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Thanks so much to everyone who participated in my latest poll. It's still open, if anyone else wishes to take part!

And now, after three viewings, I think it's time for me to write up some thoughts on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Spoilers ahead!

Hobbit Bilbo Character Poster

First, a disclaimer: my loyalty rests with J.R.R. Tolkien, not Peter Jackson. I appreciated a very great deal of what Jackson achieved with The Fellowship of the Ring (despite the way he treated hobbits: that is, only the characters of Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee were recognizable from Tolkien's writings, and the hobbits really are rather the point), especially the manner in which he brought the physical world/landscape of Middle-earth to life, and the way he showed a sophisticated appreciation of the importance of Boromir in the larger story of the Fellowship. I loved his realization of Rohan in The Two Towers, but by the time The Return of the King came along, I think Jackson not only had lost sight of Tolkien's story, but he'd also had caught the dreaded George Lucas Disease, becoming unable to see the forest of The Message for the trees of his groundbreaking Special Effects. I rewatch The Fellowship regularly. I rewatch sections of The Two Towers. I don't rewatch The Return of the King.

I'll also admit that I was ecstatic at the thought of seeing what Guillermo del Toro could do with Middle-earth. Alas.

I do believe The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey ultimately will rank for me just barely below The Fellowship of the Ring but far, far above The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Let me begin with a few of my main criticisms, so I can end on the high point this film deserves.

1. Jackson still has George Lucas Disease. His special effects swallow up portions of the film, and this throws off the rhythm of the storytelling and hinders the plausibility of the action. The worst culprits here are Radagast's mad dash to draw away the wargs and their orc riders, which appears quite ridiculous and impractical, and the ludicrously exaggerated fall of the dwarves and Gandalf to the depths below Goblin Town on a portion of a wooden bridge, which should've left half of their number crippled or killed. In order to take their very real threats seriously, we need to see heroes bruised and bloodied and limping now and again, not plummeting hundreds and hundreds of feet and then having a good laugh. And Jackson needs to learn that new filming technologies should serve the story, not hijack it.

2. Radagast. I've always had a soft spot for Radagast the Brown (says the leather-free, vegetarian dog-lover), not to mention Tolkien's own environmental thought, and I'm deeply disappointed that Peter Jackson made Radagast into a visual joke with a bird's nest on his head and bird droppings matting his hair. (It also represents a waste of a fine actor, Sylvester McCoy, one of my favorite Doctors. The gravitas he could've brought to the role is apparent when he contradicts Gandalf and tells him that, no, Dol Guldur is no longer abandoned. I got chills!) Jackson apparently confused Radagast with Merlin from T.H. White's The Once and Future King; despite (or perhaps because of) my love of Arthuriana, I don't roll that way, either.

3. Azog. I understand why Jackson brought Azog the Defiler forward in time from Tolkien's work to become Thorin's nemesis (although Thorin didn't need a personal nemesis; the conflict would've worked as a larger, impersonal clash between dwarves versus orcs), but visually Azog is an absurd caricature. He's bigger than all the others, albino (a response to criticisms of racism because past orcs were dark?), and a poorly-done CGI. He gives me the same impression I get from two-dimensional video-game villains. I think of how raw and visceral the emotional impact of the eye contact between Lurtz and Boromir (and, later, Lurtz and Aragorn) was in The Fellowship of the Ring; none of that is evident in similar exchanges between Azog and poor Thorin, despite the fact Richard Armitage as Thorin is acting his heart out.

4. The White Council. I'm really, really grateful that Jackson erred on the side of importing other story elements from Tolkien rather than making them up himself, and I have no problem with seeing the White Council addressing the issue of the Necromancer (who is, of course, Sauron, and who is, of course, voiced by The Batch, who will also provide the voice of Smaug). But the writing for this scene was horrendous! I understand why relations are strained between Saruman and, well, everybody, but where is the chemistry? Galadriel and Elrond have known each other for ages - she's his mother-in-law, for heaven's sake! Were the actors in different studios when they recorded those stilted lines? While watching it I felt genuinely uncomfortable for everyone involved.

5. Nooooo!!!! For a director as accomplished as Jackson is, he continues to make some fairly sophomoric missteps. A few of the lines intended to be humorous fall flat (including a joke about an insect caught on Radagast's tongue, which didn't get so much as a chuckle from the audience any time I saw the film), a few moments intended to be serious are hilarious (King Thranduil may be abandoning the dwarves to their terrible fate, but look, is he on a moose? seriously?), and the slow-motion "Nooooooo!" gets terribly overused (Thorin does it twice, Balin does it once - more symptoms of George Lucas Disease!).

Now, on to some praise.

1. Acting. This is the strongest aspect of the movie. I've loved Martin Freeman in so many roles, from secondary-but-vital (The Last King) to leading man (Nightwatching) to pure genius (Sherlock) and many others besides. He is perfection as Bilbo. His nods to Ian Holm's likewise brilliant portrayal are just the right touch, and yet he makes the part his own. He is pitch-perfect all the way through, very much the hobbit Tolkien described in every possible way. He makes this film.

I knew Richard Armitage from his excellent portrayal of John Thornton in North and South, and he doesn't disappoint as Thorin Oakenshield (even if he looks less like a dwarf than like the love child of a Ranger and a Klingon; that's decidedly not a bad thing). I blame Jackson for his all-too instant recovery at the end of the film, because Armitage seems to opt for the darker and grittier interpretation when given an opportunity. I expect his death scene at the end of the trilogy will be amazing.

Ken Stott is a revelation to me as my favorite member of Thorin's company from the novel, Balin. I'm in love with his performance. I knew James Nesbitt from Jekyll and Five Minutes of Heaven, so I knew he'd make a great Bofur, but I was particularly touched by his Bofur's chemistry with Freeman's Bilbo, which is a delight to watch.

2. Riddles in the Dark. One of the best things ever in the history of the world. Worth the price of admission by itself. My words can't do it justice. When the DVD is available, I will rewatch this scene an alarming number of times. And then I'll rewatch it some more.

3. Middle-earth. Again, Peter Jackson really captures the look of the different landscapes and landmarks in Middle-earth, from Bag End and Hobbiton to Erebor and Dale to Goblin Town and the Eagles' eyrie. He also illustrates ably some of the more fantastical, harder-to-visualize aspects of the story, including the camp of the three mountain trolls and the fight of the stone giants.

4. The Dwarves at Bag End. I really didn't want to leave Bag End. The scene in which the dwarves sing and Bilbo listens from the other room is a nutshell encapsulation of everything I love most in Tolkien's novel. I also greatly appreciate how each dwarf has his own personality and identity, from his clothing to his fighting style. Even though there are twelve of them, they are distinctive characters from the very beginning.

5. Canon. There was much worry from many (including yours truly) about how Jackson would "fill out" the story of The Hobbit, but the way he incorporates material from the appendices ends up giving this adaptation perhaps the closest relationship to Tolkien's texts of any of Jackson's films. (Perhaps this says more about Jackson's other films, but there you go.) These additions aren't seamlessly shoe-horned in (see my criticism of the writing of the White Council meeting), but for the most part they work. I'll be intrigued to see how the Necromancer plot line is handled.

Entire scenes and sections of dialogue are taken directly from the book. Oh, and speaking of direct quotes, it's so much fun to hear several of Tolkien's songs in the same film!

A parting thought: I am a tremendous fan of all of the music Howard Shore created for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he is in perfect form for The Hobbit. Gorgeous music, both reminiscent of LOTR and strikingly original when it needs to be. In addition, Neil Finn's "Song of the Lonely Mountain" is my favorite of all the end credit songs from Jackson's Middle-earth movies. It's an able variation on Tolkien's original verse, and the sounds of the forge in the background are consummately dwarvish.

Is it a perfect film? Not by a long shot. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. More than once. I'm already looking forward to analyzing it with my students in my Tolkien course next semester.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Your thoughts?


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 19th, 2012 11:31 pm (UTC)
I agree with everything you say, though until reading your comments I couldn't quite voice everything that I felt was 'off' with the film. I saw it in 3D and found that it distracted from the visuals rather than adding to them. Whether it was the fact that Jackson filmed it at a different speed from what we're accustomed to and a combination of the 3D, I'm not sure if that was whatthrew it off visually for me, I won't know until I see it again without the 3D to compare.

I found some of the imagery just too grand, too over the top and some of it seemed to lack the spectacular grandeur of LOTR. It was as if Jackson was trying to recapture it or surpass the visuals of the trilogy.

I found the portrayal of Radaghast and the chase scene absolutely absurd. The addition of Azog was unnecessary, with the visceral drama of it just not there between him and Thorin.

I found the Goblin king a disappointment both visually and in voice. The Goblin kingdom was to massive, too over the top and the fall so implausible. Yes, they needed to have a few injuries after that... The White Council, though visually stunning, was flat, as well as the scene where Elrond read the runes by the moonlight...that scene was particularly lackluster to me.

The dwarves as individual characters were delightful, but some of them, particularly Thorin, Kili and Fili looked more like elves and handsome though they were, bothered me visually, though I didn't hate them. They just didn't fit my personal vision I guess?

Maybe Jackson was trying to convey that Dwarves start out handsome, and as they age, they become more Dwarf-like? And as as far as Thorin, perhaps he was trying to convey that the royalest of Dwarves are better looking? Not quite sure about all that...

The one dwarf that delighted me, Balin, seemed to be offering an homage of sorts to a fine old Scottish actor named Finlay Currie. The actor sounded uncannily like Currie.



Overall, I still enjoyed the film, keeping in mind that Jackson and Del Toro had to make it over the top to be a big money maker, and that canon had to be sacrificed here and there for that sake.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the film.
Dec. 21st, 2012 09:26 pm (UTC)
Oh, thank you for your thoughts, as well! I agree with them, especially the point that the scene where Elrond read the runes by moonlight should've had more of an impact. It was beautiful visually, but as you say, rather lackluster... and that was one of the "big reveals," too!

I loved your point about the Balin performance being an homage to Finlay Currie. I hadn't made that connection at all, but following up on your links, I saw exactly what you mean! How neat is that?

I really appreciate your insights here.
Dec. 20th, 2012 12:09 am (UTC)
Okay, you absolutely killed me with this line... "Thorin Oakenshield (even if he looks less like a dwarf than like the love child of a Ranger and a Klingon"

Good thing I wasn't drinking anything at the time.
Dec. 20th, 2012 12:30 am (UTC)
Yeah! You added two of my favourite spots to your list of likes as well. Riddles In The Dark (all the way to when Bilbo makes that leap... his compassion was amazing!) and the Stone Giants!

Having recently reread the Hobbit I could just picture seeing Tolkien coming up with the Stone Giants as he was reading this story to his kids.

I kept thinking of mountains; wild, crashing thunderstorms; avalanches' and the cracking, smashing and snapping of rocks. I grew up in the shadow of Mount Rainier, I know that's what Tolkien was thinking of when he came up with this! I certainly can see a child imagining that giants would be up there playing games like what was portrayed. The Stone Giants rocked... ;)

I am no in depth, scholarly, kind of person so I loved every bit of the movie and not having ever been a fan of George Lucas, I could never really compare what he does to any one else, except maybe how one person can single-handedly destroy his own franchise? Somehow I don't see that happening with Peter's visits to Middle Earth. Will agree though that sometimes the CGI got way out of hand, LOL! Then again... it's Peter's movie.

Loved both Bofur and Balin as well. Sad to know that in the Fellowship of the Rings it's Balin's grave that they make their initial stand against the trolls and that its Dori's (?) journal that they find and read when they realize all the dwarves in Moria are dead. Still, Balin has developed into a great character so far. And who doesn't love Bofur's sass? (Loved watching the sheer mischievousness play out on his face in Rivendell when he decideds to toss the sausage to Bombur knowing it was all that was needed to break the furniture underneath him, LOL!)
Dec. 21st, 2012 09:36 pm (UTC)
I'm so happy you liked the film, and the Riddles in the Dark and Stone Giants, in particular!

I loved your insights. Great point about the poignant link to The Fellowship of the Ring. And I'm with you re: Bofur's sass; his mischievousness was so endearing! Even when he was having a bit too much fun feeding Bilbo dire descriptions of Smaug's fearsomeness in Bag End. ;)

Thanks so much for sharing your comments!
Dec. 21st, 2012 09:27 pm (UTC)
I'm now ridiculously pleased with myself. :D LOL!
Dec. 20th, 2012 12:11 am (UTC)
I agree with most of what you say, both the bad and the good. I found myself rather more disappointed by Shore's score--there seemed to be very little new, not that I don't love the old stuff slightly revamped for The Hobbit. I adored the Dwarves singing the Misty Mountain song in Bag End. I adored everything at Bag End.

The chase scenes and battles were so overly long and over the top that I dread to see more footage added in the EE. The White Council made me cringe (wtf with Galadriel playing with Gandalf's hair??), as did Radagast.

I thought there were too many bits reused from LOTR: the Ring falling onto Bilbo's finger, letting us think the hero was killed, Gandalf telling Bilbo about mercy, and many others.

But the scenery of Middle-earth as portrayed by New Zealand made me weep with joy.

The day before seeing the movie, Lbilover and I discussed how we hoped the "Good morning" dialog would be used. I was chuffed that it was! :-D

Martin, Richard and Sir Ian (except the above mentioned Council scene) were wonderful!!

Overall, at this point I'd put the movie below FOTR, ROTK and TTT in that order.
Dec. 21st, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
Oh, great point about Galadriel playing with Gandalf's hair. Where did that come from? And then her sudden disappearing-into-thin-air act. What pipeweed was Jackson smoking?!?

I thought Shore's score with regard to the Shire seemed suitably (but not disappointingly) familiar, but the dwarvish sections felt new/different enough to me to seem unique. I agree wholeheartedly about the reused plot elements, though, especially the Ring falling onto Bilbo's finger, which was just cheesy, a false note in the middle of what was otherwise perfection.

I loved the fact they used the "Good morning" dialogue, too!

Thanks so much for sharing your insights with me. *hugs*
Dec. 20th, 2012 01:05 am (UTC)
I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think my main complaint deals with tone. For all of the discussion before PJ did LOTR, LOTR does lend itself to film adaptation; scale is the only difficult matter. The book is fairly cinematic and makes it quite easy for cinema. On the other hand, The Hobbit is more complicated.

The Hobbit is a children's book. However, with the success of LOTR, that children's book has become popular with a very wide audience. While some newer children's lit such as Harry Potter is read by children and adults, this is because there isn't much of a style difference between a lot of adult popular fiction and children popular fiction nowadays. The Hobbit was written for children in 1937 and as a result, is very specifically a children's book. It reads like one and is by no means a clear-cut prequel to LOTR both in content and writing style.

I think PJ couldn't decide what type of tone this movie should be. On one hand, he wanted some very clear continuity in content and style between the Hobbit and LOTR. But on the other hand, he wanted to be true to the Hobbit being a children's book. As a result, he does neither very well and the tone radically shifts throughout the movie.

Dec. 21st, 2012 09:49 pm (UTC)
You make great points here. I think that was one of the many reasons I was excited when Guillermo del Toro originally was named director; he wouldn't have felt the same compulsion to make the film fit into the preexisting LOTR trilogy's look and feel. As it is, I think you're exactly right about the shifts in tone and the reasons for them.

Thanks so much for these comments!
Dec. 20th, 2012 04:02 am (UTC)
We've already chatted about this, so you know I agree with quibbles 1, 4, 5. For me, the main issue with Radagast is that his story takes us away from the company and I didn't want to leave them for what is mainly a sidebar story. Re Azog, I liked the idea of a nemesis, and I thought the CGI was excellent. The 4th time I saw the film, I had your comments in mind and really studied him, and still liked the look of Azog. Maybe I would have changed his voice a bit, made it a little less reverb-growly.

I think the biggest flaw of the film is the Goblin King's dialogue and delivery of that dialogue. And other ill-timed quips. You mentioned the stick insect example (and that is something we did not discuss previously) - yes, that one, too, I agree totally.

But --- OMG how much do I love this film. I know it's in large part because of Martin Freeman in the role of Bilbo (although I also give great props to those playing Thorin, Balin, Bofur, Gollum), but for me this film ranks above any in the LOTR trilogy. Perhaps I just watched LOTR too many times... it doesn't inspire me as it used to.

BTW, was surprised to read you don't like ROTK. Interesting! That was my favorite film of the trilogy, followed by FOTR and then TTT. My favorite LOTR character (book and film) is Samwise, and it's in the final film that he finally gets his chance to show, in more dramatic fashion, his quality.
Dec. 22nd, 2012 01:10 am (UTC)
I understand why they used Radagast to plant the seeds of later plot developments - the spiders, and also what will eventually be the White Council's attack on Dol Guldur to drive out the Necromancer - but the sheer goofiness of him, from his look to the CGI with the chase scene, really did detract from the tone of the rest of it.

I have mixed feelings about the Goblin King, because I liked the inclusion of some of the "Goblin Town" verse, and it fit the feel of the goblins in the novel to a degree, but at the same time I agree that both he and his scribe would've been at home with Jabba the Hutt! LOL. And I'm 100% with you about that final quip when he's been mortally wounded; it was the absolute wrong line at the absolute wrong time. :(

I'm really glad we see Bilbo's chemistry with the dwarves, by the way. Thorin's death (and Fili's and Kili's) will be all the more powerful for it.

ROTK was a disappointment to me. Sam is my favorite, too (and, in the bookverse, Merry, who was the character with whom I most identified - how I love his unassuming competence in Crickhollow, and how I adore his relationship with Theoden King), and while I really appreciated Sean Astin's brilliant performance in the carrying-Frodo-up-Mount-Doom and at-the-end-of-all-things scenes in particular, I felt Sam was done a disservice by the script, as indeed were all the hobbits, as well as some of the crucial and key themes of the novel. I also was quickly fed up with the ridiculous overkill of the prolonged fight sequences, especially when the Big Ideas didn't get equal attention.

I'm so, so excited to see this next installment, knowing what's next for Bilbo. It's going to be such a joy seeing more of Martin Freeman's performance!
Dec. 20th, 2012 04:03 am (UTC)
I find it striking that on one hand I agree with nearly all your points, positive and negative, and am neutral or mildly dissenting on the rest—there is not one where I'm saying, "Woah, what kind of pipeweed is eldritchhobbit smoking?—and yet, for me, they add up to not wanting to see it ever again, or at least for a very long time.

I think Jackson's script stopped working for me when he gave Bilbo's line "I should like to know about risks, out-of-pocket expenses, time required and remuneration, and so forth" to one of the dwarves—thus losing the characterization of Bilbo as a bourgeois legalist willing to stand up for his own rights, and with it the setup in the very beginning of the story for the negotiation over the Arkenstone at the climax. I'm really dissatisfied with Jackson's use of dialogue to express character.

Oh, and by the way, I saw it in 2D; I will not willingly watch a film in 3D.

Edited at 2012-12-20 04:06 am (UTC)
Jan. 2nd, 2013 01:19 am (UTC)
I went into this film with extremely low expectations, because the trailers I had seen were leading me to believe that PJ was going to absolutely ruin important points of the story. I took my knitting with me (as I often do) so I would have something to look away to if I needed it. I don't think I got even halfway done one row on the capelet, because I enjoyed the movie so much. Yes, there were flaws, no doubt, but not bad enough to make me look away in disgust, though there were a few fight scenes *cough*final scene*cough* that dragged on longer than they really needed to. Probably if I get a chance to see it again (which I hope to do, since we didn't get to see it with the Smial) I can assess a bit more critically, but for a first viewing it was grand. And unlike with my first view of Fellowship, I was familiar enough with the story that I wasn't wondering "Was that in the book? I don't think that was in the book, was it?" the whole time. ;~)
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