Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Well, this is it. This is the big one, Elizabeth. In a year containing new entries for the Batman, Bond and "Alien" franchises, all things I'm a huge fan of, there was still no film I was more looking forward to in 2012 than Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth for the first part of "The Hobbit." And while the fact that the movies proceeding it were freaking amazing was a definite contributor in most people's level of excitement, for myself it was a far more personal thing to see this book brought to the big screen.

I read "The Lord of The Rings" when I was in 5th grade. I can't imagine that I fully comprehended everything in it at that point, but I still remember sitting at my desk waiting for science class to begin with "The Fellowship of The Ring" in my hands, trying to keep track of the lineage of Elven Kings before deciding I didn't care and it probably didn't matter too much. I remember Boromir died in study hall. That was a bummer. Even before Sean Bean was cast in the role I liked him.

Of course before you read "The Lord of The Rings," there's another book that came before it that you should read first. And like any chronologically inclined individual, I read "The Hobbit" before tackling the Big Three, and it become my favorite book. I can't remember how many times I read it, but I read it a lot. But even more important to me was a film I can say without hyperbole that I've probably seen close to 300 times.

Pictured above - My childhood.

The 1977 Rankin/Bass production of "The Hobbit" was my favorite movie. Hands down, no contest, my favorite movie ever. I had it on BETA, and it's a credit to the hardiness of those old tapes that it held up as well as it did, because any lesser piece of hardware would have melted under the constant running that I subjected it to. I've had cars that have died under less wear and tear. It most have been an every other day thing with me. I would get home from school, have a snack, throw on "The Hobbit," and then proceed with whatever else I was doing. But knowing me my eyes were probably glued to the screen a vast majority of the time.

Looking back I think it's a film that still holds up today, as it is quite good at telling that fantastic story in a very faithful and fast paced way, with some occasionally good animation, fun characters and some very good acting, particularly from the great John Huston as Gandalf. But it was Richard Boone as Smaug who stole the show, creating what is one of the most badass villains in movie history. Just look on Youtube for Bilbo's scene with Smaug. It's one of the best conversations in fantasy film, and Boone's performance still sends chills down my spine.

"Revenge? You?! HA! I am SMAUG!"

Skip ahead some 30 years and Peter Jackson tries his hand at "The Hobbit." This was an unusual case for me, because while I normally hesitate to raise expectations too high in fear that they will not be fulfilled, I wholeheartedly went into "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" with hopes as high as the peak of Erebor itself. I did this under the logical realization that no matter what, there was only a .5% chance that I wasn't going to like this film.

I reasoned that even if it were too drawn out and overly long, as the complaints leaking before its release had implied it was, the worst case scenario is that you're getting more "Lord of The Rings." Therefore it's kind of impossible for it to be bad. Does that make sense? It's like complaining that the chocolate cake buffet has far too much chocolate cake in it.


What ended up happening was that the first part of "The Hobbit" was indeed what complainers had made it out to be. It was too long by at least an hour, as it contained more padding than Derek Small's trousers. And if I were making the choice it's clear that the story of "The Hobbit" would have been better served as two films as opposed to another trilogy. The aspects drawn from Tolkien's appendices to extend the run time felt tacked on, dragged down the pace, and felt slightly dull at best. There were 20 minute stretches of runtime and entire characters that could have been cut from this film, which would probably have made it a much better movie.

All that is true. All of those complaints are valid, and I would not argue against anyone who said that they found this film to be plodding, and I would completely understand if they didn't like it. This is without question the weakest of Peter Jackson's adaptations of Tolkien's works, and for all of its technical grandeur spends a lot of time spinning its wheels in the mud.

Oh look. It's the scene where Gandalf plays with his Galadriel action figure.

And all that being said, I still liked it. I mean, come on. It's "The Hobbit." I said there was a .5% chance I wouldn't like it. I wasn't lying. Even with all of its faults, this is still a fantastically fun time which will, I believe, get better once the other films are released to give it context and the resolution it lacks.

While "An Unexpected Journey" doesn't have the epic scope of "Lord of The Rings," being a smaller story without the dire threat of Sauron looming, Peter Jackson has changed nothing about the tone and the feel of discovery and high adventure prevalent throughout. It's actually quite light hearted in contrast, as the dourness of characters like Aragorn, Legolas and Boromir have been relegated to one person now: Thorin Oakenshield, leader of the dwarves.

"I shall carry the buzzkill for us all."

I must admit to not being entirely on board with the character design of Thorin, as I think he looks too young and clean, but Richard Armitage does aptly portray him with the wounded pride and prickly nature that made him such a memorable character in the book. Although I wouldn't mind seeing his whole "I am completely wrong about nearly everything and I'm a total jerk but refuse to admit it" thing come to more light in the next installments, because that's the other thing about him that's a significant character trait. And we really didn't get that in the first film. Then again, that outright abuse of Bilbo by the dwarves doesn't come till later.

Speaking of Bilbo, I absolutely loved Martin Freeman as our own Mr. Baggins. Not only is he a dead ringer for a young Ian Holm, but he's also charming, funny, naive, and just plain fun to watch. And while some may look at him and see a lot of Elijah Woods' Frodo in the performance, Bilbo is, to me at least, a more interesting character because while Frodo had to be strong mentally to take the ring to Mordor, it was the actions of those around him that carried him through to his journey's end. In "The Hobbit," it's Bilbo who is the real hero of the story, and ends up saving the dwarves at nearly every turn, even if it is sometimes subtle and unappreciated. In "The Hobbit" it's the reluctant, on the outside least useful member of the party who ends up being the most important, and that's a cool dynamic.

And he makes the sandwiches.

Ian McKellen is of course amazing as Gandalf, and I for one am happy that this entire trilogy will feature Gandalf the Grey as opposed to the more serious Gandalf the White. He's just more fun when he's kind of loopy. The dwarves were also great fun, especially Graham McTavish's badass Dwalin and Ken Scott's wiser Balin, who gives a lot of our exposition. And of course Fili (Dean O'Gorman) and Kili (Aidan Turner) were memorable as the youngest members of the group. Although seeing dwarves without beards is an odd, odd thing. Particularly when they're described as having the longest beards of the company in the book. Whatever.

The guy who nearly runs away with the entire film, however, is Andy Serkis. I thought his turn as Gollum, particularly in "Return of The King" should have been up for an Oscar, and he once again reminded us in this film why that is. It's safe to say that there is no better motion capture actor today than him. What's amazing is that on top of also being an incredible voice actor, Andy Serkis is a phenomenal dramatic actor as well, something you have to be in order to bring across performances in his characters like he does. And amazingly, Gollum looks even better than he did before, and his performance is even better conveyed.

And he's funnier, too.

Another good thing is that his appearance heralds the end of the lull that occupies the middle of this film. I don't know why it is that Rivendell seems to be the place movies go to become boring, but man that seems consistent. There is what seems to be about a 30 minute stretch of time, after the famous encounter with the trolls, that really pulls the ripcord on the pace. And the biggest reason for that is because that is when the film starts to consistently leave the viewpoint of Bilbo, our hero, and starts filling in extraneous goings on outside the adventure at hand, which is the biggest sticking point of this movie.

This is where most of the film's missteps rear their heads to really throw off the pacing. The inclusion of Azog the Defiler as a main antagonist is fine (even if it's not what went down in the book it still makes sense), but when Radagast the Brown shows up out of the flipping blue to completely throw a wrench into the pace of the narrative is when the film first starts feeling a tad bloated.

You know, not many people can pull off the "Dried Bird Poo On My Face" look. Props.

See, here's the thing. It's true that even though we didn't see it in the book, when Gandalf left the party for a time, he was down south with Radagast fighting a dude called The Necromancer. And yes, it's true that it did turn out to be Sauron. And that's important to "Lord of The Rings." Kind of. Well, not really since we're simply told at the beginning of those films that Sauron "is returned" and that's the extent of it with nary a mention of The Necromancer to be found. But it's not really important to the story at hand in this film, is it? I can tell you that the quest for Erebor is not affected by The Necromancer in any appreciable way besides drawing Gandalf away from the party for a good chunk of the book.

And again, it's leaving the viewpoint of our hero, making him seem less important even though this is a story about him. I mean, yeah it's true that technically everything we're seeing is legit cannon, but in the end, shouldn't it be more about making a cohesive narrative rather than cramming in as much as possible and damn the consequences? Can we assume there was a reason it wasn't in the book to begin with, since the whole book is told from Biblo's perspective?

I just don't like Radagast. I think that's what it boils down to. I don't like the character, I don't like Sylvester McCoy's portrayal of him, and I don't like the fact that all his actions self-fulfill their own importance. And finally I don't like the fact that he tacks on twenty minutes to a movie that was already in dire need of some trimming around the midsection.


Why on Middle Earth is this film nearly 3 hours long? The decision to split it into 3 films I get. While that may be excessive, it's doable. But take all the superfluous stuff with Radagast and Azog and talks about The Necromancer out and you've probably cleared out nearly forty minutes of stuff we didn't need to see. And guess what? That would put "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" a tad over 2 hours long. Gosh. That sounds like a reasonable run time right there. And you've covered the same amount of story. And it'd be a faster paced film with a far more cohesive narrative.

You know what it is like? It's like the theatrical cut of this film is actually the extended 3.5 hour cut that would come with 4 DVDs and a snazzy collectors box. This is like the version of the film that me and the rest of the nerds would go out and buy the day it came out and watch endlessly while discussing how it was awesome because it fleshed out the story so much more, but we totally understood why it didn't make the final cut. I shudder to think what scenes were deleted from "An Unexpected Journey," because it feels like I've already seen all of them. I don't know if I'd actually want to watch the extended cut.

No, that's a lie. I'd buy it. I'd buy it hard.

One final thing I need to address is the issue of 48 frames per second. The first time I saw this film, I saw in it standard 24 fps. It was fine. It looked like a "Lord of The Rings" movie. The second time I saw the 3D HFR version that apparently is going to reinvent film and is going to be the new standard henceforth. My impression?

Stop. They need to stop that right the hell now. It looked terrible, and I can't see it taking off. People will, and rightly should, hate this 48 fps crap, and Peter Jackson and everyone else is insane if they think it makes their movie look better. IN. SANE.

I should put in a caveat that the things in front of the camera that were real looked terrible. The things that weren't real looked fantastic. The 3D in particular was actually the best I've ever seen, and I give that credit almost exclusively to the 48 fps. I still think 3D is a tired gimmick that needs to stop, but still, the 3D was very good. I would use 48 fps strictly for fully animated films. That would be awesome. But movies with real people in front of a camera? No way.

Just imagine this...but have a cardboard cutout tree, a painted background and a wardrobe bought from Halloween USA. That's the effect the 48 fps goes for.

The problem is that 48 fps makes "An Unexpected Journey" look like the most lavish, big budget made for TV movie ever produced. It looks cheap. It doesn't look like a film. It looks like the SciFi Channel finally knocked one out of the park. I can't describe to you in how many ways that is distracting. And it's not like you won't suffer for long. This movie is almost 3 hours. And that's 3 hours of feeling like you just spent $14 to watch a TV movie. Had my buddy I was seeing it with not been seeing it for the first time, I would have politely asked for a refund and bought a cheaper ticket to another showing of the superior 24 fps version. Yeah, it's that bad, and there's no way in Mordor I'm watching the other two films, or any other movie in 48 fps. Hell no. I refuse to support that.

For all its flaws, "An Unexpected Journey" was still a fun time. It was fated to be the weakest link being the first part of a trilogy, as is usually the case when a trilogy is always planned from the start, but it still performed admirably enough. In that way it's quite easy to compare it to "Fellowship of The Ring," even though the later is unquestionably the better movie. But much like "Fellowship," if there was one thing this movie did well it was to set up what is to come later. And based on what is ahead in the story, "The Desolation of Smaug" is going to kick so much ass that we'll have to import it from other countries.

Looks like this trilogy is staying at the top of my "Most Anticipated" list for 2013 and 2014.


THE BOTTOM LINE - Despite all its problems, and it had its fair share, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was still a fun, nostalgic adventure that overstepped its bounds a bit in terms of scale. But it was still fun, particularly the last hour which was thrilling as hell. Yeah, it starts off a little slow, and the middle has its speedbumps, but once Gollum shows up that movie is ON till the credits roll. I am reasonably pleased with it and am beyond excited for what's to come. Smaug equals happy Pat.

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