Movie Review: The Hobbit—An Unexpected Journey (Part I)

Movie Review: The Hobbit—An Unexpected Journey (Part I) December 22, 2012

Martin Freeman Bilbo small sizeSo I went to see The Hobbit the other day. Be honest now, you’re going to see it too (if you haven’t already). I mean who isn’t, if only just to see the glorious, sprawling landscape of Middle Earth on the big screen one more time? And if you’re a homeschooler, or used to be homeschooled… well then.

Okay, so we already knew it would look fantastic. The question is, what about, y’know, the movie? Is it any good?
I was curious, so I went to see for myself. I’m pleased to say that while it definitely has its drawbacks, the answer is… yes. So without further eloquence, here is the scoop in the form of Pros, Cons, and Pro-Cons (a movie’s bigger than a music album, so sometimes you need a category for things you’re ambivalent on). In the spirit of the new movies, it seemed fitting to split what maybe could have been a one-post review into two posts (ahem). The pro-cons and final thoughts in particular ended up a bit long. So here is Part One. Come back tomorrow for Part Two. Today we’ll discuss pros and cons, tomorrow the pro-cons and final thoughts. Enjoy, and please do feel free to chime in with your own thoughts if you’ve got them. Comments are nice, precious.
[Note: On the off-chance that you’re reading this and have NOT read the book… go read it before reading another word of this post.]
Right, so let’s start with…
Pros:
1. Martin Freeman as Bilbo
2. Martin Freeman as Bilbo
3. Martin Freeman as Bilbo
4. But seriously… MARTIN FREEMAN AS BILBO!
All right, I’ll explain. First of all, let me say that I’m glad to see a talent like Freeman’s finally being put to use with some good quality material. Previously, he’s been best-known for his work in British TV shows like The Office and Sherlock, neither of which I recommend. There was also that movie of Hitchhiker’s Guide, but we won’t go there. However, Freeman is one of the few good things about all three, because nobody can play the Everyman type like he can. Whether he’s John Watson, Arthur Dent or Bilbo Baggins, it’s impossible not to start liking and rooting for him the moment he comes on screen. He’s got the face, the mannerisms, the air, the complete package. (For crying out loud, he even plays the decent likable type in clay-mation.)
The funny thing is that in real life, Freeman has a reputation for being blunt, witty and a bit of a smart-aleck. Still he’s a pro, he loves what he does, and on screen, he is Bilbo. There truly is nobody else who could come even close, and it’s obvious why Jackson literally re-arranged his shooting schedule to get Freeman for this part. Bilbo’s stubbornness, honesty, loyalty, and ultimately, nobility, are brought to vivid life in his every expression and movement. He can turn from perfectly-timed comedy to serious drama in the blink of an eye, effortlessly nailing them both. Frankly, I doubt Freeman himself will ever top this performance—it’s that good.
5. The unexpected party
The first act of this movie is, quite simply, a delight. The big opening flashback to the destruction of Dale is fine, but once Bilbo’s story begins in earnest, it will melt any fan’s heart. The introduction of the dwarves, Bilbo’s distress, and Gandalf’s manipulation are all captured beautifully and follow fairly closely to the book.
There are a few changes. Thorin arrives late from a dwarf council instead of stumbling in the door, the dwarves help themselves instead of giving Bilbo their dinner orders, and Bilbo is a tad less dramatic in his reaction to the mention of Smaug (where he lets out a terrified screech in the book, the movie shows him having a comically solemn, stiff-upper-lippish inner struggle before suddenly fainting on the mat). He also steadfastly refuses to help them, whereas in the book he becomes embarrassed and announces importantly that he will do whatever the company wants (though wavering again as bedtime rolls around). I think they wanted to save the “Bilbo pulls himself together and announces he’s up for anything” scene for later, but more on that in the pro-cons. We are also deprived of that wonderful morning-after meeting between Gandalf and Bilbo (“But…” “No time for that either”), as Bilbo makes the final choice to dash off by himself. But all-in-all, this was one of the best parts of the film. Watch a clip here.
6. Bilbo and Gollum

Other reviewers have said it, and I’ll say it too: I could have watched Bilbo and Gollum on screen together forever. Gollum is just as stunning as he was in LOTR. You’ll be spell-bound all over again as Andy Serkis and WETA work their magic with this character. Serkis has talent out the wazoo (seriously, just watch this clip of him voicing Gollum live while reading to a bunch of little kids—literally scary good). He and Freeman together made the riddles in the dark scene the hands-down highlight of the film. Other than cutting out a couple sets of riddles, it was extremely faithful to the book and captured Tolkien’s vision perfectly. And the pivotal scene after the game where Bilbo is wearing the ring and chooses to spare Gollum was done so beautifully you might even choke up a little. The emotion both actors brought into their faces alone in this scene was extraordinary.
7. Verbatim reproduction of certain classic lines
I think I literally giggled with nerdish joy over Gandalf’s word-for-word faithful parsing out of the various meanings of the phrase “Good morning” in that first meeting. Ditto for the description (put in Gandalf’s mouth in the movie) of how old Bullroarer Took charged against the orc king Golfimbul on a horse and chopped off his head with a wooden club, which head subsequently rolled away and down a rabbit-hole, thereby winning the battle and inventing the game of golf all at once.
8. Character development
Some of the additions in this movie were heavy-handed and unnecessary (we’ll get to those). But in the character development department, some of them actually worked. For example, Thorin’s character is made both more prominent and more sympathetic. Whereas in the books he mostly comes off as a pompous ass, the movie shows his noble warrior-king side—proud, yes, but still admirable. This is played very well by Richard Armitage. A few other dwarves are enjoyably expanded on as well, to say nothing of their awesome Scots-Irish accents. I particularly loved how they portrayed Balin, Thorin’s best friend (Balin is the dwarf with all-white hair, just to help you remember). Most of Balin’s scenes are added, but they’re actually very good. He’s got a wonderfully reassuring Scottish brogue, and his re-telling of the Battle of Moria is particularly poignant. The love in his voice when describing Thorin’s bravery and leadership is palpable. “And I thought to myself then, there is one who I could follow. There is one I could call king.”
9. Solid closing song
They know how to write good songs for their end credits. LOTR gave us stellar material from the likes of Enya (“May it Be”) and Annie Lennox (“Into the West”), and now a New Zealand pop/folk artist named Neil Finn has contributed the “Song of the Lonely Mountain.” Perhaps not quite as stellar, but still good. There’s a neat sound of an anvil and some well-placed male voices chanting “Ay-ay-ay-ay” in the background (influenced by Jewish singing—I’ll talk a bit more about the dwarves’ broader connection to the Jews in Part II). Also, the added lyrics blend surprisingly well with those elements borrowed from Tolkien’s original dwarf song. The one drawback is that the main tune gets rather dull/repetitive. But that’s Howard Shore’s fault. More on him in the…
Cons:
1. The soundtrack

I’ll just go ahead and say it: Howard Shore’s score for LOTR is the most overrated soundtrack in recent memory. Disagree with me if you will, I say it’s the truth. People compare it to John Williams’ iconic Star Wars soundtrack. What a lot of hooey. We have yet to see anyone step into Williams’ shoes, least of all Shore. He comes up with only a small handful of melodic ideas and then repeats them—over, and over, and over. The attempt to eke it out with choir vocables only emphasizes Shore’s creative paucity. With The Hobbit, we had approximately one new theme, and that’s the dwarves’ “Misty Mountain” theme. It’s a pretty little tune, but Shore milks this cow for all its worth, much like the “Walking Theme” in LOTR. By the eleventy-first cue, I was thoroughly sick of it. But that’s all right, I’m sure he’ll have a new theme for next year’s installment, and then we’ll have two instead of one. Smashing.
2. The addition of Azog as a big villain
Careful fans who’ve read the book may remember the name “Azog” as Gandalf mentions it in passing while running through some dwarf history. After losing Erebor to Smaug, Thorin and all other dwarves fought against and defeated the orcs of Moria, led by a large white orc called Azog. But whereas in Tolkien’s world Azog was slain in said battle, in Jackson’s world he survived and is now chasing Thorin and Co. across Middle-Earth for vengeance (Thorin chopped off his arm, you see—so he’s not a happy camper). Although this wasn’t quite the disaster I had feared it would be, let’s just say it doesn’t work. I realize there’s no active main villain until Smaug wakes up later in the book, but Jackson could have gotten to all that much quicker if he hadn’t been so insistent on stretching the series into three parts (ahem). My guess is since they’re making Thorin such an important character, they felt like he needed his own villain. But okay, since people are calling Thorin Aragorn 2.0… I don’t seem to remember that Aragorn had his own private arch-foe, even in the movies. So why does Thorin need one?
This all ties in with the next complaint…
3. Unnecessary and/or unnecessarily long action sequences
This is the story of all the Jackson movies—where the books offer adventure, suspense and excitement, he inexplicably feels a need to add more. The result always feels, ironically, less exciting and more mundane. This is even more true for The Hobbit than LOTR, it being a lighter story to begin with. Already Jackson is laying it on way too thick. I already mentioned the extra stuff with Azog. There’s also a scene with rock giants that’s about five times as long as it needs to be to capture Tolkien’s description in the book. Also, besides turning the final rescue in the woods  into an epic stand-off with Azog (more on that later), Jackson added the ridiculous element of wargs knocking trees over to leave our heroes dangling over the edge of a cliff. As another reviewer aptly put it, “It’s as if a scene in which our heroes are being attacked by, and then rescued from, orcs and monstrous wolves was deemed somehow lacking in spectacle.” Right on.
4. The trolls scene
This could have been done really well, but I was left quite disappointed. It probably ends up about as long as it is in the book, but different in a much inferior way. Most of Tolkien’s clever dialogue for the trolls has been cut out and replaced by extra action and juvenile humor (see next con). The entire sequence where Gandalf imitates their voices and gets them to fight each other is gone. Instead, Bilbo buys time by telling them the dwarves are full of parasites. Finally, Gandalf shows up and they do turn to stone per the book. If you’re a fan, you’ll be sad to think about what this whole scene could have been, but wasn’t.
5. The juvenile humor
There wasn’t a whole lot of this, but enough to be annoying. Just unnecessary bits of little-boy gross-out stuff that really dragged down the whole tone of the story. It ranged from little things (like a dwarfish burping duel in the unexpected party) to bigger annoyances (like a troll blowing his nose on Bilbo and mistaking him for an alien booger versus just, you know, turning around and picking him up). I mean, seriously? I wasn’t impressed. Very disappointing.
6. CGI fails

It pains me to say it, but there were times in this movie when it felt like I was watching a video game. No doubt many of these scenes were included with 3D in mind, but for the ordinary no-thanks-I-don’t-feel-like-shelling-out-extra-cash-for-a-headache viewer, it felt annoying (Martin Freeman apparently shares my feelings on 3D—I have to admire his refreshing candor in this interview clip). For example, the chase/fight scene in Goblin town is not only greatly lengthened (no duh) but also very unrealistic. It includes many sequences of dwarves careening around, bouncing and falling from great heights without so much as a broken pinkie. The camera spins around wildly and plunges into the abysses with them. Overall, the effect is very cartoonish. Did you see the movie Adventures of Tin Tin (which is very good by the way)? It was like that, only instead of actually being animated, it just felt that way.
7. The inclusion of Radagast
Radagast is of course nowhere to be found in the book. Fortunately, he only made a comparatively small appearance here. They tried to tie it into the Necromancer arc (more on that in the procons) by having him discover his tower in Mirkwood and be the one to alert Gandalf of the threat. I think the shifting of this knowledge forward in time is a definite con. In Tolkien’s chronology, the White Council literally spends centuries deliberating over how best to deal with the Shadow. Gandalf just decides to act around the time of the Quest. But doing it this way seemed like an excuse to stuff in an extra character for the movie. Definitely time wasted.
At the risk of having this turn into a three-part review (ahem), I shall stop there for this post. Although I’m ending with cons, I do have more good things to say about this movie. Stay tuned…
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