The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review
***PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS REVIEW IS BASED OFF OF THE 48 FPS VERSION PLAYING IN SELECTED THEATERS***
There is a line that comes early on in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey where Ian McKellen’s Gandalf tells Martin Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins, “Every good story deserves embellishment.” This seems to be director/producer/screenwriter/hobbit wannabe Peter Jackson’s mantra going into the long, long, long-gestating adaptation of J.R.R Tolkien’s children’s book, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. The problem is that said embellishment is pretty much all this first nearly-three hour part does. I kept wondering if there was anything Mr. Jackson decided to leave out of his adaptation. If you thought Django Unchained was self-indulgent, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Hobbit is definitely a film for those who felt that splitting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows into two films just wasn’t enough.
Since Mr. Jackson became the first film director in history to win multiple Oscars for completing a trilogy of films based upon a three-part, half-century old fantasy novel filmed in New Zealand nearly a decade ago, the world has been waiting to return to the world of Middle Earth. Of course, we now live in a very different world than the one that the Lord of the Rings films reflected when they were released. The world then was reeling from terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the start of the Iraq War, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and disappointment over George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. Mr. Jackson’s special effects-driven trilogy seemed to quench the escapist thirst that so many had resigned themselves to. It was a new century and things only seemed grimmer and grimmer with each passing day. Today, such intensity is lacking. Though the world has since been through plenty of cataclysmic events, no prequel could possibly live up to the psychological boundary-shattering expectations that have only grown since the legalities to the property finally got worked out. Watching the opening part of The Hobbit makes you realize how much of a reality Middle Earth is to Mr. Jackson. It feels like no time has passed since the end of his beloved trilogy, even though it is set 60 years before the LOTR events.
For the record, I have never read any book of Tolkien’s and I managed to fall asleep in the middle of all three LOTR films when they came out. Though visually and aurally stunning, I found them droll, tedious, and even claustrophobic to watch. What I did enjoy was the work of Peter Jackson. I’d long been an admirer of his and knew he’d bring the right balance of kinetic spectacle and emotional whimsy to the story. In retrospect, it is almost impossible to imagine a time when people actually thought he’d fall flat and at least one of those films would flop. Since finishing the trilogy, he seems to have taken on a Michael Jackson-esque belief that more-is-more. Just view his three hour King Kong remake or its extended version. Better yet, watch how his well-made yet bloated adaptation of The Lovely Bones manages to conjure literally no whimsy nor poignancy despite some amazing effects sequences. His hubris has become his calling card.
The fact that he would decide to make the comparatively slim Hobbit property a trilogy instead of the original two-parter by including over 200 pages of appendices is almost the very definition of overkill. It reeks of commercial opportunism as opposed to any kind of artistic integrity Mr. Jackson is attempting to sell us on. Of course, crass commercialism is the one ring that rules them all nowadays.
Mr. Jackson seems keen on using this opportunity to condition the masses to the wonder of watching a Tolkien adaptation not just in 3D, but shot in 48 frames a second. This format change is destined to make film purists get a collective knot in their knickers. I must say that watching this new format for the first time felt literally mind-expanding. I’ve been reading non-stop complaints about the format makes the exciting scenes look like video games on an HDTC screen or-dare I say- Community Theater (ie. FAN FILMS), and they are correct. The costumes and hair extensions seem phony now and the Orcs in daylight resemble ornate Halloween costumes. There is also more separation between the foreground and background layers. At the same time, I don’t feel this is a bad thing; it is just a new experience. This is a Middle Earth that really feels out of time. Sure, I could have guessed most scenes were from a BBC miniseries from the 90s by watching them out of context. Or that the wide shot scenes of the dwarves walking with Gandaulf resemble The Keystone Cops in more ways than one. I do not understand why an avant-garde film could get away with type of experimentation, yet The Hobbit has become martyred b/c of it. I feel that this actually benefits the lighter tone of the material and makes it feel more silly and subversive than the conventional 24 fps version ever will.
The film also retains the ominous, apocalyptic feel of the LOTR films and suffers b/c of it. Not once does material this light and enchanting deserve such a heavy hand. As a Jackson film, the only film I can really compare it to is Meet the Feebles, particularly in the interminable dinner scene with its equally nauseating musical scenes.
One can only wonder what another director’s vision would’ve done differently. Sure Guillermo del Toro had his shot. The Goblin King character alone probably would’ve been totally different had he not helped adapt the story. However, Mr. del Toro abandoned his post for many reasons and one of them is that a story like this really needs a lighter touch than his overabundance of talents could ever have provided. The tapestry that Mr. Jackson started in LOTR feels consistent with what he does in The Hobbit and that might be its saving grace.
Much has also been made about Andy Serkis’ return to the schizophrenic, motion-capture role of Gollum. Indeed, it remains the one performance of the film that seems to justify all of the technological advances. Gollum literally jumps off the screen now and the film is saved from tedium b/c of it. Watching him try to wrestle the ring back from Bilbo is like watching an electronic symphony with perfect acoustics. His scenes command our attention, not just call attention to themselves. Even the editing of the film improves at this point. You actually want them to be longer. Too bad his role is so limited this time out. He’s the only climax this film needs.
By the end of this incessant saga, we’ve not done much but cover unnecessary exposition, reiterated what we already knew, been glazed over by an overload of visual stimuli, and heard a lot of inside jokes only Tolkien fanatics can relate to. This isn’t just a quest, it is a crusade to them. We have really only gotten through the first hundred pages or so of the book. Naturally, Mr. Jackson has already announced an extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with 25 unnecessary minutes of extra footage. By the time Bilbo states he feels the “worst is behind us,” it’s not just a winking nod, nor just an ironic reflection of the world we inhibit today, it is a call to action for the audience to either drink the kool-aid or walk home. I think I’d prefer the latter, but am looking forward to seeing Mr. Freeman’s Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch’s motion-capture performance as Smaug (he appears in this part as The Necromancer and will continue so in the remaining parts) next Christmas in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
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