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Review: The Hobbit Is An Expected Pleasure

If The Fellowship of the Ring had not been based on a book, then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (or as I dubbed it on Twitter, Preciousss: Based on the Novel “Bagginses” by Tolkien) would feel much like a next-generation reboot. Complete with new material not from the novel that makes things feel prequel-ier, it features many near-identical plot points (Hello again, Rivendell! Welcome, new Orc mini-boss! Cue signature music at exactly the same points, subbing orchestral “Misty Mountains” where the original grandiose theme would be) and the same types of shots (narrow pathway around a mountainside at night – check; top of a mountain range by day – check). Meanwhile, the novel’s story has been given more portentous weight, as every rogue monster encountered by Bilbo Baggins and crew has been retconned into part of a larger incursion of evil in general (and yes, I know this is all based on additional J.R. R. Tolkien notes), presumably eventually heralding Sauron but meanwhile involving a shadowy figure called the Necromancer, who will likely be revealed more in the sequels, given that he’s just a shadow here, yet played by a surprise actor with major geek cred. It’ll be interesting to see if they end up explaining the differences between trolls in the trilogies: Here, they can talk and turn to stone in sunlight.

The callbacks might seem tedious if not for the fact that they are now in 3-D High Frame Rate (assuming you see it in a theater that offers such), delivering a level of clarity that’s both astounding and potentially nauseating. For those who don’t know the details, regular film runs by at 24 frames per second, and as you see 24 images fly by that fast, the illusion of motion is generated. HFR is 48 frames per second, which creates a brighter, clearer image; Essentially, it’s reminiscent of the first time you ever watched an HD channel on a large high definition flatscreen. It also gave me a touch of motion sickness at times, which I don’t generally get in movies – the closest prior to this was the swooping 3-D Imax opening credits in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Anyway, there’s a lot more of Rivendell to check out, for example, when it looks like the world’s most elaborate dollhouse laid out right in front of you. Ditto the numerous different underground lairs of narrow catwalks above huge chasms that every race in Peter Jackson’s Tolkien universe is so fond of constructing. Film can and will die happy if this is the way the future looks; the only minor glitch, it seemed to me, was that every so often, as the camera would move, a face might look like cel-shading for a second, almost as if whatever information was being processed couldn’t quite handle the full detail for a moment. That, and a tiny bit of “ghosting” on the opening titles, which maybe amounted in total to a couple minutes of glitches in a 2-hour, 45-minute movie.

If it seems like I’m hedging, rest assured this is not so: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is more fun than The Fellowship of the Ring, no doubt about it. That said, it may inform your interpretation of this review to know that I always vastly preferred The Hobbit as a book to its successors. I chalk this up in part to the Ralph Bakshi film that only got halfway through the Lord of the Rings story. As a kid, I wanted to know how it ended, but didn’t want to read stuff I already knew, and had little luck jumping in the middle. But The Hobbit got read multiple times.

What’s good for the book is also good for the film – a sense of humor. Though some of LOTR‘s self-importance is being retroactively returned to the tale, Bilbo is simply a much more fun reluctant-hero than Frodo, whose dewy-eyed earnestness was way too goody-goody at times. Martin Freeman also played Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and that character – quite correctly – shares spiritual DNA with this Hobbit, who wants to live out the simplest pleasures of the countryside, but gets whisked into something bigger, and complains all the time. It also feels like the themes here are more tangible for kids to relate to than abstract ultimate-good versus ultimate-evil, such as the benefits of going outside and making friends instead of sitting around the house (granted, LOTR had a team of friends too, but it broke up rather quickly. This group stays together).

The plot once again revolves around a quest to a distant mountain, though in this case it contains a dragon rather than a volcano, a gold-hungry jerk named Smaug (vowel sound is awkwardly pronounced “ow,” as in “Sauron”) who has displaced the dwarf population which once reigned there. The 13 dwarfs who come to recruit Bilbo as their burglar – on a strongly unsubtle recommendation from Gandalf (Ian McKellen, as if you didn’t know) – are pissed off not just at the dragon, but also at Orcs, who took advantage of the situation, and Elves, who did nothing to help. In a gloriously cool battle flashback, we get to see how lead dwarf Thorin (Richard Armitage) earned the name Oakenshield, using a piece of tree to defend against giant white Orc Azog (Manu Bennett), who’s kinda like a larger, angrier Kratos from God of War. We also know Thorin is the main hero dwarf because he looks like a regular leading man (albeit a large-nosed one), while most of the rest of his entourage – save maybe the archer Kili – are roundish caricatures who would seem perfectly at home singing “Hi-Ho!” to Snow White.

While there has been much discussion online from geek parents as to which order the Star Wars movies should be shown vis-a-vis their kids, there should be little debate about the Hobbit films – this one doesn’t work so well as an entry point into Middle-earth, with its Gandalf-centered subplot heavily dependent upon the viewer’s knowledge of what is to come. As a first part, it could easily do without “fanboy porn” moments like the time-wasting Elijah Wood cameo – it’s already overlong, and going to be extended on DVD because nobody says no to Peter Jackson any more. Overall point being, if – like me – you’re taking someone to see this who doesn’t know all the other stuff, you may have a lot of explaining to do (think of Gollum, for instance, whose origin isn’t shown until the later films and whose big reveal here is significantly enhanced by our pre-existing good will).

I will say that PJ missed the opportunity for the greatest in-joke ever; how cool would it be if Leonard Nimoy showed up, in any form, to tell Bilbo he’s “the bravest little Hobbit of them all?” Sam Raimi, I reckon, would not have resisted such a chance, but kudos for some other canny casting cameos – Barry Humphries as the Goblin King and Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the birdshit-bedecked hippie wizard Radagast the Brown add to the general refreshing cheekiness herein (that, and the part where they just randomly happen upon stone giants beating the crap out of each other for no reason). The big-name Necromancer can’t really be commented on as yet because he’s barely here, but once you know who it is, you should have little doubt he’ll be significant later.

But yeah – better battles, bigger effects, new cinematic technology and a good sense of humor about itself all combine to make this Unexpected Journey a most expected joy. I still wish it weren’t three films, as it’s harder to get excited about a first act you know cannot possibly pay off right away. But count me onboard for the rest. I suspect I’ll be far from alone.

Special bonus note: If, like me, you were wondering how the haunting theme song can be submitted for Best Original Song, it’s actually pretty clever. The dwarfs sing Tolkien’s original lyrics, but then, over the end credits, it’s the same tune with slightly different lyrics, and that’s what’s being submitted for the Oscar. Tricksy.

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25 comments

  • Just to go ahead and nip that troll thing in the bud… I think Tolkien differentiates between cave trolls, stone trolls, and the like. If I understand correctly, the stone trolls (the ones in the Hobbit) were meant to be a bit more humanish, like fat giants, but I totally get why PJ didn’t take that route.

    I mean, Sauron’s forces have Troll war-drummers and such in the LOTR movies, so you gotta figure they’re somewhat sentient. Maybe the cave troll in Moria just didn’t have a chance to talk, what with being whipped by chains and shot in the brain by bad-CG Legolas and all.

  • almost all the reviews are saying the same stuff: way too long and the 48fps detracts from the film. Don’t get too hyped for this movie, people. Django Unchained on the other hand has people ecstatic.

  • Arguably the Cave Troll in Fellowship didn’t have a chance to talk – but the various ones armed for the final battle in ROTK were out in broad daylight, not turned to stone. I’m not denying there may be an in-canon explanation – but I’d like to have it mentioned at some point, just like we all wanted an explanation for disappearing Jedi in the prequels.

  • Yeah, the explanation I dunno, but there’s already the scene in Fellowship at Bilbo’s party where he tells the kids the story of the trolls, so if there’s a conflict, it was already there.

    So I guess the point was, the specific distinction is that stone trolls are the kind that turn to stone… yet, since they’re made to look like the other trolls in the saga instead of retaining the “fat giant” look, it makes that distinction blurrier, rendering the two species more similar than they were in the book.

  • I really dont understand why people cant consider it as a standalone film.. This a story of merry making and not despair. .and thats what exactly jackson did.. .. I guessed these so called critics dint read LOTR properly ..had he put Tom Bombadil in FOTR .. they would have given it flop.. and besides the Necromancer sequence is much required which will be unveiled in the future..coz he is the main antagonist of the entire hex – a – logy…the buildup is very iimportant

  • The distinction between the trolls is not that this is some new sort of species. In the book, sauron extends darkness infront of his armies to allow them to move forward at day and not be afraid of the sunlight. It unfortunately doesn’t translate like that in the films, but they should be the same kind of trolls. With the Uruk-hai being different and able to move in sun-light.

  • Dennis is correct. In the books, as Sauron’s power grows and his armies move in on Gondor, darkness spreads out from Mordor, turning mid-day into night. As such, orcs and trolls were able to move during the day without fear.
    The only “Orcs” that functioned in true daylight were Sauron’s breeds of Uruk-hai. He specifically made them resistant to light.

    I wish they had kept this to one movie, failing that two would have been fine. But Three? Really? This was not that complicated a story and SHOULD be the introduction to the whole LOTR series as it is the most light-hearted and fun of Tolkien’s works. If the uninitiated can’t understand this movie, something has gone horribly wrong.

  • Sure, that’s in the narrative, and maybe Orcs can’t function in daylight… but THEY don’t turn to stone, meaning there are clearly different principles at work here. Read the wiki I posted. All the notes lead to the explanation that stone trolls turn to stone, and others don’t, regardless of Sauron’s darkness.

    I sincerely hate myself for continuing this argument, because I so don’t care… except that I just posted the answer.

  • Great review! Glad to see that the higher framerate worked pretty well, minus the motion sickness. This is a new thing to us so it will take some time to perfect, I’m sure.

  • Nice review. I feel as though i’m the only person glad the story was split into multiple films. Before they announced it would be a trilogy, Jackson had mentioned that they would be using material from the LoTR appendices to expand the story, & the chance to see Gandalf’s subplot with dol guldur & the necromancer, is excellent, not to mention a great way to explain why he decides to sod off halfway through the book.
    Also, more Howard Shore music!

  • To those who are wondering why some trolls don’t talk I would ask…. can a human being talk if no one teaches it how?

    Also Boromir points out in Moria that they have a “cave troll” implying there are other kinds. Much like Pluto and Goofy, it seems in this universe some are sentient, and others are closer to pets. Not that the ones storming the gates of the white city were really in the mood to stop and have a chat. It is clear that in this universe that some animals can talk, and others can’t. It seems the ones of older bloodlines seem more sentient, and some of the newer ones lose that ability (Middle Earth is supposed to be a creation story for our own Earth) so that if these creatures then to lose that ability with time… it would make sense that creatures later in the timeline would not have all the same abilities of the older ones.

    I would say just keep in mind Jackson is following the source material and don’t over-think it. It is fiction and not everything needs an explanation.

  • On the trolls, in the documentaries accompanying the Extended Editions, i remember Peter Jackson mentioning that the cave troll in The Two Towers is, in the film version at least, a young troll. So maybe it just can’t speak ∗yet∗.

    And during the Battle of Pellanor Fields, there is a noticable dark cloud cast over the plain, extending out from Mordor. The spfx guys said in the docs that they were going for a more pronounced overcast effect, but that it was hard to pull off successfully.

    Great review, by the way. Love reading the reviews by those familiar with tolkien.

  • I can’t wait to see this (2012 has truly been a HIT or SHIT film year)!

    I have no complaints regarding splitting THE HOBBIT into 3 Films, as this should allow for the inclusion of characters omitted from LORD OF THE RINGS (& enough extra footage added to thee DVD / BLU RAYS so that I don’t have to hear fanboys & fangirls turn on their waaaahmbulance over anything they will probably whine over regardless) ….

    I have no complaints about the length of thee theatrical release, except I won’t be visiting the concession area before thee film starts (my bladder & colon can’t hold it that long (lol) and I won’t be visiting the concession area afterwards (I’ll probably go out to eat healthier food) ….

  • I like this review. It’s honest, to-the-point, no-nonsense. Some of the early ‘Hobbit’ reviewers, though, need to get on the same page about a couple of things. Someone’s clearly not being honest here, for how are these relatively few ‘first’ media columnists so wildly disparate about, just as an example, the film’s ‘pace’? Some say ‘slow and boring’, ‘overlong, overblown’ (Hollywood Reporter, Box Office, Cinema Blend), others say ‘robustly entertaining and well-paced’ (Empire Online, Screen Daily), ‘engrossing, action-packed’ (Hollywood.com), ‘engaging, winning’ (Playlist). So is it slow or well-paced? Which is it? Can these people be watching the same movie? And how is it that they focus so heavily on the film’s FORMAT (which is only one of many!!!: HFR 3D, IMAX 3D, IMAX, 3D, 2D)? Especially in view of what each KNOWS will be the many and varied CHOICES by which a person may tailor his or her VIEWING of the film to personal taste, what has FORMAT got to do with how these critics ‘judge’ the CONTENT of the film — that is, the MOVIE ITSELF (which it is their job to focus on: the story, actor-performances, direction, costuming, cinematography ITSELF: not how the film is PRESENTLY formatted, as this will be variously, inevitably different for everyone: it will CHANGE) and which seems to so heavily ‘weigh in’ on their ‘bottom line’ or final analysis? How trite to judge an entire film, allow such a factor to impact so dramatically on final verdict, by focusing on its format! FORMAT IS NOT THE FILM! Go see it in 2D traditional ‘flicker’ mode and THEN TELL ME WHAT IT IS — not how a particular viewing mode (which you may loathe) makes it, for the MOMENT, look (I’ve got choices just like you, so don’t tell me how I’m destined to see it: I may see it in a wholly different mode, and who knows, I may LIKE the very one you hate). In any event, here’s to what one reviewer perceives in the film to be a ‘purist’s delight’ and ‘mythologically dense’ Yeah!! Want more of THAT baby! — Bring. It. On. Mr. Jackson!!! And I’ll be the judge myself, thank you.

  • I saw this Monday at an advance screening (yeah!) and loved the whole thing. It ended on a perfect note – Bilbo finally committing to the adventure (I was wondering how PJ would split up the films).
    The HFR wasn’t an issue for me – I could see the beauty in a high-def Rivendell and the lovely town of Dale without being one of those who could see CGI transitions.
    I’m already planning on how and where to see it again when it opens wide.

  • I prefer the Gollum origin left out in the Hobbit, as it was left out in the book. It is a revelation that comes later in the tale, not up front. There is some mystery about the ring in the Hobbit and PJ maintains that.

    You can not claim PJ does too much to tie the two series together while simultaneously complaining he does not go further off script to explain things never explained in the Hobbit. It would be like complaining the Special Edition of A New Hope did not describe that Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

    IMAX 3D HFR was astonishing. Bring on the 60fps. No more ugly motion blur and unwatchable action scenes at the movie theater!

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