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'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey': What Worked & What Didn't

by The Playlist Staff
December 17, 2012 12:15 PM
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"The Hobbit"

For a long time, it seemed as though "The Hobbit" would never get made. Despite the multi-billion dollar success of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, the rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's earlier novel were tangled up, and Jackson didn't even seem to be sure he wanted to go back to Middle Earth. Even once the film got underway, MGM's bankruptcy delayed the film for years, losing original director Guillermo Del Toro in the process.

But with Jackson back at the helm himself, the new film finally hit screens this past Friday, and certainly seems like it'll be at least as successful as the earlier films, breaking box office records around the world in the last few days, so it's paying off financially. But creatively? Perhaps less so. The film's had its share of good reviews (including our own), but in general it has had notices well below the three "Lord of the Rings" films, and fan reaction seems to be much more mixed (although the film did, in fairness, pick up an 'A' Cinemascore, for what little that's worth.)

The rest of the Playlist team have been catching up on the film in recent weeks, and collectively found a few more issues than our reviewer, so we thought we'd delve into the movie in more depth, and pinpoint, with spoilers, what worked and what didn't for most of us about the film. You can let us know your own views in the comments section below.

What Worked

Martin Freeman
One of the bigger gambles that Jackson makes with "The Hobbit" was in the casting of his lead, Bilbo Baggins. For one thing, the character had already been played, wonderfully, by Ian Holm in the original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, so it was a difficult act to follow. As such, it might have been better to go with a relative unknown, but instead Jackson cast Martin Freeman, star of the U.K. "The Office," as well as the more recent smash "Sherlock." While he's hardly an A-lister, Freeman brings plenty of star baggage to the film, which could have been problematic. Fortunately, it turned out to be a great choice; Freeman is basically the best thing about "An Unexpected Journey." With no shades of Tim or Watson, Freeman slips like a glove into Middle-Earth, seamlessly incorporating some Ian Holm-ish elements into the performance, while also happy to let it stand alone and make it his own thing. He's grumpy, funny, cunning, truly heroic (his charge to save Thorin is genuinely moving) and all in all a much more compelling protagonist than Frodo ever was in Jackson's first three films. We have plenty of reservations about the six hours of 'Hobbit' to come, but one thing we really are looking forward to is seeing much more of Freeman as Bilbo.

Ian McKellen
Freeman's not alone in giving a fine performance; there really are no weak leaks involved, from returning cast members like Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett to all the dwarves (it might be hard to tell them apart, but every one of them is giving their all). Best of all is Ian McKellen, a sight for sore eyes as Gandalf the Grey. One forgets that it's eleven years since we've seen this incarnation of the character (when he returns as Gandalf the White in "The Two Towers," the character is a bit more spritely and samurai-like, with less of a sense of humor), but McKellen doesn't let it feel like a day has passed. One suspects that it's the most screen time that Gandalf's had in the films so far, and McKellen makes use of every playful, stern, powerful second of it, while still letting in a little of that weariness to foreshadow how he appeared in 'Fellowship.' McKellen's always been open about enjoying playing Gandalf the Grey much more than the White, and he's clearly having an absolute blast in the part that won him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination way back in 2002.

The Effects
Given the decade of progress that's been made at WETA, and given Jackson's effects company's work on "Avatar" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," among others, it's no surprise that the CGI work is pretty spectacular (although there were a couple of naysayers on staff who preferred the work in the original films). The melding of different sized-characters is just as seamless as ever, while Gollum, already a landmark creation, is even more impressive this time around -- the improved facial performance capture techniques developed for "Avatar" and "ROTPOTA" come into play here, every tiny tic on Serkis' face replicated on his creation. And the Goblin King (as played by Barry Humphries), while a brief role, is probably the second-most impressive performance capture creation that's resulted from the Tolkien movies, a memorably grotesque, corpulent character, while the Cockney-voiced trolls are good fun too. We might take some issue with exactly how much CGI there is (did the one-armed albino orc guy really need to be a CGI, rather than practical, creation?), but you can't argue that what is there is pretty much immaculate.  

The Del Toro-isms
Like Paul Greengrass' "Watchmen" or Lynne Ramsay's "The Lovely Bones," the concept of Guillermo Del Toro's "The Hobbit" will end up as one of the great 'what ifs' in cinema history. The "Pan's Labyrinth" director spent several years as the director of the films, only to bail after multiple delays. But he was deeply involved in the writing process (retaining a screenwriting credit), and while it's tricky to tell exactly who contributed what, some of the film's more inventive moments certainly feel like they have Del Toro's stamp all of them. Again, that scrotum-chinned Goblin King, a truly repulsive villain, feels like a giant grown cousin to the skin-flap-covered Pale Man in "Pan's Labyrinth," (though Barry Humphries' performance is also one of the relatively few moments that nod to Peter Jackson's work -- you can imagine the character having strolled out of "Bad Taste," somehow). And the film's most ingenious action sequence, as the dwarves & Bilbo find themselves caught in a battle between two giant rock monsters -- a complete invention, found nowhere in the book -- also feels like it's a product of Del Toro's mind, given his love for giant monsters (and indeed, ones made of rock -- see "Hellboy II"). It's pretty gratuitous to be sure, but as the dwarves jump between the giants' knees, it's one of the most inventive moments in the film, and we wish there was more like it. Maybe we're being unfair to Jackson by putting the credit elsewhere (it could be that Del Toro had nothing to do with it), but it certainly makes you wonder if the film might have been more distinctive and satisfying in the hands of the first director who was going to make it.

Riddles In The Dark
During the frenzied second half of "The Hobbit" there is a brief, beautiful moment of reprieve – the so-called "Riddles in the Dark" scene, where Bilbo (Martin Freeman) meets, for the first time, Gollum (Andy Serkis). The scene is extraordinary for a number of reasons, first and foremost the performances of Serkis and Freeman. Freeman plays the scene delicately, like he knows that the sequence is a moment of "passing the torch" from one trilogy to the next, while Serkis throws himself back into the role wholeheartedly, with even more freedom and elasticity. (In the previous films, he performed on-set as reference and then recorded the motion capture in a blank stage called the volume, with the second performance then reintegrated back into the scene. For these new films, he was able to do the performance on stage in real time.) The sequence, too, has a wonderful sense of playful menace, with a subtly redesigned Gollum playing Bilbo in a deadly game of riddles. The scene takes its time – it breathes deeply, a much needed lull in the film's frantic second half – but you are always on the edge of your seat. This sequence also has what is arguably the single most important moment in the entire prequel series, when Bilbo plucks a tiny gold band out of the dirt and places it in his waistcoat. With this ring, I thee dread.

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  • celeste | January 16, 2013 6:33 AMReply

    Hmm, I basically disagree with many of the points made in this. The hobbit was book intended for 12 year olds and although it appeals to adults this is due to not only the action, but the subtle social commentary and the characterisation. These elements are underplayed in this film because basically it was decided, riding on the success of the Lord of the Rings saga that the fans would like more of the same. Hence the elements added to the story to ramp up the action. Comic elements in the book are poorly interpreted and underplayed, essentially this is Bildungsroman story where bourgeois middle class Bilbo is entrapped into having an adventure by Gandalf who perceives him as having more in his character than his life as a rural squire reflects. The opening scene with the dwarves is ten times funnier in the book because it is based on an English comedy of manners. Bilbo is incensed but can't show it because it violates his social code. Ultimately his adventure transformed him into someone altogether broader and the tragedy is that Bilbo is never quite as comfortable again in the shire, nor are the people quite as easy with him, he no longer fits in. Aspects of Tolkien war experiences come through here as in The return of the King. I don't get a feeling these will be films about character and they will be poorer for it although I enjoyed this first offering.

  • Montrepido | January 2, 2013 10:47 AMReply

    This guys reasoning was ignorant. First off, The Hobbit was written as a kids book, that's why its lighter than LOTR. Secondly just read the damn book and stop complaining.

  • Sir | December 25, 2012 12:00 AMReply

    THANK YOU for writing this review. I agreed with just about every point you mentioned here. This film is doing well in the box-office, yes, but that doesn't necessarily make it a well-made movie. Just to prove my point to any glazed-eye fans out there, look at the Twilight movies, Phantom Menace, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Indiana Jones Crystal Skull, etc etc etc.

  • LinenWeaver | December 19, 2012 11:27 AMReply

    The movie was an awesome experience!

  • Alan | December 19, 2012 4:25 AMReply

    "Like Paul Greengrass' "Watchmen" or Lynne Ramsay's "The Lovely Bones," the concept of Guillermo Del Toro's "The Hobbit" will end up as one of the great 'what ifs' in cinema history." Err, what? Ramsay was sent the opening, liked it, started working on it, and then was sent the later half ... and didn't like it, so much. She was kicked off the project, and wasn't all that depressed that she didn't get to film a book she had problems with. The tragedy!

  • Giovanni | December 17, 2012 4:57 PMReply

    "Remake of 'The Fellowship of the Ring"? Seriously?! The guy did not think that the Shire to Rivendell the path traced in two books, "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" is the same? Ah ... Critics thought just before utter their criticism.

    The dwarves are not well defined even in the books. Are THIRTEEN characters! Peter did a good job in differentiating them at least in appearance. Tolkien was never good at delving into characters, considering that Middle-earth is the main character.

    Since this is the first film and has a character introductory, much had to be created out of nothing - and another major reason for this was the Appendices of "The Return of the King" added.

    About the Eagles. They do not like to help. Never liked help unless to they benefit. That matter has not said about them ... search.

    Honestly? Critics of the film said something: contextualization. And as this story is divided into three and the other movies only come in the next two years, the way would be to check the writings, but not in Wikipedia were to take a look.

    A shame.

  • D'Artagnan | December 18, 2012 12:30 AM

    Do you mean that the film cannot stand on its own? That it is nothing without the next two? That you need to read the book to understand it. Talk about a pointless movie then.

    The Fellowship of the Ring was a complete film. It told the story of the fellowship and ended with its breaking, an important milestone in the story. Here, Jackson probably felt he ran out of time (yeah, that's kinda ironic) and so had his characters look to the horizon and deliver a motivational speech just to end the film.

    About the eagles, I totally felt they were benefiting from saving the dwarves (and dropping them at the top of a mountain while getting nothing in return). Not to mention how unsurprising their arrival was with Gandalf sending that butterfly 10 mins before.

    Btw, love it how you praise Jackson and criticize Tolkien.

  • Ragnar | December 17, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    Basically you should read this
    because some of your "what didn`t" points are just nonsense, because they were in the books and besides as a book The Hobbit and Fellowship are indeed very similar, hence the films are also similar.

  • LennyG | December 17, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    I'm not that much of a LOTR expert but The Hobbit is structurally written episodically! Why would the film be different? And the eagles...They are key figures throughout the books (in fact, they are given short shrift in LOTR). They represent a different take on good/evil - Nature vs. environmental destruction and they at times have to be convinced to help the West side (good guys) because the bad guys are worse.

  • Patrick | December 17, 2012 1:10 PMReply

    Did this writer even read the book?! Articles like this make me so mad at people!!!

  • D'Artagnan | December 18, 2012 12:34 AM

    Did you read Tintin (all 24 books), War Horse, John Carter of Mars, Life of Pi, Les Miserables and all books from which films are adapted before watching the films?

    Comments like this make me so mad at people!!!

  • Ugh | December 17, 2012 2:25 PM

    Stop using "it was in the book" as a defense for a badly structured film. It amazes me how dragged out The Hobbit Part 1 was in comparison to Fellowship. If the stories had been reversed and Jackson was making LOTR right now, Fellowship would have a 30 minute dead period where the Hobbits hang out with Tom Bambadil.

  • Fanboyz drool | December 17, 2012 1:24 PM

    It's several writers. Who cares about the book. this is what worked and didn't work in the MOVIE. Gah, fanboyz.

  • BEF | December 17, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    Pretty much my thoughts exactly. Only other thing I'd add to the "didn't work" column the troll/cooking scene, which added absolutely nothing other than the first of many, Gandolf steps in at the last moment to save them scenes (and mostly sparing us from the silly humor of the scene).... Also, why is Bilbo so dear to Gandolf? Dude doesn't even remember him.

  • DeftLip | December 17, 2012 12:51 PMReply

    "-- a complete invention, found nowhere in the book --" The Stone Giants are in the book, right before they enter the goblin's cave. The movie just makes an action sequence out of it as opposed to something mentioned in the distance.

  • Alex | December 17, 2012 12:42 PMReply

    Shows what poor readers you are... the stone giants are in the book:

    When he peeped out in the lightning-flashes, he saw that across the valley the stone-giants were out and were hurling rocks at one another for a game, and catching them, and tossing them down into the darkness where they smashed among the trees far below, or splintered into little bits with a bang.
    They could hear the giants guffawing and shouting all over the mountainsides.
    "If we don't get blown off or drowned, or struck by lightning, we shall be picked up by some giant and kicked sky-high for a football."
    "I must see if I can't find a more or less decent giant to block it up again," said Gandalf

  • kitcon | December 17, 2012 12:40 PMReply

    It also felt like Jackson took what he thought people liked in the original trilogy and gave heaping servings of it -- panoramic shots, vertiginous camera work, lots of views of multi-level subterranean lairs. Not new, just more.

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