
The score. The score. Howard Shore has crafted lots of new music for Middle Earth, and it all sounds incredible, while fitting in perfectly with all of his previous music for LotR, some of which makes a comeback for certain characters and locales. Then, the dwarves sing. The dwarves sing! “Crack the Dishes” starts out as a humorous improvisation while the dwarves do the dishes, and Bilbo looks on in horror as the dwarves toss his dishes to and fro. “Misty Mountains” is hauntingly beautiful; I will never read this passage the same way again. In hindsight, it now seems like a series of horribly missed opportunities that so few of the songs from The Lord of the Rings made it into the films.
I must also say that when the special effects don’t look obvious, they look amazing. Gollum is even better than before, thanks to advances in technology allowing for even more of Andy Serkis’ facial expressions to be captured. I echo Jim Vejvoda’s sentiment that it’s a shame we won’t see anymore of Gollum. Perhaps the filmmakers will pull out all the stops for Beorn, the Necromancer, and Smaug. What little we see of Smaug is promising, and when I wasn’t being distracted by some of the lackluster CGI in the prologue, his attack on the Lonely Mountain captured all of the terror a dragon attack should have. Speaking of the Lonely Mountain, the dwarf kingdom there is amazing looking. The set design hearkens back to both Fellowship‘s Moria and Rankin/Bass’s Kingdom Under the Mountain.
Despite two major pitfalls, An Unexpected Journey is a promising start to a trilogy I look forward to seeing. The acting is excellent, the score incredible, and the filmmakers seem to have a far better grasp this time around of when to change story elements for the film and when to leave well enough alone. The unexpected changes were unexpectedly awesome.
I must make a correction: I assumed I was seeing the film at 48 FPS, but it turns out I saw it at 24 FPS, so any comments concerning the 48 FPS are null and void. However, I have heard a few people say that the SFX looked better in 48 FPS, so the jury is still out on that topic until I can see it again, although I also learned that the exterior of Rhosgobel was an actual set, which leads me to ask: how badly do you have to design a set to fool audiences into thinking it’s a poorly (by LotR standards) made CGI habitation? Perhaps it won’t look so bad seeing it the second time. One can only hope.