I just saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I chose to save rereading the book until after I saw the movie, on the recommendation of a friend. I’ll probably have more to say when I finish my reread. But here is a spoiler-rich collection of my first impressions, broken down into categories.
Scenery: Beautiful, naturally. Score another tally for the New Zealand tourism industry. There was always something on screen to engage my eyes. One question – does it ever get foggy in Rivendell? Rosy sunlight seems to be a natural aspect of the setting, as does clear night sky. Oh, and speaking of sunlight, it never rains in the Shire, either.
The “darkness” scenes seemed much brighter here than in the previous films (remember Helm’s Deep? Neither can I; I couldn’t see it). My guess is that this was a surrender to 3D, which tends to darken films. It felt kind of odd, though, to notice how well-lit Gollum’s cave was (I’m surprised he doesn’t get sunburned) and how well mere torchlight illuminates an entire goblin cavern.
Plot: Aside from backstory and battles, there isn’t much substance to the plot (understandable since it’s 110 pages of book plus some appendix material). I’m sure after I reread the book I’ll have more quibbles, but at the moment just the obvious stuff stands out. Why did Radagast run in circles around the dwarves instead of away from them? How was that chain of dwarves able to hang off the pine tree for ten minutes straight? Why didn’t the eagles just fly the whole gang to the Lonely Mountain – it’s right there! A thrush was able to span the distance in 30 seconds!
Characterization: Ehhh. The characters the audience knew did a good job of holding their ground. But because there were so many characters, most came off as flat. The number of dwarves doesn’t help, just as it didn’t in the book. The need to distinguish everybody from one another meant that every character, not just the dwarf mob, was given one primary mode (young, old, quirky, funny, noble, angry, wry, etc.) to play. This made the new characters feel quite one-dimensional, like Radagast (who came off as a little too silly for my taste) and Thorin (grumpy man on a mission). Gollum shone in this ensemble because of the tension between his two personalities.
My biggest problem was the fabricated dislike-to-acceptance arc with Bilbo and the dwarves. At some time in the editing of Part One, it was decided that this would be the major characterization of Bilbo for this section. It’s kind of a disaster, because now Bilbo is forced to be ridiculously heroic very quickly, so ridiculous as to leap from a tree wielding a sword to save Thorin’s life (never happened in the book). What ever happened to Gandalf’s spiel about the importance of little everyday goodness? Because obviously you have to be willing to sacrifice your life in a futile gesture in order to make an impression in this movie. Yuck.
Script: It got the job done. Sadly, it didn’t leave much of an impression. The “Riddles in the Dark” scene was probably the best, and also probably the truest to the original book. But most of the movie is visual-based, like its predecessors, and the actual talking comes in second. I did like Bilbo’s speech about home near the end, and I think that would have been a good place to end the movie (but noooo, here comes more Wargs).
Performances: Aces all the way, particularly for the characters that were established in the movie trilogy. Impressive, considering the so-so script and general lack of characterization. Martin Freeman nailed Bilbo’s sensible-hobbit attitude. Gandalf is back to his old grey self, courtesy of Ian McKellen. Most of the dwarves came off well too, despite being buried in layers of beard and costume. And somebody needs to give Andy Serkis some kind of acting award before fans and critics alike storm the red carpet at the Oscars. It’s too bad this is the last we’ll see of him in the Hobbit saga.
Wargs. Don’t get me started on the Wargs. I’ve always pictured them as very wolf-like, ever since my original Hobbit experience. For some bizarre reason the movie designers seem to feel the need to skew off on non-wolf tangents. They have improved since the original trilogy (wonky hyena-rats), but the new alterations still leave a lot to be desired, particularly in the face. The elongated ears and squished muzzles suggest nothing more than mutated bunnies. At least give them a canine jaw, for goodness’ sake!
Gollum. Far and away the best CGI, and likely the place where the most time was spent, as well. I believe I read that the Gollum scenes were filmed very early on in production. There is so much more animation in his face, which helped with expressing the life of the character. The lamplike eyes were well-managed, too. This digital puppet was the only character I actually felt sorry for in the film (though they might have toned-down the puppy-dog eyes just a little).
Orcs/Goblins. Pretty good job. Aside from Azog and the Goblin King, they all kind of blended together for me, but I guess that was the point.
One question: Have hobbit feet gotten bigger? Or are they just being shown more frequently than in the original trilogy? Because both Bilbo’s and Frodo’s are huge.
Drama: Here’s where there needs to be some editing. Every face-off is epic in scope, every one-on-one moment is slow-motioned. I know this is PETER JACKSON PRESENTS: LORD OF THE RINGS: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY: PART ONE OF THREE, but if the dramatization was dialed back even a little I think it would help with the running time of the film. If Galadriel turned around a bit faster, if Thorin charged Azog at full speed, if there were a few less wide-angle shots of dwarves running around New Zealand, the pace might have improved.
Pacing: I’ve read some reviews that complained about the start of the movie’s pacing, but I actually had a lot more trouble with the ending. I didn’t mind hanging out with Bilbo and Frodo for a bit in Bag End. What I did mind was heavy doses of battle sequences. I know, I know: comes with the territory with Peter Jackson’s interpretation, but it became very video-gamey. Which level are we battling now? Flashback to Smaug, check. Trolls, check. Flashback to Azog, check. Warg scouts, check. Stone-giants, check. Goblin King, check. Azog-in-person, check. I can’t wait for the spiders and the dragon and the GIGANTIC BATTLE that are still to come in the next couple of movies.
Viewing: I saw the old-fashioned 2D version, which was just fine. What was not fine were the 3D gimmicks. I don’t mean using 3D to explore the fullness of the world, but gags for the sake of being gags. The passage of the dwarves from the Stone-giants through the entire goblin realm did pretty much nothing for a 2D viewing audience. It would have been fine to see the giants from a distance, as in the book, without having the confusion of the dwarves clinging to rocks which were moving around other rocks and not really sure which way is up. I also could have done without the literal tumbling of the dwarf-party into the cave – I hope you IMAX viewers enjoyed that, because it was pretty worthless to us. Here’s an idea – put out a version of The Hobbit edited for 2D, without the 3D-tailored gags and sequences. I’m sure we could get it under 2.5 hours.
Callbacks: This is very much a movie for the fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The Hobbit was chalk-full of references and sly winks, from characters (Gloin is clearly Gimli’s father) to actions (dramatic fall of The One Ring onto Bilbo’s finger) to props (“Party Business” sign at Bag End) to music, scenery, speeches, etc. I’m really not sure how I would have taken it as a newcomer to the film-LotR world. Probably would have felt left out of the joke.
Overall, I liked the movie. I think it ran a little long, but it was pretty much what I expected it to be. It was a nice trip back to the LotR movie universe. Now I’m off to reread the book and find more things to nitpick. :)