The Unexpected Journey, as expected.
fyi: spoiler-free as I refrained (for now) from delving too deep into details of story development, etc.
Thanks to The Tattered Cover, I won tickets a couple months back for an advanced viewing of The Hobbit. Natalya went with me last night as Sean’s work deadlines kept him coming home early enough. It was fun wearing paper VIP bracelets, having my bag checked, body wanded, and sliding into good seats. Not as exciting though as waiting in lines with fans who are fond of dressing for the occasion. (Only one party of three is “peasant garb.”) Half our audience seemed disaffected, like they go to premieres of highly anticipated films all the time and maybe they read The Hobbit in secret. Fortunately I had Natalya (12) who was determined to be both sophisticated in her green 3D glasses and geeked.
From the smallest beginnings come the greatest legends.
A hobbit and a Baggins, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is quite content with his quiet life in The Shire when an old family friend shows up out of nowhere. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) remembers a boy who was more of a Took than a Baggins and is relying on that Took side to agree to an adventure. Why? Gandalf needs a hobbit and the Dwarves need a burglar. Led by Thorin Oakenshield, son of Thrain, son of Thror, King Under the Mountain (Richard Armitage), a small band of Dwarves are determined to steal The Lonely Mountain and the Kingdom of Erebor back from the dragon Smaug. All the signs say this is the time and armed with an old map written in a language they cannot read, a key to an invisible door, and a complete novice (Bilbo) they set off to reclaim their Mountain and all that it holds for them.
To go ahead and get it out of the way: In answer to the question of whether Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit will measure up to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings? Even after only the first installment of this trilogy? Yes, yes it will. Despite the 3-dimensional shenanigans, it is breathtaking. I was a bit worried about the places they were drawing out at the beginning, but Jackson builds a story arc for both The Hobbit trilogy and An Unexpected Journey that is lovely, and drawing-out is just what the development of the story and characters needed. Which brings me to what most should and probably already know by now going in: the film incorporates a greater Middle Earth context into the story Tolkien set down in The Hobbit. The film introduces and elaborates on characters and events merely referred to in The Hobbit and/or other volumes set in Middle Earth, which means pieces from the book were sacrificed and those hoping for a faithful adaptation of the novel may be disappointed. I find it exciting. Jackson captures the spirit of both Bilbo’s adventure and Thorin’s quest. He brings Tolkien’s gorgeous imagination to screen with a lot of heart, humor, decapitations, facial hair, and mischievous grinning.
The Casting: Ian McKellen is Gandalf. He can be unreadable one moment (as is appropriate to his character) and emoting like mad the next, leaving a complete absence of doubt as to just what the moment and/or those words meant. Martin Freeman does not disappoint either. From the day he was announced in the role I was excited. Anyone who has seen his Watson in BBC’s Sherlock could feel reassured in his ability to pull off Bilbo. He is comedic, conflicted, vulnerable, and fierce. It is a testament to Freeman that he can maintain any presence in the company of Andy Serkis’ Gollum—who is incredibly good and may I dare say better than his appearances in LOTR. I had no familiarity with Richard Armitage who plays Thorin and he carries a significant weight in the story. Coloring and facial lines should recall a bit of Strider/Aragorn, which only helps as he, too, is a prince left to make his own way before taking up a quest that could restore his people. Of course, Thorin has none of the reluctance Aragorn has in LOTR and Armitage carries the intensity of his role well. He’s commanding without overdoing the heroic, even though there were a few haloed moments that bordered cheesy-grandeur. And while all the Dwarves could and do garner a good laugh here and there, they aren’t cast as jesters.
The Way w/ Story: An Unexpected Journey will propel the viewer into following The Hobbit trilogy with a necessary viewing of LOTR. For those familiar with LOTR, the backstory revealed can have a good and chilling effect, for those unfamiliar, that delicious sense of foreboding is still there. The intrigues dovetail the larger story: Thorin is on a quest, but for the most part, Bilbo is along for the adventure—no one, including himself, really knows why he is there. The Dwarves believe he is (to be) the burglar. Gandalf finds him to be a comfort. For the viewer/reader he is a brilliant narrating character and he lends gravity and light to the story. And while the trolls or the fighting mountains cause trouble for the travellers and create an increasing sense of darkness in Middle Earth, they are also just the kinds of things that make the journey an adventure—for which we can be grateful to Bilbo.
As for this installment of The Hobbit, Jackson finds a place of some contentment in which to leave the audience, a small arc to sate the viewers while we wait for The Desolation of Smaug (2013). An Unexpected Journey as a title takes on more than the idea of Bilbo waking one day to find himself chasing after a strange band of Dwarves on ponies.
The characters cannot be left unchanged, and what we love is how with Bilbo it is less of a becoming as a revealing. Tolkien is gorgeously consistent with his characters even as he grows them, and the films faithfully translate this. Sure Bilbo strengthens through tribulation, but the core of who he is takes on a greater shine as well. We know exactly what Gandalf means when he tells Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) that Bilbo gives him courage.
For all the nail-biting action and uproarious humor, we love a good development in the heart of a story. An Unexpected Journey is one of brotherhood, of belonging, of loyalty, of compassion and courage.
The costumes, sets, and creatures: Impressive. Obviously they had to deal with the aging of a few of the actors, but all is well. It is likely due to all those Face Off episodes on SyFy, but I have become much more critical of creature design and make-up. That said. Wow! The Dwarves’ hair, the grotesque orcs, worgs, goblins, and trolls. Galadriel’s gown…
Special effects/scenes: Often with cg, the sequences run long and it is hard to shrug off the element of effect. Less so with 3D because the whole experience feels video game-ish. However, Jackson intercuts cg with live-action beautifully, and it makes the choreography of the action and editing all the more impressive. The bid for escape from the Goblins is crazy! Loved it. Jackson has a good sense of how to build and expend energy. He knows how to create movement for those long but necessary interactions. For example: one of my favorite scenes in the book and film: The Game of Riddles. You know it has to be in the film. While the Dwarves are experiencing their own heart-pounding action, Bilbo and Gollum are no less capable of putting their audience at the edge of their seats. I don’t care if you know how it all turns out, Gollum is terrifying. This the most horrifying section for the younger viewer, even harder than the decapitations. The dramatic tension is awesome between two who are locked in what comes down to witty verbal exchanges; the rock and sword in hand are props. Some of the best humor in the film is captured in this scene as well. If one must watch the whole of the film for this one exchange…
I hoped for the most, and expected quite a bit going into the film. I was put off by the 3D, but not because it wasn’t well used, I just find better immersion and less nausea without that affect. Due to the low energy of the audience and unfortunate muscle issues with my back, I wasn’t feeling the adrenaline rush going in or out. So maybe I didn’t have to fight with the flush of infatuation after the film, even into the next day, but I do feel very satisfied with An Unexpected Journey. And it leaves me eager for the next film, to see where Peter Jackson and company are going to take The Hobbit. I am excited by the prospect of Jackson upping the ante with every installment as he did with the Lord of the Rings films.
Find your more open-minded Tolkien-geek friends and/or fans of LOTR and go. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is worth the price of ticket to see it in the theater.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). Dir. Peter Jackson; Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro; based on The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien; cinematography by Andrew Lesnie; editing by Jabez Olssen; music by Howard Shore; produced by Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh & Peter Jackson; studio: New Line Cinema, MGM, WingNut Films; distributed by Warner Bros.; Starring: Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Martin Freeman (Bilbo), Richard Armitage (Thorin), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Ken Stott (Balin), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Ian Holm (Old Bilbo), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Elijah Wood (Frodo) & Andy Serkis (Gollum).
Running time: 169 minutes. Rated PG-13: extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images.
an addendum: Thank you Sean for the heads up. Many are going on about the 3D aspect and the 48 frames per second (FPS) that was chosen for shooting the film. The 48 versus the usual fare of a film being both shot and projected at 24. An example of why FPS matters: Silent film was shot in 16 fps; thus when projected at 24, the movements are jerky. Undercranking is still used for some shots of certain films (comedies and action sequences) for fast motion. Slow motion is achieved when you overcrank, shooting greater than 24 fps yet projecting at 24.
There are moments where one may especially feel as if they are “watching a soap opera,” minus the melodrama (which will garner a shrug from plenty of you.) However, I wonder if the 48 frames per second’s poorer reception by others is due to its pairing w/ the 3D. I want to see the film without the glasses before weighing in. I want to see if the 48 paired may be of benefit to the editing of cg/live action sequences I could get excited about, which would leave those moments for me as negligible as they are at present.