The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 December (5.45 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the cinema was a somewhat disorientating experience. As someone who loved the Lord of the Rings films, I was only going to buy the best tickets for this one and so we took it in at the IMAX, with 3D and the film’s much vaunted ‘High Frame Rate’ on exhibition. The latter element, projecting the film at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24, produced the strange effect of the camera and characters appearing to move around at high, unnatural speeds. The aim was to make it more immersive, to show a more realistic image, and in fairness once my eyes adjusted to it I was able to forget it was there, but it made no difference in terms of anything positive. It was just queer. Cinemas were already offering audiences the choice in terms of FPS, and when I went to see the series’ subsequent entries I ignored HFR entirely. I think many people turned away from it also, despite the studio’s pig-headed determination to make it available.

Years later, with all this long in the past and the film judgeable on its own merits, how does it hold up? Without wanting to go into too much detail about it, I was seduced entirely by the LOTR films. If I remember rightly I caught each one twice in cinemas and followed with numerous further viewings on DVD, throwing in several reads of the book in order to get my fix. I was someone to whom the Hobbit movies was aimed directly, fans of Middle Earth who would want more, no matter the quality. By all accounts, the project was in pre-development hell for some time. Kingpin behind the Rings films, Peter Jackson, always had some connection with it but was mired in legal battles and for much of the time appeared to be taking on an Executive Producer’s role, with Guillermo Del Toro attached as both the writer and director. But then Del Toro quit, citing endless delays, and Jackson was on board again with his familiar production team. This made sense as the Hobbit films would take on a more continuous look and feel with the Rings entries, however though everything was in place for ‘more of the same’ there was a major question over the level of investment Jackson was willing to make. It’s well known, partly via the exhaustive appendices that come with the extended LOTR DVDs, that Jackson was as involved as he could be, that he led by example in terms of immersing himself entirely into the production. The result was a set of films that have ‘labour of love’ written right through them. Yes, they were big hitters at the box office, but the frankly insane levels of detail (down to real swords being forged for the actors, in an effort to make their performance feel that bit more ‘real’) emphasise productions that came with genuine seals of quality. Like the films or not, there’s little arguing with the sheer talent in overdrive that was behind them.

Controversies running behind the scenes suggested a tug of war between Jackson and studio interests. The main one was the decision to transform a project designed to cover two movies into three, thus stretching the contents of a children’s novel that runs for 368 pages (a shorter length than any of the three Lord of the Rings books). The logic was that this would give the production capacity to create a true set of prequels, adding plot elements that bridged the gap between both stories. And that’s there in the films, although it can equally be argued that things have been shoehorned in, such as the entire storyline that involves Thorin’s long-running feud with Azog the Defiler. Would the film be any poorer if it excised this altogether?

Of course, the main thrust is to return us to Middle Earth, beginning with an extended opening scene that spirits Martin Freeman’s Bilbo from his comfortable Hobbit Hole in Bag End and on the road to adventure. Freeman is a massive highlight in the film. According to Jackson, he was the only actor to ever be considered to the extent that the production didn’t start until he was available to commit to it. Freeman’s usual acting tropes – nervous, tending to peevishness, underlying resolve – all come to the fore here as he fully inhabits the little halfling whose creature comforts are invaded by the boorish dwarves. A lot of thought has gone into the majority of these characters also, from James Nesbitt as comic relief, Graham McTavish’s gruff warrior, to Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as the laddish younger dwarves and Ken Stott’s worldly wise Balin. They’re led by Thorin (Richard Armitage), instantly noble and highly capable, though also with a sense an air of impatience and prejudice, especially against the elves, who failed to come to his aid when his mountain home was taken over by Smaug. Ian McKellen returns as Gandalf, bringing all the characteristics we loved him for in the Rings films, indeed playing like a repeat performance, mixing action moments with pep talks to Bilbo along the way that are only reminiscent to words he’s had previously/later with Frodo.

It takes quite some time to move the action away from the Shire, and that’s fine to an extent because it introduces us to the major players, establishing the dwarves as capable of cheeky fun and enjoying a song. It also lacks any of the urgency of the Rings plotline, which had to condense weighty tomes into movies that were already longer than three hours and necessitating extended editions on home formats. Here, there’s a creeping sense of bloat, of stretching Tolkein’s slim text as far as it can go, and this stays throughout the films, as little episodes are expanded into major sequences as though everyone is trying to fill in as much time as possible.

And then there’s the issue of CGI. One of the real highlights of the Rings films was the perfect mixture of digital effects and location shooting, opting to film in parts of New Zealand that had been scouted exhaustively for their suitability. Here, there’s a larger degree of green screen, never more so than during the mountain scenes. The fight and flight the dwarves undergo whilst in the halls of the Goblin King are intended to be breathtaking, but as the stunts and action grows into impossible feats done at breakneck speed, it starts taking on the shape of a platform videogame. It’s a lot of fun, but it lacks any of the heft you got in, say, the battle against the Uruk-Hai in The Fellowship of the Ring, which focused on the effort and toll of all the fighting. Whilst you can argue that it’s supposed to be a more family friendly adventure, there’s no real need to ramp up the action in the way it does, transforming dilemmas that fall within the credibility of the drama into comic book set pieces.

It again raises the question over who was pulling the strings. Jackson’s been guilty enough of overplaying his hand (King Kong, The Lovely Bones) beforehand and so it’s quite possible that he’s culpable for slapping CGI onto the screen rather than following the ‘less is more’ rule that made Rings such hits, but there’s a curious lack of care about the film that hints there was more at play. Often, too obviously often, those previous films are referenced, whether through Howard Shore’s musical cues or a gratuitous reappearance from Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel for no better excuse than because they could (she wasn’t the last of the Rings characters who wasn’t actually in the Hobbit novel to turn up in the films). Whether it’s because of a misplaced desire to please the fans or a basic lack of imagination isn’t entirely clear, but these moments look and feel like a tribute track, like there wasn’t sufficient trust in the story to play as its own entity. Either way, the bits taken directly from the book are about the best on screen. Gollum’s scene, a very famous chapter in the novel, is brilliantly done. He’s a great character and watching him here reminds us of that, but also his interplay with Bilbo – most of which is through simple dialogue and a sense of threat – works really well.

I wanted to like The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey more than I did. Around the time of its release I was amongst its defenders, because like many others I’m happy enough to watch further Middle Earth adventures. I even bought the extended cut on DVD and saw that version again for this write-up, though I’d have to point out that whereas the added material in the Rings films actually enhanced the material and inserted missing story elements, here it does nothing more than flesh out the characters, and that unnecessarily. It’s nothing like a bad film, but the one thing I can go on more than any other is the fact I watched those LOTR flicks many times and I’ve barely bothered with this one. The quality just isn’t the same. Whilst I’m aware that sequels are nothing new within the movie industry, the craze for reboots, updates and (bizarrely) prequels is becoming more and more prevalent. Some of this year’s biggest box office hits were titles that either returned us to well trodden places (Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), gave us more of the same (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7) or rehashed familiar tales (Pan, Mad Max: Fury Road). I’m not trying to say all these films are terrible; that just isn’t true. But the lack of imagination is staggering, the attempts by certain titles, like Tomorrowland, to do something original have no hope due to the recycling and endless spin of marketing. I find myself believing that this film is as guilty of that as anything, a rather naked attempt to get our bums squarely back into cinema seats because, oh look, it’s another Middle Earth flick. And it isn’t the same. The heart that went into Lord of the Rings is absent and the result, several years down the line, is a product about which I care little.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: ***

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18 Replies to “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)”

  1. I saw this at the cinema, was somewhat underwhelmed and never saw the other two at all. My parents got given the set on DVD so i dare say I will give the trilogy a go sometime in 2016. But for me Jackson jumped the shark (sic) with KING KONG and I’m not sure I can quite get over the many, many bad judgements on that movie!!

    1. Thanks Sergio. It’s a decent enough trilogy but a long, long drop from ‘the original one’ and too often within it there’s an element of going through the motions. The impression I get is that it was essentially a cash cow, missing much of the love and attention that went into the Rings films, and that shows.

      I absolutely agree about KING KONG also. We went to see it on the back of some glowing reviews and because Jackson could do little wrong at the time, but we’d also recently watched the 1933 original in the build-up – largely for Mini Mike, who’d never had the opportunity – and quickly spotted the difference between economical storytelling done at pace, and bloated epicry. Kong himself looked great, but it just went on and on and on…

  2. Haven’t seen this, Mike, and there are two reasons for that. Firstly, I’m not a Tolkien fan and never got into his writings, although I don’t know if that’s necessarily a barrier. Secondly, I’m with Sergio in my suspicion of Jackson after the King Kong experience. Sure it looked good but stretching a compact little tale like that out to, what I felt was, interminable length soured me on him.

    1. Thanks Colin; I get that about Tolkein. I like his books, though I have never ventured further than the two main novels and don’t really understand the need some people have for learning a fictional language, indeed this whole business of getting so far beneath the skin of fantasy is beyond me. I’m not criticising it. Each to their own and all that, and I kind of like the wistfulness about more innocent, pastoral times that underpins Tolkein’s work, but that’s as far as I go.

      I think Jackson became something of a victim of his own success. Realising his WETA team could recreate just about anything as its skills grew, he made films that utilised exactly that and in the process lost his grasp on other elements of film making, of which narrative bloat was a big factor. Anyone who didn’t like that about KING KONG really will find little to enjoy about the Hobbit films. My sense of goodwill towards his previous work in Middle Earth saw me over the line, but not without reservations. Stretching the story to three long films really smacked of trying to rake in as much cash as possible, which is fair enough, I suppose, but not good in terms of quality.

      1. Yes, well having nothing invested in the book, I wasn’t drawn to this one in the first place – when I heard about the running time for something derived from what I understand is a modest sized book, I just thought pass.
        Tolkien does seem to draw very ardent fans, which I have no problem with for those who are heavily into his work as we all have our passions for various writers, films, music and so on – I certainly wouldn’t want to be pointing any fingers. It’s not really my thing but I wouldn’t rule out giving it a go on TV all the same.

      2. Absolutely, no criticism from me regarding the ‘Tolkeinistas’ – I’ve got no place to be having a go. I think about the amount I’ve invested in certain obsessions down the years – for instance supporting a football club that’s sucked in more from me emotionally and financially, with very little return – and feel there’s something rather splendid about following the work of a writer who at heart lamented the end of a time in history that was simpler and more pastoral, rather than industrial and corroding the landscape. Nothing whatsoever wrong with that. Still, Middlesbrough won yesterday 😉

  3. I must admit that what has put me off watching The Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit ones is the sheer length of them!
    However I watched this one a while back (possibly last Christmas) and I did actually enjoy it; intended to work my way through the others, but as yet I have not.

    1. Thanks Karen. The length is an issue – there are some classic films I really ought to have watched and haven’t because of the time investment it would involve (I even have a Blu-Ray edition of THE SEVEN SAMURAI sitting on my shelf, waiting to be seen, and I’m like that’s a chunk of my life right there), so I get the point.

      They’re good films, well made, and the stretching out of the short-ish book isn’t as obvious as it could have been. But the Lord of the Rings films have real heart behind them, which I just didn’t get so much with the Hobbit trilogy. Still, I hope you do get to complete it some day.

  4. I very much enjoyed An Unexpected Journey both times I’ve watched it — not as good as Lord of the Rings (I’m a big fan of the films too), but a cut above all the imitators that have followed in the past 15 years. I agree about the disappointing videogame-style action — indeed, some bits even look like exactly like a side-scrolling platformer with expensive graphics.

    The next two parts really go off the rails, though. I think Jackson was out of control of the process (and I believe he admits as much in the special features for film #3), and rather than cutting back, he cut loose. I don’t think he ever really wanted to make The Hobbit. Maybe he felt a sense of duty to produce and co-write it; maybe he was nostalgic for the experience of making LotR (the comradeship of the cast and crew, etc); maybe he was offered an irresistible payday. Whatever his motivations for starting, I’m sure he never intended to direct it, but by the time Del Toro quit he was too deep to refuse. It almost becomes an exercise in “how can I invent and test new filmmaking toys”, with the HFR and the motion capture / imaginary camera stuff they were using for the big battles, rather than “how can I best adapt this novel.” Which is a shame.

    I think it’ll be in everyone’s best interests if he goes smaller next. Maybe, if he has realised how much The Hobbit ran away from him, he’ll want that change.

    1. Thanks for the comments Bob, and please don’t get me wrong – I quite liked the film, but it had a lot to live up to and didn’t meet those demands.

      Not bothering with the documentaries – which I did with the LOTR films, and I even opted for the extended editions of each again – underlines my disappointment. I just wasn’t as bothered, but it’s interesting to read what you say about Jackson and it’s a sentiment I agree with. The labour of love that was the LOTR films was always very clear, significantly less so here, and too often the element of referencing those earlier films gave an impression of where it was coming from, that the effort was more in turning a pretty penny than making a good series of films. I’m sure I read somewhere that it was never intended for it to be three films and doing so just stretches the story to breaking point. All to squeeze extra bucks out of us.

      Naturally it isn’t just the fault of these films. The die has been cast since the last Harry Potter book was expanded into two films, but whereas the movies that make up THE DEATHLY HALLOWS make sense because they allow us to spend more time with much loved characters and split the story stylistically (slower first entry, action packed second) it’s become considerably less justifiable with others – Twilight, Hunger Games. Still, as long as there are suckers out there – like me, I admit it – who are willing to pay up then it’ll keep happening. I guess we shouldn’t complain when the resulting work is less about good art and more the bottom line.

      1. I once read that, when they first started on The Hobbit, the plan was to adapt it in a single film, then produce a sequel with a story that bridged The Hobbit and Fellowship. When they couldn’t think of a story, and realised there was actually a fair bit of material in The Hobbit, they just decided to spread it across two films — which I guess was the start of the slippery slope that led to a nine-hour adaptation of a children’s book!

        I wonder if this fad for multi-film adaptations of single books is petering out. Obviously The Hobbit didn’t do as well as LotR at the box office, and the last two Hunger Gameses didn’t make as much as expected either. I believe the buzz for Divergent, which is doing it next, isn’t good. Maybe we’ve voted with our wallets after all!

      2. Maybe. It’s just such a cynical thing to do, especially when these films start having an element of obvious bloat about them – no way did the last Hunger Games book have enough material to justify splitting the adaptation into two films and it reeks of taking the pee. I shouldn’t be too surprised – it’s ALWAYS been about the bottom line after all, and even a studio I love like Hammer did all it could to squeeze extra bucks out, but this multi-film business just stinks.

      3. I think the leaders in this did it with good intentions — they managed to adapt all the other long Harry Potters in just one film, after all, but there was too much to include from the last one; and the initial decision to split The Hobbit was based on doing it thoroughly (the decision to pad it to three with new material is another matter, of course) — but the things that have followed in their wake just think they can get away with it, so decide to do it without even looking at if it’s necessary.

        That said, I liked Mockingjay Part 1 (not seen Part 2 yet), though I’m aware I’m in the minority there.

      4. The two Mockingjay films I got to see at the cinema (Mrs Mike’s a fan) and with Part 1 it took a couple of watches before I liked it – I was a bit bored the first time around and got the impression it was more for fans of the book, which is fair enough. The second was okay but did the usual thing these films tend to and shifted from action scene to exposition back to action, etc. I thought they could have done better.

      5. I’m sure the production schedule they force these adaptation series into must hamper their quality. I understand they probably want to churn through one a year before the primary target audience grows up, but they’re big movies to turn around so quickly and surely something has to suffer — usually the screenplay!

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