There and back again …
Before I write another word, I want to make an overall statement regarding The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – it is a beautiful piece of movie-making. I imagine most film makers who sit through the two hours and forty-nine minutes will find themselves in awe of all the movie details we lay folk take for granted: cinematography, special effects, make-up, costuming, sound design and editing … you know, the categories during the Oscars when most of us get up to use the bathroom or refill our wine glass.
And, as a lover of movies, I also appreciate these things, probably just not as much. As a writer, I examine story, pacing and execution more closely. Since this movie, a prequel to Fellowship of the Ring and its two sequels, is based on a book, this makes the issue of story a little murky. We know that if the source material is lacking there’s very little any director, actor or screenwriter can do to make up for it. And in general, I don’t feel that The Hobbit, by one of the fantasy genres greatest masters, J.R.R. Tolkien is lacking in any way. It’s a wonderfully intricate story in a fully realized world. However, I do believe that The Hobbit both benefits from and suffers from the previous release of Fellowship.
Benefits because we already know this world; Fellowship, in my opinion, is a much better entry point for the general population (i.e. the ones who haven’t read Tolkien’s tomes) into the world of hobbits and wizards and dwarves with attitude. If we hadn’t already met Frodo or Gimli or Gandalf a few years ago, we probably wouldn’t have been all that invested in Biblo’s journey or the dwarves’ plight or Gandalf’s lesser station as a Grey Wizard.
However, it also suffers because we know this world, because Fellowship was such a wonderful success of storytelling, casting and the like. It was truly like nothing we had ever seen captured in celluloid and that definitely contributed to its record-breaking box office and subsequent DVD sales. It was also lauded by die hard Tolkien fans as worthy of the series, which any studio can tell you is essential to a film franchise that lives and dies by its fans (i.e. Green Lantern).
In general, while I loved pretty much everything about The Hobbit, including Martin Freeman as Bilbo (more on that in a second), I also felt it was a pale successor to Fellowship of the Ring. While Freeman’s Bilbo is a sympathetic hero, Elijah Wood’s Frodo (so happy to see him back in the big hairy feet) was even more so. At the start of Fellowship, Frodo is instantly thrust into a world he isn’t prepared for when his uncle disappears, literally leaving him holding the Ring. While Bilbo is also coerced into joining the dwarves’ quest, it’s less clear why he does it. Gandalf uses the reasoning that not only is “he a Baggins, but a Took,” and I think the audience would have benefitted from knowing a bit more behind why that should matter. What is it about the Took bloodline that makes adventure so essential? Bilbo has a very comfortable life in Bag End, it’s a little unclear why he would leave. I felt with Fellowship, Frodo literally had no choice.
The other thing that really sets Fellowship apart are Frodo’s traveling companions. While they tried early on in The Hobbit to set-up the dwarves as funny characters and play up the humor, not one of them compares to the hilarious antics of Merry and Pippin or Samwise’s endearing cluelessness. (“I wasn’t dropping no eaves, sir,” is still one of my most favorite lines ever uttered.) Once Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli and Legolas join Frodo’s quest, you really have a core set of characters all with different agendas and goals working toward a common purpose. With the dwarves, there is really no conflict. They all want to liberate their homeland from Smaug and reclaim their families’ honor. Bilbo is the only one who has any conflict at all and then it’s a conflict of his own making, he decided to come along. Never knowing exactly what each of the characters on Frodo’s journey was working toward created inherent mystery which further enhanced the dynamics between them.
The casting in this movie was well-executed, starting with Martin Freeman as Bilbo. While I do feel that Freeman brought a little too much Watson – his role on the PBS’ Sherlock – to the part of Bilbo, the characters are fairly similar. Both find themselves working alongside men they don’t quite understand, but want to support and in spite of their counterparts’ brashness, they maintain an air of innocence that makes them endearing. Freeman played these moments beautifully and his physical comedy was spot on without being over the top.
Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee will always be wizards in my eyes and I think they donned their magical mantles again quite well, as did Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond. And of course, very few characters portrayed on screen can even compare to Andy Serkis’ Gollum. He once again inhabited his delusional, psychopathic creature with a deranged craziness that I’m not sure any could match.
I will admit though that the naysayers who raised a stink when Aidan Turner from the BBC’s Being Human was cast as dwarf, Kili, had a point. The man did not look like a dwarf, not even a little. But it was fun to see him smiling and laughing as opposed to brooding.
The other major difference between The Hobbit and just about any other movie out there is that director Peter Jackson chose to film it at 48 frames per second, instead of the usual 24. This was to sharpen the image especially since the film is also in 3-D which can degrade the clean lines we’re used to in a 2-D film. Some people have complained of motion sickness at various points throughout the movie due to the increased frame speed and a few times, I experienced it too. Although, in the interest of full disclosure, 3-D in general makes me a little dizzy. This was the first movie I’ve seen in the theater that I actually thought was enhanced by 3-D though. Any other movie I’ve seen (“Up,” “Dark Knight Rises”) made the 3-D feel more like a gimmick than the necessity. I realize that 3-D is a trend and not a fad, so I’ll have to get used to it, but I will continue to be grateful for studios that release their movies in the standard 2-D format.
Overall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is an enjoyable film full of wonderful performances, beautiful scenery and terrific effects. I think it will please Tolkien diehards and novices alike. It did make me anxious to rewatch Fellowship and the others if only because I’d forgotten how rich and vibrant a world Middle Earth could be.