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“Far over the Misty Mountains cold…” Josh Reviews The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

During the buildup towards the release of the first film in Peter Jackson’s three-film adaptation of The Hobbit, I found myself having a hard time imagining Mr. Jackson and co. being able to top the magnificent achievement that was his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I’m sure there were times when Mr. Jackson himself had the same thought, which is why when work on the adaptation began in earnest, he was not originally slated to direct. The films (at the time the plan was for two films) were due to be helmed by Guillermo del Toro, but when the project hit the brakes because of New Line’s bankruptcy, Mr. del Toro left the project and Peter Jackson stepped in.  I’m pleased that’s how things worked out.  While I would have loved to have seen del Toro’s version of The Hobbit, that would have been a very different film indeed, and as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey began, I was delighted to find myself back in the world of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth.

Is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as good as any of the Lord of the Rings films?  At the moment my feeling is that it is not, but I have seen all three Lord of the Rings films so many times, and my love for them has only grown over the years.  Having only had one senses-pounding viewing of The Hobbit under my belt, the film hasn’t quite sunk in for me yet, and it’s definitely conceivable that the film will rise in my estimation once I have seen it a few more times.  But for now, while I would rank this film slightly lower than the Lord of the Rings films, I still found it to be an absolutely magnificent achievement, and a ferociously entertaining time in the theatre.  I’ve avoided reading too many reviews of the film before seeing it, but I’ve seen a lot of headlines that seem to describe the film as being just OK.  I am here to tell you not to believe that hogwash.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a spectacular fantasy adventure, huge in scope but also filled with rich character work and deep emotion.

The film feels fully of a piece with Mr. Jackson’s original trilogy.  Many characters recur, of course (Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, Gollum, and others), and Mr. Jackson’s team have faithfully recreated many of the iconic locations that we first saw in The Lord of the Rings: Bag End, Rivendell, etc.  There are a ton of little nods and winks to the events of the original trilogy (when I write “original trilogy,” I feel like I should be talking about Star Wars!): Gandalf once again bumps into the same ceiling light-fixture in Bag End, and when we see him whispering to a butterfly (as he did when trapped atop Orthanc in The Fellowship of the Ring), we know what’s about to happen.  The map glimpsed on Bilbo’s table at the beginning of Fellowship takes center stage here.  And there are all sorts of other fun connections to be spotted, many of which I don’t want to spoil here.

One of the main links between this film and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is musical.  Thank heavens Howard Shore has returned to score the film, and I was delighted to see him weave so many of his iconic themes from The Lord of the Rings into this film.  We get to hear this themes for the One Ring, for the Shire, for Elrond/Rivendell, for Galadriel, for Mordor, for Gollum, and more.  And Mr. Shore has created some wonderful new motifs for this film.  I particularly loved his themes for the dwarves, and for the Misty Mountains (which I have found myself humming a lot since walking out of the theatre!).

Martin Freeman picks up the role of Bilbo Baggins from Ian Holm, who played him at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring and at the very end of The Return of the King. This actually leads to the sharpest bit of discontinuity between The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings films, in that when Gandalf first sees Bilbo at the start of Fellowship, he exclaims to Bilbo: “You haven’t aged a day.”  (The implication is that the power of the One Ring has given Bilbo unnatural longevity.)  But, of course, Ian Holm looks a LOT older than Martin Freeman, and I must admit this discontinuity has been bugging me ever since Mr. Freeman was cast in the role.  Putting that aside, though, Mr. Freeman is absolutely marvelous as Bilbo Baggins.  Mr. Freeman has made quite a career out of playing the “everyman” character (as Tim in the British The Office, as Arthur Dent in the film adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and as Watson in the BBC’s wonderful new Sherlock), and those qualities serve him well as Bilbo, the nervous, fastidious little Hobbit swept along on a grand adventure with thirteen Dwarves and one Wizard.

As for those Dwarves, well, thirteen is quite a lot of characters, and though Mr. Jackson and co. tried hard, I found it absolutely impossible to keep most of the Dwarves straight.  But that’s OK, though — the cleverness of the original book and of this film adaptation is that you don’t need to be able to remember exactly which Dwarf is Balin and which is Fili and which is Kili.  The make-up designs for each Dwarf are very distinct, and the actors portraying them have all adopted distinct mannerisms and voices.  So while even I, a die-hard Lord of the Rings fan, would have no hope of identifying the names of each of the thirteen Dwarves, I was able to tell them apart from one another during the film, and that’s really all that matters.  Probably by design, there are only a few Dwarves that stand out from the pack.  There is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the company.  He’s the studly, heroic, Aragorn-figure of the bunch, but also the most tortured because he was there when their home, the Lonely Mountain and the Kingdom of Erebor, was lost to the dragon Smaug.  There is Ken Stott as Balin, the oldest and apparently wisest of the Dwarves.  And, for me, the other stand-out is James Nesbitt as Bofur, the Dwarf who seems the friendliest to Bilbo.  Mr. Nesbitt is terrific in the film, and while perhaps his having appeared in the magnificent Waking Ned Devine (one of my very favorite films of all time) sways me in his favor, I was impressed by his ability to bring a lot of humor and warmth to his role as Bofur.  I felt that he really stood out from the crowd.

The best part of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for me, was Ian McKellan’s return as Gandalf the Grey.  We get more Gandalf in this film than I feel we did in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it is most welcome.  Mr. McKellan brings an enormously winning combination of warmth but also irascibility and danger to the character of Gandalf.  We can easily see how much Gandalf enjoys his playful exchanges with Bilbo at the start of the film, and we can also see the danger in his eye when the stubborn Dwarves begin to irritate him.  We can see his power when angered and threatened, as he is in the Goblin cave beneath the Misty Mountains, and we can also see the limits of his powers when the Dwarves are cornered by the fierce Orc leader Azog and his pack of Wargs.

There’s no question that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is longer than it needs to be.  But I have absolutely no problem with the film’s length, and I did not ever find myself bored or antsy.  The film feels more like the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings films did, rather than a theatrical cut.  In the theatrical cut of The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, the filmmakers stuck closely to Frodo.  Scenes that did not deal directly with Frodo’s quest or the Ring were cut, and it was only in the Extended Edition that we got digressions such as Boromir and Aragorn discussing Gondor and the White Tower of Ecthelion, or information about Aragorn’s dead mother, or a scene in which Frodo and Sam see a group of Elves departing Middle Earth.  I love all of those moments, and all of the other little additions, which is why the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings films are now the only versions I ever watch.  Here in the first Hobbit film, I expected a similar focus on Bilbo and the Dwarves, so I was surprised to see all sorts of other stuff included, such as background on the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor, scenes with the Necromancer and Dol Goldur and Radagast the Brown (one of Gandalf’s fellow Wizards) and lots more.  Would this have been a leaner and meaner film without those scenes?  Of course.  But I loved all of those scenes and was thrilled that they were included.  I love Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, and I did not feel the film overstayed its welcome.

Indeed, I was very impressed with this adaptation of The Hobbit, and I thought Mr, Jackson and his team made several striking improvements to the original work.  (Is that heresy??)  In the book, Gandalf is constantly coming and going with little explanation.  He seems to disappear just so the Dwarves can get into trouble, and reappear just in time to bail them out.  Also, re-reading the book a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering just what the heck Gandalf was doing involved with these Dwarves and their quest.  It didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense — why would Gandalf care about these Dwarves and their gold?  I was delighted by how well Mr. Jackson and his fellow screenwriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro were able to address all of those concerns.  For example, Gandalf’s comings and goings seem to have been minimized, and when he is absent from the group we know exactly where he is, and why.

But the most genius change to the original novel comes with the inclusion of a meeting of the White Council while Gandalf and the Dwarves are at Rivendell.  In this scene, we see Gandalf conferring with Elrond, Galadriel, and the White Wizard Saruman.  First of all, it’s just phenomenal to see these wonderful characters from the Lord of the Rings (and the actors who portray them), assembled together all in the same scene!!  It’s delirious fun, and the characterization of each one and their interplay with one another is absolutely note-perfect, even though this was a created-for-the-film scene.  But there’s more to this sequence than just a connection to the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  In this scene (pieced together from things hinted at in The Hobbit and also in the Appendices at the end of The Return of the King), we see Gandalf explaining to his fellow guardians of Middle Earth that he fears that evil is once again rising, and that by defeating Smaug they can ensure a friendly power in that corner of Middle Earth.  Not only does this succeed in finally giving Gandalf a clear motivation for his role in The Hobbit, but it also gives the events of The Hobbit a significance that I never felt they had in the book.  It’s a wonderful sequence, possibly my favorite sequence in the whole film.

I also loved the inclusion of Radagast the Brown (which is a total invention, as he is not even mentioned in the book of The Hobbit), getting to actually SEE Dol Goldur, and at how closely the filmmakers were able to connect those events with Gandalf and the Dwarves’ quest.  I loved everything we saw in flashbacks of the Dwarf kingdom of Erebor, I loved getting to see the Dwarves fighting the Orcs in Moria (something mentioned in just a sentence or two in The Hobbit), and I absolutely loved loved loved getting to learn the origin of Thorin’s name Oakenshield (something that was NOT in the book).  I thought it was clever for the filmmakers to use the character of the fierce Goblin leader Azog (mentioned very briefly in the book) and turning him into a major villain in the first film.  I loved getting to see more Wargs (realized so wonderfully in The Two Towers film).  Re-reading The Hobbit recently I wondered if Peter Jackson would let animals speak in the film, as they do in the book.  I was pleased to see that he did not.

The film’s only major mis-steps, in my mind, come at the very beginning and the very end.  At the beginning, I could have entirely done without the framing device of seeing old Bilbo (played by Ian Holm, reprising his role from The Lord of the Rings) preparing for his birthday party that we see at the start of The Fellowship of the Ring. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s great fun seeing the terrific Mr. Holm again, and of course I was delighted to see a certain other familiar face from The Lord of the Rings as well.  (If you don’t already know, I won’t ruin it.)  It’s neat to start with a connection to the first trilogy of films, and I bet for many audience members that was a comforting way to begin this new story.  But The Hobbit takes so long to get going as it is, I really felt that I didn’t need any of that.  (Frankly, even though I loved the whole prologue about the Dwarves and Erebor, I didn’t really need that either.  It was one more long sequence taking up space at the start of the film.  I wonder if that material wouldn’t have been better served coming towards the end of Bilbo’s long night with the Dwarves in Bag End, perhaps narrated by Thorin, telling the story of how their kingdom was lost.  That would have enabled the film to jump off to a quicker start, and it would have nicely broken up that long sequence in Bag End.  Though I will say that there a nice symmetry in having a prologue, mirroring the prologue at the start of the film of The Fellowship of the Ring.)   Getting back to the framing sequence in Bag End, it was nice getting the actual first line of the book worked in there (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit”), though if Bilbo was writing the story for Frodo, I’m not at all sure why he’d need to explain to him what a Hobbit hole was, but whatever.

At the end, there is a lovely new-for-the-film bit, right after Bilbo is reunited with the Dwarves following their escape from the Misty Mountains, in which he gives a touching little speech about why he has decided to continue with the Dwarves on their quest.  It’s a lovely moment, a nice emotional climax to the film, and (as with the addition of a motivation for Gandalf that I discussed earlier) it is a very clever addition of motivation for Bilbo.  But then, not too long after that, I think the filmmakers went a step to far in giving Bilbo an action-hero moment during the battle with Azog.  I didn’t need that at all — I thought the prior scene that I just discussed was the perfect addition of an emotional climax for the end of this first film.  Also, the whole idea of making Bilbo an action-hero seems not only wildly out of character, but contrary to the whole point of the story.  Bilbo is NOT a warrior.  But he is still a hero, because of his brains and his courage and his good heart.  That’s the whole point of the story, not that Bilbo has become someone who can fight the Orc leader.  Oh well.

Other thoughts:

I loved the inclusion of so many songs in the film!  Songs were so central to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story, it was great to see them make the transition to film.  The somber tune the Dwarves sing about the Misty Mountains was a particular stand-out.  And Gollum gets a new song!!

Speaking of Gollum, the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence was spectacular, absolutely spectacular.  Andy Serkis is amazing, and Martin Freeman knocked it out of the park.  I am going to really miss Gollum in the next two films.

I loved the prologue in Erebor, as I mentioned before, though I did laugh at the contortions the filmmakers had to go to in order to avoid actually showing us any of Smaug (since they’re obviously holding his big reveal for the next film).

I haven’t quite decided what I think of the depiction of the Goblin King.  The all-CGI nature of the character stood out a bit, and the, um, testicular nature of his design was certainly off-putting (though I suppose that was the intention).  The Goblin King in the film is a far more comic figure than I expected, and while I suppose that was to contrast him with Azog, I’m not sure it entirely worked for me.

I loved Elrond’s map-reading room.

I loved seeing the Witch-King and his sword again, a nice call-back to The Lord of the Rings.

I love love love that Gandalf actually says “home is behind, the world ahead” in the film.  (That line is in the song that Pippin sings to Denethor in The Return of the King.)

Great last line to the film, and great last shot.

I haven’t even talked about just how astoundingly beautiful the film is.  Once again, Mr. Jackson and his collaborators have pushed the boundaries of visual effects, combining practical make-up effects and sets, model work (their famed “big-atures”) and CGI to phenomenal effect.  The costumes, the weapons, all of the wonderful new environments, all look absolutely convincing and real.  This is A-plus work across the board.

Speaking of the film’s look, I have of course been reading with great interest the 48 fps versus 24 fps debate in the weeks and months leading up to this film’s release.  I decided to see the film in what I felt was the best format available: in gloriously huge IMAX 3-D.  It was extraordinary.  I am not sure if The Hobbit is showing in 48 fps in my area.  I might try to track down a 48 fps showing, just because I am so curious.  But from what I’ve read, it just doesn’t sound like I’m going to like it.  I highly recommend seeing the film in IMAX if that is available near you.  This is a BIG SCREEN movie if ever there was one, and it was jaw-dropping on the huge IMAX screen.

Overall, while perhaps The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is not quite the masterpiece that the Lord of the Rings films were, it is a terrific film nonetheless, one that fits smoothly with those three prior films while also bringing the audience along on an entirely new adventure.  Every frame of this film is jam-packed with sights and sounds, an absolute feast for the senses.  The film is vigorously entertaining, and an extraordinary achievement.  Let the countdown to The Desolation of Smaug begin!

(And yes, I did also see the phenomenal first nine minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness.  I will be back in the next day or two with a full report on that!)

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