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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If you read this website regularly, you know that I am not a fan of comparing books to movies.  They are two very different mediums, with different strengths that aren’t going to translate from one to the other.  I read “The Hobbit” probably 20 years ago, so my memory of it is pretty fuzzy.  This seemed to be like an ideal way to go see the movie – I still remember what happens, mostly, but I wouldn’t spend the whole movie thinking, “This isn’t how it happens in the book!  Oh no!  They cut out my favorite scene!”  Because to me, that makes for a pretty miserable movie-watching experience.

The fact remains, though, that Peter Jackson has endeavored to make a film trilogy out of a book that is hardly 200 pages long, and that is problematic.  I think even if you’ve never read a word of Tolkien, you’ll sense the places the movies is padded for length; it takes a solid half hour just to get through introductions and back story before the real story ever begins.  There are a plethora of dead end storylines and unnecessary characters, some of them brought in from “Lord of the Rings.” Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Frodo (Elijah Wood) both make mostly pointless appearances, just so we can experience the thrill of recognition.  There’s a whole new wizard, Radigast the Brown, who takes up screen time with crazy antics and a dogsled pulled by giant rabbits, but I highly doubt we’ll ever see him again as the trilogy progresses.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is a good hobbit, which means he tends his garden, makes a decent cup of tea, has a well-stocked pantry, and has absolutely no desire to venture out of the Shire on any distasteful “adventures” or anything of the sort.  But the wizard Gandalf(Ian McKellen) has other ideas, and invites a rowdy, rude, and rambunctious company of dwarves to Bilbo’s immaculately kept hobbit hole for a meeting to plan the retaking of their home in the Lonely Mountain, which was taken from their people by the dread dragon Smaug.

Brave and mighty Thorin Oakenshield(Richard Armitage) leads the dwarf company, and looks like he’d be right at home in “Braveheart.”  This is an oddity of the Hobbit; the dwarves are startlingly different in their appearances.  Some of the actors are almost completely obscured in facial prosthetics, as John Rhys-Davies was when he played Gimli in “The Lord of the Rings.”  Others wear almost no makeup at all.  One in particular looks more like one of Santa’s little helpers than a fierce, axe-wielding son of the earth.  There are twelve of them, but Jackson doesn’t work very hard to differentiate one from the next.  They’re a band of dwarves led by Thorin and advised by Gandalf, and that’s about all you need to know about them.

The journey is fraught with danger, and these dwarves are terrible at staying out of it.   They are hunted by a pack of orcs riding wolf-like creatures, led by a pale orc with one arm.  They stumble upon a trio of trolls and very nearly become breakfast.  They accidentally camp on the front door of the underground Goblin kingdom, and barely escape via a series of crickety and collapsing wooden scaffolds (this was perhaps my favorite sequence in the film; it also reminded me of “Temple of Doom.”)  By my count, they should all be dead three times over by the end, and would be if not for the magical powers of Gandalf and a fair amount of sheer luck. And this is just the first movie.  Middle Earth, as it turns out, is a dangerous, dangerous place, even before the rise of Sauron and the Ringwraiths.

At times, the film seems to suffer from a tonal personality disorder.  As I remember it, “The Hobbit” was far more of a children’s story, filled with daring adventure, but lacking the sense of darkness and peril, and world-hanging-in-the-balance importance that infuses the pages of “The Lord of the Rings.”  Your kids might have nightmares about Sauron, but not about Smaug.  It’s also a lot funnier, more willing to give space for wit and cleverness.  Jackson seems to want to hang on to this lighter side of Middle Earth in some scenes, but then he veers back into the “perilous journey” feeling of LOTR, trying hard to make the quest of the dwarves feel just as important as that of the Fellowship.  It didn’t work well for me; I wish he would’ve let it stay more of a children’s story.

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is more like a theme park ride than a movie.  Like a trip to Disneyland, it immerses us in the world of some of my favorite movies, and there are plenty of thrills and chills. At times, though, it’s more like a vast and expansive video game; World of Warcraft meets Middle Earth.  There’s plenty of time to wander around and explore the nooks and crannies of this world.  Some of the folks I watched “The Hobbit” with felt like it was way too slow; a few even fell asleep.  Others liked the relaxed pace, as they had time to recover before the next death (and gravity) defying action scene.  I guess it depends on who you are.

But like a theme park ride or a video game, the story is pretty thin, full of holes, and decidedly a secondary priority, the whole thing is exciting and fun, but dissipates quickly, and then you’re on to the next thing.  This is the world of “Lord of the Rings,” and it’s thrilling to return there.  But “The Hobbit” is not on the same cinematic level as “Lord of the Rings.”  Not even close.

Note: “The Hobbit “is being screened, in some theaters, at 48 frames per second, twice the normal rate, and there is much debate about whether it looks better or worse.  Unfortunately (or maybe not, as some people REALLY hate it), the theater where I saw it didn’t have the 48 fps version, so I saw don’t have anything to say about the new format. 

 

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  1. This Week on DVD: March 19, 2013 | GonnaWatchIt.com linked to this post on March 19, 2013

    […] The first of Peter Jackson’s new trilogy seemed awfully padded to me, but good fun all the same.  Read my full review here. […]

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