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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 Dwarves Are Poorly Defined
Any time that you need a flowchart to tell your main characters apart, you’re in trouble. To be fair, we don’t envy Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens the task of trying to differentiate 13 dwarves who look very similar in their adaptation, with only an ax in the head or a pastry-shaped beard to tell them apart . However, we’d have a bit more sympathy if they’d made an effort to characterize the dwarves beyond the mean one (Thorin, Richard Armitage), the old one (Balin, Ken Stott) and the hot ones (Fili & Kili, Dean O’Gorman and Aidan Turner) in a script that has so many diversions, we stopped counting. We imagine they’ll put the characters – and some of the UK’s most talented character actors including Stott and James Nesbitt – to better use in the latter films, but despite some good performances, they’re wasted here.

The Action's Never As Inspired As In LOTR
In both its source material and the finished film, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is a notably lighter trip than Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, whose strongest moments were epic fights like Helm’s Deep. So it’s surprising that some of the weakest scenes in the film were its battles, particularly the initial appearance of the pale orc Azog the Descrator and the final fight between the orcs and the dwarves. In the past, Jackson has struck a fine balance between expansive battles with thousands on each side, individual feats of bravery and moments worthy of his splatstick past, but he doesn’t achieve any of that here. The last battle between Azog’s orc and Gandalf, Bilbo and the dwarves is especially bad. When Thorin attempts to make a valiant last stand against his mortal enemy, we would have expected our hearts to soar with the crescendoing score as he charges. Instead, the moment just made us want to laugh harder than we had with the intentional moments of comedy.

The Script's Overstuffed, Low Stakes & Episodic
Look, if things were reversed, and Jackson had made “The Hobbit” back in 2001, maybe we wouldn’t have said this. But compared to the incredibly high, fate-of-the-world stakes of “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” feels like a lark; an extended stag weekend to reclaim the dwarves' home from a squatter (Jackson at least tries to give added weight, but it's a bit half-hearted until Bilbo's final moment). It does try to bring in hints of Sauron's upcoming return, mainly through the Radagast the Brown-related scenes, but they feel so shoehorned in, and of relatively little effect (shortened version; something bad might be coming) that one can't help but wish that Jackson had just trimmed it altogether for something closer to a two-hour run time. It doesn't help that it's much less propulsive than the earlier films; in part because you know it's going to take nine hours to get to the bloody end, and in part because it's so episodic, structurally speaking. The dwarves fight rock monsters, then goblins, then orcs, etc. Now, much of this is down to the source material, which is far thinner than "Lord of the Rings," but Jackson has only himself to blame for taking that material and dragging it over this kind of running time. It's the kind of indulgence that led to a 180-minute "King Kong," and the result is the most expensive fan service movie ever made; Tolkien fans might care about appendices about necromancers, but there's a reason they were in the appendix to begin with.

It's Basically A Remake Of "Fellowship of the Ring"
Obviously "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" was going to have a close connection to Jackson's previous films, but we weren't expecting the director to follow his own template quite so closely. Running at almost the exact same running time as the first LOTR picture, "The Fellowship of the Ring," it sometimes feels as if Jackson and co-writers Del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philppa Boyens simply used a find and replace, using the structure of that first film to set a precedent for the opening of this new trilogy. Lengthy prologue to set up a villain we won't meet for several movies? Check. 20 minutes in Hobbiton? Check. Early confrontation with some bad guys? Check. Appearance by a wrath-king? Check. An arrival at elf home Rivendell? Check (and at virtually the same point in the film as in 'Fellowship'). Extended underground action sequence? Check. Final confrontation with a sub-villain? Check. Project the films side by side, and we'd wager you'd really spot how Jackson & co hit the same beats, at about the same time. We get the merits of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' and all, but we wish Jackson had departed from his own formula a little more.

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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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