Dear GHGers: Thank you for indulging me in this review, the longest I’ve ever written. Let the critiquing begin. — Claywise
George Lucas ran the risk of crushing failure when he decided after two decades to return to his beloved “Star Wars” universe with a prequel trilogy. Fans of the first three movies — “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), and “Return of the Jedi” (1983) — felt considerable ownership of the whole franchise by then.
Lucas stumbled out of the gate with 1999’s “Star Wars Episode I — The Phantom Menace” — even the name was clunky — a clumsy, badly acted, exposition-stuffed movie with little to enjoy except for its admittedly (for the time) cool CGI effects. Fans found the second movie, “Attack of the Clones,” little better. “Revenge of the Sith” —seemingly the last gasp in the series until Disney bought the rights to it in November 2012 — was generally considered the best of the three, which isn’t saying much.
If anything, Peter Jackson’s task was even more fraught with peril when he decided, after years of resistance, scuffles over rights, and other obstacles, to tackle “The Hobbit,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s first foray into his fully fledged and groundbreaking imaginary world, Middle Earth, and the prequel to “The Lord of the Rings.”
Jackson earned enormous cred with his Oscar-winning trilogy — “The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001), “The Two Towers” (2002) and “The Return of the King” (2003) — a remarkably faithful, yet Hollywood friendly, adaptation of Tolkien’s most popular work, all but guaranteeing huge audiences for “The Hobbit.”
Still, he faced the task of pleasing not only hard-core Tolkienists of the literary variety, who take the legendarium very seriously, but also filmgoers dazzled by the first trilogy’s intoxicating combination of spectacular CGI, thrilling action and — George Lucas, are you listening? — outstanding writing and acting.
But that was just the beginning. He also set himself the tricky task of melding the humor and fancy of “The Hobbit,” a relatively slender children’s story that grows serious only in its climactic scenes, with portents of considerably darker things to come.
As if that were not enough, Jackson also decided to plunge into experimental filmmaking at 48-frames-per-second, which, at twice the traditional speed of filming, was supposed to create even more real-seeming worlds on screen.
Oh, and one more thing: The filmmaker decided just months before the first film’s release to make three (rather than the originally planned two) lengthy movies out of a mere slip of a 237-page book, because, he insisted, there was just too much good material to leave on the cutting-room floor. Never mind that the source of the three “Rings” movies weighed in at a hefty 1,200 pages.
Some fans suspected a crass commercial sellout. Others celebrated the chance to linger still longer in Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth. But many were comforted by the knowledge that the expanded story would include esoteric elements from the appendices in Tolkien’s monumental trilogy, and promises that the briefest of “Hobbit” references might grow into full-fledged story lines in the fertile garden of Jackson and Co.’s imaginations.
With the opening of the new trilogy, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on Dec. 14, years of anxious waiting are over. And for the most part, Jackson’s many gambles pay off.
Eyed strictly as an adaptation and expansion on the first six chapters and scarcely 100 pages (for that’s all this nearly three-hour film covers) of “The Hobbit,” the movie is remarkably faithful to the content of the original source material (including the appendices). Tolkien fans, by and large, will savor it.
The film also makes an admirable attempt to blend the light-heartedness of the novel with the gravity of “The Lord of the Rings,” but the end result is somewhat erratic.
Considered purely as a Hollywood film independent of its source material — i.e. how would it come off to a viewer with no experience of either the books or earlier movies — it is likewise a mixed bag. The acting and writing are typically excellent and the cinematography is gorgeous (thanks in part to the splendor of New Zealand’s natural landscapes). The special effects are often spectacular, but when they aren’t, they shatter the suspension of disbelief, if only briefly.
Most surprisingly, the movie contains the DNA of non-Jacksonian works of fantasy and adventure, from Indiana Jones to Harry Potter, Japanese monster movies to “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Anticipatory worries that the movie would feel padded are, it turns out, slightly but not fatally justified. After all, this is the relatively simple tale of the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and how he rejects his own domesticity to join a band of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) bent on recovering the lost kingdom of Erebor from the cunning dragon Smaug, who blasted them out of house and home 171 years before. This involves a whirlwind adventure with trolls, noble (and in the book, at times silly) Elves, Goblins, Wargs, eagles, a berserker, spiders, more Elves, confrontation with the dragon, a terrible war between five armies, and a quick journey back home.
The book breezes along from start to finish. The same cannot be said of the movie.
It opens with an exciting flashback to the kingdom of the dwarves and the coming of the dragon, but lingers like an unwanted guest on Bilbo’s doorstep over the dwarves’ visit to his comfortable home at Bag End. It takes nearly 40 minutes to get Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Co. on the road and when my heart failed to soar I had a sinking feeling; quite a different experience from the opening of all three LotR movies, which had me clutching my armrests from curtain to curtain.
Worse, the older Bilbo (Ian Holm, reprising his role from the earlier films and indeed looking 11 years older) and Frodo (Elijah Wood, likewise) were curiously flat, with Holm seeming a tad bewildered and Wood acting, well, wooden.
There also are a some tiresomely extended battle and chase sequences — which might be exhilarating at half their length — but these are the only obvious instances of overstretching.
What’s more, expansions of the faintest hints in Tolkien’s novel — of the White Council and its deliberations over the Necromancer, the wizard Radagast the Brown, the war between the Orcs and Dwarves — and the appendices — and inside jest about the Blue Wizards, for example —will be riveting to most fans of the books.
Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) in particular is given a much-expanded and satisfying role. Yes, he’s addled, akin to a nature-loving hippie, but he is also brave, perceptive and compassionate. He’s played for good-natured laughs here and there, but invented details that might have looked ridiculous — thinking here of his rabbit-drawn sled — are both charming and oddly plausible. Something about him feels distinctly Hogwartian.
In other words, many scenes that might have felt like filling instead add depth and texture without seeming tacked on.
The acting talent matches that of “The Lord of the Rings,” with Ian McKellan working his magic once again as Gandalf and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) as a flustered everyman who must dig deep to find courage, fealty and a carefully considered sense of right and wrong. Great stories are ultimately about transformation and Freeman movingly conveys the beginning of Bilbo’s own journey from parochial privilege to moral, physical and spiritual strength.
Dismissed repeatedly by the grim and vengeful Thorin as a weak and faithless burden, Bilbo offers one of the film’s most poignant moments when he explains why he hasn’t hightailed it back to his comfy hobbit hole in The Shire after a harrowing passage through the Misty Mountains.
“I know you doubt me. I know you always have. I often think of Bag End. That’s where I belong. That’s home,” he says. “You don’t have one. It was taken from you, but I will help you get it back if I can.”
Brief star turns by Cate Blanchett as a numinous Galadriel (one can’t help but think Tolkien, having based the character in part on his impression of the Virgin Mary, would approve) and a noble, wise Elrond (Hugo Weaving) rather than the inexplicably cranky version from the earlier trilogy. And Christopher Lee, now a remarkable 90 years old, plays a sinister and smugly superior Saruman the White.
The filmmakers have worked hard to distinguish all 13 Dwarves, giving each a distinctive look, but only a handful are given fully developed characters: Thorin, the youthful and handsome (dare we say “hot”?) Fili and Kili (Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner) the wise elder Balin (the excellent Ken Stott), and Bofur (James Nesbitt), who is randomly elevated from the pack to befriend and advocate for Bilbo. True to the novel, there are predictable jokey bits about fat Bombur (Stephen Hunter), but thankfully Jackson doesn’t overdo this as he did with Gimli in “Lord of the Rings.”
Speaking of humor, this is a surprisingly clever, funny movie. Here’s where Jackson and his writing partners, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh (and apparently Guillermo del Toro, who backed out of the directing gig) are vastly superior to Lucas. They are confident enough to deliver a few pokes at the book and dabble in anachronistic irreverence, as when Gandalf shares a little “Old Toby” with Radagast — to relax him, you know — and can’t remember names of the Blue Wizards.
Barry Humphries is gruesomely amusing as the Great Goblin, the huge, sagging ruler of the Goblins of the Misty Mountains. Buried in CGI effects, he’s perhaps a leftover, or an homage, to del Toro and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” He’s the only charming villain in the four films so far … Oh, wait. There is one other.
But the best sequence in “Unexpected Journey” is between Bilbo and the amazing motion-captured Andy Serkis as piteous, villainous Gollum and his eager-to-please alter ego Smeagol. He’s Tolkien’s most original character and an unforgettable icon of 21st-century filmmaking. He looks and acts more real than ever in his miserable cave far beneath the mountains, where he and Bilbo engage in their famous duel of riddles and involuntarily exchange a treacherous little bauble that could lead to the triumph or banishment of evil in Middle Earth.
To be honest, I looked forward to the riddle game with great trepidation. I doubted very much that Elves would be singing “tra-la-lally” in the movie, but this rather twee episode in the book, arguably the crux of the whole story arc, could not simply be excised. Tolkien famously ret-conned the riddle game to square with Gollum’s very different role in “The Lord of the Rings,” but getting this wrong could have seriously undermined the first “Hobbit” movie.
But the writing team’s solution is both ingenious and simple: Gollum and Smeagol are present here, which explains how such an otherwise dangerous and sinister creature could indulge in something so seemingly frivolous as a game of riddles. It works perfectly, with the mood shifting constantly between menace and mirth and the brilliant execution of Gollum/Smeagol’s bipolarity, which will feature so prominently in the later story.
The new film somewhat parallels “Fellowship” in narrative, including a long, harrowing journey through an Orc/Goblin-infested underworld and the introduction of a single, menacing Orc chieftain bent on killing the company. Here we’re given Azog, a pale-eyed warrior mounted on a white Warg. As a focal point for evil he’s deliciously menacing.
But Azog illustrates a deficiency present both here and in the earlier movies, choices that undermine the vast scope in time and space of Tolkien’s stories. The company never would have been able to see Mordor hundreds of miles away from Rohan and the compaction of time between Bilbo’s birthday party and Frodo’s departure neatly slices out 17 years. In “Unexpected Journey” the presence of Azog obscures the fact that the war of Orcs and Dwarves took place 171 long years before Thorin and Bilbo met. And if you can see the Lonely Mountain from the Eagles’ eyrie above the River Anduin, then Mirkwood — some 150 miles across on the Old Forest Road in the book — is not so daunting after all.
The action sequences also roughly parallel the earlier film trilogy, with lengthy chase sequences and gravity-defying bouts of peril and destruction. But this is one of the most distracting aspects of the new movie. Jackson is clearly having the time of his life, but where “The Lord of the Rings” movies offered just small doses of implausible action (think Legolas’ heroics atop a Mumak) this movie is more akin to the “Indiana Jones” movies — you know, like Indy falling from a plane in a liferaft, which sleds down Himalayan snows into the jungle. In “Unexpected Journey,” the Dwarves emerge hardly scraped after continual falls of hundreds of feet and somehow aren’t squashed into jelly in a scene reminiscent of, and no doubt influenced by, Japanese monster movies. All this may be an attempt to maintain the lighter tone of the novel, but it stretches credibility nearly to the breaking point and jarred me out of the world of the film.
And what about that new technology? First, do see the movie on IMAX if you can; it’s a bigger, more immersive experience than when it’s projected onto a standard-sized screen. I’m no big fan of 3D, having experienced it last when I saw “Avatar.” But we’ve come a long way since then, and it certainly added to my experience (though a 9-minute trailer for the upcoming “Star Trek” movie really did it right; I actually jumped in my seat when objects came flying my way).
As for the 48 fps, I’m not quite sure what to think. Certainly in places it made the figures onscreen look more “real” than traditional movie images, but there are glitches. Sometimes it was reminiscent of nothing so much as a weirdly lit soap opera. One character looks like a figure from a (really good) video game, one landscape looks like a painting, and one extended battle scene looks like actors feigning battle. It seems that sometimes to blur is divine when it comes to CGI-heavy movies.
Still, give Jackson credit for trying. It’s a fair bet that an improved version of 48 fps will be the standard in a few years.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Howard Shore’s excellent score. There is really just one new theme as affecting as the many he wrote for the original trilogy. But he frequently samples and adapts the older music, fully embracing how well it has come to represent Jackson’s vision of Tolkien.
So now we’re nearing the end of this journey, and it’s time for final grades on the several movies Jackson was making in “Unexpected Journey.”
For literary Tolkien fans: A. Great fidelity to the novel, ornamented with cool references and layered with intriguing elements from the “Lord of the Rings” appendices.
For fans of the “The Lord of the Rings” movies: B. It’s good, but this one doesn’t grab you from the outset. It doesn’t set the heart aflutter the way all three earlier movies did within minutes.
As a movie, straight-up: B-. The pacing problems at the beginning and some overlong, overindulgent action sequences make clear that it could have been cut by 20 or even 30 minutes. Audiences were dead still for most of the first 40 minutes at both showings I’ve seen.
Mood: B+. The humor is pleasantly unforced and remarkably well integrated into the larger, more serious story. Will the filmmakers will follow the novel, edging gradually toward darkness and away from comedy in the next two films? (Aside: I saw “Jaws” on the big screen movie last summer and remembered that it’s a comedy, and a good one. It’s also deadly serious and pretty scary. It is possible.)
Technology: I’m going to give this a B. Growing pains. It will be interesting to see if they refine the 48 fps between now and next December.
Overall: B, or 4 out of 5 stars.
If that sounds less than enthusiastic, I should add that I was so excited to see it again after a press screening on Dec. 10 that I stayed up for the midnight showing on opening day — end time 3 a.m. It’s a good movie. It didn’t blow me away the way “The Fellowship of the Ring” did in 2001, but it’s not a bad start to Jackson’s perilous second journey into the world of Tolkien.
George Lucas, eat your heart out.