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(Review) 'The Hobbit - An Unexpected Journey'

20th December 2012 (13:05)
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Yesterday, I went to see 'The Hobbit', so this is a mini-review of the film.

I really enjoyed it, but I think that's because I went into the cinema expecting to see what I actually got: a Peter Jackson adaptation of the book. 

Surprisingly faithful recreations of some scenes; other scenes cleverly extrapolated from references in the books, appendices or Tolkien's roughly scribbled notes in the back of old exam papers... but also scenes mysteriously omitted for no apparent reason, and others thrown in almost at random to add some excitement. Lots of cameos of characters (and musical themes) from the 'Lord of the Rings' films. CGI monsters. CGI battle scenes. Inappropriate slapstick. Collapsing scenery. At least one scene where characters are standing on some sort of platform which slowly falls down at an angle, allowing them to jump onto the next platform along. Sweeping overhead shots of people running across a field in New Zealand. Or over a mountain range in New Zealand. Or through a forest in New Zealand. Or through a cave in a greenscreen studio. All while really impressive music swells in the background.

I got what I came for. :)

More detail, with spoilers, under the cut, about things that particularly struck me.

The film has a framing device with Bilbo telling Frodo about his adventures, set during the preparations for the long-expected party in Chapter 1 of 'Fellowship of the Ring', before a transition to Younger Bilbo and an on-screen caption saying "60 years earlier". I suppose it's an effective way of connecting the film to LotR for people who weren't aware of the link before; though when I was watching it, it felt more like a gratuitous way to give Elijah Wood a cameo.

There were many more such cameos as the film went on, of course: some inevitable because their characters were in Tolkien's book (Ian McKellan, Hugo Weaving, Andy Serkis); others because Peter Jackson found an excuse to put them there (Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee). I confess I was a little surprised, and pleased, to see Lee appearing - the guy is 90 years old now. I did notice that the scene of the White Council meeting where he appeared was framed so the two wizards (Gandalf, Saruman) were seated while the two Elves (Elrond, Galadriel) were standing or pacing around. It seemed very natural, even if I'm sure it was also set up that way to let the actor born in 1922 sit down for most of the scene.

That's also an example of the film using elements from the appendices, rather than the book itself - another was the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, shown in flashback. I admit, I was wondering how Jackson would manage to show a huge CGI battle in the first film, given the total lack of battles in the first 80% of 'The Hobbit' - because there's no way he wouldn't. Of course, the answer was to show us a flashback of the Battle of Azanulbizar in TA 2799. This turned out to actually be important, not just for Tolkien geeks but because it showed how Thorin Oakenshield got his name and established himself as a hero other dwarves would be willing to follow.

On the other hand, the flashback was an example of the other and much more controversial Jackson/Boyens/Walsh quirk, of combining and omitting characters and simplifying the plot so it fits their conception of how a film should work. In this case, Azog, the Orc leader who in the books killed King Thrór and was in turn killed by Dain Ironfoot, is kept alive as a personal nemesis of Thorin, still hunting him down all these decades later. I can see exactly why they did it - it adds continuity, reduces the number of names people need to keep track of, and personalises the threat - but it still feels kind of cheesy.

I did like that the actor playing Azog gave him several of the mannerisms, posture and gestures the Uruk-hai in the LotR films had, to demonstrate that they're a similar species. (Technically, I suppose, the Uruk-hai specifically haven't been bred yet.)

The other major piece of Jacksonian story-condensation was the Necromancer sub-plot. In the books, Gandalf went to Dol Guldur and discovered that the Necromancer was Sauron long before the events of 'The Hobbit'. However, Saruman didn't believe him and prevented any action being taken for another 90 years, until finally agreeing to an attack on the fortress. In the film, the initial discovery of an evil presence in the fortress has only just been made - by Radagast, not Gandalf - and we don't yet know who it is. I assume the next film will show the assault on Dol Guldur - and now I'm wondering if it'll be Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel as a magical hit squad, wielding the Three, or if we'll get a big CGI battle with an Elven army from Lórien and maybe even a bunch of Rangers, waved off from Rivendell by Aragorn who's sulking because at ten years old he's too young to go with them...

On a more general note, it's been a long time since I read 'The Hobbit' so I can't say for definite how close to the original text much of the film was, but there were certainly many scenes where I was thinking, "Oh yes, I remember this!" or "Oh yeah, right, that happened in the book too". So that was good.

One quibble is that the Dwarves didn't really look much like Dwarves to me: even if they were short, their proportions were more like humans than the stocky, solidly-built dwarves we've come to expect. Still, as the film went on I stopped noticing that, and I dare say that if these films are as successful as the previous trilogy, Jackson might even redefine how the general public conceive of dwarves the way he redefined elves before.

The two highlights of the film, for my money, were definitely the dwarves singing 'Far Over The Misty Mountains Cold', and the 'Riddles in the Dark' scene. The first has already been put on YouTube and I'd seen it before going to the cinema; but put in context and in a big theatre with a huge sound system, it's even more chilling. I also noticed that the same musical theme was repeated, with variations, throughout the film.

Gollum stole the show, as expected - and it was interesting that the fact that he eats sentient creatures - goblins - was made explicit. In fact, I noticed that Bilbo's sword was glowing blue as Gollum dragged the Orc away, and then there were various horrible-sounding noises, then Sting stopped glowing. In other words, Gollum was eating the Orc alive (if unconscious), although it was done subtly enough that probably few people would work it out.

The appearance of the Ring was suitably ominous. This film used the same trick as the original movie trilogy; when Gollum drops the Ring and loses it, it falls in slow motion, then when it hits the ground there's a loud, deep, solid 'thump'; as if it were much, much heavier than it looks. Also in the original movie the prop Ring was gold-plated steel and the surface it fell on was magnetised so it wouldn't bounce or roll; I suspect the same thing happened here .We also heard a brief excerpt of the Ring theme from 'Lord of the Rings', making its cameo.

Without a copy of the book in front of me I don't know how many of the riddles in the original they actually used - probably not all of them since that sort of thing would drag on-screen, but enough of them to make the whole scene feel true to the story.

I was amused that they showed a long flashback to Smaug's attack on Erebor, and ended the film with a close-up of him lying on his horde, and waking up just as the Dwarves were expressing the hope that since he hasn't been seen for decades, maybe he's dead - and yet we were never once shown what the dragon looks like in full. Just ominous flashes, shadows, flame and glimpses of body parts passing by. Clearly they're saving the full CGI reveal for the next film.

Finally, I was quite pleased to see that Jackson introduced some elements of character growth into the story, which to be frank wasn't a strong point of the book until the very end, after (spoiler)'s death. Not only for Bilbo himself, but for Thorin growing to appreciate him. We were also given insight into why the dwarves follow Thorin, besides "Oh, he's the grandson of the old king". Most of all, the idea that Bilbo has a home to go back to, but the Dwarves are homeless exiles, was built up, and given as a reason for Bilbo learning to understand and be sympathetic to them. At one point when the Dwarves were talking about Erebor I found myself muttering "Next year in Jerusalem"; there was definitely that kind of vibe about them. (Not that the idea that Tolkien based elements of his Dwarves on the Jewish diaspora is new; though given his interests, it was primarily a linguistic inspiration.)

So, there it is. I'm looking forward to (a) the sequel, presumably this time next year (b) the DVD special edition with five hours' worth of deleted scenes and four separate commentaries. I'll be very disappointed if we don't get that...


Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 20th December 2012 14:14 (UTC)

I confess I was a little surprised, and pleased, to see Lee appearing - the guy is 90 years old now.

And he has so much gravitas he was the only truly 3D moment of the entire movie. Apparently they flew the entire production to England just for his scene, since he (quite understandably) refuses to travel these days.

waved off from Rivendell by Aragorn who's sulking because at ten years old he's too young to go with them...

Oh, they're totally going to do this. There's no way they won't.

One quibble is that the Dwarves didn't really look much like Dwarves to me:


the 'Riddles in the Dark' scene

I have to say that this was basically the only scene that worked for me as anything more than just a matinee adventure romp. Serkis and Freeman really brought it here. I was also a bit surprised that they showed Gollum actually eating dead people. That's a bit nastier than I'd expected them to go. I was generally unimpressed with the film - it's not a bad way to spend 3 hours, just not half as good as it might have been if they'd spent some of those 3 hours letting the story breathe a little rather than focus on stoner humour and slapstick straight out of Time Bandits. As it was, it came across way too much like a video game; cut scene of dwarves walking - action scene of dwarves fighting and falling over - walking - fighting - etc. Which is pretty much what I expected, I was just hoping they'd use some of those 9 hours to, I don't know, do something.

At one point when the Dwarves were talking about Erebor I found myself muttering "Next year in Jerusalem"; there was definitely that kind of vibe about them.

I noticed that right when Bilbo did his spiel about wanting to help them get their home back, Jackson chose to zoom in on a dwarf with sidecurls. Yyyyyyeah, not the subtlest of analogies there, Pete.

And apparently he's in negotiations with the studio as we speak to be allowed to put out an extended version, so there's that. :)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 20th December 2012 14:26 (UTC)

Oh, they're totally going to do this. There's no way they won't.

Do we know if Liv Tyler has a part in the next film? A scene with child-Aragorn and her looking the same age as she did in LotR would be, well, very awkward. :)

the only scene that worked for me as anything more than just a matinee adventure romp.

I'm not sure how far that can be blamed on Jackson and how far on his source material. The's really not a whole lot of depth in 'There and Back Again' compared to its sequel. Not to mention that many of the elements that were novel when Tolkien first wrote them - the trolls, the underground orc-lair, the eagles - have been copied so many times that now they seem like clichés.

I do agree, though, that the riddles scene was the one segment which felt distinctive, as in "This couldn't be anything else except 'The Hobbit'". (For example, if you happened to tune in to the film on TV halfway through and didn't recognise any of the actors).

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 20th December 2012 17:29 (UTC)

I've been hoping that this movie wouldn't suck. I've been a fan of The Hobbit since before I could read (my father would read me the first chapter, which was in a children's storybook anthology I had).

I can't for the life of me imagine how they're going to get 8-9 hours of movie out of this book without a majority of it being Not Tolkien. But, of course, with as much as I loved the LotR trilogy there's no way I'm skipping this. Even if we do have to watch Bilbo and the dwarves chew and swallow every bite of their meal at Bag End...

I can sort of understand all the "celebrity" cameos... especially Galadriel's, since there are no female characters in the book. In that respect, though, I'd prefer to have seen Arwen. She had more of a plausible reason to be hanging around Rivendell, and she could have taken a more active role... maybe guiding the party from Rivendell to the Misty Mountains or something.

There also would have been every reason to have Legolas there among the Wood Elves, him being Thranduil's son. You could even have had a 10-year-old Aragorn at Rivendell. But, this could easily become too much and turn the movie into a game of "spot the famous character."

Did they have the Rivendell elves sing their "tra-la-la" song as the dwarves arrived? I can imagine Tolkien cringing in his grave if they did.

I've already decided to see it in good old 2-D, 24fps format. All these new "movie as video game" technologies have left me cold.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 20th December 2012 18:20 (UTC)

Reactions so far seem to be divided into "It was great!", "It was fun, although I have many complaints too" and "Sacrilege! Blasphemy! Defiler of the sacred work of Tolkien!"

I actually didn't feel there was much padding. Some, yes, such as the extra fights with Orcs that weren't in the original - put in there to thrill the action fans, no doubt. But I never got bored.

She had more of a plausible reason to be hanging around Rivendell

Tolkien geek mode: but actually, Arwen was living in Lórien at this time. She didn't return to Rivendell until Aragorn was an adult - he didn't know she was Elrond's daughter when they first met.

Galadriel, on the other hand, was a member of the White Council, who were very active at this time behind the scenes, and her role in the story here is straight from canon. (LorR Appendices canon, not 'Hobbit' canon, but still.)

I'm not sure if it's been confirmed but I have heard rumours that Legolas will appear in the Mirkwood scenes. There's definitely going to be an OFC elf introduced, by the name of Tauriel, in the next film. In this one, I'm pretty sure that Galadriel was the only woman with a speaking part (other than one of the hobbit extras right at the start asking Bilbo where he was going).

They had quite a few of the songs, actually - more than I expected - but not the tra-la-la one. :)

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