"The world is not found in your books and maps."
At the end of the day, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels like a victory lap more than it does a wholly realized story, but it is a victory lap I am beyond happy to take. The first part of the new Middle Earth trilogy from Peter Jackson and company is a very good movie but a large part of the joy comes from the way the film echoes Jacksonís Lord of the Rings films and not simply because this filmís story is wholly enjoyable.
The early '80s Ballantine edition was the first Hobbit book I read.
Part of the blame for this comes from Jackson and part must be shared by the source material itself. I love The Hobbit beyond all books, but a large part of that comes from the place in holds in my heart. I remember reading Tolkienís book for the first time as a kid in elementary school. By the time I ordered The Hobbit from those Scholastic book order forms schools used to pass around a few times a school year, Iíd already developed a love of reading through the Hardy Boys, the Narnia books, the Old Mother West Wind stories, and the Three Investigators, but The Hobbit blew me away first. It made me first realize there was more going on in a story that I could understand (which would only be exacerbated when I turned next to Fellowship of the Ring), and The Hobbit that first made me want to be a writer.
I devoured the book and ended up buying or acquiring it in several other editions over the years from cheap paperback to high end hardcover.
I love the book, but this movie has some challenges.
Chief among them is the sheer number of dwarves involved in the quest to reclaim their ancestral home of Erebor. When I was in grad school at Purdue a few years ago, I was taking a class on environmental literature and the professor made the point that when most people read a line in a book that says, ďI walked past a maple, oak, and pine tree,Ē most people interpret that as, ďI walked past a tree, a tree, and a tree.Ē Thatís roughly the way I feel about the dwarves in The Hobbit. Certainly, a few of them are easily discernible, but there are thirteen of them in Thorinís Company.
Thorin. Balin. Dwalin. Bifur. Bofur. Bombur. Fili. Kili. Gloin. Oin. Dori. Nori. Ori.
Or, as you may have interpreted it: Lead Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf. Dwarf.
If there had been 13 Avengers, it would have been darn near impossible for Joss Whedon to fit all of them into their narrative in a meaningful manner, and theyíve all got varied costumes and famous people playing them. Here, thereís 13 dwarves and while the make-up and costume people have done an outstanding job of making them all different, none of them are played by recognizable stars. Certainly, if you take the time to watch and re-watch and pay attention, Iím sure most of the dwarves have individual personalities, but other than Thorin (Richard Armitage), Bofur (James Nesbitt), Kili (Aidan Turner), and Balin (Ken Stott), they might as well be Dwarf Number 6 and ďDwarf Number 11.Ē
Jackson is in an impossible situation, of course. If he cut half the dwarves, fans would scream at him. And a large part of the charm of Thorinís Company is in their numbers, rather than individualized, purposeful, and meaningful character arcs. The dwarves are largely background characters, as Jacksonís film revolves around three primary characters: Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and Thorin.
Martin Freeman is phenomenal as Bilbo and I can totally understand why Jackson rearranged his shooting schedule to accommodate him. It was important for Jackson to cast someone who brought something very different to the table than Elijah Wood brought to Frodo just to help give The Hobbit its own identity in the mind of film goers. Freeman brings an older soul to the table, and the movie works as an offshoot of the white, middle class male, mid-life crisis genre.
What separates Bilbo from, say, Kevin Spaceyís character in American Beauty, is he doesnít realize heís having a mid-life crisis. Heís comfortable living in his hobbit hole, a condition that Gandalf is bound and determined to change.
Gandalf repeatedly yells, ďYouíre a Took!Ē at Bilbo while heís trying to convince our hobbit to agree to sign on to adventure with Thorinís Company, and castigates him for reaching a point in his life where heís concerned about his motherís silverware and doilies. The setup, then, works most closely (in the cinematic context of the mid-life crisis genre) as a fantasy version of Fight Club, with Gandalf in the Brad Pitt role and Bilbo as a stand-in for Ed Norton, a guy whoís become something he consciously wants to be, but subconsciously rejects.
Jackson and his team of writers and producers do an excellent job at setting up a three-part arc for Bilbo. At first, he rejects adventure but then decides to tag along after Thorinís company has left. Then, he decides to go home after Thorinís company is knee deep in the adventure. And finally, he embraces his role as part of the company by entering a seemingly hopeless battle and saving Thorinís life.
Like much of the film, Bilboís arc is folded into the larger spectacle, which is really what Jackson excels in, making big, emotionally-driven spectacles where the visuals serve to set up the weeping. Itís easy to dismiss Jacksonís Lord of the Rings films on emotional grounds if youíre uncomfortable with that style of storytelling, but Iím all for making films like Titanic and Love, Actually a part of my Blu-ray rotation. One of the things fantasy does extremely well, of course, is to transport us to other worlds, but in Jacksonís hands it strips away the noise of modern life and offers a simpler take on whatís important.
Itís easy (and acceptable, Iím not telling you what to think) to hold up The Hobbit against something like Game of Thrones and reject Jacksonís film for its narrative simplicity, adherence to emotion, and its love of spectacle, but Iím happy we have both. If Iím only watching Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones for the rest of my life, though, taking Lord of the Rings is the easy, automatic choice.
While I like Martin Freemanís performance as Bilbo better than Elijah Woodís Frodo, The Hobbit is full of little problems, including its own worship of the Rings trilogy. Time and again, the real joy in watching it is in seeing all of the characters from the trilogy pop up on the screen. Almost all of the battle sequences can be summed up by saying: ďHobbits get in trouble. Hobbits are on the verge of death. Gandalf arrives to save them.Ē
Thatís fine, and Jackson does a decent job varying up the execution of Gandalfís last second saves. What hurts the film is paradoxically what saves the film: the arrival of all the LOTR folk.
We enter Bilboís story at a moment in time just prior to Fellowship of the Ring, which means appearances from Ian Holm and Elijah Wood. As soon as we drop back into the present of The Hobbit, thereís Ian McKellen coming to call on Bilbo. Once the story gets going and the company needs a respite, it's time for Rivendell, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Gollum.
The Rivendell sequence is where Jackson seems to most want to be, as he lets any moment with the original trilogy crew linger for as long as possible. All of these characters are introduced in SURPRISE! fashion, with Elrond getting a huge entrance. The dwarves are under attack by a band of orcs who want them dead and Gandalf leads them through a secret passage into Ö SURPRISE! Ö Rivendell. Gandalf leads the wary dwarves to the cityís entrance but they are not greeted by Elrond. We donít see Elrond until Jackson has milled the build up as far as he possibly could. Elrondís inevitable appearance, then, is clearly designed as one of the filmís money shots, but it only has a significant impact if youíve seen Lord of the Rings.
Otherwise, itís just Red Skull on a horse.
Gandalf and Elrond have a chat, but heís not the person that the wizard has to bring to his side. Nope, that would be SURPRISE! Ö Galadriel, and then Ö SURPRISE! Ö Saruman has popped in for a chat, too. These four alumnuses then proceed to have a big discussion about Erebor, a Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy).
What donít we get are The dwarves. Curiously, what we donít get here is the scene that seems to be tailor made for Jacksonís victory lap, a discussion between Elrond and Bilbo, but perhaps Jackson is saving this for one of the two remaining films. When itís time for grown-ups to chat, the dwarves are nowhere to be found. Jackson attempts to hide their absence in the narrative, revealing that Gandalf was keeping everyone distracted so the dwarves could sneak away (as if Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman couldnít find them in about 17 seconds), but the impact on the narrative is that consistent point that short people got no reason to live.
Unless youíre a hobbit.
The dwarves' stay in Rivendell comes down to them looking spooked when the elves return from their ride and then looking like slobs when dinner is served. This is typically what the dwarves do throughout the movie. At Bilboís house, itís just a mass of dwarves eating and singing. With the trolls, itís just a mass of dwarves being prepped for dinner. With the Stone Giants, itís just a mass of dwarves trying not to fall off the side of a mountain path. Inside the mountain, itís just a mass of dwarves being held prisoner by the Great Goblin.
Only two real personalities emerge with the dwarves: Bofur, because he has a kick-ass mustache and is the dwarf who has a real heart-to-heart with Bilbo when the hobbit decides to cut and run after having taken one too many tongue lashings from Thorin; and Balin, because he has a white beard and serves as the calm voice of experience. James Nesbitt and Ken Stott do really stellar work here.
Ian McKellen has never been better than he is here. Heís playful, cantankerous, and haunted throughout. Itís not his fault that thereís of repetition between his actions here and in the trilogy, just like itís not his fault the plot details of Gandalfís arc are repetitive, too. When the dwarves get themselves caught in a bad situation, the question is never, ďHow are they going to get out of this?Ē but ďHow will Gandalf get them out of this?Ē
Saruman dismisses Radagast as being a chronic substance abuser, and you can practically see all of the leaf that Gandalf has smoked in the creases around his eyes. Jackson feels caught between Bilbo and Gandalf as to whoís the most important character in this story, but he gives his preference for Gandalf away in how the camera always seems to find the wizard in the filmís most important moments.
Gollum makes an appearance, too, and it's a very nice rendition of the most famous scene in Middle Earth lore, Bilbo stealing Gollumís ring and then besting the ex-Hobbit in a game of riddles. The Gollum/Bilbo sequence from the Rankin-Bass production is one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever made, and Jackson does the live-action version extremely well.
There are great performances from Sylvester McCoy and Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin, who would have stolen the film if he had more to do. The mountain trolls were pretty funny as villainous, carnivorous foodies, but the orcs left me wanting. Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) never works as the Big Bad heís supposed to be; heís much better in flashback when he kills Thorinís grandfather, but in the present heís just a bully who makes other people do his dirty work. Even when Thorin is laying on the ground, practically unconscious and unmoving, Azog sends a lackey to bring back the dwarfís head.
What Iím left with is a film that I know is not perfect but is perfect enough for me. Like almost everyone else in the theater, I was ready for The Desolation of Smaug the second The Hobbit was over. As disappointed as I was that Jackson didnít show Smaug in all his glory, that disappointment rolled instantly into anticipation for the next installment.
I canít let this reaction finish without pointing out the ridiculous level of venom spat at this movie (before it was even released) in some quarters. If you donít want to see it, thatís cool. If you didnít like Lord of the Rings or didnít want to see them, thatís cool, too. But there was a particular branch of fandom that went out of its way to make overblown comments about how they could not care less about this movie, as if Peter Jackson had spent the last decade beating them up and taking their lunch money. Iím sure all fandoms have their venomous segment, but the sci-fi/fantasy branch seems particularly small minded, petty, and especially insecure. What struck me about the negative, pre-release reaction (besides its inevitability; the geek venom squad likes nothing better than to dismiss something popular like theyíre having flashbacks to getting jammed into lockers in high school) was how many people offered these comments out of the blue.
They did not just appear in Facebook, Twitter, and online comments sections in articles about the film, but were randomly sent up, like fireworks being shot off on August 7th in pathetic, desperate ďlook at meĒ declarations. I donít get it. You donít have to like a movie, of course, and you donít even have to watch it, but very few movies are created with the idea of making your life miserable, so maybe itíd be healthier for you to just let it go, and talk up something you do like instead of proving how awesome you are by loudly proclaiming how much you donít care about something other people do care about.
But hey, Iím not a miserable bastard, so to each their own.