Friday, December 21, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) – Review

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a magnificent cinematic return to Middle-Earth, but probably only for fans of the original Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The film is the first part of The Hobbit Trilogy. It finds Bilbo Baggins content to live an average life in his hometown of Hobbiton, that is until Gandalf and thirteen dwarves entice him to join them on an adventure to regain their home – a kingdom within the Lonely Mountain. The trouble is, the vicious dragon Smaug has occupied the kingdom. Part one focuses on Bilbo joining the dwarves and the beginning of the quest.

Writer-director Peter Jackson (along with the three studios involved in the film’s production) decided that The Hobbit (which is shorter than any of the Lord of the Rings books) should be split into three films. Aside from the clear motivation to extract as much money out of the franchise as possible, Jackson has stated that in addition to what is in the book he is also including a lot of detail and character backstory from other Tolkin writings. Thus, according to Jackson, this is why the film needs to be split into three film, because the total material is so dense. For fans of the Middle-Earth sagas this is great, as they get to spend more time in the world. However, this also results in the film feeling long in parts and the main narrative seems to be continually interrupted by tangents that go on too long as well.

An Unexpected Journey is mostly made up of scenes in which Bilbo and the dwarves experience growing pains as they begin their adventure. Bilbo gets into trouble. The dwarves try to help him but are overmatched and get themselves into trouble, and then Gandalf saves the day. This seems to repeat itself a couple times. And, since this is basically a road trip movie with the company visiting fantastic places and coming upon strange characters, Jackson has to seemingly over extent the film’s action scenes. They feel too long really. This is because it is too early in the narrative for their to be grave stakes for the characters and the audience, thus the action scenes do not yet engage the audience on an emotional level (barring the final one which does have some character drama in it). The audience assumes the characters are safe from real danger as it is too early in the story for anyone to die, and thus only interests the audience on a purely spectacle level, but that wears off quickly without deeper resonating impact. These scenes probably needed to be more economical, but blockbusters seemingly need to be action films first these days so there is lots of manufactured unneeded action.

The other scenes that feel a bit long, but could pay-off later in the trilogy (and probably will), are the sequences in which the camera leaves Bilbo and the main narrative to focus on other story elements (like the scene featuring Radagast in the forest or Gandalf meeting with the council of Middle-Earth’s guardians). The problem with these scenes is that the audience is trying to follow Bilbo’s narrative journey, yet they keep getting sidetracked by these other long scenes (that payoff in later films) that seemingly have nothing to do with the main narrative or Bilbo. Only fans of the Lord of the Rings will care or appreciate these scenes (all this stuff could have been saved for extended editions of the films). Basically, large portions of this film are there only to reference the Lord of the Rings Trilogy adding little to the story of The Hobbit, and this hurts the overall narrative flow and pacing of the film.

This is also true of the prologue, which is also overly long. Much like The Fellowship of the Ring, An Unexpected Journey needs to set up the story by first divulging a ton of back story, but Jackson again includes unneeded references to the Lord of the Rings (like Frodo’s cameo) that drag it out too long (again, this would have been better served for an extended edition).

The Hobbit as a book is geared much more towards children. It has a much simpler story, but Jackson wants to present it on the same epic level as the Lord of the Rings. The problem is, the story is not as big. The dwarves recapturing their home from the dragon Smaug is not nearly as important to the realm as destroying the one ring and thereby saving the world from evil and darkness. Thus, Jackson has to prop up the story a bit (which again is why the action feels artificially big and overly long).

Jackson, though, does a lot right as well – particularly with the characters and the actors’ performances, which are all great. Most of the film plays as a welcome return to Middle-Earth, as the audience settles easily back in for another adventure in the cinematic world they love.

The audience already knows a few of the characters in the film, but Jackson has to both reintroduce these characters as well as present a lot of new characters. The Hobbit has essentially three prominent characters – Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin (the grandson of the King of the kingdom that Smaug took and he is the leader of the dwarves on the adventure). Jackson does a brilliant job with these characters. The audience by the end of An Unexpected Journey is fully invested in the story and in these characters, primarily due to a few great dramatic character moments. Jackson also gives mini character arcs (which resolve by the end of the film) to Bilbo and Thorin, which draw the audience in and make them care about them.

In addition to the characters, Jackson also does a fantastic job creating very dynamic scenes (especially the scene between Gollum and Bilbo). These compelling scenes help keep the audience engaged in the film, even with the narrative not being as tight as it could have been. Really, the best moments in this film are those between the characters and not the action set pieces. Jackson is able to present the material in a way that is fun and entertaining, but also dramatically compelling.

All the issues aside, An Unexpected Journey is still a very good film, especially for fans of the series. It is beautifully shot, wonderfully scored and Jackson’s direction is top notch. It is great to be back in Middle-Earth.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Peter Jackson is really the best filmmaker to take on another adventure to Middle-Earth. It is clear from An Unexpected Journey that he really loves the material, which is why The Hobbit being stretched into three films does not feel like a purely financial decision. I am very much looking forward to the next two films in the series.

Howard Shore’s score for the film is tonally perfect, as it again captures the epic fantasy feel and action/adventure aspects of the drama. Shore incorporates many of the themes he wrote for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy but also has a number of new pieces that ultimately give An Unexpected Journey its own feel. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is beautiful and rich with color, as he takes fully advantage of New Zealand’s landscapes. Dan Hennah’s production design is also wonderful. Everything looks and feels just as it should.

 The cast is very good across the board. All thirteen dwarves are a lot of fun, and are given their moments. The standout performances among them (in smaller roles) come from Graham McTavish, Ken Scott, and James Nesbitt. Andy Serkis is brilliant (again) as Gollum. He pretty much steals the film (even though he is in only one scene). He is able to be pitiful evoking sympathy and at the same time a complete villain. It is wonderful work. Richard Armitage gives a breakthrough performance (as least for American audiences) as Thorin. He plays him with so much pride and honor shielding a warrior that is emotionally broken with grief for his family and for how far his people have fallen. Ian McKellen is fantastic (also again) as Gandalf. He is both gentle and loving, while also terrifically powerful and seemingly almost petty in his manipulations. Martin Freeman brings a great comedic reluctance but also a warmth and true bravery to Bilbo. Undoubtedly, the film’s performances will be overlooked, which is too bad as it features some excellent work.

Summary & score: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a film made for the fans with a particular love of the material by the filmmakers, and as a fan myself I very much enjoyed it (despite its shortcomings as a singular piece). 8/10

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