December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If I were to sum up my experience watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it would be something along the lines of “I was never not entertained.” And I mean that in both a positive and negative way.

First, the good…

I’ve read reviews describing the film as “bloated”. That doesn’t seem to me to be the best adjective. Yes, it’s stuffed to the gills with material, some of it questionable in my opinion, but I was never really bored during its 169 minutes. To me, “bloated” implies a film that just lumbers along, but the film moved at a good pace for me. I even appreciated the more talk-y scenes, like the council in Rivendell between Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman that some reviewers found boring.

Martin Freeman is excellent as Bilbo Baggins. Indeed, Freeman might be some of the most inspired casting in all of Jackson’s Tolkien films — even better, perhaps, than Ian McKellen as Gandalf, or Christopher Lee as Saruman. He’s twitchy, quirky, fussy, stuffy, and even perhaps a bit of a coward, but you never once doubt that his is a heart of gold. His performance puts the truth to Gandalf’s statement that “Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you.”

Bilbo’s scene with Gollum, where he finds a certain “Precious” and engages in a game of riddles, was my favorite scene in the movie. Gollum is one of the series’ best creations, and Andy Serkis’ voicework is still great, moving with aplomb between scary, funny, and sad. And it was one of the few scenes — perhaps the only scene — where I felt any sense of danger. (More on that later.) But perhaps most importantly of all, this was the first time in any of the movies where I really and truly felt pity for Gollum. Oh, he had certainly been pitiful and pitiable in the Lord of the Rings movies, but this was the first time where I actually felt something in my heart break for that sad creature.

Visually, the film is as splendid as you’d expect from a Peter Jackson film set in Middle-Earth (though that chase scene with Radagast the Brown looked pretty cheesy). And Howard Shore’s score is quite lovely. Even moreso than the visuals, the familiar refrains that Shore worked into his score — such as the Shire’s pastoral melodies — made me believe that I was back in Middle-earth. And for all of its weaknesses and flaws — which are significant — I truly appreciated getting to return to Middle-earth, as envisioned using New Zealand’s natural splendor, not to mention the skills of the film’s production staff.

However, the journey was not without its bumps and worries. Which brings us to the bad...

My favorite review so far of An Unexpected Journey comes from Alan Jacobs, who describes the film as a “Tolkien-trademarked version of World of Warcraft”:

[A]ll I could to was watch the dwarves bounce around from horror to horror. My hands felt empty and useless without the controller they so obviously needed. Video-game aesthetics are built around the assumption of manual activity: they work far better when you have something to do. I didn’t really want to sit passively and watch Peter Jackson play with his Xbox but that’s what I felt was happening to me for much of the second half of the movie. All I could do was sigh and wait for Peter to finish so we might return for a while to something like a human story.

So yes, I was entertained by the film, but oftentimes, I was entertained by it in the same way that I’m entertained by video game demos and trailers. There are lots of cool, even breath-taking, visuals, and intense action beats, but really nothing more than that. This really hit me during the scene where the dwarves fight their way out of the Goblin King’s lair. It’s impossible to watch that scene and not think of the Mines of Moria sequence from The Fellowship of the Ring: both are underground chase scenes full of peril and action, but only in Moria did I ever feel any sense of danger or threat, and subsequently any true thrill or excitement.

Yes, the An Unexpected Journey’s scenes are cool to watch (to a point), but the ever-increasing stunts — be it a perilously swinging bridge or a wooden platform supporting many of our heroes falling hundreds of feet — become ever-increasingly over-the-top, presumably to get the adrenaline flowing. But they ultimately become so ludicrous that you never once doubt that our heroes are going to survive. Try as some of its scenes might, there’s nothing in An Unexpected Journey that compares to that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where our heroes are precariously perched on a swaying, crumbling bridge. Indeed, I think it’s safe to say that I never once felt any sort of danger or threat during the film except when Bilbo is swapping riddles with Gollum.

But that has often been the case with Jackson’s Tolkien films: the smaller, quieter scenes are the best, the deepest, the most stirring, the most action-packed. But Jackson is a maximalist: for him, more is never enough — even if that means adding in decidedly un-Tolkien-ish material, such as crude humor or gruesome spectacle. And so we get three Hobbit movies, instead of the original plan for two, which gives even greater opportunity, if not license, for spectacle. And as much as I enjoyed returning to Middle-earth, I worry that Middle-earth might end up becoming something other than what I’ve come to know and love via Lord of the Rings.

For all of my enjoyment, I can’t deny that I would probably be much less amenable to Jackson’s latest had I not loved the Lord of the Rings trilogy as much I did. It’s very difficult to escape the feeling that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is banking on all of the capital and good will generated by Jackson’s previous trilogy. So far, I haven’t seen a whole lot to suggest that this new trilogy will generate any good will or capital that is distinctly its own. I desperately hope that the second and third movies prove me wrong.