Well everyone at long last, one of the year’s most anticipated films is finally here, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As we all know, this film is the first part in a trilogy of prequels to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. One of the most successful and critically acclaimed film trilogies of all time, The Lord of the Rings earned nearly three billion dollars at the world wide box office, won 17 Academy Awards and was nominated for an additional 13 upon release back in the early 2000s. And quite frankly, unlike a lot of other franchises these days, the films deserved all of their success. The storyline was epic, the characters likeable and well developed, the action fantastic and arguably the best of the decade, and featured some of the most ground breaking visual effects of the time that still hold up today. While it does have its flaws, as any epic film series does, it is easily one of the best film trilogies of all time and a testament to what modern filmmaking can do.
Upon completion of the trilogy, Jackson announced his intent to produce a two part adaptation of The Hobbit, originally scheduled for a release around 2009. But before he completely committed himself to that project, he directed an excellent remake of King Kong, failed in an attempt to bring Halo to the big screen, produced the incredible District 9, and directed the critical flop that was The Lovely Bones and by the time he got back to The Hobbit, the intended director, Guillermo del Toro had dropped from the project and MGM was in the middle of a financial crisis that delayed the film’s production and that of several other MGM projects by several years.
Thankfully, this was only a temporary setback and production for the film was underway by 2011. However, since then, Jackson made a lot of controversial decisions for the films, including shooting them in the new 48 FPS format along with breaking the two parter into a trilogy and only time would tell if these gambles would pay off.
So does The Hobbit: Unexpected Journey live up to the hype and all the delays or is it The Phantom Menace of The Lord of the Rings? Let’s find out.
Before I go any further, there is something that I have to make clear; I do not like prequels. To me, they are the most pointless continuation of any story or of any franchise. They don’t further the story of the world at large, you can pretty much guess most what will happen before the first minutes roll and they don’t serve any purpose other than to line the pocket of those who make them. And this film suffers from some of these problems. You know that no matter how tense or dire the situations get certain characters are not going to die and certain plot points are going to have a certain outcome.
However, The Hobbit does break away from this mold at times by giving us entertaining telling’s of said plot points and thankfully remembers that it is based on a children’s novel and is ripe with humor that I felt both kids and adults could laugh at and actually lifts some dialog and lore straight out of the book and their places seem appropriate. And like Jackson’s previous trilogy it goes out of its way to be better than the source material and at times succeeds. For example we get a bit more of an explanation as to why Gandalf wanted Bilbo along for the journey as opposed to a master thief and why he periodically disappears from the group, something that was never explained in the original story.
However, within the plot we also get the film’s biggest weakness. To put it simply, this was not a prequel series that needed to be three movies. I was always of the opinion that they were pushing the run time with two films but stretching the series into three almost makes this one a chore to watch at times. Unlike the previous films, this one feels extremely padded as many scenes will go on and on even though they probably should have been trimmed down or cut out altogether. As a result many of the scenes just feel awkward, almost as if we were watching a rough cut of the film and I often found myself scratching my head and asking why would they include this or why would they shoot or edit it this way?
Oh and don’t you dare tell me “because it was in the book” or “because they had extra footage they wanted to use”. They edit films certain ways for a reason and it just seems like they forgot that reason here.
While the story and length really drag due to the editing and ill-advised marketing decisions, what ultimately makes the film work are the characters and acting. Ian Mackellen is once again great as Gandalf and plays the character as he never left the role and I would personally make the argument that the character is better written here than he ever was in the original trilogy. New comer Martian Freeman was perfect as the young Bilbo who perfectly plays the everyman in situation that is much bigger then himself. Likewise, they could not have gotten a better actor then Richard Armitage for Thorin. The character was very well written, very well acted and everyone involved knew how to make this man charismatic but flawed; where he doesn’t come as an ass hole but is still suspicious of others and hard to please. The only other dwarf character worth noting is Balin who is a great aging mentor type but the rest of the dwarves get a little lost in the shuffle but are still great when they have their moments.
Many of the reoccurring cast members do good work in their parts but they mostly amount to extended cameos and aren’t really worth noting but that may change as the films progress. Gollum likewise suffers from this problem but the part is once again well-acted by Andy Serkis and he does have a menace about him that I felt was lacking in the original trilogy. But as for the others like Elrond or Galadriel, it seems as if their roles were originally intended to be larger but were cut down in this movie by breaking the series up into three films.
On a similar note, it was obvious that the Necromancer and Smaug were both intended to be main villains but again, it seems like they were cut down due to the series being slashed into three parts. However, we do get a damn good villain in the form of Azog, The Pale Orc. Both he and Thorin have personal vendettas against one another and you really get the sense that these two hate each other with a burning passion and is one of the simplest yet most effective hero villain relationship I’ve seen all year.
All and all, even if the plot is padded the character makes it work and help pull the film out of the muck.
The Special Effects, Action and Music
Don’t see this movie in 3D! Do not consider it. Do not be open to its suggestion. DO. NOT. SEE. THIS. MOVIE. IN. 3.D. It is completely and utterly pointless and if anything it makes the movie disorienting and the special effects look worse. Do not see it in this format. It is not worth the extra money. It’s just there to suck an extra three bucks out of you. Don’t see it in this format.
And because I made the mistake of seeing it in this format the action scenes suffered. There was a lot of shaky cam action in this movie which I normally don’t have a problem with but the 3D makes it very disorienting and hard to follow. This was a bad idea on the filmmakers’ part I don’t know what they were thinking and it just astounds me that anyone could have said, this will work and just put it out there. It just baffles me.
Anyway, the rest of the CGI in this movie kind of a mixed bag. Whereas the green screen and makeup jobs looked really fake in the trailers, actually seeing the film in in the proper 48fps format eliminates any gripes I had against them. Some of the creatures like the trolls look a lot better than when they did in the first three and it’s clear in some areas that the technology has advanced. However, there was never a moment in this film where I didn’t know that that the CG creatures weren’t CG. But…good god is it great looking CG. You can see the wrinkles on their faces the hairs on their skin and see a lot of other characteristics that you would be hard pressed to find in other CGI creations. However the mix of practical effects and CGI from the original trilogy is completely missing here and this makes it look so much worse.
And then we have Gollum. Back in 2002, he was the best looking CG character ever rendered on screen and is one that I feel still holds up to this day even against the likes Avatar or District 9. Here, however, he looks completely synthetic and I can’t help but ask, what the hell happened? CGI is supposed to look more real as technology progresses right? So why does Gollum look worse than he did back in 2002? Maybe it was the new camera format. Maybe it was the 3D, but either way a some of the effects didn’t seem up to par with those of the first three films.
Finally, we have the music. Now outside of his work on Lord of the Rings, I’m not a Howard Shore fan but here is score is excellent and they mix just the right amount of old and new music and gives us something that is familiar and refreshing
So this brings us to our final verdict. The characters are all well-acted, very well written and are ultimately makes the film work. The effects are a bit of a mixed bag for me and if you’re like me they’re just going to make you miss the visual style of the previous films all the more. The plot, however, is good in concept but not so great in execution. I’m aware that every major film critic has brought this up, but quite frankly they’re right. This was a series that did not need to be three films and is ultimately padded and drawn out in a way the previous films never were because of this. However, if you are a fan of the first three films and can get past that you’ll probably like this film. It never comes close to The Phantom Menace’s level of bad and certainly has a lot more to offer then the various X-Men prequels that are going on. I say if you like the first three, then this is a trip back to middle earth well worth taking. Just don’t expect this one to be a contender for best film of the year.