As a Tolkien fan, how could I let the year end without reviewing about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Despite being a huge Batman fan, this was the film I most wanted to see, and I was not disappointed. I love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. For Jackson to make a workable movie out of a book that Tolkien himself said was unfilmable is impressive. For Jackson and his team to capture all the emotion, sentiment, and most of the themes of the book while making only a handful of major changes speaks to their skill. So I knew that The Hobbit was in good hands.
Let us start with the obvious: the film looks gorgeous. I worried about the 48 frames per second being an issue, but it only took a few minutes to get used to it. After seeing the film three times, all in 3D, my only complaint is that the slow motion scenes look as if the actors are miming slow motion. That is a side-effect of the crispness that the higher frame rate brings.
Like the LotR films, The Hobbit was filmed in New Zealand, and Jackson makes great use of the locations. This is where the 3D shines. The scenes of the Dwarves trekking to the Misty Mountains look as if you are really there. The 3D works best in quiet long shots where there are enough foreground, midground, and background elements to really get the sense of separation. It works less with the staged 3D elements, like the fire embers rising out of Bilbo’s chimney and the shot-for-shot scene where the ring falls onto Bilbo’s outstretched finger just like it did Frodo’s in LotR.
Speaking of special effects, the miniatures are back and beautiful. We get to see more of Rivendell, a completely different take on Moria, and finally an example of Dwarf architecture at its height. Erabor looks amazing. I am sure there were lots of additions added digitally to give it a greater sense of depth, but the model itself is stunning. It looks like it was carved out of jade or malachite. We also get a small glimpse of Dale, the town Smaug destroys. It has a Mediterranean feel to it.
Of course, Hobbiton is back, and it looks just the same. This time around, the New Zealand government had the crew build it to last. They build it out of stone, wood, and steel, so if you go to New Zealand, you can actually visit Hobbiton. How cool is that?
Motion capture plays a larger role in the film. Some of the early reviews complained about the lack of people in suits, and while I can see their complaints, none of them seemed to notice that most of the scenes where there was contact between the heroes and the villains were done with mocap. The technology is so good now that it can capture facial expressions on the set. That means an actor can give a full performance and little must be changed in the animation process.
As a result, Gollum looks amazing. Watching his face as he searched for the answers to Bilbo’s riddles was a joy. It is literally Andy Serkis’ performance all the way through. The same is true for Azog. It is Manu Bennett’s performance. Jackson was also clever in his use of mocap. Some of the goblin scenes in Moria do have stuntmen in suits. Azog’s second-in-command and his troops were all guys in prosthetics. The old school make-up is there, you just have to look for it.
Before I get to the dwarves, I just want to say something about the Goblin King. How Peter Jackson managed to get a PG rating with a character who has a pair of testicles for a chin is beyond me.
As for the dwarves, some of their designs are weird. The dwarves we saw in the LotR films are different from the ones in The Hobbit. Part of the reason of this may have been so actors like Richard Armitage are recognizable. However, the prettiness Kili compared to the battle-damaged Dwalin compared to Ori make little sense.
Now let us get to the meat: the story and acting. The film is well-acted. Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, and Ian McKellan turn in excellent performances. McKellan’s Gandalf is the lovable grumpy old man from Fellowship. You can tell McKellan enjoys Gandalf the Grey more than Gandalf the White.
Freeman had a challenge because he must echo what Ian Holm did while building on it. Freeman does this very well, adding tons of humor to otherwise serious scenes. The only issue with Freeman is that he is not that old. In the book and the LotR films, Bilbo is already aged when he finds the Ring. Jackson decided to change both of these, so now not only is Bilbo younger, but he sees the Ring fall out of Gollum’s pouch. This makes Bilbo’s scene in the Prologue of LotR wrong.
Armitage sells a moody, angry, impulsive, and borderline selfish Thorin. While this happens in the book, it is most pronounced in the film. Also played up is Thorin’s dislike of Elves. He does not want to go to Rivendell, does not want to show Elrond the map to the Lonely Mountain, and almost turns down his sword Orcist when Gandalf tells him it was made by Elves.
My favorite acting scene from the film is the council meeting between Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel. Cate Blanchett’s slow walking is almost hilarious except she is so sincere in her commitment to the character that one just thinks that is how Galadriel walks. (It is also a subtle hint that she is not really there, just projecting herself there telepathically.) By far the most beautiful shot is Galadriel and Gandalf’s talk with the sun rising behind them. It is something out of a storybook.
One of the problems in the book and the film is that plenty of the dwarves get lost in the story. We get a more of Thorin, Balin, Bofur, and Kili than the others. Jackson and his team manage to make this work, but just barely.
There are major changes to the story. One was how Bilbo found the Ring. Another is how Bilbo goes on it journey. In the book, Gandalf has to rush him out of bed. In the film, Bilbo initially rejects the dwarves’ offer, but after a night of watching the dwarves eat all his food and listening to their song, in the morning Bilbo sees the unsigned contract and changes his mind.
There are many changes like this, changes done to make the characters more proactive than reactive. That happens with the trolls, with the dwarves leaving Rivendell, and with Gandalf and the eagles.
There are also major changes to the story, particularly concerning the Necromancer. In the book, everyone knows he is in Dol Guldur because they chased him there. In the film, only Gandalf and Saruman know, although Saruman pretends not to. He behaves more like he did in Fellowhip, which sets up his fall in the LotR films.
Jackson chose to completely alter the timeline to add tension and justify the other major change: showing Gandalf’s actions in Dol Guldur.
That adventure is hinted at in the book, but never explained. However, you cannot have one of your main characters disappear for 60% of two films, bring him back for a major battle, and then have him wave off questions about where he had been.
The film ends with the eagles, which is about a fourth of the way into the book, so Jackson has a lot of ground to cover in the next two films, especially setting up the Battle of the Five armies. But again, I trust that Jackson and his team know what they are doing.
Overall, the film is as good as the theatrical release of The Fellowship of the Ring. It has a few problems, but nothing more than any other opening to a trilogy. The complaints about the film are, in my opinion, baseless. The Hobbit certainly has a high standard to meet, and it is silly to think Jackson can recapture lightning in a film shorter than the other films with so much to set up. The extended edition will likely be better, so there is no point is complaining when you have not seen the film as Jackson really intended it to be.