The Hobbit: An All-Too Expected Journey… or Been There and Back Again

o-THE-HOBBIT-POSTER-570I’m almost envious of a movie-goer approaching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with no fore-knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels or Jackson’s previous The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Not because they have such sumptuous treats of adventurous imagination ahead of them to discover, though I suppose that’d be nice.

But to a life-long Tolkien fan like myself, Jackson’s original trilogy (especially The Fellowship of the Ring) was a cornucopia of cinematic and personal treasures. (Though in hindsight a decade later, the LOTR movies tend to feel more like great accomplishments than great films.) That makes it’s nearly impossible for me to walk in, sit down, and watch and react to this new Hobbit film simply as a new action-adventure fantasy movie to be either enjoyed or not.

It ends up so much more complicated then that – and that’s without even getting into the whole 48 vs. 24 frames per second debate. (More on that at the end of this piece.) This is a film so many of us wanted to love—that our 11-year-old selves needed to love.

To those of us who hold Tolkien’s hobbit tales deep in our hearts, Jackson’s big screen return to Middle Earth isn’t  just another big holiday adventure film designed to rake in billions at the box office. Unfortunately, whether the blame falls on Warner Brothers or Jackson himself, too often that’s what An Unexpected Journey feels like.

In contrast to the World-at-War gravitas and portent of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s original Hobbit novel—which tells of the very un-hobbit-like adventures of Bilbo Baggins and a baker’s dozen of dwarves—is more of a gentle fairytale story, full of folksy digressions and an authorial voice that makes the book feel as if it’s being told to a child at bedtime. But while Tolkien’s Hobbit was written first, the film version must, by the Laws of Hollywood, follow in the box-office-smashing, award-winning path of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

(For The Hobbit, as with LOTR, director Jackson—admittedly a Tolkien fan, but not a fanatic—shares screening-writing credit with the true Middle Earth fan girls and deft masters of keeping Tolkien’s imagination and tone on the screen: Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. This version of The Hobbit also sports story work from Guillermo del Toro, who was originally going to direct the new films, but dropped out a few years ago as the film’s legal delays dragged on.)

So rather than making a Hobbit adaptation that stood on its own two (hairy) feet and honed closer to Tolkien’s charming little yarn (itself about half the length of each of the three LOTR novels), An Unexpected Journey had to be bigger, fuller, and tie more directly both narratively and structurally into the LOTR films. That means more action, more giant-sized CGI armies clashing, more solemn talks about weighty matters, just more of everything.

the-hobbit-martin-freeman2These additions aren’t entirely unwelcome – pumping up the novel’s off-hand mentions of the Necromancer at Dol Guldur, giving us glimpses of the Nazgul-leading Witch King of Angmar, and bringing on stage the White Council (with Cate Blanchett and a frail Christopher Lee returning as Galadriel and Saruman) is definitely a treat for us Tolkien geeks.

And resurrecting the orc kingpin Azog (long-dead in the novel) as a plot-goosing villainous force is understandable and mostly harmless (same as was done with the made-up Uruk-Hai leader Lurtz in The Fellowship of the Rings). (Though the less said the better about the expanded role for Gandalf’s befuddled fellow wizard Radagast the Brown [Sylvester McCoy]. No, he’s not quite Radagast Binks, but did we really need an entire scene of him trying to bring a hedgehog back to life? And not one, but two drug jokes?)

This infusion of LOTR DNA into The Hobbit, however, does leave the new film feeling somewhat confused and schizophrenic in its relationship to the previous films. While the LOTR novels are technically sequels, the films came first, and so An Unexpected Journey, despite Warner Brother’s PR insistence to the contrary, plays as a prequel, full of, so far, winks and nods to the first set of films, following many of the same action set-piece formulas. (The dwarves’ romp through Goblin Town in An Unexpected Journey is no patch on the masterful Moria ride in Fellowship, but we can’t blame Jackson et al for the return yet again of the eagles—they are, in the novels, Tolkien’s favorite, all-purpose deus ex aviary.)

In keeping with the novel, Jackson’s new film has a more light-hearted, whimsical, child-friendlier tone (sometimes overstuffed with artificial, too-cute-by-half silliness, including snot jokes and butt-scratching trolls), but it’s still packed full of LOTR-style flashbacks to epic battles (and more than one maiming and beheading), and injected with a heavier sense of the greater world-threatening trouble still 60 years in the future. And unlike in his earlier trilogy, Jackson is less adept here at making all these tonally discordant angles fit together. The result sometimes feels less magical and wondrous, and more like a jacked-up sort of gentility, over-pumped into epic proportions.

the-hobbit-ian-mckellen2Still, An Unexpected Journey’s biggest weakness is not those non-novel additions, but the expanding of the mundane. The last-minute decision this past summer to turn The Hobbit into not two but three nearly three-hour films meant that suddenly a large amount of material that would have been right at home in a home-video expanded edition is now filling out the theatrical release, especially the first hour spent in the Shire. (With the much larger LOTR novels, Jackson et al had to pick their spots, not pad them.)

An Unexpected Journey’s padding is mostly enjoyable, but it’s padding all the same—the sort of leisurely details and charming character interactions that may have been a delight later in an extended version, but slow things down in the theater. You can’t help but feel this would have been a much better film with half an hour shaved off–where a decade ago we all craved and ate up the LOTR extended editions, I imagine two years from now many fans will be asking for, if not creating on their own, a nice, compact five-hour version of the nearly nine-hour Hobbit trilogy.

And yet, there’s plenty of good stuff in An Unexpected Journey. Jackson takes a couple throw-away paragraphs in the novel about stone giants in the Misty Mountains and whips them into a full-blown display of exactly the sort of massive awe CGI is great at. And thanks to Andy Serkis’ always-masterful performance-captured work, the return/first appearance of Gollum and his riddling in the dark is a genuine treat—free of pumped-up action-trappings and cinematic embellishments, Bilbo and Gollum’s scene (including Bilbo’s narratively pivotal and philosophically resonant sparing of Gollum’s life) is one of the few in the film that feels tapped directly into the heart of Tolkien’s book.

hobbit-gollum2The hills and trees, and rocks and mountains of New Zealand are still all perfectly lovely, though The Hobbit (shot by LOTR DP Andrew Lesnie) boasts a brighter, shinier, more golden-fantasy color palette, in contrast to the dark, muddy, ruddy, misty tones of Fellowship. That gives the new film (especially when viewed in the overly rich and sharp 48 fps) more of a stand-offish, even ironically cold storybook feel that sometimes holds the viewer back at a dutifully dazzled distance, rather than drawing us in the way the naturalistic realism of the LOTR films did.

(Likewise, the CGI portrayal of the Great Goblin by Barry Humphries takes some getting used to—at first the goblin king comes off too cartoonish, with Humphries’ urbane, regal voice feeling out of place with the creature’s over-fed, scarred grotesqueness, not to mention the gravelly orc voices we’re used to. But once the initial oddness wears off, the Great Goblin does play better on a second look. Watching him again, I was reminded that there were plenty of things in my now-beloved Fellowship that didn’t sit quite right with me on a first viewing in 2001, simply because they didn’t gibe with the images I’d carried in my head for decades.)

Ian McKellan’s return as Gandalf is, of course, warmly welcome. But Martin Freeman (beloved and given great benefit of the doubt by us fans of the British Office and Sherlock) has moments where he comes off a little too theatrically posing as Bilbo, as if he’s trying too hard to over-sell Mr. Baggins as a comical “fantasy hobbit character” rather than a real person. Still, Freeman, never short on befuddled charm and dry wit, does eventually find a more balanced groove for Bilbo, which bodes well for the next two installments.

hobbit-richard-armitage3(Similar future-film hopes are held for Richard Armitage’s dwarf-leader Thorin, re-worked here into a very Aragorn-like heroic figure. Lacking the nuanced humanity and self-doubts Viggo Mortensen played into Aragorn in LOTR, in this first film, Armitage’s Thorin comes off stoic, solitary, and sullen—you suspect Russell Crowe would have been more at home here than as Javert in Les Miserables. Too often the film uses the ruggedly handsome dwarf as a heroic prop, striking bold poses against the sunrise.)

Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were a gamble and labor of love—it’s always easy to forget, after the awards and cultural ubiquity, that 15 years ago nearly everyone scoffed at the idea of making epic films about elves and dwarves. But too often An Unexpected Journey feels more like a corporate obligation. Jackson’s heart doesn’t feel entirely in it – in fact, like a certain firedrake from the North, the film feels buried under mountains of box-office gold.

There are joys and delights, but there is also the whiff of the check list—all the right pieces and players and plot points are in place, yet you can’t escape a nagging constructed, contrived feeling.  In LOTR, Jackson found a way to effectively, excitingly tell Tolkien’s story on screen—here he’s following himself. At best this Hobbit feels like a companion piece—wrapped in familiarity, it’s a gift to fans rather than a film in and unto itself. And in return, the fans will carry it along, willing it to seem better than it is, our love of Jackson’s portrayal of things like Tolkien’s Shire becoming nostalgia for nostalgia.

Would del Toro have done a better job with The Hobbit? Hard to say. Having Jackson (perhaps reluctantly) back at the helm, fulfills a geek’s love of continuity and stability, but it might have been good to see someone else take a crack at his Middle Earth, giving the familiar elements a new spin, or at least a different infusion of cinematic life. Still, while it’s possible del Toro’s Hobbit might have played differently (Jackson has said he scrapped de Toro’s visual designs and went back to the look and feel of LOTR, because he felt only del Toro should try to make a del Toro-looking film), it’s doubtful it would have been dissimilar in its basic parts and structure. In the post-Potter world Warner Brothers was bound and determined that The Hobbit be an epic, action blockbuster—or rather, three epic action blockbusters.

hobbit-martin-freeman3In the thumbs-up/thumbs-down paradigm of film reviews, you’re not allowed to just be “okay” with a film, but after two viewings (one in 48 fps, one in the standard 24, both in 3D) that’s where I’m at with The Hobbit. I’m okay with it… for now. I don’t dislike it and would never discourage anyone from seeing it (and I know non-Tolkien folks who really enjoy it as a big, big-hearted, spectacular adventure film).

As a fan of the book or the previous films, you can settle into The Hobbit just fine and enjoy it the way you enjoy a nice, perhaps over-long sit down with old friends, re-telling the same old stories. That makes An Unexpected Journey an easy enough film to like, but you have to work and squint a bit to love it. The Hobbit is good enough, but many of us wanted it to be more than just “good enough.” That leaves us in the shaky position of hoping the next two Hobbit films get closer to our admittedly over-heated expectations.


Should You See The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 48 or 24 Frames Per Second?

As you’ve probably heard, Jackson shot An Unexpected Journey at a ground-breaking 48 frames per second, twice the normal rate. Only about 450 theaters in the United States are showing the film at that 48 fps rate, so chances are you’ll see it in the usual 24 fps anyway. But should you make an effort to see the film at 48 fps? I first saw The Hobbit in 48, then again a few days later in 24, and my answer is “yes” and “no.”

The new format most certainly looks brighter and sharper, more detailed and clearer, and movements are smoother, but almost overwhelmingly so. If you own an HDTV and watch DVDs or Blu-rays on it, you may already be used to this higher frame-rate effect, which can often make films we’re used to seeing as more muted and rougher look distractingly smooth and shiny, like shot-on-video soap operas or old British television from the Seventies.

Some people—many, I’m guessing, who are younger and spend more time in sharp, crisp digital worlds—will welcome the higher frame rate: after all, more clarity is better. But I and many others have found the super-clear, super-rich 48 fps distracting—in fact, for a film that already walks a narrow line between fantasy artificiality and a more genuine emotional earnestness, I felt the higher frame rate and heightened visual clarity ironically made The Hobbit feel more fake. Even performances like Freeman’s seem to come off shallower, more stagey and exaggerated in 48 fps than 24 fps—leading me to proclaim upon leaving the 24 screening, perhaps a bit hyperbolically—that An Unexpected Journey is twice as good at half the frame rate.

So if you’re a LOTR fan, I recommend the 24 fps for a first viewing of the film—it will look and feel more like what you’re used to from the first trilogy. Why then should you also try to see it again in 48 fps? Well, just because, I guess—because it is visually dazzling (if distractingly so), and it probably is the future of big-budget spectacle film making. If you’re a hard-core film fan, you should see it just to see what all the fuss–both positive and negative–is about. I can’t help but think of the scene in Barry Levinson’s Diner where the man buying a new television set in 1959 doesn’t want a color one because it doesn’t look “real”–I have a sneaking suspicion that those of us put off by 48 fps are just being, well, old and set in our 24 fps visual ways.

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